NCAA Tournament: Ranking the Sweet 16 Teams
The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament left absolutely nothing to be desired.
It had it all: buzzer beaters, overnight celebrities hailing from mid-majors, unbelievable heartbreak and elation, and college basketball history, in the form of perhaps the greatest upset in tournament history, and the greatest comeback in NCAA history.
So, did the tournament peak too early?
One look at the field we have left after the carnage of the first two rounds should dissuade any fears that this tournament is about to slow down. Sure, the likes of Michigan State, Xavier, West Virginia, Kentucky, Stephen F. Austin, and Northern Iowa didn't make the cut, but this year's Sweet 16 is loaded with a combination of strong teams, intriguing stories, and great matchups.
Let's hit the reset button on the field to see where we stand with two weekends left in the college basketball season. Here's how the remaining 16 squads stack up based on our nERD rankings, a measure of how many points a team would be favored by against an average opponent on a neutral court.
Happy to Be Here
Though Wisconsin is too big of a brand to carry the "Cinderella" torch for this year's Sweet 16, you'd be hard pressed to find many better "feel good" stories than the one that continued unfolding as Bronson Koenig's buzzer beater sent the Badgers to the second weekend. Head coach Greg Gard has led a phenomenal turnaround, taking over a team that, in December, was a longshot to make the tournament, and leading them to a Sweet 16 in what could have easily been written off as a transition year for Wisconsin basketball. While they're our lowest-ranked team left, the Badgers are inside our top 40 nationally -- certainly capable of challenging their prospective opponents in Philadelphia with their "grind it out" style and the offense of Koenig and Nigel Hayes.
15. Notre Dame
After last year's Notre Dame squad pushed the vaunted Kentucky Wildcats to the brink of elimination in the Elite Eight, Mike Brey's crew is back in the second weekend as one of six ACC squads to make the Sweet 16. The Irish came out on top in one of the most thrilling outcomes of the Round of 32, albeit at the expense of Thomas Walkup and beloved 14 seed Stephen F. Austin. Brey's team has been here before, and they're paired up with Wisconsin in their Sweet 16 matchup, meaning one of the two lowest teams in these rankings will be heading to the Elite Eight. Despite their relatively low ranks, either certainly has what it takes to push North Carolina or Indiana in the regional final.
Syracuse is this year's "raised eyebrows by even making the field and now finds itself among the Sweet 16" team (with last year's UCLA squad being the poster child for such a distinction). There's a two-point gap in nERD between Syracuse and the teams we'll cover next, but like in the case of Notre Dame and Wisconsin, no one would be shocked to see the Orange in the Elite Eight because they're actually the higher-seeded team in their matchup with Gonzaga. The 'Cuse will rely, as they usually do, on their famous zone defense throwing opposing offenses out of rhythm. Per KenPom, the Orange play the longest defensive possessions of any team in the country, just ahead of ACC brethren Louisville and Virginia.
The Terps have a starting five loaded with recognizable names but seem to be missing the cohesiveness necessary to get past a team as solid and deep as Kansas in the Sweet 16. But any one of Melo Trimble, Rasheed Sulaimon, Jake Layman, Robert Carter, and Diamond Stone can be a really difficult individual matchup, giving the Terps enough firepower to keep marching if they can figure out the chemistry equation for any given 40 minutes. Maryland trails the other South region teams in terms of Offensive Efficiency, so they will likely need breakout performances from at least a couple of their stars against Kansas to continue their march toward the Final Four.
Has any team in America done more to flip the script on its season in the last few weeks than Gonzaga? The Bulldogs' hopes for an at-large bid seemed bleak, putting them in danger of missing the tournament for the first time since 1998. After winning the WCC auto bid, Gonzaga came out in the first weekend and smashed Seton Hall and Utah, two of the hottest teams in the country heading into the NCAA Tournament. Despite not having the regular season resume we're accustomed to, these Zags have shown that the frontcourt firepower of stars Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer, when paired with an improving backcourt, make for a really scary March opponent.
We have Gonzaga, despite their 11 seed, favored to get past Syracuse and potentially set up an Elite Eight matchup with Virginia, a game that would be packed with tension and drama as Mark Few and Tony Bennett each look to break through to their first Final Four.
11. Iowa State
Iowa State's path to the Sweet 16 has been a bit overshadowed, but don't discount what the Cyclones accomplished by advancing past Iona and Little Rock, two of the most dangerous mid-majors in the field. Iowa State is back in the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years and looking to send senior standout Georges Niang out on a high note. Their Sweet 16 matchup against 1 seed Virginia will come down to who can impose their will on their opponent, in a game with starkly contrasting styles. Iowa State wants to play an uptempo, high-scoring game, but that will be easier said than done against a Virginia squad that loves to grind down opponents on the defensive end.
Oregon survived a near-death experience against Saint Joseph's in the second round, coming from seven points down over the final five minutes to avoid being the first 1 seed bounced out of this year's tournament. Our rankings would indicate that Oregon remains the 1 seed with the worst shot at reaching Houston, as we project them as underdogs against Duke and either Oklahoma or Texas A&M in a potential Elite Eight pairing. Oregon's still plenty talented though and, with a top-20 offense according to our numbers, has the firepower to match a Duke team with two of the best scorers in the country.
