No. 1: Florida
Road to the Sweet Sixteen: Wore out Albany, 67-55; declawed Pittsburgh, 61-45.
Record vs. Sweet Sixteen teams: 6-2 (3-0 vs. Kentucky, 3-0 vs. Tennessee, 0-1 vs. UConn, 0-1 vs. Wisconsin)
(No EfficiencHeat Check this week.)1
Counting Pittsburgh, Florida has played seven teams that won at least one NCAA Tournament game, and gone 8-2 in those games, with both losses coming without a full-strength squad. Granted, Florida is just 2-2 in non-SEC games against those teams, but Florida is also 6-2 against Sweet Sixteen teams, having played four of them, and the Gators went 6-0 against Kentucky and Tennessee, which just edged Wichita State in a tremendous game and rampaged through its subregional, respectively.
Florida's SEC dominance doesn't look quite so bad now, does it?
The Gators also clamped down on both Albany and Pittsburgh to win games despite off days from their offense: Florida allowed 0.89 PPP to the Great Danes and 0.82 PPP to the Panthers, a top-20 offense per KenPom, which enabled the Gators to win by double digits in both games while shooting 25 percent from three. Count on defense continuing to be Florida's emphasis, as Billy Donovan knows Florida hasn't lost an NCAA Tournament game when allowing less than 1.00 PPP in the KenPom era.
Don't count on the Gators staying that cold from distance.
No. 2: Arizona
Road to the Sweet Sixteen: Withstood Weber State, 68-59; zigged Gonzaga, 84-61.
Record vs. Sweet Sixteen teams: 5-1 (2-0 vs. Stanford, 1-0 vs. Michigan, 1-0 vs. San Diego State, 1-1 vs. UCLA)
As Florida's defense, now No. 2 in the country, keeps creeping toward Arizona's No. 1 defense, the Wildcats' offense makes strides toward the plateau excellent offenses occupy.
Since their late cold spell against Oregon cost them that final regular-season game, Arizona's scored more than 1.00 PPP in all five games, and only fell (to UCLA, in the Pac-12 Tournament final) in its lone game under 1.10 PPP. The Wildcats mauled Gonzaga on Sunday by feasting on turnovers (the 'Zags committed 21 in 71 possessions) and having guards other than Gabe York (1-for-5 from three) making their shots.
Of course, Gonzaga was not exactly a great test defensively, despite the Bulldogs' gaudy statistics: No one could stay in front of Nick Johnson, and staying in front of Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who scored 18 points each, proved even less doable for the lead-footed Gonzaga frontcourt. San Diego State, a team Arizona beat earlier this year, boasts the best defense Arizona's seen, and should be able to make their Sweet Sixteen contest a rock fight.
Arizona won't mind throwing stones. But the Wildcats can throw bricks, too.
No. 3: Virginia
Road to the Sweet Sixteen: Shan't'd Coastal Carolina 70-59; striped Memphis, 78-60
Record vs. Sweet Sixteen teams: 0-2 (0-1 vs. Tennessee, 0-1 vs. Wisconsin)
No. 4: Michigan State
Road to the Sweet Sixteen: Pecked Delaware, 93-78; left Harvard crimson, 80-73.
Record vs. Sweet Sixteen teams: 3-3 (1-0 vs. Kentucky, 1-1 vs. Wisconsin, 1-2 vs. Michigan)
Yes, I have Virginia ahead of Michigan State. I watched basketball in January and February.
Virginia was always a bad matchup for Memphis, but it was surprising to see the Cavs dispatch the Tigers so efficiently, swiftly, and fully; the 15-point lead at halftime never shrank to single-digits in the second half, and grew to a 27-point edge at one juncture. Virginia shot the ball well and rebounded even better.
And so I'm giving the Cavaliers a slight edge here, because they just proved they can hang with a team with superior athletes like Michigan State's; Michigan State's win over Harvard only proved that the Spartans can overpower an inferior team down the stretch.
I have been skeptical about Michigan State being hailed as a national championship contender specifically because a) as a person with many contrarian tendencies, I don't like uncritically adopting consensus opinions and b) I was never quite as sold on Sparty's non-con run as most. The best win State had, entering the Big Ten Tournament, was one over Kentucky, long before Kentucky became the team we saw on Sunday; wins over Wisconsin and Michigan shored up the concerns most had about this team.
But, even though I picked Michigan State to get to the Final Four, I'm still hesitant: It's a team with pretty much everything one could want in a contender outside of an ability to draw fouls, and that makes it vulnerable to a slower game that morphs into Foul Line Parade. Virginia doesn't really want to go to the line, but the Cavs also don't foul very much; this gives them a chance of forcing Michigan State to earn it from the field, a difficult task against Tony Bennett's best pack of Pack-Line defenders.
