Ranking the Sweet 16 teams from least likely to most likely to win the national title
The field of 68 is now down to a Sweet 16, just 16 teams left total that can win a national title.
So who will win it?
We rank the 16 teams left from most likely to least likely to win a national championship.
Starting with No. 16...
16. Saint Peters
While the Peacocks odds of winning it all might be low, anyone who doubts Shaheen Holloway without a little bit of worry, just hasn’t been paying attention to this Saint Peter’s team. After shocking Kentucky in the biggest difference of budgets in NCAA Tournament history, the Peacocks followed it off with another win over Murray State to secure their first trip to the second weekend in program history. In addition, this was the first time ever that a team from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference has made the Sweet 16. This in a conference that currently has Rick Pitino.
Just a few weeks ago Pitino endorsed Holloway for the open UMass job. While he was right about Holloway being deserving, odds are he might have a few more offers coming his way, including from his alma mater, Seton Hall, which just opened on Monday morning with Kevin Willard's departure for Maryland. Holloway has mentioned numerous times in his post-game press conferences, that his team is not afraid of anything and there is no reason for them to be “because it is just basketball.” Instilling that confidence in your team, is a great mentality to have that has taken Saint Peter's up to this point. While their odds at a title may be slim, being only the third No. 15 seed ever to make the Sweet 16 is no joke for this program that has already made history.
15. Iowa State
TJ Otzelberger has proven to every Athletic Director in the country that there is no excuse for not being able to win quickly at a new job. After taking over a team that only won two games last season, Iowa State has become one of the best stories in college hoops as one of the last 16 teams standing. In addition, Otzelberger is a Wisconsin native, and the fact that his Cyclones were able to knock out Wisconsin out in a de-facto Badgers home game in Milwaukee on Sunday is more than impressive.
So how did they get here? Otzelberger hit the transfer portal hard, but instead of going after the biggest names he went for the correct fit in the correct role. Penn State Transfer Izaiah Brockington has played the best basketball of his career this season, which included 19 points against LSU in Iowa State’s first round victory. In addition, freshman guard Tyrese Hunter made a number of clutch shots, including the long range three, to put Iowa State up by 5 in the final minute to secure the victory.
The number one concern for Iowa State going into the NCAA Tournament, was their struggles on the offensive end. Despite winning both games that continued this weekend, as they failed to hit 60 points in both games, holding their two opponents to 49 and 54 points respectively. As great as that defense is, it's what's realistically holding Iowa State away from winning four more games and taking home a title.
With that said, year one in Ames, has been a massive success for Otzelberger and the Cyclones.
Michigan is a team that has stared adversity straight in the face since the start of the season, and because of that didn’t flinch in their biggest moments of their tournament games. The Wolverines found themselves down by 15 in the first half of their opening game against Colorado State, yet ended the game by outsourcing Colorado State 62-35 which led to the 12 point victory. In addition, Tennessee seized control late in a Round of 32 game, yet Michigan never gave up and found a way into the second weekend for the fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament. Sophomore big man contributed 27 points and 11 rebounds while shooting 3 / 5 from deep. In addition the Wolverines' experience came up clutch in a big way, as Eli Brooks had 23 points in 39 minutes of action, which included the tough hook shot in the final minute to secure the victory for Michigan.
Juwan Howard has been a popular topic of conversation this season, after everything that went down in Madison a few weeks ago. It must have felt great for Howard to remind everyone again just how good of a basketball coach he really is, as he has done a tremendous job with this Michigan program in only 3 years.
In the Sweet 16, a 2018 National Title game rematch with Villanova awaits, and ironically it will be in San Antonio which was also the same city as the 2018 National Championship. Eli Brooks and staff Members Saadi Washington and Jaaron Simmons are the only members of that Michigan program that still remain, but Wolverines fans will be hungry for the opportunity to get some payback on Villanova.
13. Miami (FL)
On November 28th, Miami had just lost to Alabama by 32 points and there were some serious questions on Jim Larranaga’s future in Coral Gables. From that point on, Larranaga changed to a primary small ball lineup, with four guards and it changed the Hurricanes season. Having four guys that are capable of handling the ball and creating a shot at any time, is a great formula that Larranaga has already seen work in this tournament with wins over USC and Auburn. The Hurricanes committed a total of seven turnovers in their first two tournament games while forcing 31 on defense. They're also surprisingly good at scoring in the paint, given their lack of size, because their guards make up for it by being absolutely fearless.
