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Ranking the 2021 Men's Sweet 16: Who Looks Strongest After Two Rounds?

After four nonstop days of basketball, a chaos-filled men’s NCAA tournament opening weekend is over and the Sweet 16 is set. There have been plenty of surprises already (looking at you, Oral Roberts, the Pac-12 and Illinois’s being the first No. 1 seed to fall), but now, the focus can turn to what comes next. While it’d be nice to think that anyone still around has a shot at the national title, the reality is that some teams are a heck of a lot closer to achieving it than others. With that in mind, we’ve ranked the 16 teams still dancing, with particular weight put on recency.

1. Gonzaga

The Zags have done nothing to dispel their status as the favorite to cut down the nets on April 5. Mark Few’s team got a tougher-than-expected test from Oklahoma in the second round but never truly wobbled during a 16-point win. Drew Timme looked unstoppable, and Corey Kispert continued his hot three-point shooting of late. Anyone who wants to knock off Gonzaga is going to need to score with it, and that’s a difficult proposition given the team’s breakneck pace (it holds the highest effective field goal percentage in transition in the country) and proficiency inside the arc. Few played only seven against the Sooners and used all five starters for at least 30 minutes, so attempting to wear them down could be key.

Lucas Williamson, Corey Kispert and John Petty

2. Baylor

The Bears didn’t always play at their best against Wisconsin, yet they still put away a Badgers team that had just shredded UNC. Crucially, Baylor’s defense, which appeared to lose a step after its February COVID-19 pause, looks like it’s getting its mojo back, a development that would be devastating to other title contenders. The Bears had a top-three efficient offense and defense on KenPom when that pause began, and while their offense is still No. 3, the D has slipped to No. 37 nationally. This remains the top three-point-shooting team in the country, and Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague are as frightening a trio as ever for any opponent to deal with.

3. Alabama

After struggling to find a rhythm against Iona, Alabama looked like a Final Four team in a 96–77 blowout victory over Maryland. When the Tide are knocking down threes at a high rate, Gonzaga might be the only team in the country that can beat them. Nate Oats’s club certainly did that against the Terps, draining 16 threes in the game to blow Maryland away despite UMD’s shooting more efficiently from the field than any Tide opponent all year. A matchup with a hot UCLA team looms in the Sweet 16, but Alabama has the athletes on the perimeter to slow down the Bruin guards and enough firepower to make the program’s first-ever Final Four.

4. Michigan

No Isaiah Livers, no problem … so far, at least, for the Wolverines, who certainly would love to get their second-leading scorer back should they keep advancing (for what it’s worth, Juwan Howard reiterated Monday night that Livers is “out indefinitely”). LSU looked like a dangerous No. 8 seed for Michigan, and it nearly played out on the court until the Wolverines got to another gear in the second half to take control for good. Even without Livers, this team is bursting with talent and scoring from the likes of Franz Wagner, Hunter Dickinson, Mike Smith, Eli Brooks and Chaundee Brown Jr. It held the explosive Tigers to their ninth-lowest lowest points per possession of the season, despite LSU’s committing only three turnovers. Don’t count the Big Ten’s last hope out.

MORE: Five Things We Learned as the Men's Sweet 16 Is Set

5. Loyola Chicago

The debate as to whether Loyola was fairly seeded as a No. 8 is moot at this point, but the Ramblers certainly looked like a force to be reckoned with in a second-round win over Illinois. Loyola’s defense slowed Ayo Dosunmu and forced him into his lowest-scoring game of the season, and that completely disrupted the flow of the Illini offense. Add in an offense that runs incredibly crisp sets, and Loyola looks like the favorite to get out of the Midwest Region. It’s reasonable to question whether the Ramblers could slow down on the offensive end at some point given their propensity for that at times this season, but they have the best defense in the nation and are a real threat to beat anyone in this tournament.

6. Arkansas

The Razorbacks are back in the Sweet 16 for the first time in 25 years, and Eric Musselman’s squad has a great chance to go even deeper. Matching up with Cinderella No. 15 seed Oral Roberts, a team the Hogs already beat by double figures this season, is about as favorable a Sweet 16 draw as possible. The Hogs are the youngest team left standing in the field, relying heavily on a trio of talented freshmen to play key roles. That youth may bite them in a potential matchup with experienced Baylor in the Elite Eight, but the young Razorbacks have been poised in big moments all year long and have a real chance of taking this team to a Final Four.

7. Houston

The Cougars were on the ropes late against Rutgers, but Kelvin Sampson’s club showed remarkable poise and won late to advance to the program’s second consecutive Sweet 16. A key for Houston if it wants to keep advancing in this tournament is getting DeJon Jarreau fully healthy—the senior dealt with a painful hip pointer in the game against Rutgers and fought through it despite clearly not being 100%. The Cougars will need him at full strength to win two more games and get to the Final Four. A matchup with a Syracuse team that seemingly hasn’t missed from three in a month looms next.