If there's an edge for the Spartans, it's in the trio of Denzel Valentine, Gary Harris, and Branden Dawson, all amorphous swingmen who can be small forwards or big guards. Virginia struggled with that same kind of player two years ago when a then-unknown Casey Prather helped Florida blow out the Cavs, and Prather couldn't shoot like Harris or Valentine.
No. 5: Louisville
Road to the Sweet Sixteen: Hancocked Manhattan, 71-64; Hancocked Saint Louis, 66-51.
Record vs. Sweet Sixteen teams: 3-1 (3-0 vs. UConn, 0-1 vs. Kentucky)
No. 6: Kentucky
Road to the Sweet Sixteen: Bruised Kansas State, 56-49; shocked Wichita State, 78-76.
Record vs. Sweet Sixteen teams: 2-4 (1-0 vs. Louisville, 1-0 vs. Tennessee, 0-1 vs. Michigan State, 0-3 vs. Florida)
If I had my druthers, or knew what druthers were, Kentucky would be even higher.
I thought the Wildcats had to play a basically perfect game to beat Wichita State, a far better team on the year. That they did, while Wichita State played a fantastic game of its own, is impressive; that they never quite flinched in the face of a really good team playing absurdly good basketball may be more impressive, especially as an indicator that this team has figured out how to play both hard and smart for the balance of a game.
But Kentucky also had size advantages everywhere against the Shockers, and especially at guard, where Andrew and Aaron Harrison got what they wanted against game Wichita defenders who gave up inches, pounds, and speed to Kentucky's hyper-talented bunch. That isn't the case against every team.
Kentucky does have many of the same matchup edges against Louisville, though.
The Harrisons are much bigger than Russ Smith, Chris Jones, and Terry Rozier, as is James Young. Montrezl Harrell can't be reasonably expected to tangle with Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Dakari Johnson without getting into foul trouble, and Stephan Van Treese is little help. I'm not sure who Luke Hancock can guard consistently.
And after two deceptively close Louisville wins over Manhattan and Saint Louis last weekend, Kentucky is definitely the hotter team heading into Friday's showdown. Hancock rescued the Cards in Orlando, but I'm not sure he has more tricks up his sleeve for Kentucky; he had just eight points on 11 shots in Louisville's December loss at Rupp.
In any case: For the second time in three years, we get Louisville-Kentucky after February. That's awesome.
No. 7: Wisconsin
Road to the Sweet Sixteen: Shocked and awed American, 75-35; ducked Oregon upset, 85-77.
Record vs. Sweet Sixteen teams: 4-2 (1-0 vs. Florida, 1-0 vs. Virginia, 1-1 vs. Michigan, 1-1 vs. Michigan State)
No. 8: Michigan
Road to the Sweet Sixteen: Wailed on Wofford, 57-40; messed with Texas, 79-65.
Record vs. Sweet Sixteen teams: 3-4 (2-1 vs. Michigan State, 1-1 vs. Wisconsin, 0-1 vs. Arizona, 0-1 vs. Iowa State)
A tale of two Big Ten teams with far better offenses than defenses: Wisconsin just shelled American in its opener, then had to come back on Oregon, something the Badgers did stunningly easily; Michigan shelled Wofford in its opener, then just pulled away from Texas. Michigan's offense is ~2.2 PPP better than Wisconsin's, but its defense is ~2.7 PPP worse, enough that Luke Winn has Michigan in the "Elite-Offense/Suspect-Defense Club"2 in his power rankings for this week, and marked as a possible candidate for the same fate that befell Creighton, Duke, and Iowa.
But the more pressing concern for both teams, with lots of finesse and little in the way of interior presence, is how big and strong both Wisconsin foe Baylor and Michigan opponent Tennessee are inside. Both teams did just lose to similarly burly Michigan State two weeks ago.
No. 9: UCLA
Road to the Sweet Sixteen: Stormed by Tulsa, 76-59; axed Stephen F. Austin, 77-60.
Record vs. Sweet Sixteen teams: 3-2 (2-1 vs. Stanford, 1-1 vs. Arizona)
Three teams played two teams with a combined seed number of 25 to get to the Sweet Sixteen: Florida (a No. 1 seed that couldn't play anything lower than a 24), Michigan State (which had to beat a game Harvard team that stung Cincinnati), San Diego State (which edged towering New Mexico State in overtime, then shut down not-quite-a-12-seed North Dakota State) and UCLA. Of the four roads, UCLA's was easiest: Tulsa was and is a year away, and could do nothing on offense against the bigger Bruins, while Stephen F. Austin's center was shorter than UCLA's point guard, and could do even less.
