Publish date:

Roundtable: Which Men's Final Four, National Title Dark Horses Are We Eyeing?

Author:

The men's Sweet 16 will be held Saturday and Sunday, and our ranking of all 16 teams and picks to reach the Final Four and cut down the nets on April 5 are in. But while our staff is high on Gonzaga and Baylor, what if they don't meet on the tournament's final night in Indianapolis? A number of intriguing contenders are emerging, plus four double-digit seeds remain looking to spring more upsets. We asked six writers five key questions around the tournament that's been and where it's headed.

What was the biggest surprise of the opening four days to you?

Pat Forde: The annihilation of the Big Ten. I thought Michigan State would beat UCLA. I did not see the meltdowns from Ohio State and Purdue coming. And I had Illinois in the national title game, so that didn't quite go as planned. (Though I did say several times that the Illini had a very tough draw.) Michigan and Wisconsin have done better than I expected. Iowa, Rutgers and Maryland bowed out when I believed they would.

Jeremy Woo: There wasn't one upset that totally floored me, but the volume of high seeds that took early spills was both entertaining and unexpected. I saw Texas and Kansas coming, and Iowa was a little scary, but I thought Illinois, Ohio State and Oklahoma State would at least make the Sweet 16. This has been a nice reminder of why the tourney format is always so fascinating, and the way it can level the field and help hot teams pull off huge wins. I did not see Oral Roberts, Syracuse or Oregon State coming.

Jason Jordan: Easily the Big Ten’s choke job. All season long it’s been college basketball’s top league, it got rewarded with a conference-record nine teams in the tournament and it just totally tanked. I mean, really, Illinois? All due respect to Sister Jean, but the seeds looked reversed in that game from start to finish. Only Michigan remains, while the Pac-12 looks like the top dog with four. Gotta love March!

Kevin Sweeney: The Big Ten's struggles stunned me. Part of it was certainly matchups: Iowa drawing a dynamic Oregon offense, Illinois drawing underseeded Loyola Chicago, even Purdue having to deal with a North Texas defense optimized to slow down Trevion Williams and Zach Edey. Still, I expected all the conference battles this winter would have prepared the conference better for March than it did. At this point, there's probably a greater than 50-50 shot that no Big Ten team reaches the Final Four. And no matter how good the league was in the regular season, people will remember this brutal NCAA tournament.

Nick Selbe: As surprising as it is to look at the bracket now and see Oral Roberts among the last 16 teams left standing, watching Loyola Chicago manhandle Illinois was not something many could have seen coming. Even as the Big Ten crumbled during the first weekend, the Illini had the look of title contenders over the last month. Perhaps this shouldn't have been that surprising considering we've seen the Ramblers pull this off before. But Illinois felt every bit deserving of a No. 1 seed, and was promptly run off the floor.

Molly Geary: Have to go with Illinois losing (and not even in a close game!), and that’s absolutely no disrespect to Loyola Chicago. The Illini entered the Big Dance passing both the look test and the analytics test as a legitimate threat to Baylor and Gonzaga. They got a tough draw, but not making it out of the second round can’t be seen as anything but a colossal disappointment.


Which non–No. 1 or No. 2 seed can you most picture winning the whole thing?

Forde: I'm rolling with Loyola Chicago. It has the easiest path to the Final Four of anyone seeded lower than second, thanks to its own work to clear out the No. 1 seed. The Ramblers were sensational against Illinois and know what it takes to get there. And as NCAA tournament history has shown, a coach with Final Four experience is more likely to win a title than one without that experience. Since 1990, the only coaches to win a national championship on their first trip to the Final Four are Tubby Smith in 1998, Jim Calhoun in 1999, Bill Self in 2008, Kevin Ollie in 2014 and Tony Bennett in 2019.

