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Sweet 16 Power Rankings: Who are the best teams left in the field?

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The first weekend could not have been more thrilling, beginning with Vee Sanford’s runner that sent No. 11 Dayton past No. 6 Ohio State and ending with the dunk show that Aaron Gordon put on for No. 1 Arizona.

In between, we unbelievably only had one true buzzer-beater — Cameron Ridley dispatching No. 10 Arizona State — but we did manage to put together the best day of Round of 64 games ever and the single best college basketball game since Louisville beat Michigan for the 2013 title.

We now have just 16 teams left in the dance. Here they are, ranked:

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1. Florida: The Gators were not as aesthetically dominating as some of the other teams left in the field, but when you combine the strength and versatility of Billy Donovan’s defense with Scottie Wilbekin’s ability to close out games down the stretch, the Gators are going to be a very, very difficult team to beat.

2. Michigan State: The Spartans were dominant for about 70 of the 80 minutes of the first weekend of the tournament. For the other ten, they allowed Harvard to erase an 18 point deficit and take the lead late in the second half. Consistency will be key, but when the Spartans are focused and at their best, there may not be a more dangerous team left.

3. Virginia: When Virginia’s defense is clicking, you just don’t get good looks at the rim. Period. The key for Tony Bennett’s club is on the offensive end, and when they can execute the way they did against Memphis, they’re tough. That game between the Cavs and the Spartans on Friday night will be a doozy.

4. Arizona: The Wildcats have the most blowout potential of anyone left in the field. When they can speed you up and force turnovers, they embarrass people. Force them into a half court game, however, and they can be beaten. Quality guard play is key.

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5. Louisville: The Cards didn’t play near their best against Manhattan or Saint Louis and still managed to win their pod. They’ll have their work cut out for them against Kentucky on Friday night. Russ Smith is going to have to play better than he did over the weekend.

6. Kentucky: The biggest x-factor left. They looked like a national title contender on Sunday, which came just 22 days after Kentucky lost in ugly fashion at South Carolina. If they play like they did against Wichita State for the rest of the tournament and the Wildcats might cut down the nets, yet I wouldn’t be all that surprised if Louisville beat them by 20.

7. Michigan: Duke’s lost opened things up for the Wolverines, but Tennessee actually matches up well with them. Michigan can be beaten by teams with powerful front lines and/or with a little guard that can bother Nik Stauskas. Tennessee has both.

8. Wisconsin: The Badgers were impressive in their come-from-behind win over Oregon, but now they’ll draw arguably the hottest team left in the tournament.

9. Baylor: The Bears are streaking. They ran both Nebraska and Creighton off the court after winning nine of their last 11 entering the tournament. As much criticism as Scott Drew gets, a tweak in their zone — hugging shooters, daring penetrators to try to score over Isaiah Austin in the lane — was the difference against the Bluejays.

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10. Tennessee: Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae are going to get the attention, but Josh Richardson’s emergence as a tertiary scorer has been huge. He averaged 19.3 points in Tennessee’s three tournament games.

11. UCLA: Of everyone left in the dance, UCLA is the one team I have the most trouble evaluating. They can score and they are as talented on the perimeter as anyone left in the tournament. But how good is their front line? And can they defend at this level against elite competition?

12. Iowa State: The Cyclones would have been much higher on this list if Georges Niang hadn’t broken his foot. He created so many matchup problems for Fred Hoiberg’s club. I’m not sure Iowa State can bet Virginia or Michigan State without him.

13. UConn: You can never count out a team with Shabazz Napier on it, but there are two things that worry me about the Huskies: the status of Napier’s shin/lower leg/ankle/whatever it is he injured on Saturday night, and the inconsistency of DeAndre Daniels and Ryan Boatright.

14. San Diego State: The Aztecs are as good as anyone left in the field on the defensive end of the floor, but they have trouble scoring the ball outside of Xavier Thames. It’s probably not a good thing that they’re running into Arizona on Thursday.

15. Stanford: The Cardinal have a massive, deep front line, but their lack of a point guard and turnover issues are a concern when compared to some of the elite defenses still dancing.

16. Dayton: The Flyers are simply at a talent deficit compared to everyone else left in the tournament. But they were at a talent deficit against Ohio State and Syracuse, and they’ll draw Stanford with a chance to get to the Elite 8. Archie!

Michigan State playing zone? It’s possible

Tom Izzo
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Throughout Tom Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State the team’s half-court man-to-man defense has been a staple, and the Spartans have generally proven difficult to have a high rate of offensive success against. The reliance on that defense is why Izzo’s conversations earlier this summer about using some token full-court pressure due to the shortening of the shot clock caught some people off-guard.

According to the Detroit Free Press there’s another wrinkle the Spartans may use, and it’s likely that this wrinkle will show up more often than the full-court press. During Friday’s opening practice the Spartans worked on a 2-3 zone, and Izzo wants his assistants to make sure the team works on the defense consistently throughout the season.

That’s also why zone in general isn’t going to get heavy play at MSU, but having it as a tool could be beneficial — especially in games with touch fouls on the perimeter called in droves.

“I told (my assistant coaches): ‘You hold me accountable to working on it every day some’ … I have a tendency to drift off on that, and I don’t want to drift off on it,” Izzo said of the 2-3 zone. “But we will be, rest assured, a 90-some percent man-to-man team still and hopefully take some of those principles to zone.”

As noted in the story one of the risks in using pressure is allowing quality shots, which is why it’s unlikely that Michigan State will go to it. But even with Izzo vowing that his team will work on the zone, that doesn’t mean they’ll be playing it as often as Syracuse does.

Man-to-man has been Michigan State’s staple and it will continue to be. But it doesn’t hurt to look for other ways to keep opponents from getting the looks they want, especially if teams have five fewer seconds to find those shots.

Virginia used 3-on-3 to adjust to new shot clock

Malcolm Brogdon
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When the college basketball rules committee made the decision to trim the shot clock down to 30 second from 35, one reason for the switch was the desire to improve offensive production. With offensive numbers at their lowest point in years, proponents of the move see the shot clock change as a necessary move if scoring is to improve.

Whether or not that winds up being the case will be seen throughout the upcoming season, but teams are still having to make adjustments during the preseason.

Virginia, which has played at a snail’s pace (and with great success, mind you) in recent years, made some adjustments to their summer work in anticipation of playing with a 30-second shot clock. One adjustment was more games of 3-on-3 with a 15-second shot clock, which forced all involved to be more decisive in their offensive decision-making.

While the pack-line defense will always be a staple of Tony Bennett’s teams, the feeling in Charlottesville is that they’ve got the offensive firepower needed to both play faster and be more efficient offensively than they were in 2014-15 (29th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). One of the players who will lead the way is senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who led the team in scoring and was a first team All-ACC selection, and he discussed the team’s outlook with Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

And even though Anderson’s highlight-reel shot blocking was the thing that frequently fueled fast-breaks for U.Va. last season, Brogdon and [Anthony] Gill said they expect this year’s team to actually push the tempo even more.

“I think we’re going to be a team that gets out and runs more,” Brogdon said. “I think we’ll have three guards on the floor, most of the time, will be able to handle the ball as a point guard and get out in transition. I think we’ll play a lot faster.”

Brogdon and Gill are two of the team’s three returning starters with point guard London Perrantes being the other, and the Cavaliers also return most of their reserves from last year’s rotation. That experience will help them on both ends of the floor as they prepare for a run at a third straight ACC regular season title. And in theory it also allows them to extend themselves a bit more offensively than they did a season ago.