March Madness: Re-ranking the men's Sweet 16 by championship potential

The biggest surprise so far in this year’s men’s NCAA tournament isn’t the first-round upsets suffered by Auburn and Kentucky.

It’s that so few other highly seeded heavyweights also went home early.

Every top-two seed advanced to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend for only the fifth time since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. All but two remaining teams rank in the top 17 in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings.

The only downside is that this Sweet 16 lacks any semblance of the little guys that makes the NCAA tournament unique. Gonzaga and San Diego State are the only remaining programs from outside college basketball’s power conferences. Two-time national champion NC State is the lone surviving double-digit seed.

So get ready for a Sweet 16 with more big-brand teams than small-school charm. Here’s a look at how I’d rank the Sweet 16 from most likely to least likely to win the national championship:

1. UConn (33-3)

How it got here: Defeated Stetson (16 seed), Northwestern (9)

Up next: San Diego State (5)

Outlook: UConn ripped through the NCAA tournament with startling ease last year, winning six games by at least 13 points apiece on their way to the program’s fifth national title. The Huskies said goodbye to five of the top eight players from that team, yet somehow the gap between them and the rest of the field seems to have widened. The high standard that head coach Dan Hurley demands might be the biggest reason UConn is in position to become college basketball’s first repeat champion since Billy Donovan’s Florida teams won back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007. The Huskies led overmatched Stetson by 33 points at halftime on Friday night, yet Hurley came off the floor stomping mad at the sloppy way his team finished the half.

2. Purdue (31-4)

How it got here: Defeated Grambling State (16), Utah State (8)

Up next: Gonzaga (5)

Outlook: Zach Edey’s stats are only marginally better than they were last season, but they don’t tell the story of how much he has improved in little ways. College basketball’s two-time national player of the year is better at creating angles in the post, passing the ball out of double teams, protecting the rim and defending in space. Edey put on a clinic Sunday against Utah State, amassing a double-double well before halftime and checking out less than eight minutes into the second half with 23 points, 14 rebounds, three assists and three blocks. Between Edey and his older, more talented supporting cast, Purdue will be a tough team to beat.

3. Houston (32-4)

How it got here: Defeated Longwood (16), Texas A&M (9)

Up next: Duke (4)

Outlook: A 12-point lead had evaporated. Four key players had fouled out. Another starter was fighting through a shin injury. Somehow, someway, shorthanded Houston persevered to beat Texas A&M in overtime and advance to its fifth consecutive Sweet 16. The 100-95 gut check of a second-round victory epitomized the toughness of Kelvin Sampson’s team. Houston players skidded out of bounds and dove over press tables to retrieve the ball, never willing to allow even one possession to go to waste. How proud of his team was Sampson after the win? This video sums it up well.

4. North Carolina (29-7)

How it got here: Defeated Wagner (16), Michigan State (9)

Up next: Alabama (4)

Outlook: North Carolina’s moment of reckoning arrived early in its second-round matchup with bruising Michigan State. The Spartans had opened a 12-point lead and were imposing their will on the Tar Heels, out-working them for 50-50 balls and out-muscling them for rebounds and for position on the low block. “They punched first,” head coach Hubert Davis said. “Their physicality, their will, their want to, the first 10 minutes of the game just overwhelmed us.” Credit North Carolina for how it responded after Davis challenged them to “join the fight.” The Tar Heels outscored the Spartans 71-43 the rest of the game, securing their place in the West regional semifinals.

5. Tennessee (26-8)

How it got here: Defeated Saint Peter’s (15), Texas (7)

Up next: Creighton (3)

Outlook: Rick Barnes has been around long enough to know what usually happens in an NCAA tournament game if your team shoots 3-for-25 from behind the arc. “These are the kinds of games in the tournament you get bounced when you shoot as poorly as we did,” he said. The Vols survived against Texas on Saturday because they did not allow their poor shooting to drag down their elite defense. They forced 17 turnovers, contained Texas spark plug Max Abmas and held the Longhorns to 36.4% shooting. Tennessee will have to shoot better next weekend to make its first Final Four in program history, but defense was enough to propel the Vols to their third Sweet 16 of Barnes’ tenure.