That's not to take away from what the Bruins did in winning those games by a combined 34 points; it's just context. UCLA has a ton of blue-chip talent that was procured by Ben Howland and retained by Steve Alford, maybe more than any other team in the country except for Kentucky and Michigan State, and if you can convince yourself that height advantages and tempo are enough for UCLA against Florida, there's a trendy upset pick to be made.
Having watched Florida fend off Kentucky three times, I'm not sold on that pick, but I do respect the Bruins. One glaring problem, though: As Winn noted, Florida's absurdly good in transition defense. And UCLA, a running team, loves to score in transition, with the second-shortest offensive possessions (behind Iowa State) of teams remaining in the Tournament.
No. 10: Baylor
Road to the Sweet Sixteen: Dunked Nebrasketball, 74-60; left Creighton's J's blue, 85-55.
Record vs. Sweet Sixteen teams: 3-2 (1-0 vs. Dayton, 1-0 vs. Kentucky, 1-2 vs. Iowa State)
Baylor has the second-best average margin of victory in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. I know: It surprised me, too.
But the Bears beat Nebraska by 14 and Creighton by 30, and have won their two games by 22 points per. Along the way, they ensured they will never drink free in Nebraska, shut down two teams with lots of offensive potential, and clipped the Bluejays so totally that they fell out of the No. 1 spot in KenPom's Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, likely ceding it to Duke for good.
And now they get a strangely decent Sweet Sixteen matchup in the form of Wisconsin, the No. 1 team remaining in the NCAA Tournament in terms of average margin of victory. (That 40-point win over American helped.) The Badgers have length that troubles a lot of teams in a way it won't trouble Baylor and shooters like Creighton's, the ones that just didn't trouble the Bears.
Wisconsin's better than Creighton, especially defensively, but there's reason to think Baylor has better than a puncher's chance in this game.
No. 11: UConn
Road to the Sweet Sixteen: Overcame Saint Joseph's, 89-81 (OT); Shabazzed Villanova, 77-65.
Record vs. Sweet Sixteen teams: 1-4 (1-0 vs. Florida, 0-1 vs. Stanford, 0-3 vs. Louisville)
Believe in Shabazz.
The Huskies got through much of their two games against Saint Joseph's and Villanova without Shabazz Napier's particular set of skills. And when Napier needed to take over, he did: Nine of his 24 points came in overtime against the Hawks, and helped UConn pull away, and 21 of his 25 points against Villanova, including all four of his back-breaking threes, came in the second half.
Photo: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
If Napier is healthy, there is no scarier player in America, because he's a great driver, an excellent shooter and an even better bad shot-maker, capable of utterly crushing a defense that played him soundly for 33 or 34 seconds and forced him into a bad shot. He did this to Florida in December, and to Villanova on Saturday, and to Louisville in a loss, and to Memphis in a win, and he does it all while also leading UConn in rebounds and assists.
UConn is smallish and lacking in great defenders, unusual states of being for the program, but, in Napier, it has that one indomitable player who can make all the issues immaterial on one hot night. I hope he has at least one more left.
No. 12: Tennessee
Road to the Sweet Sixteen: Hawked Iowa, 78-65 (OT); powdered UMass, 86-67; mercied Mercer, 83-63.
Record vs. Sweet Sixteen teams: 1-4 (1-0 vs. Virginia, 0-1 vs. Kentucky, 0-3 vs. Florida)
This is low for Tennessee.
Did you know that the Vols are No. 6 in KenPom? That Tennessee is the only team that isn't Louisville or Wichita State with its offense and defense in KenPom's top 16, and the only team that isn't Florida or Louisville or Wichita State with two top-20 units? That the Vols have one loss since the beginning of March, and it was to Florida?3 That their three NCAA Tournament wins all came by double-digits even though the first game went to overtime, something that 2011 VCU did without the handicap of overtime? That Jarnell Stokes is one of the Monstars?
SEC Basketball On the Rise
I made one of those up, but only one. The point is: Tennessee is actually really damn good at basketball, something that got lost for most of the months spent losing games it shouldn't have in SEC play, and so good that KenPom gives the Vols a 54 percent chance of knocking off Michigan to get to the Elite Eight. My brain says that's a little high, especially given that Tennessee seems likely to struggle with Nik Stauskas and/or Caris LeVert, depending on which one Josh Richardson doesn't draw.
But Tennessee should absolutely gut the Wolverines on the boards, with Jordan Morgan's recent rebounding success (10 boards in both games) striking me as what happens when an athletic post player is either bigger than his foes (Wofford) or faster than them (Texas).
No. 13: Iowa State
Road to the Sweet Sixteen: Soared past North Carolina Central, 93-75; Kaned North Carolina, 85-83.
Record vs. Sweet Sixteen teams: 3-1 (2-1 vs. Baylor, 1-0 vs. Michigan)
Iowa State and UConn is about as close to a coin flip as there has been this season, at least per KenPom.
