The field of 68 that entered the 2021 men’s NCAA tournament a week ago has been trimmed to only 16 teams left standing. After a historic opening weekend defined by a run of upsets by double-digit seeds, the tournament now gives way to the Sweet 16 starting on March 27.
Oral Roberts, Syracuse, Oregon State, and UCLA have each advanced in the bracket after some shocking wins so far. The Pac-12 has been incredible, going undefeated in the first round and sitting at 9-1 overall thus far. The Big Ten has been disappointing, with top seed Illinois and No. 2 seeds Iowa and Ohio State all getting eliminated early, and only Michigan still left standing.
Before the tournament hits the second weekend, we decided to look at all 16 teams remaining in the field and rank them by their odds of winning the whole thing. These are the strongest teams left in March Madness.
16. Oral Roberts (No. 15 seed)
For the second time in NCAA tournament history, a No. 15 seed has won two games to advance to the Sweet 16. The Golden Eagles stunned No. 2 seed Ohio State in a dramatic overtime victory in the opening round, then took out another power program in the round of 32 when they outlasted No. 7 seed Florida. This is one of the most startling tournament runs ever, but Arkansas shouldn’t take them lightly in the Sweet 16.
Oral Roberts guard Max Abmas led DI in scoring this season at 24.2 points per game entering the tournament, and he’s exceeded that total in both wins on this run. Abmas has a tremendous co-star in 6’8 junior forward Kevin Obanor, who followed up his 30-point, 11 rebound performance against the Buckeyes by dropping 28 points and 11 rebounds on the Gators. The Summit League champs deserve respect for this run, and it’s not over yet.
15. Creighton (No. 5 seed)
The Bluejays are going to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1974, and a matchup with undefeated Gonzaga is waiting for them next. Creighton was on the ropes against UC Santa Barbara in the opening round, but they came away with a one-point win in the final seconds. Their next game against No. 13 seed Ohio, who previously upset Virginia, was considerably easier, with the Bluejays coasting to a 72-58 victory.
Junior point guard Marcus Zegarowski is the engine for Creighton, and he has an experienced cast of shooters around him led by Mitch Ballock. The question with Creighton is always if they can get enough stops on defense. Good luck against a Gonzaga team that has one of the most efficient offenses in the history of the sport. Just getting this far after so many failed attempts at a run to the second weekend in recent years has to feel good for the Bluejays.
14. Syracuse (No. 11 seed)
Why does it always seem like Syracuse is at its best when they have a double-digit seed? The Orange were again selected as one of the last teams in the tournament, and are again marching to the second weekend. Jim Boeheim’s zone defense has stifled No. 6 seed San Diego State and No. 3 seed West Virginia so far. Boeheim’s son Buddy is becoming a breakout tournament star, combining for 55 points and 13 three-pointers across the two wins.
This is the third time in the last five tournaments that Syracuse has made the Sweet 16 with a double-digit seed. The Houston Cougars are the next team that will attempt to solve the zone, and seem to have enough shooting to have a chance. At this point, though, every game against the Orange feels like it’s going to be a major pain if nothing else.
13. UCLA (No. 11 seed)
The Bruins barely snuck into the tournament after losing their last four games before Selection Sunday, but suddenly look dangerous after three straight wins in the tournament. UCLA started its run with a comeback victory over Michigan State in the First Four, then dispatched No. 6 seed BYU, and knocked out No. 14 seed Abilene Christian (who shocked Texas in the opening round) to reach the Sweet 16.
UCLA is powered by a pair of dynamic 6’6 shot-makers on the wing in Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang and sophomore Jamie Jaquez. Big man Cody Riley and wing Jules Bernard have also been solid contributors during this run. UCLA plays a slow pace and makes its threes even if they don’t take many. There’s no doubt this team is peaking at the right time.
12. Villanova (No. 5 seed)
Reports of the Wildcats’ demise after a season-ending injury to starting point guard Collin Gillespie were greatly exaggerated. No. 12 seed Winthrop was a popular pick to upset the Wildcats in round one (guilty), but Nova won by double-digits. Jay Wright’s team then pounded Cinderella North Texas in the round of 32 to set up a Sweet 16 matchup with Baylor that could be the best game of the round.
