The NCAA Tourney field has been weeded down to 16, and, at this point, there are no easy outs or pushovers. If a team has gotten this far, they are worthy competition. Here is a ranking of the 16 remaining teams:
1. Miami Hurricanes
Facing an on-fire Brandon Paul and the defensively stout Illini, the Canes pulled out their second tourney win last night. The Canes, who blew out Pacific in the first round, have an incredible amount of weapons. The win over Illinois showed what we already knew about Miami; even if their stars have bad games offensively (as Durand Scott, Reggie Johnson, and Kenny Kadji did against the Illini) other guys step up to keep the offense afloat (Rion Brown shot the lights out while Shane Larkin had another electrifying performance) and their defense remains tough.
2. Louisville Cardinals
Comparisons to the 2011 UConn team anyone? The Cardinals won 16 of their first 17 games, hit a mid-season slump, and are back on a 12 game winning streak. In fact, Louisville has not lost since that five overtime thriller against Notre Dame. Not only have they won every game since, only one game, a road tilt with ‘Cuse in early March, was particularly close. The 2011 UConn team won their first ten games, also had a mid-season slump, and finished the season on an 11 game winning streak that culminated in a National Championship. Here is the thing about Louisville though; they might be better than that UConn team. Louisville’s defense is incredible. Also, they have no problem scoring as evidenced by their two point totals in the tourney so far: 79 and 82.
3. Indiana Hoosiers
Describing the Hoosiers win over Temple yesterday is easy. It was ugly. And when I say ugly I mean UG-LY. Yes, Temple’s best player played well (massive kudos to Khalif Wyatt for that 31 point performance) but that was about all Temple had going for them. The matchup should have been a blowout–Temple only scored 52 points–but wasn’t. Indiana just didn’t play that well. Physical teams continue to bother them and Cody Zeller continues to hurt his draft stock by playing small (he hasn’t looked like a number one pick for a while). But… that’s enough dwelling on the negative. Indiana has, after all, gotten to the sweet 16, so that is something. And there is a reason I have them ranked so high, up at number three. That is because this team has talent on top of talent on top of talent. Victor Oladipo, who closed out Temple with a clutch three, is an absolute star at both ends of the court. And I think everyone knows about the whole other cast of stars, from Zeller who (sometimes) dominates games to Christian Watford and his picture perfect stroke. The number one positive thing about Indiana, which was on display against (admittedly an offensively challenged) Temple team, is that their defense has improved massively over the course of the season. If they keep the defensive level up and get the offensive level back to where it should be, they could win a National Championship.
4. Ohio State Buckeyes
Here is a team that is on a roll. The Buckeyes haven’t lost since February 17th and boast an offense as potent as their defense is tough. Ohio State remains a team that virtually never loses close games. Iowa State was reminded of this yesterday when the Buckeyes snuck by the Cyclones by a final of 78-75. Looking to make the final four for the second straight year, the Buckeyes need wins over Arizona and either La Salle or Wichita State. With the way they are playing, I would not bet against them.
5. Michigan State Spartans
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to put Sparty here or the Dukies, but I chose MSU because they were so dominant in blowing out a hot Memphis team Saturday. Tom Izzo builds his teams for March, everyone know that, and he has a good one on his hands right now. The Spartans’ guard play is terrific and dealt with Memphis’ pressure defense superbly. And then the Spartans’ bigs are, well, typical Michigan State bigs. These guys are massive and can control the boards. There is a lot to like about the Spartans, who will face Duke in what should be a tremendous round of 16 game.
6. Duke Blue Devils
Not a whole lot of people are giving Duke much love, which is somewhat silly. This an especially strong Duke team that really defends well and can be nearly unbeatable when their offense is clicking. Creighton, one of the great offensive teams in college hoops, could only muster 50 points against Duke last night. That has to worry a Michigan State team that does not score quite as prolifically as the Bluejays. In fact, that should scare anybody. Yes, Duke stumbled into the tourney off of a bizarre ACC Tournament loss to Maryland, but they are still capable of wreaking havoc and winning the final game of the season.
I think everyone probably had a similar response after watching Kansas narrowly avoid defeat in the first round against an absolutely atrocious Western Kentucky team. It probably was something along the lines of “wtf did I just watch?” But hey, Kansas seemed to get it together against UNC in the second round, managing to score 70 points (scoring has been their problem), in the win. I’m not sure how big an accomplishment that is, however, against the defensively indifferent Tar Heels. While Kansas doesn’t look very good right now, I urge readers to remember that KU played terribly in the opening rounds of last year’s tourney too, beating 15 seed Detroit by five, 10 seed Purdue by three, and 11 seed NC State by three before picking up their level of play against UNC and Ohio State to make the title game. Also, Kansas, like last year, is not in a region of world-beaters. Florida and Michigan are good, but there is no one in the region that Kansas can’t beat. I would say that Kansas is not a bad bet to make the final four.
