With the arguably the best first weekend ever behind us, let’s re-rank this Sweet 16. We’ll examine how these teams looked the past two games in addition to the regular-season resume to re-seed them 1-16. Wondering how many teams from last year’s Sweet 16 are in this year’s? Seven. And Wisconsin is the only one in the group that’s reached the second weekend three consecutive seasons.
This was a pretty tough task. Kansas at one and UNC at two are givens, but it gets tough from there. And the bottom four teams listed are basically interchangeable as far as I’m concerned. This is a really strong crop here, folks. That first weekend was fun, and from a story line perspective, it stinks that we lost Denzel Valentine, Kentucky, Wichita State, Northern Iowa and Stephen F. Austin, but every single Sweet 16 game is really good.
1. Kansas (South): Obviously the Jayhawks are atop the list. They won their first two games by an average margin of 19 points and were never threatened. They are still the favorite to win the national title. Did the thing all the great No. 1s do: boringly blast through the first weekend, then only make us start paying attention when we get to the Sweet 16.
2. North Carolina (East): Right now UNC is No. 5 in points per possession, No. 10 in points per possession allowed. The Tar Heels got tested in both of their games against Florid Gulf Coast and Providence but wound up making it academic in the second half of each. The Heels won their first two by an average of 17.5 points. They are the easy choice for No. 2.
3. Virginia (Midwest): The Cavs rank as the top team at KenPom right now. Tony Bennett’s crew blew past Hampton and then beat Butler in a pretty good game on Saturday that got swallowed up by all the other action Sunday. Average margin of victory: 22 points. The Cavs will need to reach the Elite Eight to avoid getting Villanova’d, meaning they need one more win or else a lot of people are going to outright dismiss Bennett. Which is dumb. But it’s a thing that will happen.
4. Oklahoma (West): Buddy Hield still playing in this bracket is a great thing. The Sooners were pushed to the edge by VCU but won 85-81 thanks to 29 second-half points from Buddy Hield, who’s averaging 31.5 points in the tournament. OU’s average margin of victory: 9.0. I slot the Sooners fourth because of the Buddy factor, plus, this team could have been a No. 1 seed. OU’s starting five is the most dangerous of any team in the country. It’s been more than 25 years since a player averaged 25.0 points and reached the Final Four. Can Buddy break through?
5. Villanova (South): No hesitation ranking Villanova over Oregon. The Wildcats would have been a No. 1 if they didn’t lose a thriller in the Big East final to streaking Seton Hall. Now Jay Wright’s team can’t settle. I was in that locker room on Sunday and there was a lot of relief. In Louisville, they need to play with the urgency they brought in Brooklyn. This team reaching Houston would cancel out all the bad pub of March letdowns from the past two years. Nova beat Asheville and Iowa by an average of 24.5 points.
6. Oregon (West): The Ducks got their national moment with the late game on Sunday night, when they rallied to overcome a 58-51 deficit against Saint Joe’s. Dana Altman’s team isn’t what it needs to be defensively, out on the arc, but down low is a different story. And Dillon Brooks is one of the best players in the country. He had 25 points and was the catalyst in the Saint Joe’s game. Oregon beat Holy Cross and SJU by an average of 22 points.
7. Iowa State (Midwest): Don’t dismiss Iowa State being ranked this high because it faced Iona and Little Rock. Don’t forget how Iona was the trendiest upset pick not named Yale in the first round. And Little Rock was a very good team; just ask Purdue. The Cyclones won their two games by an average of 15 points and extended the terrific careers of Georges Niang and Jameel McKay. The Cyclones being this high means Virginia-ISU should rate as the best game of the Sweet 16.
8. Maryland (South): The Terps had two tough games against South Dakota State and Hawaii, but the truth is both of those teams were better than the bottom four teams in the Big Ten. Playing close games against top-level, mid-major teams on neutral sites is supposed to be hard. Maryland’s talent is still hard to ignore, and I think putting it No. 8 is fair. It did have a small margin of victory: 6.0 points.