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8. Florida State

After a somewhat shaky opener against UNC Greensboro, FSU had a better showing against a Colorado team coming off a scorching effort vs. Georgetown. The Seminoles held the Buffaloes to a paltry 53 points and forced one of Colorado’s worst offensive outings of the entire season, harkening back to recent tournaments when Leonard Hamilton’s defenses have stymied opponents who have little time to gameplan. Florida State’s strong D raises this team’s ceiling, though it needs to find a solution for its pesky turnover bug if it wants to have a real chance at being the final team standing.

9. USC

The Trojans made mincemeat of Kansas on Monday night, dismantling the Jayhawks by 34 for one of the program’s worst losses ever. USC made 11 of its 18 threes in the blowout while completely shutting down KU’s offense, which shot just 32.4% on two-pointers going up against Evan Mobley and the Trojans’ front line. That interior advantage is a big reason why USC is a legitimate threat in the West Region, and Mobley has the ability to change a game on both ends of the floor. This team won’t always shoot the way it did from deep against Kansas, and it’s not the kind of defense that will force opponents into a ton of mistakes, but the Trojans are playing well enough to cause some serious havoc.

10. Oregon

It’s hard to tell whether Oregon’s dominant display against Iowa had more to do with the Ducks’ offense or Iowa’s shaky defense, but either way Dana Altman’s club looked explosive. Oregon right now has terrific floor spacing, multiple guards who can attack off the bounce and versatile bigs who can hurt you in a variety of ways. All five starters are listed at 6' 5" or 6' 6", and Altman relies on them heavily, but the versatility of this group makes it a difficult matchup on both ends of the floor. Dealing with USC’s size may be a challenge, though, and we’ll see whether the Ducks can fare better than they did when these two teams matched up in February.

11. Creighton

The Bluejays were fortunate to survive UC Santa Barbara, but made sure to not let Ohio hang around in the second round to punch their ticket to the Sweet 16. It’s hard sometimes to figure out this Creighton team: Is it the one that lost six games this season to teams ranked 60th or lower on KenPom or the one that has the ability to shoot the lights out and score with almost anyone? Considering Gonzaga is up next, Creighton’s only hope of advancing is for the latter to show up Sunday. Led by Marcus Zegarowski, the Bluejays had five in double figures against the Bobcats. That’s the kind of formula they need to go blow-to-blow with the Bulldogs.

12. Syracuse

Well, well, well. Jim Boeheim and the Sweet 16 meet again, after another Orange team that snuck into the Big Dance via a late run is peaking at just the right time. Buddy Boeheim has been absolutely torching nets from deep, including draining 24 total in his last four games, and the classic Syracuse zone is once again proving to be an issue in March. ’Cuse’s hot shooting will be tested against a gritty Houston defense holding opponents to just 29.3% from three this year, and the zone presents a major concern going against the Cougars’ offensive-glass crashers. But it’s not hard to picture this program sticking around, and it wouldn’t be the first time.

13. Villanova

The Wildcats cruised past a pair of mid-majors to open their run in the NCAA tournament, and while a tough test against Baylor looms, I think Jay Wright deserves a ton of credit for the adjustments he made without Collin Gillespie. Villanova played through Jeremiah Robinson-Earl both from the post and elbows, allowing the big man to distribute to the Wildcats’ host of perimeter shooters. It worked to perfection: Villanova turned it over just 12 times total in two games and poured in an average of 78.5 points per game against a pair of traditionally steady defenses.

14. UCLA

The Bruins had less than a 10% chance of winning with under two minutes to play in regulation in the First Four against Michigan State, but somehow found a way to survive and advance and now sit in the Sweet 16. A huge reason why has been Johnny Juzang, who has scored 23, 27 and 17 points respectively in the team’s first three NCAA tournament games. The Bruins have been efficient offensively so far in Indianapolis, and will need to find a way to score with Alabama in the Sweet 16 against a Tide defense that plays with high intensity.

15. Oregon State

Were it not for the team below it, the Beavers would have won the award for “most surprising Sweet 16 team.” Picked to finish last in the Pac-12 preseason poll, they looked the part early on, dropping December games to Wyoming and a 324th-ranked Portland team. On Feb. 1, Oregon State was ranked 124th on KenPom. Since then, it’s gone 11–5 and risen 74 spots to No. 50. What’s changed? The Beavers’ shooting has greatly improved, especially inside the arc; they’ve taken much better care of the ball; and they’ve made strides defensively. The backcourt pairing of senior Ethan Thompson and sophomore Jarod Lucas has been solid, and the latter is shooting 41.8% from three over his last eight games. The Beavers are believers, but will the magic run out?

MORE: Max Abmas Talks Oral Roberts's Cinderella Run

16. Oral Roberts

Can the run continue? When you have Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor, anything is possible. ORU’s defense has been an Achilles’ heel all season long, but the Golden Eagles have found a way to get stops when it matters through two games in Indianapolis. The rematch with Arkansas should be interesting—Oral Roberts led by 10 at halftime in that first December meeting before folding late, but the Hogs are a different team with Jaylin Williams playing big minutes at the five now. Williams matching up with Kevin Obanor will be a huge battle on pick-and-pops in the ORU offense, one that Obanor has to win if the Golden Eagles want to become the first No. 15 seed to reach the Elite Eight. 

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