Ranking the Sweet 16 in order of most to least likely to win the national championship, which means evaluating teams not just on their overall strength, but also the difficulty of the remainder of their bracket:
Midwest No. 1 v. No. 5 West Virginia
Regardless of how teams choose to defend the Wildcats—packing way in, as Cincinnati did, or pressuring full-court, as West Virginia is likely to do—it's hard to imagine an upset happening without the underdog making a barrage of threes. The problem for opponents: Kentucky is well aware of this, and has been making a concerted effort to either run shooters off the three-point line or aggressively contest threes at the expense of penetration. On Saturday, the Bearcats attempted just 14 threes, and as this trey-by-trey breakdown shows, only four of them were clear, open looks:
(Screengrabs source: CBS)
22Duke Blue Devils
South No. 1 vs. No. 5 Utah
One of Jahlil Okafor's greatest qualities is what his Indiana-based trainer, Rick Lewis, calls his "conversion rate"—Okafor's ability to convert moves he's very recently learned in workouts into his game repertoire. Lewis told me about this a few weeks ago when I was reporting the Okafor feature for SI's tournament preview issue. Lewis recalled how, just days after a 14-year-old Okafor was trained to dunk left-handed, he called Lewis to report that he'd done it in a game.
When an already polished Okafor arrived at Duke, one of the few new moves the Blue Devils' coaches had him work on was the "Timmy D"—the Tim Duncan face-up bank shot. Okafor made a short Timmy D in Duke's opener, against Presbyterian, and had it down pat by the end of November. In this clip from Nov. 30, Okafor calmly ties his shoe, posts up an Army defender on the right block, and does his best Duncan imitation (hover to play):
Because Okafor was trained in the mold of throwback big men such as Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, I loaded my laptop with video of those greats, in hopes that Okafor could point out specific influences during our interview in early March. Some of the clips were of things Okafor could already do, and others were of things he aspired to do. He was enamored with one Olajuwon move in particular, from the 1995 Western Conference Finals, where he takes David Robinson out beyond the three-point line in the left corner, crosses the Admiral over three times, drives to the right side of the rim, and scores after two fakes. Okafor asked to rewind it, and we watched it two more times.
Okafor does not do much ballhandling for Duke—his job is to receive post feeds and score—but two-and-a-half weeks later, in an NCAA tournament game against San Diego State, he did something I hadn't seen him do all season. He pulled out of a double-team to beyond the three-point line on the left wing ... dribbled right-to-left through his legs, then left-to-right crossover, then right-to-left through his legs ... and drove and scored. The first thing I thought of after seeing it on TV was the Hakeem move. This was no facsimile—no fakes were necessary—but it was reminiscent. The triple-cross drive could very well be Okafor's latest conversion.
West No. 2 vs. No. 6 Xavier
Many words have been written this season about the greatness of Kentucky's defense, and justifiably so, because it may be the stingiest defense of college basketball's three-point era. But all the focus on Kentucky has obscured the incredible defensive run at Arizona, where Sean Miller's Wildcats have been historically great for back-to-back seasons. I took the past decade's worth of adjusted defensive efficiency rankings from kenpom.com, ranked teams according to points per 100 possessions under the yearly national average* ... and Arizona checked in at Nos. 3 ('13-14) and 5 ('14-15):
(* It's important to evaluate teams in context with each season's average efficiency, since rules and refereeing styles can change from year-to-year.)
West No. 1 vs. No. 4 North Carolina
Run the same analysis on the past decade's offenses, and you'll find that the Badgers offense—like Kentucky and Arizona's defenses—is historically impressive. Only 2011-12 Missouri ranks ahead of Wisconsin, whose turnover avoidance and Frank-the-Tank reliance has made it one of the modern era's best scoring attacks.
South No. 1 vs. No. 11 UCLA
Kyle Wiltjer is scary-effective as a pick-and-roll scorer, averaging 1.625 points on his 64 rolls or pops, according to Synergy Sports Technology. That figure ranks first nationally by a massive margin, and among NCAA tournament players with at least 50 roll/pop possessions this season, the next most-efficient is Notre Dame's Zach Auguste, at 1.380 PPP.
The Zags like to use Wiltjer in wing ballscreen situations, where he can either pop for a wing three, or execute a short roll to a mid-range position, like this:
From that spot, Wiltjer is deadly as both a face-up jump shooter and a driver to the rim. Here it is in action against North Dakota State in Gonzaga's opening-round game:
East No. 7 vs. No. 3 Oklahoma
We've reached the point of the tourney where the Spartans' seed may no longer be relevant. They have an easier road to the Final Four than Nos. 1 seeds Wisconsin or Duke, and in the first weekend they played as well as any team other than Duke or Arizona. Friend-o'-the-Rankings Andy Cox has a formula called Net Efficiency Margin that measures a team's performance against what the average D-I team would be expected to do in the same situation, and Cox shared his results from the opening rounds of the NCAAs. Michigan State performed, on average, 36.0 points per 100 possessions better than a D-I average squad in its wins over Georgia and Virginia:
The NEM discussion continues later in these rankings, where we look at whether Sparty is likely to regress in regionals.
(Data source: Crashing The Dance)
South No. 5 vs. No. 1 Duke
Key for the Utes against Duke? Keep freshman center Jakob Poeltl on the floor. They beat Georgetown in the Round of 32 with the Austrian 7-footer playing just 18 minutes due to foul trouble, but his presence will be vital to counter the impact of Okafor. According to data from HoopLens.com, a site that tracks lineup efficiencies, Utah's efficiency margin with Poeltl on the floor is +0.30, and with him off the floor, it's cut nearly in half, to +0.17. He gives them a noticeable boost in offensive rebounding and two-point field-goals—both scoring and defending them.
88Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Midwest No. 3 vs. No. 7 Wichita State
I mentioned above that Irish center Zach Auguste is the second-most efficient pick-and-roll big man left in the tourney after Gonzaga's Kyle Wiltjer. Auguste, unlike Wiltjer, is a rim-roller who works well in tandem with Jerian Grant or Demetrius Jackson, and has developed a strong sense of timing on when to break for the basket. In this clip from Notre Dame's win over Butler, Auguste sets three screens for Jackson within a few feet of each other—the initial screen, then a flip, and then another flip, before rolling and scoring. This level of patience isn't common:
99Wichita State ShockersMidwest No. 7 vs. No. 3 Notre Dame
Pinstripe Spacing Power Rankings, NCAA tournament edition:
6. Mark Gottfried, NC State
5. John Calipari, Kentucky
4. Tom Izzo, Michigan State
3. Roy Williams, North Carolina
1 (tie). Gregg Marshall, Wichita State—vs. Indiana
1 (tie). Gregg Marshall, Wichita State—vs. Kansas
(Photos: Getty Images)
1010Oklahoma SoonersEast No. 3 vs. No. 7 Michigan StateThe Sooners have the fourth-best defense (according to kenpom.com) left in the bracket ... but they'd likely have to go through Izzo, Pitino, Krzyzewski and Calipari back-to-back-to-back-to-back to win the national title. The odds of this seem long, hence the No. 10 ranking. The stout two-point defense they played against tiny Albany (41.7%) and tiny Dayton (36.7%) would need to hold up against normal-sized competition.
1111Louisville CardinalsEast. No. 4 vs. No. 8 N.C. State
One scenario in which the Cardinals don't have the upper hand on N.C. State? After-timeout efficiency. I took Synergy Sports Technology's season-long offensive ATO data, adjusted it for strength of schedule, and among Sweet 16 teams, Louisville comes in 15th and NC State is 8th.
(Another game where I could see this coming up big: the potential Wisconsin-Arizona rematch in the Elite Eight, which could very well be decided by 1-2 possessions. The Badgers hold a massive advantage over the Wildcats in ATO offense.)
12East No. 8 vs. No. 4 Louisville
Continuing the Net Efficiency Margin discussion that I started in the Michigan State section: NEM creator Andy Cox thinks that teams that significantly over/under-performed their season averages in the opening week of the tourney are due for some regression. Surprisingly, N.C. State, even though it upset a No. 1 seed, wasn't playing too far over its head; the strongest candidates for negative regression are Michigan State, Xavier and Duke. And the data suggests we've yet to see the best of Kentucky and Wisconsin.
1313North Carolina Tar HeelsWest No. 4 vs. No. 1 Wisconsin
Adrian Atkinson (@Freeportkid), Tar Heels stat-tracker extraordinaire and friend-o'-the-Rankings, sent along some great data on UNC's performance when Marcus Paige is at point guard versus when he's at shooting guard. On the season, the Heels are 3.7 TIMES MORE EFFICIENT with Paige at point than Paige at the two, mainly because having him at the point allows them to bolster their defense with a long wing (J.P. Tokoto, Justin Jackson or Theo Pinson).
Paige at PG:
Off. Rating: 110.3
Def. Rating: 92.0
Eff. Margin: +18.3
Paige at SG:
Off. Rating: 112.5
Def. Rating: 107.6
Eff. Margin: +4.9
There was, however, a departure from that trend when they played Arkansas in the Round of 32. Carolina needed a second point guard (Nate Britt or Joel Berry) to deal with the Razorbacks' pressure, and it led 69-51 in the minutes it played with multiple PGs, as opposed to trailing 27-18 with just one PG.
(As for why the Heels are 13th, it's less about them than their region. With Wisconsin and Arizona looming in Los Angeles, they have the hardest road to Indy of any Sweet 16 team.)
1414West Virginia MountaineersMidwest No. 5 vs. No. 1 Kentucky
Visual Quiz Time! This one is considerably less weird than the final regular season quiz, which asked you to identify coaches with only their foreheads as clues.
The Sweet 16 topic is jersey patches. First person to Tweet me the TEAMS that wore each of these patches this season gets the glory of ... being crowned the quiz champ in a Tweet. Have at it:
(Photos: Getty Images)
1515Xavier MusketeersWest No. 6 vs. No. 2 Arizona
Matt Stainbrook is not a long-range shooter. The 6'10" center/Uber driver is the Musketeers' anchor in the paint, and he has attempted just four treys all season, making one. He does, however, seem to have a major impact on Xavier's three-point shooting. According to HoopLens.com's on/off data, the Musketeers have shot 40.0% from deep with Stainbrook on the floor, drawing defenders inside, and just 27.3% with him on the bench. That is an insane split.
1616UCLA BruinsSouth No. 11 vs. No. 2 Gonzaga
For most of the season, Bryce Alford's three-point shooting trends were like an undulating wave. The Bruins' sophomore point guard would hit a hot streak, bring his five-game average up over 40%, then follow it with a slump that dragged it to 30%, and repeat. In March, however, the waves stopped, and were replaced by a wild spike that has him shooting 65.6% from long range over his past five games.
The unsustainable nature of Alford's shooting, plus a road to Indy that has to go through Gonzaga and Duke, is why the Bruins come in last.
GALLERY: RANKING THE SWEET 16 MASCOTS