Who will cut down the nets? Ranking the teams in the Sweet 16
With the Sweet 16 getting underway Saturday in Indianapolis, let’s take a close look at each of the NCAA Tournament’s remaining teams, ranking them 1-16 in terms of likelihood to win the championship.
16. Oral Roberts
15 seed, South Region
Next up: 3 seed Arkansas
Here’s what Oral Roberts had going for it in the first two rounds: The Golden Eagles always had the best two players on the court in guard Max Abmas and forward Kevin Obanor. And if you have the two best players, you have a chance to win, and ORU did so in upsets of No. 2-seed Ohio State and 7 seed Florida.
Abmas, the nation’s leading scorer, has been great, including his 26-point performance against Florida. But ORU has Arkansas’ attention. Why? The two played earlier this season, with the Golden Eagles holding a 10-point first-half lead before the Hogs rallied in the second. Granted, the Eagles didn’t shoot particularly well from the perimeter in that loss, so there’s room for improvement, but Arkansas isn’t going to be surprised, like OSU and UF was, when Oral Roberts gives it a game early.
15. Oregon State
12 seed, Midwest Region
Next up: 8 seed Loyola Chicago
The Beavers might be able to get to the Final Four by beating the Midwest Region’s 4, 5, 8 and 11 seeds, as the bracket has opened up. But they would certainly take it. Oregon State has been exceeding expectations all season, from being picked dead last in the Pac-12 in the preseason to making the NCAA after winning the conference tournament title to winning its first two games in this tournament. Why stop now? Senior guard Ethan Thompson has been great, averaging 19.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, about 4 points and 5 boards higher than season averages. But it’s been on the defensive end that the Beavers have really excelled; in two games, opponents are making only 30.5% of their field goals, and during their current 5-game winning streak, they’re allowing foes to make only 25% from 3-point range.
11 seed, Midwest Region
Next up: 2 seed Houston
The Orange’s signature zone defense, which didn’t do much to slow down opponents in the regular season, is again befuddling teams in the NCAA Tournament. Perhaps that can keep up in a user-friendly draw, considering the Midwest region has opened up, with Houston, then either Loyola Chicago or Oregon St. But it’s incredibly unlikely that Syracuse can keep up this run, after it was debated by so many whether it should have even been in the tourney. But the D has been much improved and the Orange are rebounding out of the 2-3, which had been a difficulty. March is built for guards, and Buddy Boeheim has been fantastic in two games, hitting 13-of-23 3-point attempts.
5 seed, West Region
Next up: 1 seed Gonzaga
Perhaps Creighton is undervalued as a 5 seed, but its path to the Final Four and ultimately a championship isn’t an easy one. And it’s not as if the Bluejays proved a ton in the first two rounds, squeaking by UCSB in Round 1 before taking care of Ohio in Round 2, the 12 seed and 13 seed in the region respectively. Creighton is capable of bombing away from the perimeter, with one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country that averages nearly 10 triples per game. And the Bluejays are balanced with three players — Marcus Zegarowski, Mitch Ballock and Denzel Mahoney — who each have hit at least 63 3-pointers this season. To beat the Zags, the Jays will need to hit a bunch, maybe 15, then somehow hold Gonzaga in check. Seems incredibly difficult.
5 seed, South Region
Next up: 1 seed Baylor
Jay Wright has done a fantastic job of reassembling the Wildcats on the fly, after senior point guard Collin Gillespie went down just before the end of the regular season. Villanova lost its first two games without him, heading into the NCAA Tournament with a huge void, particularly for a 5 seed. But Villanova has found answers, with Justin Moore moving over to the point and Chris Arcidiacono moving into the starting lineup. If forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl continues his stellar play on the offensive end, maybe the Wildcats can complete with Baylor and score the upset; if so, then the bracket opens up, with an Elite Eight game against either Arkansas or Oral Roberts. It’s hard to complete count on a Jay Wright-coached team.
