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College Basketball

The Sweet Sixteen teams most likely to win the national championship

Last week's Power Rankings changed focus to analyze the best bracket-buster candidates (including Dayton, Harvard, North Dakota State and Stephen F. Austin). This week, I take deeper looks at the top remaining title contenders:

College Hoops Power Rankings
1Florida Gators
Need yet another reason to believe the experienced, talented Gators will win it all? Their defense is functioning at a peak level, having just held Pittsburgh to its lowest points-per-possession figure (0.825) of the season. Florida uses full-court pressure to speed opponents up after made baskets, and UF recovers really well after misses, too -- even on misses that result in long rebounds.

The run the Gators used to pull away from Pittsburgh in the third round, extending a 27-22 halftime lead to 40-27 midway through the second half, featured some exemplary transition D, including Scottie Wilbekin mucking up a fastbreak, Wilbekin and Casey Prather hunting down a ballhandler from behind, and Patric Young protecting the rim as well as building a wall in the paint. Watch and appreciate:  

 

 
2Louisville Cardinals
The matchup I care about most in the Louisville-Kentucky Sweet 16 mega-duel is not Rick Pitino vs. John Calipari. It's Russ Smith vs. the Wildcats' suspect transition defense. Smith was the nation's most dangerous transition ballhandler last season but has dialed back some of that scoring as a senior, and his NCAA tournament fastbreaks have been mostly of the Bad Russ variety.

Reviewing film of the Cardinals' wins over Manhattan and St. Louis, I counted 10 transition playmaking opportunities for Smith. Against Manhattan the results were a shooting foul, a missed floater, a turnover, a turnover, a shooting foul, a turnover and a missed layup. Against St. Louis the results were a turnover, a layup and a turnover (see video below). To recap, that's 10 possessions, with five turnovers, 1-for-3 shooting and two trips to the free-throw line. Kind of a mess.   

 

As you'll see later in these rankings, Kentucky's transition defense is RIPE to get scored on. Can Smith revert to effective attack mode and exploit it?

 
3Arizona Wildcats
Aaron Gordon is interesting (to me) in two ways: He might be the most valuable defensive player left in the tournament ... and he also might need to get subbed out of offensive possessions in a tight game. He's shooting 42.9 percent on free throws, which makes the expected value of his trips to the line 0.613 PPP in a one-and-one situation and 0.858 in a two-shot situation -- both well below Arizona's overall offensive efficiency of 1.124 PPP.

Aside from Gordon, there are six rotation players left in the NCAAs who make less than 50 percent of their free throws -- and the good thing for the Wildcats is, two of them play for Sweet 16 opponent San Diego State:    

 

 
4Michigan State Spartans
The most intriguing matchup of the Spartans' Sweet 16 game against Virginia is at point guard. Can their struggling senior, Keith Appling, get the best of a surprisingly steady freshman, London Perrantes? Appling's final season started off with him playing at an All-America level, but a nagging right wrist injury, which he re-aggravated in a serious way against Georgetown in early February, ruined his shooting ability. Since returning to Michigan State's lineup on Feb. 16, Appling is 2-of-13 from long range and 8-of-21 from the free throw line. He's also scaled back his role in the offense to the level of a bit player; his current averages for FGA and FTA per 40 minutes played are well below where they were in December and January. Take a look at the trends:

 
5Virginia Cavaliers
As for Perrantes, he and Kentucky's Andrew Harrison -- and not Syracuse's Tyler Ennis -- have been the best freshman point guards in the NCAA tournament. In 69 minutes played, Perrantes has eight assists and zero (!) turnovers, is 5-of-8 from deep and 3-of-3 from the foul line, and has only committed two fouls while playing solid defense. His steady play helped save the Cavaliers from being upset by No. 16 Coastal Carolina in the second round, and he outplayed Memphis veterans Joe Jackson and Michael Dixon in the third round. According to statsheet.com's rankings, Perrantes has third-best assist-turnover ratio (3.6-to-1) of guards left in the tournament, behind only Iowa State's Monte Morris and Michigan reserve Spike Albrecht.
 
6Kentucky Wildcats
Regarding that reference to Kentucky's defense in the Louisville section, here are the numbers that matter: According to Synergy Sports Technology's data, the Wildcats have the second-biggest drop-off in all of Division I between their halfcourt defensive efficiency (0.796 PPP) and their transition defensive efficiency (1.159 PPP). Only Bethune-Cookman, which tied for second-to-last place in the MEAC, has a greater drop-off.  

 

This GIF, from the first half Sunday's classic round-of-32 game in St. Louis, is a prime example of Kentucky's transition confusion:  

 
7Wisconsin Badgers
Apply that same math to Sweet 16 teams only, and Florida comes out looking the best by a good margin.   

  

There's barely any drop-off between the Gators' stout halfcourt D and their transition performance, in part because they try to force turnovers with their press. Among Sweet 16 teams that don't apply full-court pressure, Wisconsin has the smallest drop-off, according to Synergy. The Badgers are smart about getting back and limiting threes.

 
8Michigan Wolverines
Last Week: 14
The Wolverines are the last member of the Elite-Offense, Suspect-Defense Club standing. Four of the nation's top five offensive teams ranked 97th or worse in adjusted defensive efficiency, and that imbalanced profile does not typically result in deep NCAA tournament runs ...    

   

... but if the Wolverines were to have an exceptionally hot run of shooting in Indy, there's no reason they can't make the Final Four. If they were to run into Kentucky and its shaky transition D in the Elite Eight, Nik Stauskas' most devastating shots -- left wing fastbreak threes, which he makes at a 55.0 percent clip -- should be readily available:    

 

THE REST OF THE SWEET 16, in order of likelihood of winning it all:
9. UCLA
10. Tennessee
11. Iowa State
12. San Diego State
13. UConn
14. Baylor
15. Stanford
16. Dayton

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