The first week of the NCAA Tournament has come and gone, and we have cut down the field to the Sweet 16. Northern Iowa, Stephen F. Austin and Middle Tennessee tried their best to play the role of Cinderella, but the clock has struck midnight on the mid-majors, as the Sweet 16 has turned into a battle of the college basketball big boys — including a record six ACC teams.
The second week of the Big Dance has become a who’s who in college hoops, highlighted by all four No. 1 seeds, historic programs and Hall of Fame coaches. Although the long shots and dark horses weren’t sent packing, doesn't mean that the madness has to stop. In fact, this Sweet 16 has a chance to be one of the best in recent memory with teams all being within arm’s reach of one another.
So how the remaining teams stack up? Let’s rank them, from No. 1 all the way through to No. 16.
1. Kansas Jayhawks (32-4)
The Jayhawks have to be the popular pick to cut down the nets in Houston after Michigan State’s early and unexpected exit at the hands of Middle Tennessee. Kansas blew out feel-good No. 16 Austin Peay in the first round, and handled the red-hot No. 9 Connecticut Huskies on Saturday. This isn’t the most talented group Bill Self has had in his Lawrence tenure, but it is his most cohesive and arguably his toughest team. Kanas presents a series of conundrums for opposing coaches. Lead by Wayne Selden Jr. and Perry Ellis, the Jayhawks have depth that other teams could only dream about. Focus on shutting down Selden? Then good luck stopping Frank Mason III or Devonte Graham at the same time. Per 40 minutes, the Jayhawks have 11 players that average a minimum of 12 points, and rank in the top 10 in offensive and defensive adjusted efficiency.
2. North Carolina Tar Heels (30-6)
If Kansas is No.1, then the Tar Heels are 1B. Roy Williams’ squad has saved its best and most versatile brand of basketball for March. The Tar Heels disposed of No. 16 Florida Golf Coast in the opening round and then went small against No. 9 Providence to beat the Friars 85-66 on Saturday night. Carolina has so many ways to beat you, but it starts with the interior presence of senior Brice Johnson (16.6 ppg, 10.6 rpg) and works its way outside with guards Joel Berry II and Marcus Paige. Carolina plays Indiana on Friday night in a matchup between two of the sport’s most historic programs, with a total of 10 combined national titles. Roy’s boys match up very well with the Hoosiers, and everyone else left in the tourney.
3. Villanova Wildcats (31-5)
Forget about all the early and disappointing Villanova Tournament exits in past years. This Wildcat team is the same as any Jay Wright-coached squad over the past decade: guard-oriented, efficient in transition, and hard-nosed defensively. So what is the difference between those disappointing ‘Nova teams of yesteryear and this season’s? In short — tenacity. These Wildcats are superb on the defensive end, ranking seventh in defensive efficiency, and forcing more than 20 turnovers per game. Villanova also has arguably the most well-balanced and aggressive offensive attack in college basketball, with six players qualifying as “significant contributors” on KenPom.com, keeping opposing defenses guessing.
4. Virginia Cavaliers (28-7)
Virginia opened up the first round by discarding No. 16 Hampton by 36, and holding the Pirates to just 45 points. For an encore performance, the Cavaliers shot a blistering 73 percent from the floor and poured in 54 points in the second half against No. 9 Butler. Tony Bennett’s team is the most well-oiled and methodical team in college basketball. The Cavaliers are led national player of the year candidate and KenPom golden boy Malcolm Brogdon — you know about him. The player who somehow gets lost in the shuffle is senior forward Anthony Gill, another KenPom top 10 player. Brogdon and Gill aside, the Cavaliers are an extremely productive offensive team, ranking sixth in offensive efficiency, and rank within the top 20 nationally in turnover percentage, effective field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and free-throw percentage. Oh yeah, they also have the best defense left in the Tournament. Good luck, everyone else.
5. Indiana Hoosiers (27-7)
The Hoosiers proved that their No. 5 seed was a misrepresentation after dismantling Chattanooga in the first round and then topping archrival Kentucky on Saturday to advance to their third Sweet 16 in five seasons. The Yogi Ferrell-led Hoosiers are the most visually appealing team remaining in the dance. Indiana likes to get out and run, and all five guys on the floor can move, especially wing-post hybrids Troy Williams and freshman OG Anunoby. Williams has Jekyll and Hyde moments, but he has at least one instance per game that simply makes you question what if you just witnessed was reality – “Did he really just hit that shot!?” The best part about this Hoosiers squad is their chemistry. Every player knows and executes their specific roles perfectly.
6. Oklahoma Sooners (27-7)
Senior guard Buddy Hield is the best thing going in college basketball and must-see TV. He backed up a 27-point performance in the opening round against CSU Bakersfield with his closing argument for national player of the year honors — a 29-point, second-half explosion against VCU on Saturday night. Hield finished with 36 points, six three-pointers, and seven rebounds in OU’s hard-fought 85-81 win over the Rams. The Sooners face a feisty Texas A&M team in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night. While Hield drives the offense, the Sooners are great on defense, giving them a well-rounded attack and a great shot at the Final Four.
7. Oregon Ducks (30-6)
The Ducks are still fighting for national respect — even after earning a No. 1 seed, Oregon still isn’t the favorite to make it to the Final Four from the West region. Oregon whooped No. 16 Holy Cross by 39, and survived against St. Joseph’s on Sunday night, 69-64, to advance to the Sweet 16. Dana Altman’s team is so effective on offense thanks to its length and athleticism, starting with the versatile, 6-foot-7 Dillon Brooks. But the Ducks may only go as far as their freshman guard Tyler Dorsey can take them — especially in a Sweet 16 matchup against Duke’s backcourt.
