The Men’s NCAA Tournament narrowed its field down to 16 after Monday, and we will be treated to the tournament’s second weekend starting Saturday. The remaining challengers in the Sweet 16 range from some of the expected contenders, some Cinderellas, and a few mid-level seeded teams that could shock.
Upsets and the attrition of March have eliminated more than three-fourths of the original 68-team competition, including some of the initial favorites to go deep – i.e., almost all of the Big Ten and Big 12. So, let’s re-rank the Sweet 16 teams that still stand tall based on their odds of bringing home the ultimate prize: a national championship.
Ranking the Men’s Sweet 16 Teams by Title Chances
Gonzaga had to be at the top of any list this before the tournament started, and there’s no reason to move this team down now. The Zags are undefeated and looked dominate and their first and second round victories over Norfolk State and Oklahoma. At this point, Gonzaga has won 25-straight games by double digits. There’s a lot of talent still left in this region that Gonzaga will have to outlast first to get to the Final Four, but every indicator if that this is the best team in the country. Doesn’t mean it’s necessarily immune to a loss, but the Bulldogs have to be No. 1.
All season long, Gonzaga and Baylor were viewed the the clear two teams atop the rest of men’s college basketball. After COVID-19 ripped through the Bears and forced them to miss a few weeks in February, they took a while to look like themselves again, and they still don’t seem to have gotten back fully to the level they were played at in January and before. But still, this is one of the best teams in the country and sporting the third-most efficient offense in America, according to KenPom. Baylor looked good in its two tournament games so far and should still be seen as one of the top contenders for the national championship.
Alabama couldn’t miss against Maryland in the second round and nearly dropped 100 on the Terps, a team that hanged its hat on defense in its late-season run to the tournament. The Crimson Tide didn’t even really need Herb Jones as he missed chunks of the game because of foul trouble as Jahvon Quinerly in particular dominated the game from start to finish. Alabama has the speed and athleticism to match up with anyone in the country, and for an explosive as it is on offense, this team ranks third in KenPom’s defensive efficiency. Right now, Alabama looks like the serious contender to win this tournament.
This might seem high, but I’ve put Houston here more because of its theoretical path to the national championship than anything else. That’s not to say the Cougars aren’t a very good team – you’re talking about the fourth-most efficient team in KenPom with a high-level coach in Kelvin Sampson and one of the best backcourts in the tournament in Quentin Grimes, DeJon Jarreau and Marcus Sasser. But if Houston were in a different region, I’d have it lower on this list. Instead, though, the Cougars are in the janky Midwest Region, which will otherwise include a No. 8 seed, No. 11 seed and No. 12 seed. Now, seeds don’t mean everything. If they did, then Illinois would be one of the Sweet 16 teams. But there’s no top-two seeded team with an easier path to the Final Four right now, so Houston gets a good bump for that fact.
I’d have Michigan above Houston based on how good I think the team is, but its region still has Alabama and Florida State, two of the toughest non-No. 1 seeds remaining. So, the Wolverines are one spot below the Cougars through no fault of their own. Hunter Dickinson is outstanding and capable of doing work against any interior defense, but he can be immature, and frustration can lead to silly fouls or worse that can put him on the bench. The Wolverines are without Isaiah Livers, and against LSU in the second round, Chaundee Brown and Eli Brooks stepped up in a major way, both putting up 21 points each, to fill the shoes left by the injured star forward. More will be needed from them and Franz Wagner for Michigan to climb the mountaintop.
The Trojans have Evan Mobley, which is reason enough to feature high up on this list. But so is being fifth in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings. USC put the clamps on Drake and Kansas in the first and second rounds, and we saw the best of what this team has to offer in those games, in particular from Isaiah Mobley, who led the Trojans against the Jayhawks with 17 points, shot 4-of-5 from three, hauled in eight rebounds and dished four dimes. If USC and the Mobley brothers continue to play at up to their potential, this is an incredibly dangerous team.
7. Loyola Chicago
The Ramblers are responsible for the first No. 1 seed bowing out of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, but they have more to do. This program made a run to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed in 2018, and by every measure, this team is better than that one. Does that mean it will repeat the feat and then some? Maybe, maybe not, but you have to admit the possibility of a Loyola Chicago championship is real, especially with two starters with Final Four experience. The Ramblers have the No. 1 ranked defense in KenPom, and while I think there are better defensive teams out there, there’s no question this is one of the best units in the nation on that side of the ball. Add in a relatively favorite path to the Final Four, and Loyola Chicago is in the top half of Sweet 16 teams by title chances.
8. Florida State
Leonard Hamilton is one of the best coaches in the country, and it would be fitting for him to get the recognition he deserves with a national championship, or at least a Final Four appearance. This Florida State team could be the one to do it, and it fits the mold of a Hamilton team with length and athleticism for days. I think there a lot of better teams that FSU left in this tournament, but could M.J. Walker, RaiQuan Gray and Scottie Barnes go toe-to-toe with Michigan and launch a run to the Final Four or more? Absolutely. The top-end talent often needed for a title in on this roster, and you have to see Florida State as one of the fringe realistic candidates for the national championship.
I’m putting Arkansas slightly higher than I would based on purely my evaluation of the team because of the path in front of it. In the Sweet 16, the Razorbacks have No. 15 seed Oral Roberts, likely the weakest team still in the tournament, and I would say the left side of the bracket is much more loaded than the right at the moment. That gives Arkansas a bit better odds to triumph in the end to me, but this is also a very good team. You won’t find many other teams in the country that want to run like this one does, and the Razorbacks will run you out of the building if you let them control the game’s tempo. But that doesn’t mean offense is their strength. Rather, the efficiency of this defense is what it is where it is, coming in at No. 10 in KenPom’s rankings in that category. Seven different Razorbacks have more than 1.0 defensive win shares this season, and if they win it all, it will be because of their defense.
