It’s not Gonzaga and the rest.
It’s Gonzaga and what’s left.
Some of the teams that might have been able to compete with the Zags for the 2021 NCAA championship could not survive the early rounds of this year’s March Madness: Iowa, Oklahoma State and especially Illinois. Of the teams that remain, only Baylor, Alabama and Michigan are close to the same class.
The tournament is a funny thing, though, so it’s possible, though not likely, that someone other than those three could defeat the Zags and open up the championship for everyone still involved. Or Alabama or Michigan could pull it off and then have to fend off someone such as Baylor to complete the process of winning the championship.
This is our ranking of the 16 teams that remain in the tournament, not on their achievement to date but on the potential to win the four games that are necessary to claim the championship from here. They are based largely on a combination of NBA-level talent, each team’s tournament draw, offensive and defensive efficiency and the presence of a gameplan-breaking player.
And remember, the one thing decidedly worse than being at the bottom of this list is not being on it at all.
1. Gonzaga. This is the best team in college basketball. There can be no easier statement to make. The more difficult question to answer is how far one must go back into college basketball history to discover its equal — or superior. Is 2018 far back enough, given how great the Villanova Wildcats were at the time? That team had five NBA players, but four losses in the regular season. Kentucky 2015? That team won 38 games in a row but was handicapped by the split-personality enforced by the platoon system necessary by the abundant NBA talent. Are they as good as Kentucky 1996?
OK, we can stop now, for sure. They’re not that team. With Drew Timme inside, though, with Corey Kispert as the best shooter in the college game, with Jalen Suggs and Andrew Nembhard alternating at point guard and Suggs awesome on an everyday basis — and with the lot of them so exceptional that Joel Ajayi almost blends into the background — this is an historically great team. That doesn’t mean the Zags will be champions. The hard part comes now.
2. Baylor. It wasn’t always apparent whether the Bears had an NBA first-rounder or two, the sort of player who separates a championship contender from the group of excellent college teams that haven’t much chance to win six games in a row in this competition. Guard Jared Butler has been so outstanding that he now has been identified by various mock drafts, and point guard Davion Mitchell might force his way in, too.
The Bears have become a remarkably dynamic offensive team, and that’s a positive evolution for a team pursuing a championship. The axiom across sports is that “defense wins championships,” but in the NCAA Tournament, that has not been true. Of the past 15 champions, 11 were higher ranked on offense than defense in the KenPom.com efficiency stats. There still is some concern regarding whether the Bears’ recent defensive slippage might be serious enough to prevent them from winning this, but the South Region bracket has cleared out enough that there might be the opportunity to stay alive and tighten it up.
3. Alabama. The Crimson Tide became known as a team that shot threes at nearly an unprecedented clip and converted enough to undo a disappointing start to the season. But what’s really made them great has been defense.
They rank No. 3 in defensive efficiency, largely because of the versatility of seniors Herbert Jones and John Petty, who are aware enough and mobile enough to cover multiple positions. The Tide have also developed five-star recruit Jahvon Quinerly into an exceptional point guard who can carry them through difficult moments in challenging games. The issue might be whether the offense is versatile enough and reliable enough to win these next four games.
4. Michigan. The Wolverines showed that they can beat an extraordinarily talented team without star forward Isaiah Livers in a second-round NCAA win over LSU. But can they beat an extraordinary team in this state? It will be hard to get out of the East Region without accomplishing that, but it will be impossible to win it.
The Wolverines took out LSU with reserve Chaundee Brown delivering a game-changing performance on both ends of the floor. Brown is a starting-level player who has accepted a bench role to be on a significant team.
Center Hunter Dickinson can’t show the frustration he did against the Tigers, committing three unnecessary fouls before settling down and completing the game. In the end, though, the one factor that will matter most relative to the pursuit of the championship will be sophomore wing Franz Wagner’s willingness and availability to become a force as primary perimeter option.