Another statistic that stands out is Miami that shot a combined 4/29 from three-point range in both of their games this weekend, and still managed to win both. It is fair to assume that number will increase heading into an interesting Sweet 16 matchup with Iowa State. The Midwest Region has officially been blown up with Auburn, Wisconsin and Iowa all being knocked out early, and Miami is in prime position to take advantage of that.
The one concern here is rebounding, but that shouldn’t kill them against Iowa State, especially if they were able to survive the NBA caliber front court of Auburn. Miami is plus-24 in turnovers, but they're minus-20 in rebounds, which wasn't even as bad as expected, considering how big both USC and Auburn are in the paint. It shouldn't be a problem against the Cyclones, but that will need to be fixed if they have aspirations of going even deeper.
For a majority of the season, the narrative on Providence has not been how good of a coaching job Ed Cooley has done with this group or their clutch backcourt of Al Durham and Jared Bynum. Instead, it has been how “lucky” Providence has been, winning close game after close game. While variance is a real thing, at this point it’s been clear for a while now that Providence is a legitimately good basketball team, as they have won their first regular season title in school history and have also now advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1997. Many of the top teams in the country got knocked out this past weekend including Kentucky, Tennessee, Baylor and Auburn, while this “lucky” Providence team is still alive.
The thing that is so appealing about Providence, has been their ability to win close games, time after time. Providence is 11-2 in games decided by 5 points or less, which is important in this tournament, where seemingly every game is close. Ironically, Providence had the lead for the majority of both of their games of the opening weekend, and their 28-point Round of 32 win over Richmond was the largest of any team this weekend.
The next matchup with Kansas should be Providence’s biggest challenge yet, but if the game is close in the end, one team will have the major advantage because they have been there before. After making the second weekend when few expected them to do so, Providence will be playing with house money in Chicago, with all of the pressure on the Jayhawks.
11. North Carolina
Part of what makes the NCAA Tournament so great is no matter how disappointing your season has been, as long as you can find a way in, then you control your own destiny. North Carolina has been a team written off many times by many people this season after a handful of deflating or disappointing losses. Most people will remember Duke’s stunning regular season loss to North Carolina a few weeks ago as “How on earth did Duke lose Coach K’s final home game to their archrival?” The answer has a lot to do with the fact that North Carolina might have just turned a major corner, at the best possible time.
Similar to the Duke game, North Carolina showed major mental toughness and fortitude by finding a way to beat Baylor in one of the crazier NCAA Tournament games of recent memory. North Carolina was running Baylor off of the floor for the first 30 minutes of the game and it looked like the Tar Heels were assuredly Sweet 16 bound. However, everything changed with about nine minutes left when North Carolina’s Brady Manek got ejected from the game for a controversial Flagrant 2 Foul Call. Without the services of Manek and later Caleb Love who fouled out before the end of regulation, North Carolina was playing Dontrez Styles and Justin McCoy major minutes sweat which may have made Tar Heels.
However, behind RJ Davis’ 30 points, North Carolina somehow escaped with a victory. North Carolina was a team ranked in the Preseason Top 15 based on their overall talent level, and for the first time all season they are playing up to that level of talent. North Carolina will take on UCLA in the Sweet 16, with Jaime Jaquez Jr.’s status unknown due to an ankle injury.
If Hubert Davis wants to shock the world and get to a Final Four, he is in the correct bracket to do it with both top seeds getting knocked out.
One of the most surprising things to come out of the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend is that Arkansas was the only SEC team playing to win both of their games. Arkansas didn’t even play particularly great in either of those games, letting both of their opponents hang with them until the end. With that being said, the only thing that matters in the NCAA Tournament is finding a way to win games, and that is exactly what Arkansas did. After New Mexico State’s Teddy Allen put the team on his back against UConn and dropped 37 points, the Razorbacks were able to limit him to only 12 points on 5/16 shooting from the field. Eric Musselman has experience winning games in the NCAA Tournament, and he made sure that Allen would not be the reason why New Mexico State would beat the Hogs and forced others to beat them. Au'Diese Toney did a phenomenal job frustrating Allen for the majority of the game, and Arkansas was able to make just enough shots to win the rock fight.