— Maryland Basketball (@TerrapinHoops) March 21, 2016
9. Indiana (East): Tom Crean owning Kentucky is something UK fans will have a hard time coping with for a while. But Yogi Ferrell, OG Anunoby, Troy Williams and Thomas Bryant earned every bit of that victory in the most anticipated second round game. The Hoosiers finished ahead of Maryland in the Big Ten standings, but I rate IU just behind the Turtles because, at each team’s best on a neutral floor, I put Maryland a shade better.
10. Miami (South): Jim Larranaga is in the third Sweet 16 of his career. He had to coach himself to his limits to get there, including landing a technical foul on Saturday in his team’s butt-clenching win over No. 11 Wichita State. The U has the ultimate no-no-yes-no-yes player in Angel Rodriguez. Sheldon McLellan — did you see this guy fly on Saturday? — is maybe the most underrated player left in this tournament. Miami beat Buffalo and WSU by an average margin of 7.5 points.
11. Duke (West): I mean, Duke’s got the best NBA prospect in this tournament in Brandon Ingram. Grayson Allen keeps putting up tremendous performances. And Marshall Plumlee is an Army general out there, vocally rousing his teammates. So very Duke-like. The Blue Devils also have the best coach in college basketball history, so maybe 11 is still even too low. But this team did get pushed for 38 minutes by UNC Wilmington, then watched Yale cut a 27-point deficit to three with less than 35 seconds to go. Won those games by 7.5 points on average.
12. Texas A&M (West): The most unlikely team to be here. Texas A&M’s 12-point comeback in the final 40 seconds of regulation on Sunday night was the biggest comeback in the history of college basketball. I get the feeling we’ll remember it more for UNI choking than A&M blitzing. That’s probably fair because of how many mistakes UNI made in the final minute. But A&M did get pushed in OT, and then got away in double overtime. It is the only SEC team remaining. The Aggies scored 92 in each of their games, winning by an average of 15.5 points.
13. Gonzaga (Midwest): Here’s where we draw the line. I think there is clear separation from the top two, then 4-9, then 10-12, and now the rest. Gonzaga is this high because of its two stars, Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, who got past Seton Hall and Utah by an average of 19.5 points. Seton Hall was playing better than any team coming into the tournament and got completely stifled by Gonzaga. Utah … that was an egg-lay. Mark Few is 10-6 when seeded as a double-digit seed in the tournament. Gonzaga was as preseason top-20 team. Sometimes these things fall into place just as they should.
14. Notre Dame (East): I can’t believe I have to rank Notre Dame this low, but it’s probably fair. It went 11-7 in the competitive ACC, which has a record six teams in the regional semifinals. The Irish were put on their rears by Michigan, then got up and threw haymakers. Then Stephen F. Austin controlled much of the second half … until the final minute brought breaks Notre Dame’s way. This team has a freak of an athlete in Demetrius Jackson and maybe the best center left playing in this tournament in Zach Auguste. ND’s wins over UM and SFA: 4.0 points.
15. Wisconsin (East): Hold up. Let’s watch this again.
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 21, 2016
The Badgers, man. This team. This program. It was at one point 9-9 and 1-4 in the Big Ten. Greg Gard, you’re incredible. Bronson Koenig, you’re now forever a part of March lore. Wisconsin won by an average of 3.5 points, the closest of any team in the Sweet 16, and what’s funny is how that 47-43 win over Pitt was so unwatchable … and then Gard’s guys step up and give us one of the three best games of the tournament with the buzzer-beating ending over Xavier. No. 15 is fair, though. In totality of this season, the losses are still there, and talent-wise, this team maximizes what it has vs. other groups ranked higher.
16. Syracuse (Midwest): Cuse has gotta be last. It was tremendous in beating Dayton, and then got the break of playing No. 15 Middle Tennessee, which kept it close until about 11:30 was left in the game. Jim Boeheim’s team won its games by an average of 22 points in the first two rounds. Michael Gbinije, Tyler Roberson, Trevor Cooney and Malachi Richardson will try to bring Boeheim to his seventh Elite Eight showing. The Orange lost five of six to close out the season, then fooled everyone in getting through to the second weekend.