5. Florida State. It still feels like a mystery how the Seminoles blew two chances in eight days to win ACC titles, first in the regular season in a game at Notre Dame and then in the ACC Tournament title game against Georgia Tech. And maybe whatever afflicted them in the biggest moments will impact them again, should there be an opportunity to advance to the Elite Eight or Final Four or beyond.
As far as the outside contenders go, however, the Seminoles have a wide variety of answers and a potentially game-changing talent in Scottie Barnes. He has yet to unleash the full array of his talents. Has it been too long, has FSU gone too deep into its season for him to deliver the sort of performance under duress that Suggs did in the WCC title game against BYU? He’s good enough to do it. Is dominance part of his tool kit?
6. Southern California. If you tell us that Isaiah Mobley is going to show up four more times and hit 4-of-5 from 3-point range, we could ship the trophy to Troy right now. USC showed the absolute best version of itself in the first two games of this tournament, and perhaps it’s a sign that he and his brother always were pointing to excelling on this stage and less concerned with arriving here in style.
The Trojans, remember, lost to a sub-.500 Utah team as recently as Feb. 27, and they not only lost at Colorado prior to that, they were run out of the gym by a team that doesn’t really run. That’s why they fell into a No. 6 seed when it was obvious that they were capable of better. And now they are showing us.
7. Arkansas. The Razorbacks are a more conventional team than they let on. They’ve got a quarterback-style point guard in Jalen Tate, a dynamic wing scorer in freshman Moses Moody and the player who gives them a chance to continue in this tournament, 6-10 Jaylin Williams. He played 28 minutes against Texas Tech and scored only a point, but who cares? He grabbed 10 rebounds and owned the lane against the Red Raiders.
Williams made only his third start of the season in that game. He may not be essential to surviving Oral Roberts, but in the Elite Eight and beyond, Arkansas won’t survive without him.
8. Oregon. Unlike the Trojans, who probably played themselves into a 6, Oregon might have deserved at least a spot higher than their No. 7 rank. They were the Pac-12 regular season champions. But they also lost twice to Oregon State, which would not have made it without an automatic bid, and to Washington State. Did it help them not to play a first-round game because of VCU’s unavailability due to COVID? They were fresh enough to go end-to-end against Iowa and put up 95 points. It’s possible that they’ve discovered another approach, because their only other 90-point game was in the Pac-12 tournament against Arizona State
Chris Duarte is a pro-level offensive talent who can carry the Ducks, but at this level they’ll have to try to hide a defense that is not among the best.
9. Houston. Of all the teams alive in the Sweet 16, the one that should be feeling the most fortunate is Houston, which needed a fair amount of cooperation from Rutgers to recover from a nine-point deficit in the final five minutes of their second-round game. Now the Cougars are the highest seed remaining in the Midwest Region and one of only seven left among the tournament’s top 16 seeds.
The relative ease of their region and that they have a legit game-changing player in shooting guard Quentin Grimes lifts the Cougars higher on this list than recent performances suggest is warranted. Sometimes, teams that aren’t performing well stay alive long enough to eventually find another gear. Houston is going to need one, pronto.
10. Villanova. Exactly how good the Wildcats are without Collin Gillespie is yet to be established. They’re good enough to have survived two rounds of the tournament, which many others who had similar regular seasons could not, but the teams they defeated were high-quality mid-majors. Could they have conquered Purdue in their present condition?
The answer is not in their Big East performances against Providence and Georgetown, because those games were played immediately after Gillespie’s injury, with minimal time to reorganize and with likely replacement Justin Moore banged up, as well. It’s been three weeks now. That’s plenty of time for Jay Wright to find an answer. Moore played 34 minutes against UNT, and Bryan Antoine, whose first two seasons have been impacted by a shoulder problem, has performed well in an expanded role.
