Grayson Allen and the Duke Blue Devils are hoping to end the season where they started... at No. 1
It’s not just a case of recency bias, that was one of the wildest (and fun) opening weekends to the NCAA Tournament in years. History was made with the first-ever 16-seed upsetting a No. 1, we had buzzer-beaters galore and Sister Jean became a household name from coast-to-coast.
The field has been narrowed however and it’s time to whittle down the national title contenders even further from 16 to four this week. Between Hall of Fame head coaches and some truly unique Cinderella stories, the upcoming slate at the regionals is going to be a thrilling continuation of the chaos we’ve already experienced.
How do the remaining college basketball teams left in the field stack up against each other though? After making it to the Sweet 16, here’s a bit of a re-seeding among those still dancing.
The Blue Devils were the consensus No. 1 team in the country at the beginning of the season and are playing like the favorite to be the consensus No. 1 at the end. The offense is so difficult to defend with all the young freshmen playing well on the big stage and the veteran leadership Grayson Allen provides should not be overlooked. Coach K has the most talented team left in the bracket and should be the odds-on favorite to bring another title back to Durham.
People still keep overlooking the Wildcats despite losing only four games all year and hoisting the trophy not that long ago. Villanova is actually KenPom’s top-ranked team and statistically have the best offense in the Sweet 16 behind guys like Donte DiVincenzo and Mikal Bridges. Even beyond the numbers, having a guard nicknamed “The Big Ragu” leading the way has to add to the team’s chops too.
This may not be John Calipari’s most talented team nor come close to his best but the path to at least having a shot at the title is there for the taking by Big Blue. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is off to a great start in the tournament and Hamidou Diallo has been turning much more than NBA scouts’ heads. After that rough stretch in early February, Kentucky has taken off and rounded into form as the dangerous squad we all thought they would be.
4. West Virginia
Press Virginia is always a difficult team to play in March because of their style and judging by the first week’s results, this iteration of the Mountaineers is one of the toughest groups yet. The difference from prior years could be a more balanced offense that sees scoring come from all over and is led by their impressive (and veteran-laden) backcourt. Outside of Duke, this might be the team the rest of the Sweet 16 would least like to play going forward.
The only team that has really been able to figure out Kansas in recent months has been Oklahoma State and the Cowboys are not in the field. This is a really unique group for Bill Self and chances are we’ll see star Devonte’ Graham play more like he has been the past few weeks and less like he did against Seton Hall. Udoka Azubuike remains an x-factor but if a couple of days off get him closer to 100 percent then the Jayhawks will once again be a threat to reach the Final Four — and possibly more.
Last year’s national runner-up is content on making yet another run to the Final Four and the unfinished business aspect of this team is too hard to ignore. This is not surprisingly a balanced group on both ends of the floor and the Bulldogs have lost just once since the calendar ticked over to 2018. Five players are in double figures offensively and you know Mark Few will be able to fix some of the issues we saw in the opening weekend.
The hottest team in the country is undoubtedly the Wolverines. Though they needed a miracle play to get past Houston, there’s a fight and resolve with this group that is nearly unmatched and Michigan can just be smothering defensively. John Beilein is a master with time to prepare and Mo Wagner gives you a bit of everything in the front court for a team that keeps getting stronger.
8. Texas A&M
People forget just how good the Aggies were at the beginning of the year and they’ve dealt with just about everything on their trip through SEC play the past few months. Now it looks like the team is hitting its stride and they may have had the second-most impressive win of the first weekend with their dismantling of the defending champs. Robert Williams is certainly looking like the lottery pick he’s projected as and the rest of the team is full of other matchup problems for opponents.
9. Texas Tech
The resurgence of Red Raiders hoops under Chris Beard has been one of the biggest storylines of the season. The team isn’t done yet though and is clamping down on the defensive end like few can given how well Texas Tech guards the perimeter. As that game against Florida proved, late-game execution needs a little bit more work but don’t discount how much the Red Raiders want to make an elusive Final Four in their own state.
While the Wolf Pack might find themselves a bit further down on this list than some supporters would like, make no mistake: this is a dangerous team that can still keep its run going. The offense led by the Martin twins is going to keep them in the game no matter the score (just ask Cincinnati) but it’s Eric Musselman’s ability to make in-game adjustments that really makes this a team that could sneak into the Final Four. The path is certainly there.
All eyes in the state of Indiana will be on whether center Isaac Haas can make it back for the Sweet 16 but the team was able to cope with his absence by sneaking out a win over Butler. They drew a tough matchup in Boston and the late-game execution left something to be desired by the Boilermakers. Still, this team has length for days and has plenty of experience so discount one of the Big Ten’s best at your bracket’s peril.
The Tigers went out West and put a straight-up beatdown on Auburn to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in two decades. Senior guard Gabe DeVoe has been playing well and was money from downtown in San Diego, while the team defense looks prepared for whoever is on the other end. This might not be the ACC’s best hope to reach the Final Four but the Tigers’ familiarity with the rest of their regional could help if they get past Kansas.
13. Florida State
Leonard Hamilton always seems to get his Seminoles to rise up when little is expected of them and that is certainly the case after a wild second-half comeback helped them knock off No. 1 Xavier. Making this kind of run despite Terance Mann dealing with a groin injury has been impressive and the rest of the team has certainly stepped up on the offensive end to make things work. We’ll see what a few days’ worth of rest will do for the team but the ‘Noles’ athleticism is going to give Gonzaga and the rest of the West region some trouble.
14. Loyola (Chicago)
Sister Jean! One of the best stories of the NCAA Tournament has made a believer out of many but even outside all the good feelings that everybody has for the Ramblers, this is a quality team that can make you pay (especially on last-second shots). Guards Clayton Custer and Donte Ingram can be a handful to figure out and the team itself loves to slow down the tempo to get the most out of every possession.
Jim Boeheim’s team was one of the last in the field but go figure the Orange are still standing in a way that only makes sense in Western New York. Their infamous zone is certainly a problem but, as we saw against Michigan State, scoring will be the key to the team making another improbable Final Four run. There’s virtually no bench scoring for Syracuse which means there’s a very thin margin for error if the Orange want to do damage on the second week of the tourney.
16. Kansas State
Not only did this team end the Cinderella story of UMBC, the Wildcats did so in the most unwatchable way possible. While they are a solid team that tick off a lot of boxes, it would be a surprise if leading scorer Dean Wade can come back in the Sweet 16 — much less be the caliber of player he was late in the year. Barry Brown has capably handled the load so far but containing a much more talented Kentucky team will be a big ask.
— 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.