“DOWN GOES DUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUKE!” *vivacious cheering* “WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” *sudden realization that your bracket is now more useful for kindling*
Well, that was fun. The worst seeded March Madness tournament in memory was sure to deliver some crazy results even if we had to wait till the second round for them. Now that we’ve reached the Sweet 16, it’s time to throw out those awful seeds and re-rank the remaining field with an emphasis on recent performance.
Who comes out of the East is anybody’s guess after everybody’s favorite team to hate fell to South Carolina just after watching defending champion Villanova succumb to an inexplicably under-seeded Wisconsin. And if your eyesight is failing, there’s always Baylor to cheer on since their jerseys are rumored to have been spotted from space.
The Midwest watched the oft-mocked Big Ten flex its muscles (literally in the case of Caleb SWATagain sp?) and a built-for-Hollywood Michigan story but can either team topple Kansas in what will be almost a home game for the Jayhawks? Not to ignore an Oregon team that is dangerous but vulnerable without big man Chris Boucher, they’ll have their hands full against a Wolverine team of destiny.
The blue-blood region of the South is all chalk to this point with all four top seeds making it this far but don’t expect things to play out so simply from here while UCLA, Kentucky and North Carolina vie to add more banners to their storied programs. And don’t forget about a Butler team that cares not for history!
And of course the West with the 34-win team nobody trusts and a trendy pick in Arizona to reach the final Final 4. “Press” Virginia is ready to bust the remaining brackets the East hasn’t while Xavier should be happy to be here.
Now without further babbling…
16. SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
All of the college world thanks you South Carolina, for defeating the evil Duke empire. Just don’t get too *ahem* cocky. There’s no way this subpar shooting team repeats the miraculous out of body shooting experience they had in the second half against Duke but that shouldn’t prevent them from enjoying the ride. An “upset” of Baylor isn’t out of the question but with their first ever Sweet 16 appearance, the Gamecocks have already had a phenomenal season. Everything from this point is just extra.
15. XAVIER MUSKETEERS
The Musketeers don’t look like an exceptional team but there was nothing ordinary about their thrashing of a highly touted Florida State team full of depth. It’s hard to see them getting past a much better Arizona team but another game like that would give them a chance. After losing Edmond Sumner for the season, just making it this far in the tournament is a great success.
14. BAYLOR BEARS
I don’t know what’s worse, the highlighter yellow jerseys or Baylor fans with a heightened sense of team due to incredibly favorable outcomes around them. The Bears avoided a red-hot SMU, escaped an overrated USC team, and now avoid a Duke team that would’ve likely run them off the court. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good right? The Bears are a little of both but more of the former.
13. BUTLER BULLDOGS
Butler has been good, not great, but taken care of business in each game to reach the Sweet 16. Their path has been favorable till now when they’ll have to face a likely focused North Carolina. The Bulldogs run likely ends here but they’ve had a good season to build on.
12. FLORIDA GATORS
Florida is having a great tournament but their defensive effort against Virginia is one of the best I’ve seen this year. Holding ANYONE to 39 points in a game is incredible, but breaking through Virginia’s fantastic defense might’ve been even more impressive. Florida isn’t the most imposing team but they’re playing well at the right time and with the East now wide open, they have a great opportunity to steal a Final Four berth.
11. OREGON DUCKS
Oh, what could have been. Make no mistake, the Ducks are a very dangerous team as is but boy do they miss Chris Boucher. Their defense has sustained and their transition game is lethal. They’ll have to shut Michigan down from three-point land to have a shot but there’s no reason to think they can’t continue their run sans Boucher.
10. WISCONSIN BADGERS
DISRESPECK. An 8-seed? What season was the committee watching? The Badgers may have had some ups and downs but they’re a talented, veteran team that’s been there done that. This is a senior class trying to get to Final Four for an incredible third time in four years. They were plenty composed against the defending champs when they ended Villanova’s tournament run shockingly early. Their defense keeps them around and when shots fall, the Badgers win. With Duke ousted by South Carolina, Wisconsin has a very realistic path back to the holy land.
9. PURDUE BOILERMAKERS
The Boilermakers have looked like world beaters when playing NotMichigan. Excluding two recent losses to the Wolverines, Purdue has won ten straight. Led by an incredible front court of Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas, Purdue uses their size to bully teams in the paint and on the boards. An underrated passing team, the Boilermakers are second in the nation in assists and unafraid to mix it up when necessary. Their size will be an intriguing matchup against the speed of Kansas and a win could potentially set up a chance to redeem themselves against a Michigan team that has swept them on the season.
8. GONZAGA BULLDOGS
Gonzaga won A LOT of games and a shiny top line seed to show for it. They score, rebound, and play great defense. They’re statistically the best all around team in the country. They’ve only lost one game the entire season! So, where’s the love? Not with their schedule, that’s for sure. Everyone knows the Bulldogs are good, but the question is how good? They haven’t played enough quality opponents to be convincing and their tournament history doesn’t lend itself to optimism. A narrow escape from Northwestern, aided in part by a bad call, did nothing to alleviate concerns. We’ll know soon enough. Ball don’t lie.
