Reranking the men’s Sweet 16

After a thrilling opening weekend that saw seven double-digit seeds win first-round games and four of them move on, the men’s Sweet 16 is set.

Top seeds Gonzaga, Arizona and Kansas each advanced. So did giant-slaying St. Peter’s, only the third No. 15 seed ever to reach the NCAA tournament’s second weekend. And Duke extended Mike Krzyzewski’s retirement tour for at least five more days by avoiding an early-round upset.

Which are the remaining teams with championship potential? And which are the teams unlikely to survive much longer? Here’s a look at how I’d rank the Sweet 16 from most likely to least likely to win the national title.

1. GONZAGA (28-3)

How it got here: Defeated Georgia State (16), Memphis (9)

Up next: Arkansas (4)

BetMGM odds to win the tournament: +230

Outlook: With his team trailing Memphis by 10 at halftime, Gonzaga forward Drew Timme addressed his teammates before they returned to the court. He pointed out that this could be the last 20 minutes of basketball they all played together and challenged the Zags to be tougher and to leave with no regrets. From his halftime speech, to his second-half heroics, Timme put Gonzaga on his back. He finished with 25 points, 14 rebounds and 4 assists, propelling the Zags to their seventh consecutive Sweet 16. Timme’s second-half tour de force was magnificent to watch, but for Gonzaga to achieve everything it wants to over the next two weeks, he needs more help. In particular, the Zags need guard Julian Strawther to snap out of his shooting slump and start knocking down some 3-pointers.

2. KANSAS (30-6)

How it got here: Defeated Texas Southern (16), Creighton (9)

Up next: Providence (4)

BetMGM odds to win the tournament: +450

Outlook: Kansas’ road to the Final Four appeared pretty clear when CBS unveiled the Midwest Regional bracket eight days ago. Since then, the Jayhawks’ draw has somehow only become more favorable. Gone is Iowa, the high-upside Big Ten tournament champ who eight days ago appeared to be peaking at the right time. Same with second-seeded Auburn and third-seeded Wisconsin, both of whom staggered into the NCAA tournament and were unable to raise their level of play. What’s left is a fourth-seeded Providence team that has overachieved all season and a pair of surprise Sweet 16 teams in 10th-seed Miami and 11th-seeded Iowa State. While the NCAA tournament graveyard is littered with teams who have had the bracket fall to them but still lost, that’s a far easier path than what lies ahead for Gonzaga or Arizona.

3. ARIZONA (33-3)

How it got here: Defeated Wright State (16), TCU (9)

Up next: Houston (5)

BetMGM odds to win the tournament: +500

Outlook: Arizona’s sigh of relief after its overtime escape against TCU shouldn’t last too long. The Wildcats’ upcoming opponent is kind of like a souped-up version of the Horned Frogs team that very nearly ended their season. TCU’s defensive pressure forced 16 turnovers from an Arizona team whose starting point guard is hampered by an ankle injury. The Horned Frogs also exploited a season-long problem for the Wildcats, piling up 20 offensive rebounds and converting many of them into second-chance points. Either Arizona will learn from those mistakes or the Wildcats may be doomed to repeat them. Houston’s defensive pressure can force turnovers in bunches and under Kelvin Sampson, the Cougars have consistently been among the top offensive rebounding teams in the country.

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 20: Christian Koloko #35 and Bennedict Mathurin #0 of the Arizona Wildcats celebrate during the second half against the TCU Horned Frogs in the second round game of the 2022 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Viejas Arena at San Diego State University on March 20, 2022 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA – MARCH 20: Christian Koloko #35 and Bennedict Mathurin #0 of the Arizona Wildcats celebrate during the second half against the TCU Horned Frogs in the second round game of the 2022 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Viejas Arena at San Diego State University on March 20, 2022 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

4. DUKE (30-6)

How it got here: Defeated Cal State Fullerton (15), Michigan State (7)