Heading into the Sweet 16, it's time for Eric Musselman’s name to enter the elite coach conversation, based on what he’s done since arriving in Fayetteville. Musselman has led Arkansas to second weekend appearances in back-to-back seasons, after losing a bevy of talent during that span as well. Muss has been able to use that Nevada blueprint of giving you best player the ball and letting him cook, while others find their role around him. From Mason Jones, Moses Moody and now JD Notae it has always been clear, whose job is to fire up shots.
After starting SEC Conference play 0-3, Arkansas is 17-3 since and looks like a different team compared to early in the season. Between forcing their turnovers into a very high turnover percentage and being one of the best free throw shooting teams in the country, this Arkansas team has the formula to keep winning games in this tournament. While a juggernaut does await in Gonzaga, giving Musselman and his staff a few days to prep is always dangerous and in order to be the best you have to beat the best. Arkansas lost to the eventual National Champions Baylor in the Elite 8 last season, and this time around against one of the country's best, one thing is evident. This team has a better chance of winning than last year, due to their experience and number of players that can step up and make a play. Between Notae and Stanely Umude on the wing, alongside veterans like Devo Davis and Jaylin Williams, this Arkansas team isn’t afraid of anyone or anything.
One year after being upset in their opening game of the tournament against North Texas, Matt Painter and the same group of players are heading to the second weekend. Purdue has been a team with Final Four expectations since the season started, looking for the school's first trip to the final weekend since 1980. They will catch a break, facing No. 15 seeded Saint Peters in Philadelphia on Friday Night. The top two seeds in this region - Baylor and Kentucky - are also out as well, and Matt Painter will never have a better opportunity to lead this team to New Orleans.
So why are the Boilermakers only No. 9 on this list?
As great of a season as it has been for Purdue, they haven’t had many moments where they have risen to the occasion, with their backs against the wall. Purdue has had an elite offense for the entirety of the season, ranking No. 3 in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. The major problem for Purdue has been on the defensive end, where they rank No. 171. But to its credit, that wasn’t the case against Texas. While giving up 71 points may not look special, with this team's ability to score that will get it done on most nights. Matt Painter made it a priority to get the ball to Zach Edey down low and let Jaden Ivey create. There have been many times this season where it feels like either Ivey is doing too much and needs to slow down or Painter needs to get him the ball more. Purdue was able to find that balance this past weekend, which included Ivey hitting two absolute dagger threes to finish off Texas.
An East Regional Final against UCLA would be must-see TV, considering both teams are older with experience. Purdue also played North Carolina earlier in November, putting up 93 on the Tar Heels. The expectations for this Purdue team should be New Orleans and anything short of that would be a failure.
Mick Cronin has now led the Bruins to the Sweet 16 in each of his first two NCAA Tournament appearances in Westwood. Considering where this UCLA program was when he first got there, it has been remarkable to see a culture change occur in such a short amount of time.
UCLA did not play well at all in their opening game of the tournament against Akron, and quite frankly they were lucky to escape with a victory. That is when having a team full of players with NCAA Tournament experience really comes in handy. This is the same UCLA team that beat Alabama and Michigan in really close high pressure tournament games a season ago, and also went toe to toe with a historically good Gonzaga team. Having that experience is good enough to win you a game or two against a 13 seed that you may not have had any business winning. However, UCLA knew that it could not play that badly against Saint Mary’s or they could be in trouble. UCLA came out all gas no breaks in the Round of 32, beating Saint Mary's, by 16 after controlling the game for a majority of the 40 minutes.
The Bruins are also on the very short list of teams that rank top 15 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency on KenPom. Historically teams that rank in the top 40 of both categories are the ones that have success in March, and UCLA is better than that on both ends, by a significant margin. The one worry for UCLA entering their Sweet 16 game against North Carolina, will be the status of star forward Jaime Jaquez and his twisted ankle. UCLA does have opinions such as Jaylen Clark and Peyton Watson to fill the void, but no one can deny the importance of Jaquez to this UCLA team. Two years ago when Cronin first arrived in Westwood, it was the insertion of Jaquez into the starting lineup that started to make things go for the Bruins, and it hasn't stopped since then, as Jacquez is currently this team's second leading scorer and leading rebounder, averaging just under 16 and six per game.
Mick Cronin may not have been happy originally with UCLA’s draw, however with only North Carolina, Purdue and Saint Peters in the way, it is realistic for the Bruins to go to back-to-back Final Four’s since Ben Howland was the team's head coach in 2007 and 2008.