6. Arizona (27-8)

How it got here: Defeated Long Beach State (15), Dayton (7)

Up next: Clemson (6)

Outlook: In three seasons in Tucson, Tommy Lloyd has won 88 games, captured two Pac-12 titles and claimed two conference tournament crowns. Now he takes aim at leading Arizona to its first Final Four in 23 years, a long drought made worse by how many close calls the Wildcats have endured. Ten times since 2001 they’ve advanced to the Sweet 16 but fallen short. Five times they’ve reached the Elite Eight only to be swatted aside. This year, like many of those previous years, Arizona will have home-court advantage playing the West regional in nearby Los Angeles. The Wildcats also have the added motivation of a home-state Final Four if they can win two more games.

Caleb Love and the Arizona Wildcats are trying to advance to the Final Four for the first time in 23 years. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

7. Duke (26-8)

How it got here: Defeated Vermont (13), James Madison (12)

Up next: Houston (1)

Outlook: After leaving fans wanting more for most of the season, Duke finally unleashed the full extent of its firepower. The Blue Devils throttled a James Madison team that won 32 games this season, including victories over Michigan State and Wisconsin. Duke led by double digits barely five minutes into the game, by 20 late in the first half and by 30 soon after halftime. It was the type of performance many had been waiting for all season from a talent-laden Blue Devils team that finished second in the ACC yet always left fans wishing for more. The question now is whether this performance was an outlier or a sign of what’s to come. Duke will need to play with this level of precision and tenacity to have a chance to beat Houston next Friday.

8. Iowa State (29-7)

How it got here: Defeated South Dakota State (15), Washington State (7)

Up next: Illinois (3)

Outlook: TJ Otzelberger said he wasn’t worried on Saturday when Iowa State entered halftime tied with Washington State. That’s because this year’s Cyclones have a history of wearing down opponents with their smothering defense and separating in the second half. Iowa State did exactly that on Saturday, forcing eight second-half Washington State turnovers and pulling away for a comfortable victory. Said a proud Otzelberger after clinching Iowa State’s second Sweet 16 appearance in the past three years: “Over 40 minutes our defensive pressure can have a cumulative effect on you.”

9. Illinois (28-8)

How it got here: Defeated Morehead State (14), Duquesne (11)

Up next: Iowa State (2)

Outlook: Illinois had last made the NCAA tournament’s second weekend in 2005. Head coach Brad Underwood had never done it. They both ended those streaks this week — and they did it in emphatic fashion with blowout victories against overmatched Morehead State and Duquesne. Terrence Shannon Jr. is averaging 31.6 points in Illinois’ three Big Ten tournament victories and two NCAA tournament wins. He’ll need to continue that torrid scoring pace if Illinois is to survive a challenging remaining path to the Final Four that could include both Big 12 tournament champ Iowa State and reigning national champ UConn.

Illinois guard Terrence Shannon Jr. (0) reacts after hitting a basket and being fouled by Duquesne in the first half of a second-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 23, 2024, in Omaha, Neb. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Terrence Shannon Jr. has been on a tear lately, and he's a big reason why Illinois is dancing on into the Sweet 16. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

10. Creighton (25-9)

How it got here: Defeated Akron (14), Oregon (11)

Up next: Tennessee (2)

Outlook: Two shrewd decisions by Creighton coach Greg McDermott helped the Blue Jays overcome Oregon’s spirited second-round upset bid and advance to their third Sweet 16 in the past four years. With the Ducks up two with less than 30 seconds remaining in regulation, McDermott instructed his team to bait Oregon into inbounding the ball to 61.3% foul shooter N’Faly Dante, who missed the front end of a one-and-one. Then, in overtime, McDermott had the Blue Jays blitz ball screens in an effort to get the ball out of the hands of Oregon star guard Jermaine Couisnard. “He was killing us,” McDermott said. “I think that adjustment was able to knock them out of the rhythm they were in offensively.”

