Duke hopes to end in Minneapolis how they started... as the No. 1 team
Usually at this time of year, we’re all discussing whether Cinderella can continue their magical run through the NCAA Tournament. This year however?
Chalk. Lots of it.
While the field has been narrowed down from 68, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that those plucky little underdogs are nowhere to be found. All those high seeds — and there are plenty of them right now — mean this year’s edition of the Tournament could have one of its best-ever second weekends. From the Hall of Fame coaches to the future NBA lottery picks, there’s plenty of high-level basketball to be played over the coming days and the 2019 national champion will surely be the cream of the crop as a result.
How do all those remaining college basketball teams stack up against each other though? After taking in the first two rounds, here’s a re-seeding of those teams still left dancing in the Sweet 16:
1. North Carolina
The top seed in the Midwest is playing more like the top seed in the entire Tournament — and have been for over a month now. Their tempo can really be difficult to match and Roy Williams has been dialing up the right moves in March for a long time now, which is as good of an asset as it is having veterans like Luke Maye to go out and execute. Having Nassir Little break out during the first weekend only enhances the fact that the Tar Heels are playing like the team to beat.
Yes, the Blue Devils were lucky to survive and advance out of that second-round game against UCF. Here’s the thing though, just about every title-winning team has to say that they are both lucky and good at some point in this kind of tourney. We know Duke certainly is good with Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish, R.J. Barrett, Tre Jones et al. and now we know they’re a bit lucky too. It’s a tough road but Coach K and company have to still like their odds of making it to Minneapolis.
Five straight Sweet 16s is quite the accomplishment for Mark Few and this is one of his most well-rounded group of players yet. Brandon Clarke’s monster game against an athletic Baylor squad in the second round should help serve notice that while Rui Hachimura gets most of the attention, the Bulldogs can beat you a dozen different ways.
You would have to forgive the Cavaliers for being a bit nervous during the first weekend given what happened last year to them in the first round. At the same time, you also have to give them credit for eventually finding their sea legs and looking a lot like the team who earned the No. 1 seed in the South for a terrific regular season. This is Tony Bennett’s best offensive-minded group yet and when you add that to their terrific defense, the time is certainly now for the elusive Final Four trip.
5. Michigan State
Another squad that seemed to be looking ahead a bit in the first round, the Spartans really showed what they are capable of in trouncing their conference foe Minnesota to make it to the Sweet 16. Tom Izzo’s sideline demeanor has been the focus of most talking heads but not enough has been paid to how well this group plays as a team. Their biggest obstacle is probably the fact that their Final Four road likely goes through Duke but this is an excellent all-around squad.
The Wolverines probably look at the West region with a bit of deja vu given the similarities to last year but they know that a Final Four bid is there for the taking. They had one of the most effortless first weekends of anybody on this list and their defense is absolutely ferocious. John Beilein might be the best coach in the game at the moment and he’s got the squad to keep going well past the Sweet 16.
7. Texas Tech
The Red Raiders top-notch defense was on full display in that impressive clamp-down of high-flying Buffalo in the second round. They’ve got the horses on the other end though too, as Jarrett Culver keeps shooting up NBA draft boards with the way he’s playing on both ends of the court. Chris Beard has done a phenomenal job this season and could be saving the best for last.
In terms of talent, the Volunteers should be much higher on this list. But after getting pushed by Colgate and then letting Iowa storm back to force an improbable overtime, there are real concerns about the group from Knoxville and beyond. Admiral Schofield has the talent to be the best player in the Tournament but the way he pulled himself out of OT against the Hawkeyes combined with Rick Barnes as head coach leave Tennessee as quite the enigma at the moment.
Let’s face it, PJ Washington’s health holds back the Wildcats from really being the title threat that they looked like a few weeks ago. Credit to John Calipari though, he’s got his youngsters playing hard on both ends and really making sure everybody is comfortable in their role. They survived Wofford thanks to a (statistically impossible) off night from Fletcher Magee and will have to be better in all areas if they want to make it to the Twin Cities.
Credit to Matt Painter’s crew, who just might be the hottest team on this list save maybe the Ducks. The offense is certainly clicking at a high level and there are threats to worry about even if Carsen Edwards isn’t the one going off like he’s in NBA Jam. Not just beating the defending champs but running them off the floor served notice that the Boilermakers need to be taken extra seriously by all the teams that stand in their way.
11. Florida State
It sounds as though Phil Cofer is not going to return to the court for the Seminoles, which is a tough blow for the team in terms of his senior leadership and because of the tragic loss of his father. Raiquan Gray has played solidly in his absence and Terance Mann is stepping up his game for this uber-athletic squad but there’s a big jump in level of play with the long trip West in the Sweet 16.
It’s incredible to believe that the Cougars are back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since Phi Slama Jama caught the attention of fans far and wide. While this group does seem a bit like a fish out of water amongst blue bloods and other power conference opponents, make no mistake — they can play. Corey Davis is really an underrated player and they’ve gotten all the right moves out of head coach Kelvin Sampson.
The Tigers haven’t been on a run like this since Charles Barkley was in uniform on the Plains and not in the studio cheering the team on. The effort against Kansas was one of the most all-around impressive ones in this Tournament and Bruce Pearl has his guys playing hard every time out on the court.
The Tigers survived a thriller against Maryland to make it to the Sweet 16 and there’s no question they have the talent to make it to the Elite Eight and beyond. That said, they’re still a team without their head coach and without Will Wade, there certainly seems like there is a ceiling with this group. That’s not to say they can’t exceed expectations, just that they’re tempered a bit going forward.
There’s something about the Ducks under Dana Altman when the calendar turns to March. He’s getting the absolute most out of his group, which is as hot as they come the last few games. Payton Pritchard is hitting big shot after big shot and nobody really wants to challenge Kenny Wooten. Yes, it’s a tall task being the only double-digit seed remaining but there’s certainly something brewing the last couple of weeks.
16. Virginia Tech
Hats off to Buzz Williams, who has the noted football school dancing in the Sweet 16 for the first time. The Hokies are a balanced group and have the benefit of knowing that they have beaten their upcoming opponent just a few weeks ago. They get the benefit of playing pretty close to home and that could be the difference even as they make the trip to Washington, D.C. as a noted underdog.
— 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 courtesy of @DukeMBB)