Dana Altman has cemented himself as one of the best March coaches there is, and the Ducks are one of the teams in the Sweet 16 yet again under his guise. After a COVID pause in February, Oregon began slipping, but like a lot of teams that dealt directly with the pandemic’s punishment, it found its footing after some time. The Ducks only played one game to get here after a first-round forfeit, but they looked outstanding in their walloping of Iowa in the second round. The Hawkeyes had no chance against Oregon’s ball movement, the the Ducks successfully removed everyone from Luka Garza from Iowa’s attack, a sign of Altman’s game planning abilities. They won’t have the same prepping advantages moving forward that may have helped against Iowa, but they will have Will Richardson, who was missed a good portion of the season with an injury. But the Ducks fall to the double digits on this list because both Gonzaga and USC stand in their way in their region before a even a Final Four can happen. That’s about as tough a road to the national semifinal as you could come up with right now.
Syracuse is inexplicable, constantly going from nowhere to the bubble in the final weeks of the season, earning one of the final at-larges, then becoming one of the teams in the Sweet 16. But it is explicable: Jim Boeheim and his defensive schemes. First, the Orange held San Diego State to 62 points in the first round, then kept West Virginia under its season average, and this 2-3 matchup zone is capable of ruining more teams’ nights in this tournament. There is a pretty favorable path to the Final Four available, which is why I have this No. 11 seed this high on the list. That, plus the coaching and history of going deep in pretty much this exact same situation. I’d say there’s a good drop between the Orange and Oregon, though.
To me, Villanova is in one of the teams in the Sweet 16 because of its relatively friendly path here. Winthrop was the weakest No. 12 seed, and North Texas was a much preferred opponent in the second round to Purdue. But Nova is here now, and surviving and advancing is all that matters in March Madness. One bit of good news for the Wildcats is Jay Wright is still their head coach, and he has taken them to some incredible heights within the last five years. There is also some real talent on this roster in the likes of Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Justin Moore and others. But no Collin Gillespie is a concern, especially with how Villanova played at the end of the season without him. First, Villanova will have to handle Baylor, which is one of the toughest Sweet 16 opponents possible. But if Nova can take out the Bears, then a path to the title game could very reasonably open up.
They’re finally here! Creighton is in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1974, meaning this is the first time the program has done it since the tournament expanded to 64 teams. But now Gonzaga stands in the way of a first Elite Eight trip since 1941. Creighton could shoot its way to a national championship if it rains down shots at the clip it’s capable of. That’s a big if, as we’ve seen a lot of deep-shooting teams dry up long enough in a tournament game for it to end its season, but it is possible. The Bluejays shoot 37 percent from three, the second-best rate in the Big East, and also score the second-most of any team in the league, and Marcus Zegarowski, who shoots 42.1 percent from beyond the arc, is a big reason why. But how will Creighton handle Gonzaga’s size, particularly Drew Timme? I don’t know, and that’s a problem.
UCLA has won three games in a row to get here, serving as the annual First Four team to show up in the Sweet 16. Injuries have wrecked this team throughout the season, but it’s now playing some great ball with the limited pieces remaining at Mick Cronin’s disposal. Johnny Juzang has been stealing the headlines, and rightfully so, but I’ve really appreciated the bucket-making of Jaime Jaquez so far in this tournament. I might put UCLA higher on this list if it didn’t have probably the most loaded region there is with a date against Alabama, who just almost put 100 on Maryland in the second round, in the Sweet 16 before having to play Michigan or Florida State. The game with the Crimson Tide will come down to whichever team controls the tempo (Alabama plays with the 12th-highest tempo, according to KenPom, while UCLA comes in at No. 337 in Division I), and I’d say it’s more likely Alabama does that than the Bruins. But hey, crazier things have happened in March.
15. Oregon State
From completely and entirely irrelevant to a Sweet 16 team in the span of a few weeks, Oregon State is here for the first time since 1982 or 1975, depending on how much you care about the NCAA vacating postseason runs. Either way, it’s been a lot time, and that’s got Corvallis excited. But a national championship? Um, no, probably not happening, and crazier things haven’t really happened than that, if it were to occur. But that doesn’t mean the Beavers can’t continue to surprise, especially if the three-point shooting continues like it has in the five eliminations games they’ve had to play lately. The team is 45-of-107 from deep in those five contests across the Pac-12 Tournaments and first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. That’s 42 percent, which is significantly better than its overall mark of 33.7 percent when the regular season ended. Maybe that keeps up, who knows. But I’m not going to put a lot of stock in it when you’re talking national championship likelihoods.
16. Oral Roberts
Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor have been a joy to watch in this tournament, and it’s a shock that Oral Roberts is one of the Sweet 16 teams still in the running for a title. But how much can you realistically expect out of a team that finished fourth in the Summit League? Arkansas is next up for ORU, the second meeting of the season between the two teams. In the first matchup on Dec. 20, the Razorbacks won, 87-76, behind 22 points and 17 rebounds from Justin Smith. Will Oral Roberts have a better answer for Smith and keep Arkansas below the 80-point threshold it will need to win this game? I’m not sure I can say I have a lot of faith in the 238th-ranked defense in KenPom to do it for a third time in a row. And if ORU somehow does and wins, can it do it again versus probably Baylor?