After a pandemic-enforced year off, the return of March Madness sure has been a welcome one in the hearts and minds of sports fans across the country this past week. While the Indianapolis-centric nature of this year's NCAA Tournament has led to a few quirks off the court, what has returned to normal is the wild buzzer-beaters, thrilling performances plus the host of Cinderella runs finding their way into the national conscious and busting brackets in the process.
So yes, the Madness has returned and it's been just as good as ever. Now though, it's that time where that national championship chase gets one step closer to reality for the teams involved. Whether you're undefeated or just hoping for a few extra conference units, the second weekend is upon us and an elusive trip to the Final Four is there for the taking.
How do all those remaining college basketball teams stack up against each other? After taking in the first two rounds, here's a re-seeding of those teams still left dancing in the Sweet 16:
The undefeated Bulldogs just keep rolling and barely seem to be breaking a sweat while doing so. They thumped Norfolk State in the opener and breezed past Oklahoma by 16 despite not playing overly well (aside from Drew Timme's career-high 30 points). They've won 25 in a row by double digits and don't seem to be slowing down either, capable of putting together a run like the Golden State Warriors in their prime whenever they need to. On top of playing like the No. 1 overall seed, some of their biggest challengers are falling by the wayside as they look to become the first undefeated national champ since Indiana did so some 45 years ago.
Prior to a COVID-19 pause in early February, the Bears looked like Gonzaga's biggest challenger for the title. The team returned from the break a little wobbly and suffered a handful of losses that led to creeping doubts about whether this group was still in contention for that best team in the country moniker. Thanks to a bit of rest and a boost of energy from playing in the tourney, Baylor has returned to their early-season form. The Bears breezed past Hartford and looked like the real deal against a pesky Wisconsin team, finding an answer whenever they needed between outside shooting from guys like Matthew Mayer or the highlight-reel plays from Mark Vital and others. Their region has really opened up thanks to a few upsets and few would be surprised to see this group hang up a banner when all is said and done.
Only one school can claim a bowl game victory and a Sweet 16 appearance and that's what's becoming an unstoppable juggernaut out of Tuscaloosa. Like their football brethren, Bama is led by a normally uber-explosive offense paired with an efficient defense that forces turnovers and applies pressure all over. Guard John Petty Jr. flies up and down the court and has a pretty stellar set of wingmen in Jaden Shackelford and 6-foot-8 forward Herbert Jones. Maybe just as important, head coach Nate Oats has been tweaking and adjusting along the way with noticeable results from one game to the next. The Tide, needless to say, are rolling and it's not out of the picture that an elusive double-double happens in the two major college revenue sports.
4. Loyola Chicago
Is Sister Jean in for another magical run in the tourney? Things sure do seem to be trending that way after they knocked off a lot of folks' pick to make the title game in rival Illinois. Center Cameron Krutwig (and his 'stache) has been the star of the show and was especially masterful in the game to reach the Sweet 16 (19 points, 12 rebounds). He and guard Lucas Williamson (35 points in two games) were both on the team that made it to the Final Four in 2018 and just about every metric says this year's group is even better over the course of the season. They've got a favorable path, an excellent coach and plenty of talent to keep America's favorite nun and her Ramblers in the spotlight to the final weekend.
Why is USC this high? Well it's simple: the Trojans have the best player in the tournament on their roster by a wide margin in potential No. 1 pick Evan Mobley. Oh, and his brother Isaiah ain't no slouch either as demonstrated in an absolute demolishing of Kansas to advance to the Sweet 16. Head coach Andy Enfield knows what it's like to make a magical run in March but he's got a ton more talent to work with this year in cardinal and gold. USC's shooting has been lights out so far in Indy and if that keeps up, there are only a handful of teams that can put up a fight.
We've got a much more limited sample size with the Ducks after their first-round game was a no-contest but it feels like the regular-season Pac-12 champs have things figured out. They had an early stumble after a COVID pause in early February but since then have played like a top team. Their offense was firing on all cylinders in a dominant win over a strong Iowa squad (LJ Figueroa made 3-pointers) and they sport one of the game's most underrated head coaches in Dana Altman. The way Oregon moves the ball around will always make this team a difficult out and these Ducks seem like one of the few groups capable of derailing Gonzaga's perfection on the entire left side of the bracket.
Big Blue had one of the tougher paths to the second weekend among the No. 1 seeds plus the team is dealing with losing a key starter in Isaiah Livers. Yet the Wolverines have managed to somehow find themselves as the lone Big Ten representative still left dancing after dispatching LSU in a second-round thriller. Michigan's bench has had a big role lately, contributing 26 points against the Tigers and 17 the game prior. The Wolverines have a likely lottery pick in Franz Wagner, a big double-double machine in Hunter Dickenson, and a host of guards who can get hot. Juwan Howard has done a fantastic job getting the program to their fourth straight Sweet 16 but knows there's still work left to be done in Indianapolis.
The Razorbacks' offense (82.4 ppg) typically gets the fans' attention but the team's defense has really turned things up the past two rounds, holding both Colgate and Texas Tech below their season averages while forcing a boatload of turnovers at the same time (they're KenPom No. 11 in AdjD). Arkansas got hot at the end of the regular season and is giving off similar vibes now, especially with senior Justin Smith upping his scoring output. Eric Musselman is doing such a good job in turning around the program to reach an elusive Sweet 16 for the first time since 1996 that he's already getting quite a bit of run for the open Indiana job down the road from the tourney.
