After a slip up in the Big 12 Tournament, Kansas is back to playing like a legitimate national title contender
Hard as it is to believe, but 52 games are already in the books in the 2017 NCAA Tournament and it won’t be long before we whittle 16 teams down to four. While there may be no true Cinderella-type team in this year’s Sweet 16, there are plenty of powerhouses, Hall of Fame head coaches and future NBA lottery picks that should make for one impressive slate of games in the four regionals.
How do the remaining basketball teams in the field stack up against each other? After surviving and advancing into the Sweet 16, here’s a bit of re-seeding to rank the title contenders:
The early favorite for Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA Tournament might just be freshman Josh Jackson. He’s been terrific for KU in its first two wins and it’s hard to find more consistent guard play from a team than this one. Some folks may hesitate given past jitters for Bill Self but it’s hard to understate battle-tested Kansas’ chances right now.
Sean Miller may be in pole position to claim being the best active head coach to not reach the Final Four but he’s got an Arizona team that has what it takes to make it all the way... up the road to Phoenix. Guard Allonzo Trier can get a shot just about everywhere on the floor and big man Lauri Markkanen is playing himself into the top five of this year’s NBA Draft. The Wildcats have always been good defensively and might finally have the offense to match this year with a deep team primed to keep things rolling.
3. North Carolina
Roy Williams’ team needed to pull one out against Arkansas in order to reach the Sweet 16 but the Tar Heels remain one of the favorites to win it all as they head to Memphis. Such a close call may have helped jolt some life into the squad, which knows just how hard it is to get to the Final Four after last year’s run. Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks are a heck of a combo on the floor and one figures that an extra few days of rest will help Joel Berry II get his shooting touch back after rolling his ankle late in the first round win against Texas Southern.
4. West Virginia
The Mountaineers may have struggled a tad in their opening round game but they showed why they’re a threat to win it all by clamping down on Notre Dame to advance to the second weekend of the Tournament. Jevon Carter paced a really efficient effort on the offensive end and when West Virginia is knocking down shots like it did in Buffalo, this team will be a tough out for everybody in its path. We all know about how tough Bob Huggins’ squad plays defense but the offensive stride the Mountaineers find themselves in means a Final Four is clearly in reach.
If you had to pick a team of destiny this March, it’s hard to go with anybody other than the Wolverines. After surviving a plane clash prior to the Big Ten Tournament, this team hasn’t lost at all and has been playing to its full potential ever since. They moved past two of the toughest outs of any Sweet 16 team last week and have a deep roster of players who can go off on any one night from Moritz Wagner down low to Derrick Walton Jr. on the perimeter.
There are a few stretches each game where the Bruins are passing and scoring like they’re the Golden State Warriors at full strength. Lonzo Ball is running the team’s high-powered offense to perfection and multiple scoring options like Bryce Alford and T.J. Leaf will hurt you if you try to double one player. Defense and rebounding remain a concern but if the switch is flipped on, there aren’t many teams that can beat UCLA.
On Wisconsin! It seems like the Badgers have gotten used to knocking off the tourney’s No. 1 overall seed in recent years and pulled off the upset of 2017’s edition by beating the defending champions, Villanova. This is a veteran group who knows how to win in this setting, featuring the terrific shooting duo of Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig. Everybody questioned Wisconsin being seeded so low and now everybody knows why.
Many folks questioned whether the Bulldogs would be battle tested after ripping through a relatively soft schedule and earning the No. 1 seed in the West. The team showed flashes of a squad that could finally reach that ever-elusive Final Four during the first two rounds but never put together a complete 40 minutes during their time in Salt Lake City. The emergence of big man Zach Collins is a positive development but the backcourt needs to be more consistent or the Zags will face another early exit.
Scott Drew got his team off to an incredible start to the year before hitting a few road bumps during conference play. So far though, we’ve seen the early season version of the Bears. Johnathan Motley remains a beast down in the paint and they’ve got a great option off the bench in blossoming star Terry Maston. There may be no more physically imposing squad left in the running for the title and Baylor will make things tough for anybody.
Yes the Ducks’ title hopes took a hit with the loss of big man Chris Boucher but this is still a team capable of making it all the way. Dana Altman is an experienced head coach who gets the best out of his bunch and he’s been doing that the past few weeks. Dillon Brooks has been great to nobody’s surprise but the emergence of Mr. March, Tyler Dorsey, gives Oregon plenty of options.
This isn’t the most talented Kentucky team of the past few seasons nor have the Wildcats been playing their sharpest basketball during the opening two rounds. That said, there is still an amazing array of top-tier basketball players on the squad and the combination of De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk has the potential to take over any game. If UK is hot from the field, these ‘Cats can beat just about anybody but they’re susceptible given all the youth and inexperience.
Mike White manages to reach his first Sweet 16 with the Gators and has the team playing like it did earlier in the season after a rather lackluster March prior to the opening round. Forward Devin Robinson has really been playing well on the offensive end and is a terror on the defensive boards. The UF defense really clamped down on two teams to make it to New York and remain one of the more balanced teams in the bracket.
Pundits spent countless hours talking about the Big Ten seeds and low and behold the regular season conference title winners made a pair of statements on the opening weekend of the Tournament. While the Boilermakers did collapse a bit in that win over Iowa State, they still gutted it out behind Caleb Swanigan’s incredible play.
A familiar face during March Madness is back in the Sweet 16. This run by the Bulldogs isn’t quite as out of nowhere as some of the other ones however, as the team proved it was capable of beating heavyweights coming into the tourney. The teams the Bulldogs have drawn along the way has helped them get to this point but the balance in scoring and good defense has Butler looking dangerous once again.
15. South Carolina
It took 44 years for South Carolina to end their NCAA Tournament drought with a victory and just 48 hours for another monstrous win for Frank Martin’s team. Let’s face it, there’s getting hot and getting hot at the right time, which is exactly what the Gamecocks did in the first two rounds after slumping massively coming into the tourney. As good as they’ve been, we’ll see if things change as they travel away from South Carolina to play the next few games.
Hats off to Chris Mack, who has done a terrific job in reaching the Sweet 16 for a fourth time after a tumultuous past six weeks. He’s re-tooled the lineup after the loss of Edmond Sumner and the team is finally starting to hit its stride after a bit of running in place. The Musketeers thrashed a much bigger Florida State team to reach the second weekend and are still a threat to keep going even if they don’t have quite as much talent as the rest of the bracket.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Top photo by Jeff and Laura Jacobsen/Kansas Athletics, courtesy of www.kuathletics.com)