With the first weekend behind us, let’s re-rank this Sweet 16. We’ll examine how these teams looked the past two games in addition to the regular-season resume to re-seed them 1-16.
All these teams are good and some are great. While Kentucky certainly isn’t streets ahead of the pack, remaining undefeated reserves the top spot. So we’ll start with John Calipari’s team and work our way down.
1. Kentucky (Midwest). The Wildcats’ only concern, really, is scoring from the guards. We’ve yet to see Devin Booker, Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis have huge moments, though Kentucky hasn’t needed it yet. The time has come, though, because West Virginia runs a unique press and trap, and all three will be tested. In the interim, just give me more Willie Cauley-Stein. Let’s recognize and label his college greatness now.
2. Duke (South). Duke kicked Robert Morris to the side, then made a really good San Diego State defense look pedestrian. Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow came up large on a big stage in a standalone national game on CBS. The Blue Devils have road wins over Wisconsin and Virginia. The defense and Okafor’s free throws are question marks. But if Duke plays two more games like it did Sunday, it’s going to Indianapolis.
3. Arizona (West). Playing as well as anyone, Kentucky included. Won by a hundred over Texas Southern, then ushered Ohio State out of the building Saturday. T.J. McConnell is having a great run to end his college career, though talented Stanley Johnson has yet to make a real impact. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson can guard anyone, and oh yeah, Brandon Ashley’s also on this team. Loaded. I’d be more than fine with UK-Wisconsin, but I think UK-Arizona is the one I’d rather see played on a playground.
4. Wisconsin (West). The Badgers cruised past Coastal Carolina and then got a scare from Oregon and Joe Young, who closed out his career with 30 points. Bucky needs Traevon Jackson, in my opinion, to win a national title. His availability and potential impact remains uncertain. But you can’t drop Bo Ryan and the player of the year, Frank Kaminsky, lower than fourth.
5. Gonzaga (South). Did you see Gonzaga do what it wanted against Iowa? And North Dakota State before that? The bigs are moving the ball, passing so well. Domantas Sabonis throwing down left-handed jams? Kevin Pangos lighting it up from deep? Kyle Wiltjer raining it in? Yeah, no question, Gonzaga is a title contender.
6. North Carolina (West). Has underachieved all season, but I like UNC’s chances against Wisconsin on Thursday. Marcus Paige is so fun to watch when things work his way. J.P. Tokoto is a top-five dunker. Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson haven’t played to potential, but Roy Williams may just have wrinkle to toss at the Badgers. The Heels got past a game Harvard team and then played its style and won with pizzazz over Arkansas.
7. Notre Dame (Midwest). This is Mike Brey’s best offensive team. Jerian Grant is a first-team All-American. The Irish move the ball well and are so good on offense, I’m ignoring their defensive liabilities — even though it’s an unavoidable problem. ND got a scare from Northeastern and then edged Butler in OT.
8. Oklahoma (East). Time to recognize the Sooners as a quality team with maybe the country’s most overlooked coach. Only Eddie Sutton and OU’s Lon Kruger have taken four programs to the Sweet 16. It’s an odd stat, but a good one. This is one of the country’s five best defensive teams. Buddy Hield — did you see that block late in the Dayton game? — leads the charge. OU got past Albany and Dayton.
9. Wichita State (Midwest). The Shockers’ win over Kansas was a cathartic turn of events for the program. Wichita State got a good test from Indiana, then played even better against KU. Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton comprise a superb trio. Wichita State is a notch below last season’s club, but don’t think this group can’t make a second Final Four in three years. Everything’s a long shot in Kentucky’s region, but Gregg Marshall is now unquestionably an elite coach.
10. Utah (South). The field’s most overlooked team. Perhaps I’m underrating them at No. 10. When you’ve got the best overall point guard in the country in Delon Wright, you’ve got a chance. Can Duke stop this team? Or is Utah able to stop Duke? Most under-hyped Sweet 16 game.
11. Michigan State (East). The Spartans got a good test from Georgia, then played their A game against Virginia. MSU’s a hard 6-seed, not the hard 7 it received in the bracket. It’s not a well-rounded team, but has Tom Izzo and offensive reliability in Travis Trice, something that seemed unlikely even a season ago. It’s crazy, yet totally conceivable this team gets out of the East.
12. Louisville (East). Cardinals fans aren’t going to like this ranking, but I still don’t trust the offense enough to put the Cardinals any higher. Louisville barely beat UC Irvine, then got an ideal matchup in slow-paced Northern Iowa. Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier feasted Sunday. Beating NC State is expected, but what if U of L hits the skids? Can defense alone be enough?
13. West Virginia (Midwest). The Mountaineers are like a pack of monsters if you aren’t ready for them. Killer on the offensive glass and turning teams over better than anyone in the country. Maryland was forced into 23 turnovers. Buffalo was forced into 17. But this team doesn’t shoot well and frequently affords sieve-like lanes on defense out of its press.
14. NC State (East). You knock off a No. 1 seed, I have to put you 14 at worst, no matter the seed. The Wolfpack have wins over two No. 1 seeds; they beat Duke back in January. Mark Gottfried’s team always is capable of letting bad luck affect good fortune, but in pulling out a double-digit comeback win over LSU and then pounding Villanova out of its game, the Pack’s back in the second weekend for the second time under Gottfried. B.J. Anya, Trevor Lacey, Cat Barber and Malik-Abdul Abu. They can beat Louisville, absolutely.
15. Xavier (West). Here’s how I know this pack of teams is so good. Xavier’s such a solid club. The X men got by Ole Miss with no problem, and held off Georgia State. It’s five Sweet 16s in eight years for the Muskies. How do you not love Matt Stainbrook’s game? But this is a fair listing given Xavier’s resume and teams it beat to reach this far.
16. UCLA (South). The Bruins have made the most of opportunity. A controversial goaltending call at the end of the SMU game, then beating No. 14 UAB in the Round of 32. The Bruins are in a second straight Sweet 16, but aren’t the caliber of most of the remaining field. It would be something special if it beat Gonzaga on Friday, though.