At one time a little over a decade ago, Jay Wright was on the hot seat and known as the coach that struggled to get out of the first weekend of the tournament. Over the past seven years however that narrative has completely shifted as Villanova has won two National Championships, while making it to the second weekend four times. Villanova doesn’t look like the most intimidating team when they walk into your gym, however there is not a team coached better and ready for the big moment, Having a fifth-year senior guard like Collin Gillespie (who was a member of the 2018 title team) is a huge advantage come this time of year. Guards are who primarily control the game, and there isn’t a better decision maker than Gillespie.
After back-to-back wins over Delaware and Ohio State, the Wildcats now face Michigan, and would get the winner of Arizona and Houston in the regional final. What makes this team so dangerous heading to San Antonio is that they never beat themselves. While that may not sound like much, not every team is capable of playing that flawless and it’s what makes Villanova so dangerous. A matchup with Arizona or Houston in the Elite Eight could be difficult, however with the best guards on the floor Jay Wright will take his chances.
It has been apparent for the majority of the season that this Duke team is one of the most talented teams in the country and possesses everything necessary to win a national championship. The issue has been consistency, but to its credit, Duke played arguably its best basketball in months this weekend.
More importantly, the young Blue Devils played their best in crunch time on Sunday. They found themselves down by 5 with 5 minutes to play, and it felt like things could be coming to an end. Instead, Duke ended the game on a 20-7 run to close out Michigan State and advance to the Sweet 16. Texas Tech provides a unique matchup next, considering they are known as one of the toughest teams in the country and will be determined to turn a game against Duke’s youngsters into a grown man rock fight. Part of what makes the NCAA Tournament so difficult to win, is that you have to beat six different teams playing six different styles of basketball, and Tech is definitely the biggest challenge for the Blue Devils to date. This Sweet 16 game will be a fascinating clash of styles, with America fully invested in Coach K’s story not to end happily.
5. Texas Tech
There are four different coaches that made the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, despite it being their first year on the job. Mark Adams was able to keep a core group of players from last year’s team while adding numerous really good players from the transfer portal to build this Texas Tech roster. What's made it so impressive is that this season the Red Raiders have dealt with all sorts of injuries, and this feels like the first time that everyone is healthy and ready to contribute. Kevin McCullar Jr, who is the only member still left of the 2019 team that made the Final Four, looks healthy with a great feel for the game. He averaged 12 points and 2.5 assists per game in the opening two games for Texas Tech.
Still, why this Texas Tech team is so high on this list is because of their defense. Mark Adams' defense will give Texas Tech a legitimate chance against anyone in the tournament. The Red Raiders held Notre Dame to just 53 points in a second round, after the Irish had scored at least 70 in 10 straight games before that.
Despite being one of the best teams in college basketball for a majority of the season, the ceiling of this Kansas team never jumped out as a "National Championship good" to me. A lot of that has to do with the fact that Bill Self recruiting has taken a little bit of a dip in the last few years and the overall talent level of this Kansas team isn’t as high as a vintage Bill Self team. With that being said, Kansas is absolutely in play to win a National Championship and we saw why on Saturday against Creighton. The Jayhawks took every punch from the Jays, and countered it with a blow of their own. Bill Self has some options alongside his All American in Ochai Agbaji and took advantage of that on Saturday.
It has not been an easy season for Arizona State transfer Remy Martin, who was voted as Preseason Big 12 Conference Player of the Year. Coming in with high expectations, Bill Self tried to generate Martin into a more pass-first point guard with more focus on trying to get his teammates involved and that process was delayed when he got injured. Clearly that is not Martin's best role on this Kanas team, and he finally found one that suits him. Martin has contributed off the bench in a big way for Kansas, which included 20 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists while playing 29 minutes of action. While Dejuan Harris is a winning player that can contribute to Kansas’ success, the Jayhawks will need the Martin we saw against Creighton if they want to win a National Championship. Jalen Wilson and Christian Braun also combined for 27 points and 22 rebounds, proving once again they’re winning players and can contribute to this Kansas team in different ways. Considering the No. 2 and 3 seeds have all gotten knocked out of the Midwest Region (Auburn and Wisconsin) as well as a dangerous five (Iowa), there is a lot of pressure on Bill Self to win two more games and make a Final Four.
