Ranking the National Championship Chances of Every Sweet 16 Team

The No. 1 overall seed is done, and Virginia's misery had plenty of company in the form of other top teams with title aspirations during the NCAA tournament's first weekend. How do the 16 squads still standing stack up?
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The first weekend of the NCAA tournament radically reshaped the pack of national championship contenders: Half of this year’s No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 seeds were eliminated, only one No. 4 seed remains, and a pair of No. 7, No. 9 and No. 11 seeds advanced. Five of the 10 teams SI.com pegged before the tourney as most likely to win it all will be forced to watch the remaining rounds from their couches. Before the Sweet 16 tips off on Thursday, we’re running the same exercise with every squad left in the field.

1. Villanova (No. 1 seed, East)

As high-major heavyweights bowed out left and right over the first four days of the NCAAs, Villanova made quick work of its first two opponents to move on to the second weekend. After throttling No. 16 seed Radford in the round of 64, the Wildcats bombarded No. 9 seed Alabama and its sturdy defense (18th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency) with 17 three-pointers. This has the potential to turn into the type of searing shooting run that propelled Villanova to the program’s second national title two years ago. The Wildcats’ seasoned guards won’t be fazed by No. 5-seed West Virginia’s press on Friday. 

2. Michigan (No. 3 seed, West)

The Wolverines had a close call against Houston on Saturday. A freshman who’d made only one of his previous 10 three-point attempts heading into the round of 32 rescued them with a deep, buzzer-beating trey that temporarily turned 65-year-old head coach John Beilein into a 10-year-old at the neighborhood Poole party. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.) Michigan didn’t shoot the ball well from deep overall against the Cougars (8-of-30), but it still managed to hold Rob Gray & Co. below a point per possession. The Wolverines’ defensive strength gives them a bigger margin of error than they’ve typically had during Beilein’s tenure in the event their offense dries up.

3. Kentucky (No. 5 seed, South)

The biggest reason the Wildcats’ national title chances look so good right now isn’t directly related to their play. It’s the mayhem that shook the South region during the tourney’s opening weekend. No. 4-seed Arizona was upset by No. 13-seed Buffalo. No. 11-seed Loyola-Chicago downed both No. 6-seed Miami and No. 3-seed Tennessee. And, most unexpectedly, No. 1-seed Virginia was bulldozed by No. 16-seed UMBC. When the dust settled, Kentucky was the highest seed remaining in this quadrant of the bracket. Next up for the Wildcats is a meeting with middle-tier Big 12 squad Kansas State.

4. Duke (No. 2 seed, Midwest)

The college hoops world was eagerly anticipating a potential matchup between the Blue Devils and third-seeded Michigan State in the Sweet 16. Instead, Syracuse tripped up the Spartans in the second round to set up a meeting between the team with a higher ceiling than any other in the bracket and a No. 11 seed that arguably didn’t deserve to get in. Duke is familiar with the Orange’s 2–3 zone, and it beat them by 16 in Cameron Indoor Stadium less than a month ago. A potential game against No. 1-seed Kansas in the Elite Eight looms if the Blue Devils can notch a similar result against Syracuse on Friday.

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5. Kansas (No. 1 seed, Midwest)

The Jayhawks’ path to San Antonio is manageable in the short term. All they need to do to get to the Elite Eight is handle a Clemson team that ranked 11th in the ACC offensively on a per-possession basis during conference play. Things get more challenging after that, with Duke likely standing between Kansas and its first Final Four appearance in six years. The good news for the Jayhawks is that sophomore big man Udoka Azubuike is making progress recovering from the knee injury that sidelined him for the Big 12 tournament and limited him to only three minutes in the first-round win over Penn. Azubuike logged 22 minutes against Seton Hall on Saturday.

6. Texas Tech (No. 3 seed, East)

The Red Raiders sputtered toward the end of the regular season, dropping four consecutive games against Baylor, Oklahoma State, Kansas and West Virginia before a March 3 win over TCU, as senior point guard Keenan Evans nursed a toe injury. If the toe is still bothering Evans, it didn’t prevent him from lifting Texas Tech into the Sweet 16 by combining to score 45 points on 58.3% shooting in wins against No. 14-seed Stephen F. Austin and No. 6-seed Florida over the weekend. With Evans operating at the peak of his powers, the Red Raiders could well be the strongest team from the nation’s most challenging conference.

7. Gonzaga (No. 4 seed, West)

A year after reaching the national title game on the strength of a veteran-heavy lineup, the Zags have ridden a group of talented underclassmen to their fourth Sweet 16 in a row. Redshirt freshman Zach Norvell Jr. was the hero in Saturday’s 90–84 conquest of Ohio State, connecting on six of his 11 three-point tries in a 28-point showing. If his shots aren’t falling, Gonzaga can turn to one of two promising sophomore forwards, 6'8" Rui Hachimura and 6'10" Killian Tillie. The Zags are one of only two teams left in the bracket that rank in the top 15 of Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. (Duke is the other one.)