9. Florida State
Length and athleticism. You know exactly what you're facing when the Seminoles step onto the court and this year's squad has an added feeling of a bit of unfinished business after the pandemic ended last year's hopes of a national title. Leonard Hamilton, walking boot and all after an Achilles injury, remains a smooth operator on the sidelines and has to be pleased with the way his team has been shooting lately. Turnovers for this group will be key, as when the Noles are holding onto the ball they're tough to beat. If they're turning it over, well, even Hamilton knows that's the team's own Achilles on the court. Either way, few present the kind of matchup issues like FSU does as this team hopes to keep carrying the ACC banner even further.
While the Sweet 16 doesn't feature a ton of blue bloods, it does feature the most historically successful of them in the fresh powder blues. Mick Cronin has dealt with a number of key injuries but continued to get his guys to play hard on both ends, going from sneaking into the field to becoming a team few want to see in the next round. Johnny Juzang has been phenomenal in particular, delivering clutch basket after clutch basket while providing plenty of leadership between the lines. Maybe just as important is that the Bruins are going to get a bit of rest too after posting three wins in five days.
Despite suffering only three losses on the year, the Cougars needed a shocking collapse from Rutgers in order to even reach the Sweet 16. Quentin Grimes played a key role in that but the attention for most UH fans will be on running mate DeJon Jarreau, who is still dealing with a lingering hip injury (he did score 17 points in the Round of 32 victory). Kelvin Sampson is a veteran coach who knows what buttons to push but there's at least a little doubt about how well tested this group is after posting just two wins over fellow tourney teams. If the Cougars can play up to their potential however, they've got a really good chance at making a run given how much the Midwest Region has opened up and might be the favorites to reach the Final Four and even the title game if they can make it past Syracuse.
Death. Taxes. Jim Boeheim in March. It seems like the Orange are perpetually a bubble team in the regular season but when the tourney comes around, that matchup 2-3 zone rears its ugly head and gets this team into the Sweet 16 or beyond (this is the third such time as a double-digit seed). Son Buddy Boeheim has led the way through the first two rounds but there have been contributions from all over from fellow guard Joe Girard to big man Marek Dolezaj. Unlike a few of their other power-conference peers, this is a much more experienced group and that could pay dividends as much as that favorable draw does.
Of all the 5-12 upsets people were picking in their brackets, few became such a trendy first-round loser quite like the Wildcats did after a mediocre run of form since losing star guard Collin Gillespie. While it took a while for Jay Wright to figure things out, the results in Indy have shown that the roster is a lot deeper than first thought. Chris Arcidiacono (March Madness fans will recognize the last name) has stepped up since being elevated into the starting lineup and so has the entire team. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl has been a monster after the first weekend and the ball movement around him has been crisp and poetic as the team has regained its shooting touch. Villanova's biggest obstacle is simply that the 'Cats have to play Baylor next but if they can get past the Bears, the path to a Final Four return is there for the taking.
The Bluejays enter the Sweet 16 for the first time ever after being counted out by just about everyone coming into the game. Whether it was the way they got run out of MSG by Georgetown in the Big East Tournament or how rocky things got after Greg McDermott received a suspension and made news for all the wrong reasons, a lot of folks cast plenty of doubt about the team making it this far in the dance. But they've been able to attack the rim behind the stellar play of Marcus Zegarowski and have begun to get the 3-point shooting to match. The only downside? They just have an undefeated and No. 1 overall seed to try and knock off next.
15. Oral Roberts
March Madness' newest star? It's undoubtedly Max Abmas. The nation's leading scorer coming into the Big Dance has gotten buckets in a big way to help pull off a pair of remarkable upsets, leading Oral Roberts to become just the second No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16. But this isn't a case of some Cinderella run, the Golden Eagles have been a pesky squad all season and capable of putting up some big numbers. Add in fellow sharpshooter Kevin Obanor and some strong defensive efforts down the stretch and the lowest seed left is still somebody teams don't want to play. ORU has some familiarity with Arkansas too, having lost 87-76 in December. Abmas had an off night when that game took place in Fayetteville and is hoping for a different result in the postseason rematch.
16. Oregon State
A bumpy February has given way to an incredible March run for the Beavers, which sport a conference championship from the hottest league in the tourney. This group is really a sum of a whole bunch of parts, loose ends and previously unknown gems. Guard Ethan Thompson typically gets things going on both ends of the court, pumping in 26 points while also helping lock down future lottery pick Cade Cunningham in a win over Oklahoma State. Roman Silva, Warith Alatishe and Dearon Tucker patrol the frontcourt and bring plenty of size that opponents have to deal with no matter if the Beavers are locked in man or drop into a zone. Head coach Wayne Tinkle has been around the block more than a few times and has proven to be terrific on the whiteboard and at making just the right in-game adjustments. OSU was picked 12th in the preseason Pac-12 poll but has become an incredible story when the games matter most and is hoping to keep things going.
— 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 @ZagMBB)