11 seed, East Region
Next up: 2 seed Alabama
The Bruins have advanced into the Sweet 16 after winning from the First Four, winning 3 games in 5 days to get to this point. It probably didn’t hurt their efforts to play their first game in Mackey Arena, and be inspired by the statue of the great John Wooden, who starred for the Boilermakers before building the Bruins’ dynasty. UCLA’s defense, which was iffy during the regular season, has carried it in the NCAA Tournament, like holding Abilene Christian to only 47 points, but can that kind of play really hold up, especially against better competition like No. 2-seed Alabama, then potentially top-seed Michigan? Sophomore Johnny Juzang is carrying the offense, but he might need a spectacular game if the Bruins are to keep up with the Crimson Tide.
10. Loyola Chicago
8 seed, Midwest Region
Next up: 12 seed Oregon State
Sister Jean and her band of spunky underdogs are back with another run at a Final Four. You’d think a lesson would have been learned about the Ramblers, that they’re deserving of a higher seed. Illinois knows that now. Loyola Chicago dominated the Fighting Illini from the jump in the second-round game, sending the Big Ten power, which many thought was the best chance to knock off Gonzaga, packing early. But the Ramblers took the fight to Illinois, going right after All-American Kofi Cockburn by sending the ball inside to Cameron Krutwig. The crafty center, who was part of Loyola’s 2018 Final Four run, had 19 points, 12 rebounds and 5 assists. The Ramblers’ defense is one of the best in the country, and it showed, forcing 17 turnovers vs. Illinois. It wasn’t a fluke. Loyola is a veteran, confident group that thinks it has another Final Four team.
6 seed, West Region
Next up: 7 seed Oregon
Like much of the rest of the Pac-12, USC was a slight underseed in the NCAA Tournament. But not only have the Trojans won their first 2 tourney games, but they’ve dominated, including a thrashing of No. 3-seed Kansas in the second round. In two games, USC has allowed its opponents to shoot 29.4 and 29% from the floor. The Mobley brothers are a force for anyone to deal with. Freshman center Evan Mobley, a future NBA lottery pick, had 10 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 blocks vs. the Jayhawks, while older brother Isaiah, a sophomore, had 17 points on 4 3-pointers. USC beat up on Oregon in their only meeting this season, racing to a 15-0 lead in the opening minutes. But if the Trojans get by the Ducks, a date with the Zags looms.
7 seed, West Region
Next up: 6 seed USC
Oregon is one of several underseeded teams remaining in the Sweet 16, joining USC, Loyola Chicago and Oral Roberts. But of them, the Ducks have the best shot at the Final Four and a national championship. The Pac-12 champs have the league’s player-of-the-year in guard Chris Duarte, a do-it-all player who is capable of carrying a team this time of year. He’s a great scorer, averaging 17 points per game while shooting 42 percent from 3, but also an excellent defender. But the Ducks’ path to the Final Four is daunting, with a rematch vs. USC first, then a potential matchup with Gonzaga in the Elite Eight. Ducks vs. Trojans might be a bloodbath, considering USC won the only regular-season meeting handily, then basically calls Oregon’s Pac-12 title a fraud. Buckle up.
7. Florida State
4 seed, East Region
Next up: 1 seed Michigan
Florida State’s physical, in-your-face defense wants to smother its foes. The problem was, it had been missing for much of the regular season. But Leonard Hamilton’s group has bought in during the postseason. Ask Colorado, the Seminoles’ second-round opponent, which shot only 35.7% and turned the ball over 19 times while scoring only 53 points. It’s because of that that the ‘Noles have been able to overcome sluggish starts in the first halves of each of their NCAA Tournament games. But to advance to the Final Four, it’ll take more than 20 minutes of sound offensive basketball. But FSU is plenty capable of turning it back on, as the offense carried it much of the season, and the trio of M.J. Walker, RaiQuan Gray and Scottie Barnes stack up with nearly anyone. And if Anthony Polite has another great game — 22 points vs. Colorado — then it gives the Seminoles even more offensive depth. It might need it to get by Michigan in the Sweet 16.