Woo: Florida State. The Seminoles weren't at their best in the first weekend, but they're trending in a great direction defensively and won big, anyway. They have enough collective talent to beat Michigan and Alabama if they execute. RaiQuan Gray has become the critical piece for them in the absence of a true point guard. Of course, winning it all probably means beating Gonzaga and Baylor. But what FSU is doing, relative to the other teams in its boat, at least feels sort of sustainable.

Jordan: Loyola Chicago. The Ramblers were one of the best defensive teams in the country all season, and in the NCAA tournament, they’ve ramped up the pressure even more. They held Big Ten champion Illinois, who averaged 80 points per game, to just 58. They forced them into shooting just 28% from three, nearly 10% lower than the Illini’s regular-season average of 37%. The Ramblers attack defensively, crowding guards on the perimeter with active hands and they’re masterful at getting hands up. Also, Cameron (King Krut) Krutwig is coming off one of his most dominant games (19 points, 12 rebounds, five assists) against one of the country’s most dominant bigs (Kofi Cockburn). All that and I haven’t even mentioned Sister Jean.

Sweeney: Am I ridiculous to say Loyola Chicago? The way that the Ramblers completely took Illinois out of rhythm was so impressive that I believe they have as good a chance as any team not named Baylor of beating Gonzaga. Lucas Williamson took Ayo Dosunmu out of the game with his defensive work against the Illini, and having a lockdown guy like that will serve the Ramblers well throughout the rest of this tournament. Add in how unique and difficult to prepare for the Loyola offense is, and I think the Ramblers have the best chance.

Selbe: Based on having the path of least resistance, I'll go with Loyola Chicago. Oregon State is maybe the hottest team left in the field, but the Ramblers have walked this road before and look to be in a different class than the Beavers. Houston, the highest remaining seed in the Midwest, was fortunate to survive a second-round game against Rutgers and will have its hands full against Syracuse.

Geary: Loyola wants to force you to shoot tough shots off the dribble, and it has two of the top-five players nationally (Krutwig and Williamson) in defensive win shares. There are a lot of elite offenses left and odds are one of them wins, but the ability to muck a game up and knock an offense off-kilter can be a separator in March.


Syracuse's Alan Griffin and Buddy Boeheim embrace

Which double-digit seed has the best chance of reaching the Final Four?

Forde: Syracuse. You have to like someone coming out of the most decimated region, the Midwest. And while I do expect Loyola to meet and beat Syracuse in the regional final, the Orange certainly have some things going for them: a coach who knows the way, a zone defense that melts down minds and arguably the hottest shooter in the tournament in Buddy Boeheim.

Woo: Oregon State. I think this is pretty clear after attending both Beaver upsets last weekend. They're experienced, they have a ton of size, they're playing loose and they have enough talent to emerge from their group with Loyola, Syracuse and Houston. The talent gap between those four teams isn't wide at all, and I really think the Beavers have figured something out over the past month. With no elite team in their part of the bracket, this is legitimately doable.

SI Recommends

Jordan: No. 15 Oral Roberts. The Golden Eagles are the second-ever 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16 and they have the most lethal inside-outside scoring duo in Indianapolis. Point guard Max Abmas led the country in scoring during the regular season (24.2 ppg) and he’s upped his production to 27.5 points per game in the tourney. Kevin Obanor has been on an unreal tear during the tournament, averaging 29 points and 11 rebounds per game. The best part? Oral Roberts is forcing 18 turnovers a game and playing with the confidence that accompanies a seven-game winning streak.

Sweeney: Syracuse. If the Orange continue this heater from beyond the arc, they might be the favorite to come out of the Midwest region. For all its flaws, the Syracuse zone has seemed to confuse opposing offenses through two games in Indianapolis. And when you combine that with Buddy Boeheim's heroic March efforts, you have a team that is capable of making some noise. Let's see how the Orange zone works against a Houston team that loves to pound the offensive glass.