8. Miami Hurricanes (27-7)
The Hurricanes are the streakiest team left in the Tournament. They will string together minutes of brilliant play followed by what seems like endless possessions of cluelessness. The ceiling for Miami is the Final Four; it’s just a matter of Jim Larranaga’s team pulling it all together for 40 minutes on the sport’s biggest stage. Miami looked okay against an under-whelming Buffalo team, and then followed that up with a hard-fought victory over No. 11 Wichita State. Putting together that complete game against a premium Villanova squad in the Sweet 16 will be the difference between Miami reaching its potential or going home to South Florida by week’s end.
9. Iowa State (23-11)
Iowa State has made the most of a good situation thus far. After Purdue’s shocking loss in the opening round, the Cyclones’ first two Tournament opponents were double-digit seeds – No. 13 Iona and No. 12 Arkansas-Little Rock. But don’t be fooled by the high seeds, both the Gaels and Trojans were solid teams, and the Cyclones handled both of them by an average margin of 15 points. Iowa State’s outstanding offense is well known, but defense has been the driving force so far this Tournament. A Sweet 16 matchup with Virginia is a college hoops fan’s dream. Georges Niang vs. Malcolm Brogdon is going to be worth tuning in to.
10. Maryland Terrapins (27-8)
Maryland slightly underperformed to lofty expectations throughout the regular season. The Terrapins survived the dreaded 12-5 upset in the first round against South Dakota State and lived to tell the tale against a tough No. 13 Hawaii team. The Terps will have more NBA talent (Diamond Stone, Melo Trimble) on Thursday night when they take on No. 1 Kansas — it’s just a matter of bringing that collective talent together and outplaying an all-around better team. One thing is for sure, if the Terps shoot as poorly as they did against Hawaii (1-for-18 from 3-point range), they can forget about upsetting the Jayhawks.
11. Duke Blue Devils (25-10)
The Blue Devils are similar to their former ACC counterpart, Maryland, in the fact that they’ve underachieved with a roster highlighted by NBA potential in Brandon Ingram and Grayson Allen. Just when you thought that Duke was hitting its stride — leading Yale by 27 points on Saturday — the Blue Devils reminded you just how frustrating of a season it’s been when they allowed the Bulldogs to cut that near 30-point deficit to three with less than a minute remaining.
Duke held on, 71-64, but Coach K’s team looked spent after the final buzzer sounded against Yale. Duke now plays No. 1 Oregon late Thursday night. The Ducks are looking for national respect, and what better way than beating March royalty on their way to a Final Four? Dukies beware.
12. Texas A&M Aggies (28-8)
Call it divine basketball intervention. Call it a hardwood miracle. Or just call it March Madness. But whatever it was, on Sunday the Aggies found a way to erase a 12-point deficit with 40 seconds left in regulation against No. 11 Northern Iowa, to force OT. The Aggies were able to finally knock off the Panthers, 92-88, in double overtime to reserve a spot in the Sweet 16, the only SEC team to do so. Defense has been the Aggies’ greatest strength all season, as Danuel House has been carrying the offense. Texas A&M is going to need both against Buddy Hield and No. 2 Oklahoma on Thursday night.
13. Gonzaga Bulldogs (28-7)
The Zags had to win the WCC Tournament in order to make their 18th consecutive NCAA Tournament. And so far, Mark Few’s team hasn’t disappointed, as the Bulldogs are getting it done on both ends of the floor. Domantas Sabonis is increasing his NBA Draft stock with his performances against No. 6 Seton Hall and No. 3 Utah, averaging 20 points and 13 rebounds in the first two rounds. Defensively, Gonzaga has been outstanding, keeping both the Pirates and Utes to fewer than 60 points last weekend.
14. Syracuse Orange (21-13)
The Orange are proving they belonged in the Tournament all along. After a 19-point win over No. 6 Dayton, and second half throttling of No. 15 Middle Tennessee, Jim Boeheim’s squad is now primed for an Elite Eight appearance if they can top No. 11 Gonzaga on Friday night. If ‘Cuse wants to move on, slowing down Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer on the perimeter and potential lottery pick Domantas Sabonis in the paint will be critical. The Orange have been strong defensively during the Tournament, something that will have to continue if wish to keep dancing.
15. Wisconsin Badgers (22-12)
The Badgers’ season has been a wild ride. Head coach Bo Ryan abruptly retired on Dec. 15 after a win over Texas A&M Corpus-Christi. The Badgers responded by losing four of their first six games under interim coach Greg Gard. After the brief skid, Wisconsin went on to win 10 of its next 11 Big Ten games. After an ugly 47-43 win over Pitt that set the game of basketball back four generations in the first round, the Badgers and Xavier Musketeers gave us a beautiful opening week parting gift on Sunday night. Bronson Koenig’s game-tying three-pointer, and then buzzer-beating, game-winning step-back three have given the Badgers a seemingly magic touch they can work with against No. 6 Notre Dame on Friday night.
16. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (23-11)
It’s not necessarily a knock that the Irish are the lowest-ranked team in this list, they’re just the least impressive of the bunch at the moment. It took a mediocre-at-best No. 11 Michigan team pushing the Irish around in the first half of the opening round for Notre Dame to realize it was a win-or-go-home sort of thing. The Irish stayed alive with a last-second tip-in against No. 14 Stephen F. Austin to keep dancing to the Sweet 16. Notre Dame is one the most efficient teams in the nation on offense, a testament to head coach Mike Brey, but the Irish can really struggle on defense, ranking 187th in the nation in defensive efficiency.