7. WEST VIRGINIA MOUNTAINEERS
“Press” Virginia is fun to watch and hopefully here to stay. Their ultra high-pressure defense forces turnovers at an alarming rate and is exceedingly difficult to prepare for. It keeps them in games when they’re not shooting well but if they keep shooting anything close to the 52 percent clip they’re hitting threes at this tournament, they won’t be going anywhere.
6. MICHIGAN WOLVERINES
I’m not going to talk about plane crashes. I’m not going to talk about plane crashes. I’m not going to talk about plane crashes. Because as much as this Wolverine run has looked like fate, they’re playing damn good basketball. No lucky bounces, crazy injuries, or great breaks their way have led Michigan to the Sweet 16. They’re just beating teams and doing it any way necessary. They blitzed through the Big Ten tourney on little rest and practice equipment. Oklahoma State’s first-round performance would’ve taken out almost any team in the dance but Michigan matched and overcame.
They blitzed through the Big Ten Tournament on little rest and practice equipment. Oklahoma State’s first round performance would’ve taken out almost any team in the dance but Michigan matched and overcame. Live by the three? They shot just 17 all game against Louisville after making almost that many the game prior. 40 points in the paint and a master gameplan by John Beilein befuddled a Rick Pitino squad that thought they were forcing Michigan out of their element.
Forget about the Michigan of a few months ago. This team is playing as good as anyone in the country and has showcased an ability to beat great teams when the shots aren’t falling. Derrick Walton Jr. sees the court like a coach while Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson pull opposing bigs out of their comfort zone. Beilein might be the most underrated coach in America and no one wants to play these Wolverines right now.
The recipe is simple. They don’t foul, they don’t turn the ball over, the offense is uber-efficient (5th nationally), and they just play smart. There are vulnerabilities defensively and you can push them around on the boards but it will take a full 40 minutes of great play to leave with a win.
5. KENTUCKY WILDCATS
Here’s where it starts to get really murky. Sorting through the rest of these teams made something quite apparent; this field of 16 has a lot of talent. You can make an argument for most of the remaining teams anywhere after four but it’s Kentucky who leads the group. The other Wildcats in the field boast the typical five-star John Calipari team that does everything pretty well. Malik Monk is unquestionably great but he’s been a tad cold this March. What should scare the field is when Kentucky is winning with defense the way they escaped Wichita State despite struggling. As good as they’ve been it just feels like something is missing. Team fluidity among other things could send them home early as they’ve struggled to put away both of their first two tournament foes. UCLA presents a much tougher obstacle.
4. NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS
Ahhhh, the lone ACC flag carrier. The “best” conference in the land has been reduced to one team in the tournament, but at least it’s the (arguably) best one. The ACC champion Tar Heels have flirted near the top of the rankings all season and that’s not about to change with one subpar game against Arkansas. North Carolina could’ve been sent home this weekend and that fact isn’t lost on them. They score plenty and will out rebound everybody. Look for a much-improved effort against Butler. And hey, if not, the rest of us can continue bashing the overrated ACC. Win-win.
3. KANSAS JAYHAWKS
“Not my number 1!” Kansas has looked fantastic thus far. 23 of the last 27 champions won their first two tournament games by double digits. Only UCLA, Kansas, Florida, and Xavier can boast that in the current field. But, does it mean anything? Probably not. The Jayhawks haven’t had to play the toughest competition, largely outclassing their first two opponents so it’s tough to draw too many conclusions. They do boast two superstars in Frank Mason III and Josh Jackson and looked otherworldly in the second half against Michigan State but that was a case of cream rising. They have a lot going for them including playing close to home and have the talent, but Bill Self will have to navigate a treacherous tournament path that could look something like Purdue, an increasingly lethal Michigan, and then a monster of the South just to get TO the final. Call me doubtful.
2. ARIZONA WILDCATS
How can two of the best teams in America come from one of its worst conferences? Why can’t restaurants ever get my order right? Why is a team that struggled to put away Saint Mary’s so high on my list? BECAUSE ITS MY LIST AND I’LL WRITE WHAT I WANT. Also because they’re a reeeeeeeally good team and probably the last UCLA wants to see in the title game. East Coasters likely haven’t seen nearly as many Wildcats games as they should but they really are the cat’s meow. (Woof, that was a bad pun.) Keep doubting Sean Miller and Arizona’s favorable path while they make another trip to the Final 4 and likely the final.
1. UCLA BRUINS
WHOAAAAAA, UCLA? Yeah, bruh. I don’t want Lavar Ball coming to my house in the night with bad intentions. Speaking of bad intentions, have you been watching Lonzo Ball dissect opposing defenses like a weird episode of Dexter? Gross. But effective like everything UCLA does on offense. My early season favorite to cut down the nets has never wavered (calling my shot like Babe) and I love this Bruins team with unselfish players at every position and a pass first mentality. Their ball movement is seldom matched but they know when to pull the trigger. They’ll score in bunches to carry a defense that’s not nearly as bad as the narrative would suggest – all the way to the record books, unabated Lonzo hype, and wayyyy too much coverage of daddy.