There are 16 teams left in the NCAA Tournament, which means that it is time for us to re-rank the teams left in the field based on the chances that they can win the NCAA tournament.
So let’s get do it:
This is what the Orange are going to have to do just to get to the national title game, assuming that seeds hold (LOL!): Beat Duke, beat Kansas and beat Villanova. Then, once there, they’re going to have to take down Kentucky, or Gonzaga, or Michigan. The Orange have, without question, the most difficult path of anyone left in the field, and they’re the lowest-rated team on KenPom, which of course means Jim Boeheim is taking this group back to the Final Four.
15. KANSAS STATE
I think I would have Kansas State higher on this list if there was any kind of certainty about the status of Dean Wade. He’s Kansas State’s leading scorer and he has missed the last three games with an injury. Even if he is playing, I don’t think that I would take Bruce Weber’s Wildcats to beat the Kentucky Wildcats in the Sweet 16, not with the way that Kentucky has been playing of late.
14. FLORIDA STATE
I still don’t quite understand how Florida State did what they did in the first weekend of this tournament. They beat down Missouri in the first round and then erased a 12-point deficit in 10 minutes against the No. 1 seed in their region. Please, someone explain this to me. Until that someone does, I am not a believer. Sorry, ‘Noles.
I’m a believer in Loyola-Chicago. They can really, really defend, and they are balanced enough defensively that you can’t really key in on one guy. Plus, they have God on their side. Sister Jean has apparently sent up enough Hail Marys that Clayton Custer’s last-second jumper against Tennessee was able to, somehow, find its way into the bucket:
I’ve overlooked Clemson all season, and I have not learned my lesson. The Tigers, like Syracuse, have just a brutal path to even get to the national title game. They play Kansas in the Sweet 16 before playing, if seeds hold, Duke then Villanova. Give Brad Brownell’s team credit. They got Clemson someplace that no one in the country thought they could get to back in November. They’re playing with house money now.
11. TEXAS A&M
Texas A&M’s big men are going to physically impose their will on the Michigan front line on Thursday night … if the ball actually gets to them. The Aggies are on to, what, their fourth point guard on the season with T.J. Starks? And he’s going to have to deal with Zavier Simpson, who has held these guards to these stat-lines the last six games:
- Jordan Bohannon, Iowa: 11 points, 3-14 FGs, 3 turnovers
- Glynn Watson, Nebraska: 10 points, 4-12 FGs, 2 turnovers
- Cassius Winston, Michigan State: 11 points, 3-10 FGs
- Carsen Edwards, Purdue: 10 points, 4-16 FGs
- Ahmaad Rorie, Montana: 15 points, 6-17 FGs
- Rob Gray, Houston: 23 points, 8-22 FGs
10. WEST VIRGINIA
I actually think West Virginia, with the way that they are playing, is one of the five best teams left in the tournament. So why do I have them 10th on this list? Because it is not possible to create a team that would be a worse matchup for Press Virginia than Villanova is. Bob Huggins’ defense relies on speeding teams up and forcing them to make mistakes. No one is ever going to speed Jalen Brunson up or force him to make a mistake. It’s just not going to happen. So if West Virginia throws a press at Villanova and that press doesn’t work, the Wildcats are going to get wide-open three after wide-open three. They aren’t Michigan State. They’ll make their threes.
If you’re going to take a flier on a team with good odds to win the national title, Nevada would be my pick. They’re talented, more talented than you realize. They have dudes that — and I mean with with respect — have absolutely no idea the magnitude of the moment they’re playing in. The Martin twins, Jordan Caroline, Josh Hall, Kendell Stephens. Those guys scrap, they’re tough and athletic, they are shot-makers, they can all get hot and put up 20 points in a half.
Oh, and they had the good juju with Mariah Musselman becoming a March superstar.
On the one hand, I think that there may be some sneaky upside to losing Isaac Haas to the season with that fractured elbow. Matt Haarms is definitely a better defender, particularly in ball-screen actions, and since there is so little tape on the Boilermakers playing without Haas, Matt Painter will have the element of surprise on his side. On the other hand, Purdue just lost a guy that averages 14.7 points and anchors their offense in the post. They are suddenly much more one-dimensional with games coming up against teams (Texas Tech, potentially Villanova) that don’t necessarily have the size to handle Haas inside.
7. TEXAS TECH
The Red Raiders look exactly how I thought they would look in this tournament. They are a nightmare to try and score on, and they have a dude in Keenan Evans. He’s been one of the best players in the tournament to date, and is averaging 16.5 points … in the second half of games. He’s their closer, and their defense is good enough that you’ll never be able to pull away from them.
I would have Kansas higher on this list — I love Devonte’ Graham, I think they are dangerous given how well they shot the ball, I think that Udoka Azubuike is criminally-underrated — but the idea of Svi Mykhailiuk or LaGerald Vick being forced to deal with either Marvin Bagley III or Wendell Carter in the paint is the kind of thing that will give Bill Self an ulcer.
I don’t really know what to make of this group. They didn’t look all that good against either Montana or Houston, but they advanced on the strength of a defense that seems positively anti-Beileinian. You have to figure their inability to score is going to be figured out by Beilein, but that defense is always going to be there.
I know that the Zags have not been super-impressive through the first weekend of games, but think about this: They just got back a good Ohio State team in the second round of the tournament in a game where their two-best big men and their two fourth-year guards combined for 34 points. Josh Perkins, Silas Melson, Killian Tillie, Johnathan Williams III — they are not going to play that poorly again. But if Rui Hachimura and Zach Norvell stay hot, watch out.
The Wildcats are playing their best basketball of the season. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks like an all-american while Kevin Knox has been a more consistent scoring threat on the wing. They’re rebounding the ball, they’re defending, they’ve seemingly figured out rotations.
Oh, and they are not going to have to face a top six-seed before the Final Four and a top two-seed before the national title game. Remember when John Calipari was complaining about how difficult their path was? Hahahaha …
For my money, the winner of the Duke-Villanova Final Four game — assuming that game happens in San Antonio, and it has to happen, you owe it to us, Basketball Gods — will be the team that ends up winning the national title this season. Duke’s front line is just overpowering, and Villanova’s ability to rain threes is a game-changer. Think about it like this: Against Alabama, a team that more or less matched up with the Wildcats perfectly on paper, Villanova won by 23 points despite the fact that Jalen Brunson was just OK because Donte DiVincenzo went bonkers at the end of the first half and Mikal Bridges caught fire early in the first half. They are scary.
I’ve said, even since Duke made the switch to play the 2-3 zone full-time, that they are the best team in college basketball. I picked them to win it all at the start of the tournament. Of course I’m going to have them right here, at the top of the rankings, heading into the Sweet 16.
This is why: Duke’s front line is impossible to matchup with because they are just so big, but their opponents cannot take advantage of going small at the other end because of that Duke zone. Back when Duke played man, teams like Boston College and St. John’s were able to exploit Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter in ball-screens with smaller, quicker players. Now? In the zone? Carter doesn’t leave the charge circle and all Bagley has to do is be long, athletic and active. He can do that. So good luck with their big men.