11. Loyola. The Ramblers are not the 11th-best team still playing. They’re probably closer to the top five. They have what now stands as the nation’s most effective defense, ranked No. 1 in efficiency ahead of teams with greater reputations for holding down opponents. They have two regulars with Final Four experience, which is not common among this year’s Sweet 16. The shots they generate from their offense, especially inside the 3-point line are converted at a higher rate than almost any Division I team’s.
Unless this tournament is entirely different than every other one over the past 60 years — check that, we already know it’s different, but in the sense of the competitive outcomes — at some point having elite talent is going to be required. Cameron Krutwig is an elite college player. But he is the only Ramblers player averaging double-figure scoring, and even at that is not the indefensible, first-round-pick talent that inevitably is required to win the biggest games.
12. UCLA. What we’ve seen from this Bruins squad makes the disappointment of losing star Chris Smith to ACL surgery and reserve big man Jalen Hill to personal reasons more profound. As a complete unit, the Bruins would have been more likely to finish as Pac-12 champions and not be required to play three NCAA Tournament games just to reach this stage.
Smith was also the closest thing the Bruins had to that difference-making individual talent, although sophomore transfer Johnny Juzang is developing into the kind of player who not only can create his own shot, but also make it. He is shooting .509 from the field and .391 on 3-pointers in the tournament.
The thing that makes it tougher to rank the Bruins higher is the draw, having to defeat Alabama and then either Michigan or Florida State just to reach the Final Four.
13. Syracuse. The Orange have become an annual March miracle, like the blossoming of the trees outside my window. They have an 8-2 record over three tournaments as a double-digit seed since 2016, and standing in a 2-3 matchup zone with Houston, Loyola and Oregon State suggests another Final Four is very much a possibility.
That Jim Boeheim has been in 20 Sweet 16s in his career is impressive. That he has been in three in the past five tournaments is astonishing, because the Orange began as a No. 10 seed once and a No. 11 the other two times, including this season. They’ve taken out such coaches as Mark Few, Tony Bennett, Tom Izzo and Bob Huggins. And, this time, they’ve done it with maybe less pure talent than in any previous season. What is it that they always say about Bill Self? Right: This might be Boeheim’s best coaching job.
14. Creighton. Based strictly on ability and performance, the Blue Jays easily would rank higher on this list. If they were in the Midwest region, they might be the favorite to emerge to the Final Four. Unfortunately for Creighton, it is scheduled as Gonzaga’s next victim. This is not to say advancement is impossible, but it would have to be an extraordinary shooting day for an extraordinary shooting team. Creighton’s size limitations on the inside will make it difficult to handle Gonzaga’s surging Drew Timme.
15. Oregon State. The Beavers have demonstrated the capacity to defeat high-end high-major competition in the past two weeks, knocking off UCLA, Oregon, Colorado, Tennessee and Oklahoma State in succession. It’s a heck of a run that earned them a trip to the NCAAs and then another to the Sweet 16. You know how many NCAA Tournament teams they defeated before that? Two. You know how many non-tournament teams beat them? Seven. So, please, spare us the revisionism.
Oregon State earned its position in this round the hard way; each of the past five games has been either a ticket home or to the next round. Very few teams alive in this tournament have coped with that degree of pressure. And yet the Beavers have shot the ball as comfortably as a group of players warming up for a playground run. They’ve made 45-of-107 from 3-point range in those five elimination games, a .420 percentage that seems rather out of character for a team that ended the regular season at .337. Yes, please, tell us how you saw this coming.
16. Oral Roberts. This team just barely avoided the 16 seed line after finishing fourth in the Summit League and losing along the way to 9-17 North Dakota, 7-13 UMKC — oh, and 24-6 Arkansas, next in line as the Golden Eagles move into the South Region semifinals. They have an extremely capable offense that generates 82 points per game, but neither Ohio State nor Florida took advantage of a pliable defense that was hit for an average of 85 points by the five major opponents Oral Roberts played in non-conference.
Arkansas, which was one of those teams, got 87 the last time around. However many the Razorbacks ring up this time, it will be enough to advance.
But Oral Roberts fans never will forget making it this far.