Up next: Texas Tech (3)

BetMGM odds to win the tournament: +1100

Outlook: With five minutes left in its second-round matchup with Michigan State, Duke appeared to be crumbling under the pressure of trying to extend Mike Krzyzewski’s career another week. The most talented team in college basketball trailed by five after surrendering nine straight points to the Spartans. “I’m an Army guy,” Krzyzewski said later, “but it looked like our ship was sinking.” What happened next not only saved Duke’s season but reignited hope that the Blue Devils may be capable of more. Flashing championship resolve to go with their obvious talent, they responded with a 20-6 game-ending run. Jeremy Roach made a dagger 3-pointer. Paolo Banchero impacted the game in all sorts of ways. It all suggested that the young Blue Devils are growing up, that they’re more capable of handling the burden of Krzyzewski’s looming retirement than they were a few weeks ago against North Carolina.

5. HOUSTON (31-5)

How it got here: Defeated UAB (12), Illinois (4)

Up next: Arizona (1)

BetMGM odds to win the tournament: +900

Outlook: No longer is there any debate whether Houston is formidable or fraudulent. It’s clear the Cougars are every bit as good as their top-six ranking in major predictive metrics suggests. While Houston didn’t beat any marquee teams during the regular season, the Cougars sliced up lesser competition. Then in the postseason, they defeated surging Memphis in the American Athletic Conference title game, pounded UAB in the opening round of the NCAA tournament and gradually pulled away from Big Ten regular season co-champion Illinois two days later. While a Sweet 16 matchup with Arizona represents a step up in class, how Houston plays will be a challenge for the Wildcats. Houston is third nationally in offensive rebounding percentage and is capable of bludgeoning Arizona on the boards even more than TCU did.

6. VILLANOVA (28-7)

How it got here: Defeated Delaware (15), Ohio State (7)

Up next: Michigan (11)

BetMGM odds to win the tournament: +1400

Outlook: Villanova’s greatest advantage over the rest of the field is a kid many famously once thought would not be good enough to make an impact in the Big East. That’s Collin Gillespie, college basketball’s most dependable point guard in a year in which there are fewer outstanding floor generals than usual. Gillespie averages 16.0 points, shoots 41.6 percent from behind the arc and tallies twice as many assists as turnovers, but those stats undersell how many different ways he impacts the game. He sets the tone on defense for Villanova. He’s a lethal scorer and playmaker out of the low post. And he’s masterful at finding and attacking mismatches, helping the Wildcats consistently generate clean looks at the basket.

7. UCLA (27-7)

How it got here: Defeated Akron (13), Saint Mary’s (5)

Up next: North Carolina (8)

BetMGM odds to win the tournament: +1800

Outlook: How big a threat UCLA is to return to the Final Four largely depends on how quickly its best player can recover from his latest right ankle sprain. Forward Jaime Jaquez reaggravated that lingering injury during the second half of Saturday’s win over Saint Mary’s, this time not only knocking him out of the game but requiring him to have help walking off the floor. Jaquez, who averages 14.0 points and 5.7 rebounds, will undoubtedly receive treatment around the clock in advance of UCLA’s Sweet 16 matchup with fellow blue blood North Carolina. If Jaquez goes, he’d draw the matchup with Brady Manek, the sweet-shooting stretch forward who has been among the catalysts for North Carolina’s late-season reemergence. UCLA coach Mick Cronin sounded cautiously optimistic after Saturday’s game. “Trust me, Cronin told reporters, “if he can walk, he’ll play.”