8. Purdue (No. 2 seed, East)

Whether or not mammoth center Isaac Haas makes a miraculous return to the court after fracturing his right elbow in Friday’s opening-round win over Cal State–Fullerton, the Boilermakers have enough offensive firepower to compromise Texas Tech’s stout defense, which ranks fourth in Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency. This matchup could boil down to Purdue’s ability to hold its own on the other end of the floor. Evans’s bucket-getting prowess isn’t in question, and the Boilermakers also will have to account for a pair of freshman wings, Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver, capable of burning opponents from both sides of the three-point arc.

9. West Virginia (No. 5 seed, East)

The biggest hurdle the Mountaineers need to clear to cut down the nets is their Sweet 16 matchup with No. 1-seed Villanova on Friday. West Virginia will spend 40 minutes trying to turn over a Wildcats team with a deep cast of talented guards that has given the ball away on only 14.7% of its possessions this season, good for 11th in the country. Failing that, the Mountaineers will count on senior point guard Jevon Carter locking down his counterpart, National Player of the Year candidate Jalen Brunson, while delivering his third consecutive game with 20 or more points while making at least half of his shot attempts.

10. Loyola-Chicago (No. 11 seed, South)

The Ramblers looked like one of the mid-major ranks’ best teams on Selection Sunday, and the Missouri Valley Conference champs confirmed that by beating Miami in the first round on Thursday and Tennessee in the second round on Saturday. The fact that both of those wins were decided by one-possession margins could be framed as an indication of Loyola-Chicago’s precarious survival so far. Alternatively, it could be viewed as evidence that the basketball gods are looking favorably upon the Ramblers. Either way, the South is up for grabs, and Loyola-Chicago is in position to capitalize.

11. Clemson (No. 5 seed, Midwest)

Clemson silenced upset-minded bracket-fillers who picked No. 12-seed New Mexico State in the first round with an 11-point win over the Aggies and followed up with one of the most impressive Ws of the tourney to date, a 31-point beatdown of Auburn in which it allowed only 0.75 points per possession. The Tigers will have a harder time taming Kansas’s offense, which ranks fifth in Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency and includes three players who have taken 180 or more three-point attempts and made at least 40% of them. A win there would likely earn Clemson an Elite Eight battle with Duke.

12. Texas A&M (No. 7 seed, West)

What a strange season this has been for the Aggies. Texas A&M rose as high as No. 5 in the AP Top 25 Poll while winning 11 of its first 12 games, only to drop seven of its next nine and ultimately head into the SEC tournament with a 9–9 league record. Yet after whipping No. 2-seed North Carolina in the second round on Sunday, the Aggies now stand a win over Michigan away from the program’s first Elite Eight berth. It won’t be a gimme: Texas A&M has not faced a defense as formidable as the Wolverines’ (third in Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency) so far in 2017–18.

13. Nevada (No. 7 seed, South)

The Wolf Pack held a lead for less than five of the 85 total minutes they played during their two wins over No. 10-seed Texas and No. 2-seed Cincinnati. Nevada isn’t going to be able to keep digging itself out of double-digit deficits in the second half, but it may not face another one of those this weekend. First, the Wolf Pack get Loyola-Chicago, whose defense rates among the best outside the high-major conferences (27th in Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency) but isn’t as stifling as the ones Nevada took on in the first two rounds. Send the Ramblers packing, and the Wolf Pack should meet Kentucky with a Final Four berth on the line.

14. Florida State (No. 9 seed, West)

When the bracket was released a little more than a week ago, it was hard to imagine this Seminoles team would advance further than the one that won 26 games and earned a No. 3 seed last season. Alas, not only is Florida State in the Sweet 16 for the first time in seven years, it got there by eliminating the program (Xavier) that denied the Seminoles a place in the same round of last year’s tourney. Florida State has size and depth, and that might be enough to put a scare into Gonzaga on Thursday. Either Michigan or Texas A&M would be next.

15. Kansas State (No. 9 seed, South)

These Wildcats will forever be linked to one of the most astonishing upsets in college basketball history. Two days after UMBC stunned Virginia in Charlotte, the Retrievers’ run came to an end at the hands of this year’s fourth-place finishers in the Big 12. The chaos in the South region could enable Kansas State to add a Final Four trip to its 2018 tourney legacy, though that will require taking down a Kentucky team that seems to be hitting its stride after a turbulent regular season. One ray of hope: Leading scorer and rebounder Dean Wade, a 6'10" junior forward who suffered a stress fracture in his foot earlier this month, said he is “like 98% sure” he’ll suit up on Thursday.

16. Syracuse (No. 11 seed, Midwest)

The Orange were fortunate to hear their name called on Selection Sunday, but head coach Jim Boeheim should be commended for lifting a young, thin squad with a punchless offense to three tournament wins, the most recent of which came over popular preseason national championship pick Michigan State. Syracuse would have had more upward mobility in a different quadrant of the bracket, but it had the misfortune of being placed in the same region as ACC competitor and No. 2 seed Duke. The Blue Devils shouldn’t have any issues picking apart the Orange’s zone, and good shots will be hard to come by for Syracuse against Duke’s own zone.