Selbe: To contradict my previous answer, the choice here has to be Syracuse, right? Jim Boeheim has followed this script before, and if opponents haven't solved the 2–3 zone yet, in the year 2021, maybe they never will. Besides, Buddy Boeheim has yet to show that he's capable of missing a shot in this tournament. If that continues, the Orange will be cutting down some nets in a couple of games.

Geary: From my view, it has to be Syracuse or Oregon State, because those two have the most manageable path of the four. Give me the Orange with their hot hand from deep and that 2–3 zone, though Houston is favored for a reason.


Who is Gonzaga's biggest threat in the West Region?

Forde: USC. The Trojans' size is giving everyone problems but could be one of the few things the Zags can't adequately answer. Drew Timme is an excellent player, but not a true low-post anchor or rim protector. And the big men behind him on Mark Few's bench aren't ready for the Evan Mobley experience. Gonzaga is accustomed to playing against ginormous size when it faces Saint Mary's—but this would be an entirely different level of athleticism.

Woo: USC. Am I totally absurd for thinking the Trojans have a chance to beat Gonzaga? It's certainly not likely, noting that USC may not have an offensive outburst in it after demolishing Kansas. But this is a team with a truly elite defense, tons of size and the best rim protector in college basketball. Evan Mobley might actually be the best player left in this tournament. If they make enough threes and limit turnovers, the Trojans might be able to take away enough easy baskets to play the Bulldogs close—and at that point, anything can happen. It's a juicy matchup in concept. I do think they'll handle Oregon and give it to us.

Jordan: USC. The Trojans have great length and likely the most versatile frontline that the Bulldogs have faced all season. Evan and Isaiah Mobley have been dominant on both ends of the floor all tournament, and Evan gives the Bulldogs a look defensively that they haven’t seen all season. Gonzaga has been plus-14.5 on the boards in the tournament; that likely wouldn’t be the case against the Trojans. That should worry Gonzaga.

Sweeney: Oregon. I've said all along that this Ducks team will be a factor in this tournament, and they certainly looked the part in a dominant win over Iowa Monday. The versatility of the small-ball lineups Oregon runs out should help defensively against the Zags because they can switch one through five, and Chris Duarte is the type of player who can take over and win you a game against anyone in the country. A tough test against USC looms, but if they can get by the Trojans, I think the Ducks have a real shot against Gonzaga.

Selbe: Mark Few had to watch USC's dismantling of Kansas with a furrowed brow. Nobody's been able to slow down Gonzaga's lethal offense all season long, but the Trojans' length, athleticism and commitment on the defensive end can present serious problems, even for the Bulldogs' juggernaut. Oregon is a talented team that's peaking at the right time and will be a tough out for USC, but the Trojans have already beaten the Ducks by 14 earlier this season. If it's USC and Gonzaga in the Elite Eight, the Zags could be in store for their toughest test yet.

Geary: Echoing the Trojans here. I don’t think Creighton or Oregon quite have the defensive horses to pull it off, but a matchup between the nation’s No. 1 two-point defense and its No. 1 two-point offense is quite intriguing indeed.


Fill in the blank: If Gonzaga or Baylor doesn't win the title, [BLANK] will

Forde: Loyola. Sister Jean is a force to be reckoned with.

Woo: Alabama. The Tide are probably the third-most complete team in the field, since Michigan is missing Isaiah Livers, and are tough to plan for given how consistent they are in their strong suits. Alabama is going to guard, it will launch enough threes to put pressure on people and its effort level has rarely waned this season. Nate Oats deserves a ton of credit. The Tide will not go quietly.

Jordan: Alabama.

Sweeney: Loyola Chicago. The magic of Cameron Krutwig's mustache and Sister Jean are on their side, and the Ramblers are remarkably disciplined on both ends of the floor. I don't think they can pull it off, but I'm not sure anyone not named Gonzaga or Baylor can, either.

Selbe: Michigan.

Geary: Alabama.

SI’s tournament newsletter analyzes everything you need to know about the Big Dance: what just happened and what’s happening next. Sign up for Morning Madness here.