9. Texas A&M
Texas A&M ranks a bit too highly to be in the "happy to be here" section, but after completing perhaps the most improbable comeback in NCAA basketball history against Northern Iowa in the Round of 32, that description suits Billy Kennedy's Aggies pretty well. A&M's reward for advancing will be a date with Buddy Hield, who's more than translated his regular season stardom to the big stage. The Aggies will throw a defense we have ranked 19th in the country at Buddy and the Sooners in what could be the most closely-matched game of the third round.
Credit Miami for withstanding a furious run from a Wichita State team that started to look the part of a Final Four dark horse after dismantling Arizona in the first round. Jim Larranaga leaned on his experienced backcourt to take the Shockers' best punch, which erased a 21-point lead in the second half, to prevail and advance to the Sweet 16. While Miami lacks the pedigree of most of the programs at this stage, KenPom rates them as the second-most experienced team left in the field, trailing only Iowa State. Miami's top-20 offense is led by uber-efficient shooting guard Sheldon McClellan, but they'll face a tough challenge in Louisville going against Villanova's top-10 ranked defense.
If any team belongs in the Sweet 16, it's Indiana. Imagine their reaction when they saw that, after winning the Big Ten regular season title, their reward was a potential second-round matchup with Kentucky, of all teams. The Hoosiers, for the sake of their tournament hopes and fan base's sanity, upset the Wildcats to set up an even more daunting matchup with North Carolina. We've got Indiana's offense ranked as the third-best in the nation. That, along with the breakout performances of freshmen OG Anunoby and Thomas Bryant in the first weekend, will give the Hoosiers hope that they can knock off the top-seeded Tar Heels. If they do, they'll be favored over either Notre Dame or Wisconsin, based on nERD, to go to the Final Four.
Duke's lack of depth, brought on by the absence of the injured Amile Jefferson, had made the Blue Devils a surprising afterthought for many when ranking the favorites to compete for a Final Four. But we've got Duke ranked as the second-best overall team left in the West, meaning Coach K could very well be on his way to taking Duke back to the Final Four despite this being a "down" year. Duke is the best offensive team left in the field, according to our rankings, and will need to squeeze every bit of firepower they can out of Brandon Ingram and Grayson Allen if they want to outgun Oregon, Oklahoma, and Texas A&M to win the West.
Oklahoma did not have an easy time getting past 10 seed VCU in the second round, but Sunday's game was a reminder that, as long as the Sooners have Buddy Hield, they'll have a chance to win any game they play in the NCAA Tournament. Hield scored 63 points on 56 percent shooting in the Sooners' first two games to lead Oklahoma back to the Sweet 16. Hield's backcourt mates, Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard, added 32 points combined in the win over VCU,and will be important contributors as the Sooners look to stay hot against a Texas A&M defense that will provide their toughest tournament challenge yet.
Villanova is right up there with Gonzaga in the running for most impressive first weekend team. The Wildcats dispelled any myth that they're incapable of reaching the second weekend by beating UNC Asheville and Iowa by a combined 49 points. Villanova shot a blistering 61 percent against Iowa in the first half, en route to opening up a 54-29 lead at halftime. The game against Iowa showed Villanova firing on all cylinders both offensively and defensively and could be a sign that Jay Wright's group is peaking at the right time. Villanova is the only team left in the field whose offense and defense are both ranked inside our top 20 (16th and 9th, respectively).
When Middle Tennessee took out Michigan State in possibly the biggest NCAA Tournament upset ever, it seemed like the stars might finally be aligning for a Virginia group that was turned away by the Spartans in each of the last two tournaments, only to see Tom Izzo and company land in their region again. Enough chaos ensued in the bottom of the Midwest bracket that Virginia will play either a 10 or 11 seed (Syracuse or Gonzaga) in the Elite Eight if they can get past Iowa State in the Sweet 16. Iowa State and Gonzaga would both provide plenty of offensive firepower to keep the Cavs' defense challenged, but we'd consider Tony Bennett's group to be a strong favorite to represent the Midwest Region in Houston.
2. North Carolina
North Carolina knew, in all likelihood, that they would be facing one of college basketball's most storied programs in the Sweet 16. Friday's game with Indiana will be the marquee matchup of the regional semifinals and likely the toughest test yet for the Tar Heels, who pulled away to win each of their first two tournament games comfortably. A key for UNC against Indiana will certainly be the point guard matchup between Marcus Paige and Yogi Ferrell. Paige has shot just 33 percent from the field thus far in the tournament, while Ferrell led the Hoosiers with his 38 points in the first weekend. Paige will need to keep pace with Ferrell to keep the Tar Heels from getting outgunned by Indiana's potent offense. If they can survive Indiana, Roy Williams' crew will be heavy favorites to win the region.
Kansas did what they've done all year in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, quietly dousing the flames of Connecticut's upstart run into the tournament by beating the Huskies by 12 in the second round. The Jayhawks' remaining South Region opposition represents the chalk of the bracket, with 5 seed Maryland preceding a possible matchup with 2 seed Villanova or 3 seed Miami. Kansas' path to the Final Four isn't the easiest of the 1 seeds, but with an offense and defense ranked third and fourth, respectively, among remaining teams in the field, they remain formidable favorites to reach the Final Four and, possibly, cut down the nets in Houston.