Villanova is full of skilled size with Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Jermaine Samuels leading the way up front. Nova has the lowest turnover percentage in the country, takes a ton of threes, and plays a slow pace that should benefit them against a powerhouse like Baylor. Any matchup against the Bears is an extraordinary test, but the Wildcats have the talent to compete.
11. Arkansas (No. 3 seed)
The Hogs took care of business in the opening round despite Colgate being a popular upset pick entering the tournament. Things got much more difficult in the round of 32 against Chris Beard and Texas Tech, but Arkansas held on for a thrilling 68-66 victory to push the program into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1996.
Arkansas has a future NBA lottery pick in Moses Moody, a long 6’6 wing with deep shooting range and the ability to get his own bucket in a pinch. Indiana transfer Justin Smith is another athletic wing who had a tremendous game vs. Texas Tech. Arkansas’ defense will give them a chance to compete with any team, but not much comes easy offensively in the halfcourt. A potential Elite Eight game with Baylor would be a serious challenge, but they shouldn’t think a win against Oral Roberts will come easy given how well the Golden Eagles have played thus far.
10. Oregon State (No. 12 seed)
Oregon State needed to go on a Cinderella run in the Pac-12 tournament just to earn their bid to the big dance, but ever since they’ve been one of the hottest teams in the country. The Beavers blew out a Tennessee team with multiple lottery picks from the opening tip in their first round game, then knocked out future No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Cade Cunningham and Oklahoma State in a round of 32 thriller.
Oregon State’s shooters have been on fire since the conference tournament, and they also have the size up front to compete with anyone. Senior guard Ethan Thompson (26 points vs. Oklahoma State) is playing like a star right now. Loyola-Chicago will be a tough matchup, but discount the Beavers at your own peril.
9. Oregon (No. 7 seed)
The Ducks were on the receiving end of the type of luck no team wants when they were given a free pass to the round of 32 after their first round opponent VCU failed Covid protocol. Oregon proved how good it could be against Iowa two days later, crushing the No. 2 seed Hawkeyes thanks to dynamic performances from lead guards Chris Duarte and Will Richardson.
Oregon doesn’t have much size or much depth, but the tight rotation was enough to knock out presumptive national player of the year Luka Garza. It’s a team that can really shoot (38 percent from deep, a top-20 mark in America) and plays at a controlled pace. The Ducks have been on fire since Richardson returned to the lineup in early Feb. The win over Iowa didn’t feel like a fluke. The next game against USC feels like a toss up.
8. Houston (No. 2 seed)
The Cougars were on the ropes against No. 10 seed Rutgers in the round of 32, but out-scored the Scarlett Knights 23-10 over the final 10 minutes to steal the victory and punch their ticket to the Sweet 16. It wasn’t a pretty performance from Kelvin Sampson’s crew, but their body of work as a whole suggests this team has a very real shot at making the Final Four.
Houston takes threes on 42 percent of their possessions, and has the shooters to make them. The three-guard lineup of Quentin Grimes, Marcus Sasser, and DeJon Jarreau can all handle, pass, and shoot at this level. Sampson has a team that currently boasts the No. 7 overall offense and No. 12 overall defense in DI. Facing Syracuse’s zone won’t be easy, but Houston deserves to be the favorite entering the game.
7. USC (No. 6 seed)
The Trojans blew out No. 11 seed Drake in their opener, and then looked even more impressive in a blow out win over Bill Self and No. 3 seed Kansas in the round of 32 to punch their first ticket to the Sweet 16 since 2007. USC plays slow and doesn’t take many threes, but the defense is becoming one of the best in the field thanks in large part to super freshman Evan Mobley.
Mobley is projected as the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft as a long shot blocker who also has impressive vision and passing ability on offense. His older brother Isaiah Mobley has been on-fire offensively during this tournament run too, and Drew Peterson also provides some much needed shooting. The Trojans now face conference rival Oregon in the Sweet 16.
6. Florida State (No. 4)
The ‘Noles are headed to the Sweet 16 for the third straight time in the NCAA tournament. Is this the year head coach Leonard Hamilton finally makes his first trip to the Final Four? It won’t be easy with a matchup with No. 1 seed Michigan looming in the Sweet 16, but it feels like Florida State has the right combination of size and shooting to compete with anyone left standing in the field.