The Cyclones have a Pythagorean Rating of .8831; UConn's is .8827. The difference of .0004 is the second-smallest among teams in the KenPom top 20, behind the .0003 of difference between No. 1 Arizona (.9556) and No. 2 Florida (.9553) — and Arizona and Florida aren't playing each other.
But much of that rating is built on Iowa State's performance to date, which mostly included Georges Niang, a player whose presence would have forced UConn into a choice of stressing defending him or Melvin Ejim. Without Niang, the Huskies can shade to Ejim, a much poorer passer, and force DeAndre Kane, Dustin Hogue, and Naz Long to beat them.
Kane's obviously capable of beating UConn, given how thoroughly he tore apart North Carolina on the possessions where he didn't commit turnovers. UConn's guards are more dogged and about as larceny-minded as UNC's, though, so there's really not a good reason to think Kane won't commit a slew of turnovers again. And Iowa State's perimeter defense can be exploited.
Plus, as the old gods4 once wrote with lightning, "When in doubt, lean toward the basketball team with Shabazz Napier."
No. 14: San Diego State
Road to the Sweet Sixteen: Survived New Mexico State, 73-69; poached North Dakota State, 63-44.
Record vs. Sweet Sixteen teams: 0-1 (0-1 vs. Arizona)
Remember when San Diego State played an entire conference schedule without developing a consistent second scorer behind Xavier Thames and then still didn't really know if it had that second scorer by the time of the NCAA Tournament, then nearly lost to a team of slow giants? I do!
Photo: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
The good news is that Dwayne Polee II is more or less that second scorer: He had 15 points for the Aztecs in both their overtime win against New Mexico State and the easier win over North Dakota State, his first back-to-back games with 15 points all season, and has averaged 15.5 points per game over SDSU's last four. The bad news is that Xavier Thames had 53 in those two games, and didn't see a defender anything like Arizona's Nick Johnson, who will be stitched to Thames in the Aztecs' Sweet Sixteen game.
Maybe that will be the game in which Winston Shepard, San Diego State's amply talented wing, figures out how to shoot. I would not bet on that.
No. 15: Stanford
Road to the Sweet Sixteen: Hushed New Mexico, 58-53; felled Kansas, 60-58.
Record vs. Sweet Sixteen teams: 2-4 (1-0 vs. UConn, 1-1 vs. Arizona, 1-2 vs. UCLA, 0-1 vs. Michigan)
Right, Stanford. I
have get to write about Stanford!
Stanford struck me as an inferior version of New Mexico at this point last week, and I had the Cardinal No. 54 in my power rankings of the 64 teams in the NCAA Tournament field as of last Thursday, though some of that lack of respect was admittedly about a terrible game Stanford was party to earlier this year. I concluded my blurb about the Cardinal with "No, Stanford can't beat Kansas anyway."
The Cardinal surprised me by beating an inexplicably no-showing New Mexico team in their first win, then hammering away at Kansas underneath for their second. They still can't really shoot, don't have one go-to scary player, and beat Kansas without its best interior defender by, of course, going inside. They might lose to Dayton, or they might beat Dayton.
But no, Stanford can't beat Florida or UCLA anyway. (I think.) (Maybe.)
No. 16: Dayton
Road to the Sweet Sixteen: Edged Ohio State, 60-59; edged Syracuse, 55-53.
Record vs. Sweet Sixteen teams: 0-1 (0-1 vs. Baylor)
Dayton beat an overrated Ohio State team by a point and an overrated Syracuse team by two points in Buffalo, and now plays a team worse than those first two teams for the privilege of an Elite Eight berth. Being a mid-major ain't so bad when the stars align!
The Flyers did that, essentially, by playing good enough defense in the paint to force both foes to shoot, which neither one could do, and shooting incrementally better than those foes.
It will, perhaps, not surprise you to learn that Dayton's average margin of victory over its first two games (1.5 points!) tied the NCAA Tournament record for smallest margin of victory by a No. 11 seed that made the Sweet Sixteen, matching the marks set by both Auburn and Boston College in 1985, back when there was no three-point shot. It will, perhaps, not surprise you if Stanford beats Dayton on Thursday night.
The EfficiencHeat Check — named by Chip Patterson — isn't really worth doing this week, given the bizarre schedules teams have played over the last two weeks in conference and NCAA Tournament play. Wisconsin played American, while Kentucky played Wichita State: How do you compare those games?
Can't believe Luke didn't just go with Creighton Club, because Creighton's the perfect team to crystallize that particular brand of play.
The three SEC teams left in the NCAA Tournament are 20-4 in March. Three of those losses were by Kentucky and Tennessee to Florida; the fourth was Kentucky's loss to South Carolina? Remember that?
If there were actual old gods in college basketball, they would be Bill Raftery and Bill Walton, right?