There wasn’t a team that played this past weekend that was more impressive than these Cougars, who advanced to the Sweet 16 for the third consecutive NCAA Tournament. Kelvin Sampson deserves significantly more recognition for the coaching job he has done, considering this team not only lost NBA players Quentin Grimes and Dejon Jarreau, but also Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark to season-ending injuries back in December. Since Sasser and Mark went down with injuries in late December, Houston is 20-3 overall and have not missed a beat.
Starting on Friday, No. 12 seed UAB was a trendy pick to pull off the upset, however, the Cougars won going away. On Sunday they faced Big Ten regular season champ Illinois, and beat them at their own game, outrebounding them 38-27 in a win. On offense, Texas Tech transfer Kyler Edwards has fit perfectly into the role vacated by Grimes last season, and risen his game even further because of injuries.
Looking ahead to this weekend, the Sweet 16 game against Arizona in San Antonio will be must-see TV, considering the winner might just be the favorite, to keep on advancing all the way to the National Championship game. Seeing Kelvin Sampson attempt to stop Ben Mathurin and the high flying Arizona offense, will be fun to watch as this has a chance to be one of the premier games of the entire tournament. The turnaround of Kelvin Sampson from 15 years ago to now, is a prime example of if you really love what you do, there is no obstacle too big enough to prevent you from getting there.
To me, the Zags tough opening weekend actually makes me feel better about their chances to cut down the nets this season. First off, there was an opener against a Georgia State that Mark Few let it be known he was not happy to see, as a squad he believed was criminally under-seeded as a No. 16. Despite missing multiple players in the frontcourt, Georgia State hung with Gonzaga for much of the game and only trailed by 2 at halftime. The real eye opener came on Saturday though, when Memphis took a 10-point halftime lead into the locker room and Gonzaga was able to respond, behind 25 points from Drew Timme. Unlike last year when Gonzaga folded after getting punched in the mouth by Baylor in the National Championship game, this year they responded the opposite way. Timme himself also had a much better response against Memphis' big and athletic front court than he did against Baylor's a season ago.
While it is usually Gonzaga’s frontcourt that gets all of the attention, their backcourt deserves to be praised in a major way. In a tournament where guard play is specifically important, Gonzaga has two of the best in the country. Andrew Nembhard has established himself as one of the premier point guards in the country and was marvelous against Memphis with 23 points and 5 assists while playing all 40 minutes of action. Rasir Bolton is also one of the underrated players in the country, as he contributed with 17 points while being a lockdown defender on the perimeter. Many people thought if Mark Few couldn’t win last year when will he ever? With that being said, this Gonzaga team has been through a little adversity and should now be mentally tough enough to overcome anything and win it all. A matchup with Arkansas, will await in the Sweet 16 in what should be somewhat of a home game being played in San Francisco.
Part of what makes great teams great, is being able to respond with your back against the wall. The NCAA Tournament is a different animal; every game is so close and played at such a high level, that the margin for error is significantly smaller compared to a regular season game. The one concern for Arizona going into the NCAA Tournament was that they’re a team with a first year head coach, with no player having significant NCAA Tournament experience.
Yet in a circumstance, where many other teams folded this past weekend including Tennessee and Kentucky, Arizona refused to go home. Sophomore Guard Ben Mathurin made one big play after another against the Horned Frogs, most notably a three at the end of regulation that forced overtime. In addition, Dalen Terry made a number of clutch plays down the stretch, including a steal in the last seconds of the game, that could have been an all time sequence for Arizona. Christian Koloko has also emerged as a great story, while making a legitimate argument as the most improved player in all of college basketball. The 7 footer from Cameroon, played 40 minutes and racked up 28 points and 12 rebounds against TCU. Koloko has changed Arizona’s team ceiling with his improvement and performance on both ends of the floor. The Wildcats were able to win despite a bad game from Azulas Tubelis in which he only played 16 minutes. Kerr Kriisa also had a bad game, while recovering from the ankle injury and having a little time off before the Sweet 16 will help.
It is going to be a sight to see, watching Arizona and Houston go to absolute war in the Sweet 16, especially on the glass. It might just be the premier game of the next round, just like Arizona TCU was on Sunday Night. Usually every team that wins a championship, will have trouble in a game or two, where looking back they’ll ask themselves “How did we really win that game?” and that was the case for Arizona against TCU.