Welcome to the chalkiest Sweet 16 in recent memory. March Madness didn’t deliver on its name through the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, as every No. 1 and No. 2 seed survived to next week. This tournament might not have a real Cinderella story, but it makes up for it with some heavyweight showdowns coming this week.
This is a ranking of the 16 teams remaining in the field, in order of their chances at winning the national championship.
[Want to go deeper? Here are in-depth cases for 8 teams that can realistically win March Madness]
The Ducks are the closest thing this tournament has to a Cinderella. Oregon, seeded No. 12 in the South, knocked out No. 5 seed Wisconsin in round one and downed upstart UC Irvine in round two, taking a 10-game winning streak into the Sweet 16. This Ducks team wouldn’t even be here had they not won four games in four days to take home the Pac-12 tournament title.
The combination of Payton Pritchard and Kenny Wooten has kept the Ducks alive. Pritchard, a heady junior point guard, has led Oregon in scoring both games. Wooten is a pogo stick big man who just had 11 points, seven blocks, and four offensive rebounds against Irvine in the round of 32. Virginia is the opponent in the Sweet 16, a team that was dominant in the regular season but hasn’t always looked great in this tournament. Don’t write off the Ducks just yet.
15. Virginia Tech
The Hokies have played lockdown defense through their first two games in the tournament, holding Saint Louis to 52 points in the opener and then limiting Liberty to 58 points in round two. Things are about to get significantly more challenging in the Sweet 16 against Zion Williamson and Duke.
Justin Robinson has given VT scoring punch off the bench after missing nearly two months with an injured foot before returning to the lineup for this tournament. Kerry Blackshear has given Buzz Williams’ team consistent inside scoring, dropping 34 points across the two games. The Hokies also hit at least 40 percent of their three-pointers in both games, but mostly on low volume. No one wants to see Duke, but Virginia Tech has the advantage of knowing they already beat them once this year. Granted, Williamson will be the lineup this time, and that changes everything.
The most underrated storyline of the NCAA tournament might be how good the Boilermakers look right now. Purdue just delivered a convincing knockout punch to defending champ Villanova, pounding the Wildcats, 87-61, behind an all-world performance from star guard Carsen Edwards. All Edwards did in the win was drop 42 points on 9-of-16 shooting from three-point range.
Edwards was expected to be one of the best players in the country coming into the season, but saw his efficiency levels drop severely during his junior season. Purdue is going to need Edwards to get hot again if it has a chance against Tennessee.
The Tigers took a bizarre path to the Sweet 16, outlasting New Mexico State in one of the strangest endings of the tournament before beating Kansas decisively in the Round of 32. Auburn has now won 10 straight as they face top-seeded North Carolina in the Sweet 16.
The Tigers have a great backcourt in Jared Harper and Bryce Brown. They have size in the front court with Austin Wiley and Anfernee McLemore, who plays bigger than 6’7. Chuma Okeke is the team’s best NBA prospect as a 6’8 wing who projects as a three-and-D swing forward at the next level. Can Auburn control the pace and stop North Carolina from pushing the tempo? That question might decide the game.
Tremont Waters’ last-second bucket lifted LSU over Maryland and put them program in the second weekend for the first time since 2006. That the Tigers are doing this without head coach Will Wade — suspended by the university amid reports he was caught on an FBI wiretap bribing recruits — is even more impressive.
The Tigers are undeniably talented, but they’re also a bit erratic. The offense has gone cold from three-point range, hitting just 11-of-41 (26 percent) attempts from deep across their two victories. Maryland also waxed LSU on the glass. A Sweet 16 matchup against Michigan State feels like it could go either way.
11. Texas Tech
The Red Raiders are rolling through the first two rounds. Texas Tech won its opening two games by a combined 35 points, beating Northern Kentucky and then blowing out a talented Buffalo team. Everyone knows about Texas Tech’s defense, which finished No. 1 in the country in efficiency, but it’s the offense that has impressed through the opening weekend.
Jarrett Culver is the 2nd-best prospect in this draft. pic.twitter.com/EY3NdYi4QO— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) March 25, 2019
Jarrett Culver is going to be a top-five pick in the NBA Draft come June. He’s been tremendous thus far, dropping 29, points, eight rebounds, and seven assists in the first round, and then 16 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, and five stocks (AKA steals + blocks) in round two. If Culver keeps playing like one of the best players in the field, the combination of an elite defense and offensive star makes the Red Raiders a sleeper threat to go to the Final Four.
The Cougars have been quietly dominant to open the tournament, winning their first two games against Georgia Southern and Ohio State by a combined 44 points. The defense has been excellent, holding their opponents to 0.81 and 0.91 points per possession, respectively. Senior guard Corey Davis Jr. has carried the offense, scoring 47 across the two wins.
Things get a lot harder for Houston now against Kentucky, but the Wildcats have been without star forward P.J. Washington through their first two tournament games because of a sprained foot. If he can’t go, don’t be surprised if Houston pulls the upset. Now 33-3 overall, the Cougars have been winning big all season. A matchup with John Calipari’s Wildcats provides the ultimate test of whether or not they’re for real.
9. Florida State
No one wants to face the Seminoles right now. Florida State outlasted Vermont in a surprisingly tight first round game before flexing their might against Murray State, blowing out Ja Morant and the No. 12 seed Racers 90-62 in a game that was never close.
Florida State is such a unique team, blessed with major size, an incredibly deep rotation, and experience after returning the core of a team that went to the Elite Eight last year. FSU simply comes at you with waves of athletic forwards who defend, rebound, and can slash to the basket. Gonzaga has its work cut out if they want to make the Elite Eight.