8. Syracuse Orange
I must confess, I had to restrain myself from putting the ‘Cuse (the only team remaining I really consider myself a fan of) ahead of Kansas. And it is not just my fanhood that had me thinking seven for the Orange. Syracuse looked awesome in blowing out Montana, inexplicably placed as a 13 seed, by a score of 81-34 in the first round. While Syracuse looked (much) less awesome when they beat Cal 66-60 in the second round, ‘Cuse controlled the game and would have won handily had they not forgotten how to make free throws. If ‘Cuse does rediscover how to make these apparently not so “free” shots, they could pose a serious challenge to Indiana.
9. Michigan Wolverines
Michigan is heating up at the right time. The offensively potent Wolverines did work against an excellent VCU team in the round of 32, beating Shaka Smart’s Rams 78-53. The Wolverines are not always tough defensively, but often times they don’t need to be. With NBA-level offensive talents like Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Glenn Robinson III, they can outscore most teams. But, teams that make the sweet 16 are not “most teams” and the Wolverines will need to collectively be on both their offensive and defensive game to make a run to final four.
10. Arizona Wildcats
Arizona, which had terrific non-conference wins during the regular season over Miami, Florida, and San Diego State, stumbled down the stretch of the season, losing three of their last five against, for the most part, less than stellar Pac-12 competition. It looks like the Wildcats have figured things out in the tournament. In the first round they dominated an extremely good Belmont team. They followed that up by shutting down Harvard in the second round in a game where they shot 60% on 3s. The number one question for Arizona going into a sweet 16 tilt with Ohio State is how they will rebound against a large Buckeyes team. ‘Zona did not dominate a small Harvard team on the boards. They will need to be play bigger on Thursday.
11. Florida Gators
The only remaining SEC team in the tournament, Florida, is a good one. The Gators are playing well, although they haven’t really been tested in the tournament so far. Florida got lucky with the bracket, facing NW State in the first round (easily the worst 14 seed), and a good, but not great, Minnesota team in the second round. Neither of those two teams gave them any problems. Now, they face Florida Gulf Coast. The Eagles are a good team, and I’ll talk about them later, but this was obviously another good draw for the Gators. If Florida continues to score efficiently (they put up 78 points against Minnesota) they could conceivably make a surprise run as far as the final four.
12. Wichita State Shockers
There is nothing fluky about this mid-major’s run to the sweet 16. The Shockers, who were terrific in the regular season, followed up a dominant performance of an excellent eight seed in Pitt with a win over one seed Gonzaga. And here is the thing about the win over Gonzaga: The Zags played much, much better than they did against Southern in the first round. But it wasn’t enough to beat the Shockers, who now get to play another super mid-major in La Salle. Wichita State is an excellent team on both ends of the court capable of not only beating La Salle but also any other team.
13. Oregon Ducks
Except for when Oregon forgets to score, which happened in regular season losses to Stanford, Cal, Colorado, and Cal, the Ducks are a formidable opponent. Using excellent defense spearheaded by Rice transfer Arsalan Kazemi, the Ducks have stormed the sweet 16 by blowing out Oklahoma State and St. Louis. The Ducks are athletic and skilled and should not be discounted, even as a duel with mighty Louisville looms. If the Ducks can keep Louisville from getting any offensive rhythm and dominate the boards, they may have a chance at keeping the game close or even pulling a huge upset.
14. Florida Gulf Coast Eagles
Florida Gulf Coast is simply playing incredibly good basketball. And, while they never should have been stuck with a 15 seed (they beat Miami in the regular season), they have done great things with it. The Eagles were able to control Georgetown in the first round and, even as Georgetown tried desperately to come back, were able to stump the Hoyas and make it to the round of 32. There, they made a defensively dominant San Diego State team look defensively mediocre, dropping 81 on the Aztecs en route to a ten point victory. The Eagles are incredibly good and well coached at both ends and I don’t think anyone should rule out the possibility that they might win the South region. This much is for sure: the Gators will be tested by these Eagles.
15. Marquette Golden Eagles
Despite the fact that they received a three seed and are a uniquely athletic and hardworking team, I don’t believe in Marquette. Maybe it is the fact that the Big East has been so terrible in the NCAAs so far. Maybe it’s the fact that they didn’t deserve to win in the first round when they played Davidson. Maybe it’s the regular season losses to Florida (82-49) and Green Bay (49-47). But it probably is the simple fact that they don’t rebound the basketball very well. And this is a problem that will make it difficult for them to advance any further, especially with Miami and their stable of talented big men waiting. Marquette is an excellent defensive team, and they did turn a game with Georgetown into an ugly mess that ended in a 49-48 Golden Eagles win, but somehow I don’t see Marquette stunning Miami. They certainly won’t do it without a herculean effort.
16. La Salle Explorers
Well, someone has to come in last, but it is a shame that it had to be La Salle. La Salle, which is the only team remaining representing a very good Atlantic 10 Conference, is a very tough team that finishes games. The Explorers have already played three games in the tourney, Boise State in the play-in game, Kansas State in the round of 64, and offensively excellent Ole Miss. Obviously, La Salle won all three games. Could a fourth win be forthcoming? I say it’s possible because, as good Wichita State is, La Salle is not a team that goes down easy.