8. PURDUE (29-7)

How it got here: Defeated Yale (14), Texas (6)

Up next: St. Peter’s (15)

BetMGM odds to win the tournament: +850

Outlook: After overcoming its bleak history against Chris Beard and holding off Texas, Purdue has a golden opportunity to make the Final Four for the first time in 42 years. The Boilermakers are the best-seeded team left in the East Region thanks to upsets sending both Baylor and Kentucky home early. While big brands UCLA and North Carolina battle in one East Regional semifinal, Purdue draws the more favorable matchup against 15th-seeded St. Peter’s. As fun as the Peacocks have been the past few days, this is still a team that finished three games out of first place in the MAAC and ranks 225th in offensive efficiency. Purdue should beat St. Peters. Purdue needs to beat St. Peters. With a future NBA lottery pick in the backcourt, two skilled centers in its frontcourt and some capable complementary pieces, this isn’t an opportunity the Boilermakers can let slip away.

9. TEXAS TECH (27-9)

How it got here: Defeated Montana State (14), Notre Dame (11)

Up next: Duke (2)

BetMGM odds to win the tournament: +1600

Outlook: While Chris Beard may have bolted for Austin last season, Texas Tech’s identity hasn’t changed. The Red Raiders are still a collection of guys with a chip on their shoulder, guys who have heard for years they weren’t good enough for one league or another and are motivated to prove those naysayers wrong. What a stark contrast that is to how Texas Tech’s upcoming opponent was built. Duke features almost exclusively four- and five-star recruits, NBA prospects who have been hailed as elite players since before they entered high school in some cases. Two very good but wildly different programs will make for a fascinating Sweet 16 matchup on Thursday in San Francisco. The Red Raiders can’t match Duke’s array of stars, but they’ll compete like crazy, force turnovers at a high rate and give up almost nothing easy at the rim.

Mar 19, 2022; Fort Worth, TX, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels forward Brady Manek (45) celebrates a basket against the Baylor Bears during the second round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament at Dickies Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Mar 19, 2022; Fort Worth, TX, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels forward Brady Manek (45) celebrates a basket against the Baylor Bears during the second round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament at Dickies Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

10. NORTH CAROLINA (26-9)

How it got here: Defeated Marquette (9), Baylor (1)

Up next: UCLA (4)

BetMGM odds to win the tournament: +3000

Outlook: So much for North Carolina being down this season. In the past month, the Tar Heels have gone from a bubble team in jeopardy of being left out of the NCAA tournament to a Sweet 16 team who’s a genuine threat to make the Final Four. North Carolina enters its matchup with UCLA having won eight of its last nine. Since that stretch began, the Tar Heels have been the third-best team in the nation, according to Bart Torvik’s metrics. Lost amid the talk of Baylor’s record-tying comeback on Saturday was North Carolina’s dominance before Brady Manek’s controversial ejection. The Tar Heels led a No. 1 seed by 25 with 10 minutes to go and looked like they might be the favorite to emerge from the wide-open East Region.

11. PROVIDENCE (27-5)

How it got here: Defeated South Dakota State (13), Richmond (12)

Up next: Kansas (1)

BetMGM odds to win the tournament: +6600

Outlook: Only 19.56% of Yahoo Tourney pick’em users projected often-doubted Providence to emerge from a section of the bracket that included South Dakota State, Richmond and Iowa. Not only did the fourth-seeded Friars once again prove the skeptics wrong, they won their two games convincingly by a combined 37 points. Now Sweet 16-bound for the first time in 25 years, Providence will again be in the familiar role of underdog against top-seeded Kansas. “You know, it challenges you,” Cooley said Saturday. “It challenges your manhood. It challenges your team.” More often than not this season, Providence has been up to the challenge. The Big East champs boast wins over Wisconsin, Texas Tech, UConn and Creighton and have an 11-2 record in games decided by five or fewer points.