11. Gonzaga (27-7)

How it got here: Defeated McNeese (12), Kansas (4)

Up next: Purdue (1)

Outlook: Only six weeks ago, Gonzaga appeared to be a bubble team that needed a strong finish just to extend its 25-year streak of NCAA tournament appearances. Not only did the Zags keep that streak alive, they also salvaged another, even more wildly impressive one. Gonzaga’s demolition of Kansas on Saturday afternoon clinched the program’s ninth consecutive Sweet 16. That matches North Carolina (1985-1993) and Duke (1998-2006) for the longest streaks since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams. Only Houston (four) entered this NCAA tournament with an active streak of two or more Sweet 16s in a row.

12. Marquette (27-9)

How it got here: Defeated Western Kentucky (15), Colorado (10)

Up next: NC State (11)

Outlook: Shaka Smart had tears in his eyes when speaking with sideline reporter Andy Katz a few minutes after his team slipped past Colorado to send him to his first Sweet 16 since VCU’s improbable 2011 Final Four run. “Man, so grateful for our guys hanging in there,” Smart said. “There were so many moments when we could have cracked.” Marquette has benefited from point guard Tyler Kolek returning to his All-American form after sitting out the team’s previous six games with an oblique injury. The Golden Eagles are also fortunate that they won’t face a single-digit seed until the Elite Eight.

13. San Diego State (26-10)

How it got here: Defeated UAB (12), Yale (13)

Up next: UConn (1)

Outlook: It’s a testament to the program Steve Fisher and Brian Dutcher built that San Diego State can lose three starters from last year’s national runner-up team and still return to the Sweet 16. The tough, physical, all-business Aztecs on Sunday night demolished a Yale team that looked like it expended all its energy celebrating its upset of Auburn two nights earlier. Up next for San Diego State is a familiar opponent: The UConn program that eliminated Kawhi Leonard’s team in the 2011 Sweet 16 and then swatted aside the Aztecs in last year’s national title game. San Diego State took down No. 1 overall seed Alabama in last year’s round of 16, but this is an even bigger challenge.

14. Alabama (23-11)

How it got here: Defeated Charleston (13), Grand Canyon (12)

Up next: North Carolina (1)

Outlook: There was a moment late in Alabama’s second-round victory over Grand Canyon that the game appeared to be slipping away. The Lopes had taken a three-point lead. The Crimson Tide were foul-plagued and frustrated. The decibel-level inside the building had reached a crescendo. “We could have folded,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said. Instead they persevered, strung together some timely stops and closed the game on a 17-3 run to emerge with a win. Overcoming that adversity will serve Alabama well in Los Angeles next week. The high-scoring Tide are capable of hanging with the likes of North Carolina and Arizona if they hit some threes and they’re even adequate defensively.

15. Clemson (23-11)

How it got here: Defeated New Mexico (11), Baylor (3)

Up next: Arizona (2)

Outlook: So much for the ACC’s supposed down year. The league went 8-0 in the round of 64 and 32 and sent four teams to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend. That Clemson is one of those four despite mediocre production from P.J. Hall is a huge surprise. The 6-foot-10 NBA prospect battled foul trouble against both New Mexico and Baylor, contributing 14 points and three rebounds against the Lobos and 11 and three against the Bears. If Hall gets rolling, Clemson will be a tough out at the West regional in Los Angeles. Guards Chase Hunter and Joe Girard led the Tigers against Baylor with 20 and 13 points, respectively.

16. NC State (24-14)

How it got here: Defeated Texas Tech (6), Oakland (14)

Up next: Marquette (2)

Outlook: Only two weeks ago, NC State wasn’t even considered a realistic threat to make the NCAA tournament after losing seven of its final nine regular-season games. Now, the Wolfpack are more than halfway to a full Kemba. They first won five win-or-go-home games in five days to capture the ACC tournament title and the automatic NCAA bid. Then they dispatched of Texas Tech and edged Oakland in overtime to advance to the program’s first Sweet 16 since 2015. NC State’s offensive efficiency has been its biggest area of improvement. Massive yet nimble center DJ Burns has averaged 16.6 points and shot 64.9% from the field, commanding double teams and freeing shooters for open looks.