It seems like there’s a new star for FSU every game, and in their round of 32 win over Colorado, that star was Anthony Polite. The junior wing scored a career-high 22 points as the only starter to finish in double-figures. Balsa Koprivica and Raiquan Gray are an intimidating front line, and guard M.J. Walker can get hot as a perimeter scorer. Michigan better be ready.
5. Alabama (No. 2 seed)
The Tide have used an elite defense and a modern approach to offense to reach the second weekend of the tournament for the first time since 2004. Alabama survived a tough test vs. Rick Pitino’s Iona team in the opening round, and then blew out Maryland in the round of 32. Nate Oats has a case as the best head coach left in the tournament, and he has his team in position to make a run at their first Final Four ever.
Jaden Shackelford and John Petty are both impressive shot-makers on the perimeter leading the offense. Senior Herb Jones was named SEC Player of the Year for his versatile defense and opportunistic scoring ability. There’s also a deep bench that includes sharpshooting freshman Josh Primo and former five-star recruit Jahvon Quinerly. Only Loyola-Chicago is more efficient defensively. Bama might forever be a football school, but they have a hell of a basketball program this year, too.
4. Loyola-Chicago (No. 8 seed)
The Ramblers deserve to be considered one of the favorites to win the whole damn thing at this point. After knocking off Georgia Tech (without star Moses Wright, who failed Covid protocol) in the 8-9 matchup, Loyola-Chicago faced No. 1 seed and in-state rival Illinois. The Illini were a popular pick to win the national championship at the start of the tournament, but Loyola left no doubt they were the superior team in a 71-58 victory.
Loyola went to the Final Four in 2018, and still has two key players (Cameron Krutwig and Lucas Williamson) from that roster leading them this year. The Ramblers currently rank No. 1 in defensive efficiency in the entire country. The matchup with No. 12 seed Oregon State in the Sweet 16 should be a tough test with how well the Beavers are playing lately, but wins like the one Loyola had against Illinois is enough to make a person think this team is destined for another Final Four.
3. Michigan (No. 1 seed)
Michigan lost senior Isaiah Livers to a foot injury just before the tournament, but the Wolverines proved they’re still pretty damn good even without their star forward. After breezing past No. 16 seed Texas Southern in the opener, the Wolverines were tested against LSU but came away with an 86-78 win to punch their ticket to the Sweet 16 and set up a must-see matchup with Florida State.
Chaundee Brown, a former transfer from Wake Forest, admirably filled the void left by Livers against the Tigers, going off for 21 points on 6-of-9 shooting in the win. Michigan still has plenty of size up front with Hunter Dickinson and Franz Wagner, and its guards Eli Brooks and Mike Smith have each had one great game in the tournament so far. Michigan still has a tough road ahead to get to the Final Four, but the win over LSU proved it can win big games even without one of its best players.
2. Baylor (No. 1 seed)
Baylor has been viewed as the second best team in college basketball all season, and it still feels that way heading into the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. The Bears erased No. 16 Hartford in the first round without much problem, and then handily defeated the Wisconsin Badgers, 76-63, to advance to the Sweet 16.
The Bears have two elite guards in Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell, and another good one in MaCio Teague. They have the most accurate three-point shooting team in the country — making 41.5 percent of their attempts from deep on the year. Adam Flagler, Matthew Mayer, Mark Vital, and their center combo of Flo Thamba and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua provide great depth. Baylor was supposed to play Gonzaga in the regular season before the game was canceled because of failed Covid protocol. It sure feels like we’re going to get that game for real in the national championship.
1. Gonzaga (No. 1 seed)
28-0. Four wins away from the first perfect season in college basketball since Indiana in 1976. What more do we need to say?
The Zags overwhelmed Norfolk State and Oklahoma in their first two tournament by showing off their wealth of offensive weapons. Jalen Suggs is playing like a future top-three NBA draft pick, Corey Kispert remains as dangerous as any shooter left in the tournament, and Drew Timme might be the most underrated center in the country. Gonzaga has been blowing out teams from the very start of the season, and they haven’t showed any signs of slowing down yet. The Bulldogs are the favorites until someone takes them out.