12. ARKANSAS (27-8)

How it got here: Defeated Vermont (13), New Mexico State (12)

Up next: Gonzaga (1)

BetMGM odds to win the tournament: +5000

Outlook: For a quarter century, Arkansas never advanced past the NCAA tournament’s round of 32. Now Eric Musselman has the Razorbacks in the Sweet 16 for the second straight season. While Arkansas lost four of its six leading scorers from last year, the Razorbacks demonstrated they could reload and remain relevant. Musselman again found talent via the transfer portal, adding a handful of complementary pieces around All-American JD Notae. Defense carried Arkansas past Vermont and New Mexico State, but the level of opponent ramps up in a hurry with No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga up next. To extend this run, Arkansas needs more scoring from the foul-prone Notae and a shrewd defensive game plan to deny the ball from Chet Holmgren and Drew Timme.

13. MIAMI (25-10)

How it got here: Defeated USC (7), Auburn (2)

Up next: Iowa State (11)

BetMGM odds to win the tournament: +5000

Outlook: The best coaching performance of the second round might have been Jim Larranaga neutralizing Auburn’s star-studded frontcourt. Larranaga devised a game plan that turned the Tigers’ greatest strength into their greatest weakness. Boasting four dynamic guards and a big man who sinks 40% of his 3-point attempts, Miami played a five-out system on offense that forced Walker Kessler out of the paint. Without Kessler to alter shots at the rim, Miami’s guards carved up a Tigers defense that had been among college basketball’s best. You’d think that Kessler and Jabari Smith could have pummeled Miami at the other end of the floor, but both were ineffective. The smaller, quicker Hurricanes employed a scramble defense, doubling Kessler and Smith when they received the ball in dangerous spots on the floor yet rotating too quickly for Auburn to take advantage.

14. MICHIGAN (19-14)

How it got here: Defeated Colorado State (6), Tennessee (3)

Up next: Villanova (2)

BetMGM odds to win the tournament: +3000

Outlook: After an underwhelming regular season that included a COVID shutdown, 14 losses and an ugly incident involving its head coach, Michigan went from disappointment to success story in the span of three days. The Wolverines rallied past Colorado State on Thursday, then erased a late six-point deficit on Saturday to eliminate third-seeded Tennessee. For long stretches of both games, Michigan performed like the top 10 team it was supposed to be after welcoming back an experienced backcourt and center Hunter Dickinson, while also adding a talented recruiting class. That was encouraging after the Wolverines alternated wins and losses for over a month and struggled to sustain any kind of consistency

15. IOWA STATE (22-12)

How it got here: Defeated LSU (6), Wisconsin (3)

Up next: Miami (10)

BetMGM odds to win the tournament: +8000

Outlook: Only a year ago, Iowa State endured an embarrassing 2-22 season that culminated in a coaching change. Now, TJ Otzelberger has the Cyclones headed to the Sweet 16 for the first time in six years. What Otzelberger did is retain a top incoming point guard, raid the transfer porthole and mold that collection of players into a team unlike any in recent memory in Ames. These Cyclones are a defensive juggernaut that forces turnovers and runs opponents off the 3-point line. It’s no accident that Iowa State forced a combined 36 turnovers in its two NCAA tournament upsets and held LSU and Wisconsin to 6-for-41 3-point shooting. That’s how the Cyclones make up for a subpar offense.

16. SAINT PETER’S (21-11)

How it got here: Defeated Kentucky (2), Murray State (7)

Up next: Purdue (3)

BetMGM odds to win the tournament: +20000

Outlook: Last fall, St. Peter’s renamed its newly renovated 3,200-seal gym in honor of the most famous basketball team in school history. It’s called Run Baby Run Arena, after the 1968 team that averaged 94 points per game and upset Duke in the NIT quarterfinals. If that’s what a run to the NIT semifinals earned the 1968 team, imagine what St. Peter’s will do for the squad that gave the school its first taste of NCAA tournament success. The Peacocks toppled mighty Kentucky on Thursday and eliminated Murray State two days later to join 2013 Florida Gulf Coast and 2021 Oral Roberts as the only No. 15 seeds ever to reach the Sweet 16. Common sense says this is where the run will end, but who knows? These Peacocks have already flown further than any St. Peter’s team has before.

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