8. Michigan State
Bradley made Michigan State sweat in round one, taking a one-point lead into halftime before Sparty pulled away in the final minutes. The Spartans looked more like themselves in the Round of 32, blowing out an overmatched Minnesota team that regressed to the mean on its three-point shooting.
Xavier Tillman’s emergence in the front court gives Sparty a chance to make a deep run. The sophomore has been an advanced stats all-star off the bench before Nick Ward’s late-season injury opened up a spot as a starter. Tillman finished with 14 points and six rebounds vs. Minnesota on 6-of-8 shooting from the field. His efficient scoring and versatile defense is a huge key for Michigan State moving forward.
The Wildcats survived the opening weekend despite being forced to play without star sophomore forward P.J. Washington, who was ruled out with a sprained foot. Washington’s health is maybe the biggest question heading into the Sweet 16 as Kentucky prepares to take on Houston.
Truth be told, Kentucky was lucky to survive its Round of 32 matchup vs. Wofford. Fletcher Magee, the Terriers senior who broke the DI record for most three-pointers in a career two days earlier, went 0-for-12 from three-point range against the Wildcats. If he even hits a couple of those, Kentucky’s 62-56 victory could have gone much differently. The Midwest region was always pointing to a UNC vs. Kentucky Elite Eight game. Question is, can the Wildcats get that far if Washington can’t go?
Michigan has looked great through two games, blowing out Montana in its opener and winning comfortably against a surging Florida team in the Round of 32. It’s been no surprise that defense carried the Wolverines into the Sweet 16. After years of being labeled as an offensive coach, John Beilein and assistant Luke Yaklich have turned Big Blue into a defensive powerhouse.
What does Michigan need to do to make it past Texas Tech and continue its tournament run? Get hot from three-point range. The Wolverines are only 12-of-38 (31.5 percent) from behind the arc. It will be on Jordan Poole and Ignas Brazdeikis to make it happen.
Gardner-Webb scared the life out of every Virginia fan for the first 20 minutes of their tournament opener. The ‘Hoos would take control in the second half for the most rewarding 1-over-16 victory of all-time. UVA’s second round win over Oklahoma was never in doubt. Now Tony Bennett’s team faces the lowest-seeded team remaining the field, No. 12 Oregon, with a chance at the Elite Eight on the line.
Credit Virginia for taking care of business a year after disaster against UMBC, even if it hasn’t always been pretty. UVA is shooting only 30 percent from three-point land (14-of-47), but has been as tough as ever on defense. That Elite Eight game against Tennessee is going to be a lot of fun if both survive the start of the week.
The Vols were on the brink of disaster in the Round of 32 for the second straight year. Tennessee blew a 25-point lead against Iowa, only to come away with the victory in overtime. Rick Barnes, who has a long history of exiting early with talented teams in March, has to be happiest man in the Sweet 16.
Tennessee was nearly doomed by turnovers and foul trouble against Iowa, but showed their true talent level once the overtime period began. The key for the Vols? Consistently play through Grant Williams, who took over on both ends in OT against the Hawkeyes. Flanked by capable co-stars in Jordan Bone and Admiral Schofield, the Vols have a winnable matchup against Purdue in the Sweet 16 to continue their March run.
3. North Carolina
The Tar Heels trailed Iona by five at the half before blowing past the No. 16 seed in the first round. UNC looked more like itself against Washington, hamming the Huskies in the Round of 32 behind Luke Maye’s double-double (20 points, 14 rebounds) and some hot three-point shooting.
The breakout player for the Heels in the first weekend was Nassir Little, the freshman forward who was projected to be a top-three NBA Draft pick in the preseason before enduring a disappointing season that saw him out of UNC’s rotation for large stretches. Just when everyone wrote off Little, he came through with 20 points and seven rebounds against Washington in the second round. If Carolina can get consistently contributions from him, watch out.
UCF was on the brink of shocking the world against Duke in the second round, but the Blue Devils somehow pulled out a victory in the final seconds to keep dancing. You didn’t think Zion Williamson was bowing out in the first weekend, did you?
Duke’s four freshmen starters scored 72 of the team’s 77 points against the Knights. That’s going to need to continue for the Blue Devils to make good on their national championship aspirations. This isn’t a deep team. It doesn’t have a lot of outside shooting. It lost to Virginia Tech, its Sweet 16 opponent, once this season already, though Williamson was out then with a sprained knee.
The Blue Devils showed an unexpected vulnerability in the first weekend. For all of its talent, it’s important to remember this is still the youngest team in the tournament. The Blue Devils remain a viable threat to win it all, but we can’t make them the favorite just yet.
While the other No. 1 seeds, Duke, North Carolina and Virginia, all had trouble early with No. 16 seeds in their opening round games, Gonzaga came out and pounded Fairleigh Dickinson from the tip-off, taking a 53-17 lead into halftime before walking away with a 38-point victory. The Zags’ 12-point win in the next round over Baylor also wasn’t as close as it looked.
Gonzaga’s offense is really humming right now. Corey Kispert, Zach Norvell, and Josh Perkins are all threats to hit from three-point range. Rui Hachimura has the type of inside-out game that makes him a threat to drop 20 points any given night. Brandon Clarke — coming off the single best game of the tournament against Baylor — just be the second best player in college basketball behind Williamson.
The ‘Zags have the toughest road to the national title game of any team left in the tournament, but they also have a case for being the best squad in college basketball. Bet against Gonzaga at your own peril.