3 seed, South Region
Next up: 15 seed Oral Roberts
Arkansas jumped into the Sweet 16 by grinding out a victory against Texas Tech. But it’d rather not have to get into a slugfest with an opponent. It’d prefer to run up and down the court, getting transition bucket and the occasional 3-pointer. If it does that, limits turnovers and hits the glass — it can really dominate an opponent on boards — then it’s a winning formula. The Razorbacks have already played, and beaten, next-round opponent Oral Roberts, even though the Golden Eagles led in the first half. An Elite Eight battle vs. Baylor might be an epic battle between two stylistically similar teams, but the Bears’ defense is better. And Arkansas starts two freshmen, sometimes three. Does that bite the Hogs at some point?
2 seed, Midwest region
Next up: 11 seed Syracuse
The Cougars had to survive Rutgers in their second-round game, rallying with a 14-2 run to end the game to win by 3 and advance to the Sweet 16. But that’s what March is about, right? What NCAA Champion hasn’t faced an early round challenge? Houston has won 9 straight games since the middle of February. But the biggest question facing the Cougars continues to surround the health of point guard DeJon Jarreau, who has been bothered by a hip since the first minute of the tournament. He battled through it against the Scarlet Knights and the near one-week layoff before Syracuse will likely be hugely beneficial. But if that hip flares up, Houston will flame out. Jarreau makes everyone go on offense and defense for the Cougars. For Houston, the bracket matters, too. In the Midwest, the only other opponents are the 11 seed Syracuse, the 8 seed Loyola Chicago and the 12 Oregon State.
1 seed, East Region
Next up: 4 seed Florida State
The Big Ten’s lone remaining representative, the Wolverines have the eyes of the other 13 of their brethren on them. Perhaps Michigan can carry the Big Ten torch to the conference’s first NCAA championship since 2000. The Wolverines erased some of the post-Isaiah Livers’ doubts — the veteran wing is out with a foot injury — with its hard-fought win over LSU in the second round. Juwan Howard seems to have a knack for pushing the right buttons, and against the Tigers he leaned on Chaundee Brown to help make up some of what’s lost with Livers sidelined. Brown scored 21 and Eli Brooks added the same. The Wolverines have enough balance that as a collective they can each help make up what is lost. But is it enough for a deep tourney run, especially considering the shine that’s been sand-papered off the Big Ten?
2 seed, East Region
Next up: 11 seed UCLA
The Crimson Tide didn’t just beat Maryland in the second round, they dominated the Terrapins, especially considering the Terps actually led by seven through the first media timeout. But after those first 4-plus minutes, it was all Alabama. The Tide hit 16 3-pointers in the win, giving them 334 for the season, a program-best. Coach Nate Oats’ spread offense is darn near impossible to defend, especially when everyone on the court is dialed in from long range, as they were against the Terps. Throw in Alabama’s ability to get to the rim and its work on the glass, and it’s a deadly combination. To be beaten, the Crimson Tide will simply have to be outscored (Hello Gonzaga) or defended (Hello Baylor), but it won’t face either of those opponents until the Final Four.
1 seed, South Region
Next up: 5 seed Villanova
Before the Tournament, the question surrounding Baylor was whether it could return to its pre-COVID form, when it rivaled Gonzaga as the talked about team. Neither Hartford nor Wisconsin was equipped to answer the question — the Badgers were a solid veteran team but without the offensive firepower or the athleticism to put up a significant front — and injury-depleted Villanova might not either. But provided the Bears advance to the Elite Eight, it’ll set up an intriguing matchup regardless of whether the opponent is 3rd-seeded Arkansas or 15-seed Oral Roberts. Before its 3-week COVID pause, Baylor had one of the best defenses in the country, but it took a dip in the games after. The high-scoring Razorbacks or Golden Eagles would be a real tester to see if the Bears’ D has returned to form.
1 Seed, West Region
Next up: 5 seed Creighton
The Zags are the odds-on favorite to win the NCAA championship and with good reason: They’re steam-rolling everyone else in the way. Even when Oklahoma, Gonzaga’s second-round opponent, threw everything at the Bulldogs, they had an answer, and then won the game by 16 points. If you’re challenged, yet still win easily by double-figures, then it probably bodes well for your NCAA Tournament run. Drew Timme was an absolute stud vs. the Sooners, going for 30 points and 13 rebounds in 34 minutes. The problem for opponents is that if they devoted all their resources to slowing him down, then someone else will burn them for 20-plus. It’s a lose-lose option.