With the first and second round behind us, the Sweet 16 matchups have been decided. Here are rankings for each team still dancing and 16 items to ponder as the NCAA tournament marches on.
1. Villanova: The most consistent team in the country throughout the season outside of Virginia was Villanova. The Wildcats blasted Radford as expected, and then sliced apart a hot Alabama in the second round. The chaotic second round losses left carnage among the top few lines, but it also left the favorite to win the title.
2. Duke: Mike Krzyzewski has said for months that he wants to make sure this team is ready for March. The losses stung in February, but they hardly deterred this team from the ultimate goal — a national title. And the Blue Devils looked every bit the part in dominating Iona before crushing Rhode Island in the second half. The Blue Devils have to enter the Sweet 16 as a favorite to win in San Antonio.
3. Texas A&M: If this was Dec. 1, it would make sense to put the Aggies as high as No. 3. That’s how well Texas A&M was playing in November. But suspensions and injuries nearly derailed the season. Well, the Aggies have suddenly found their purpose the past weekend. Texas A&M beat back a gritty Providence and then absolutely dismantled North Carolina for the most impressive win of the weekend over a possible Final Four team. The Aggies are playing well enough — right now — to possibly be the “home” team in San Antonio next weekend.
5. Clemson: The Tigers, like the Aggies above, have proven a lot of us pundits wrong over the past weekend. Clemson was hardly a possible upset candidate. They outlasted the trendy pick (mine) in the first round in New Mexico State. And then came the complete beatdown the Tigers put on Auburn (the SEC co-champs). Clemson rolls into the Sweet 16 matchup in Omaha against Kansas playing its best basketball of the season at the right time.
6. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost games in the SEC. So what? News flash: The SEC was much better. The Wildcats are right at the place they need to be -- winning the SEC tournament, beating back upstart Davidson and blowing past Buffalo, just two days after the Bulls crushed Arizona. The Wildcats have matured at the “normal” pace for a traditional freshman class. Kentucky has a great shot to end the season where it always expects to be: The Final Four.
8. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders may be the Sweet 16 team with the least amount of national pub or buzz. But here they are, a grinding, defensive-minded team that has mirrored its coach throughout the season. The wins over Stephen F. Austin and Florida defined this team. They had to sweat it out, but made the right plays to gut out the wins.
9. West Virginia: The Mountaineers cruised to their two wins in San Diego over Murray State and Marshall. West Virginia caught a break when the Mountaineers didn’t have to go up against Wichita State. But that’s why their win over Marshall was so impressive. They didn’t let up. They kept pounding the Herd and scored 94 points.
10. Florida State: The Seminoles get oodles of credit for making the Sweet 16. This was one of the least consistent ACC teams that made the field, losing three of their last four games. But Florida State flipped the switch and overpowered Missouri, then came back and beat top-seeded Xavier in Nashville. The Seminoles tend to get dinged for not reaching their potential. Well, this team has already overachieved.
12. Michigan: Once again, the Wolverines were my pick to come out of the West bracket. I still believe in Michigan. But the Wolverines need to play well. They were toast in the second round to Houston before the stunning game-winning 3-pointer from Jordan Poole (not getting enough credit is the pass made by Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. Most players would have taken the shot, but he passed off to Poole for the game-winner. Michigan did defend well, but offensively struggled against the Cougars. That must change if they are going to beat Texas A&M.
13. Syracuse: Defense wins. Case closed. The Orange zone has been stifling, swallowing up Arizona State, TCU and Michigan State in its path. The offense has not been a work of art, but it hasn’t had to be to this point. The Orange are trying to pull off the VCU First Four to Final Four run, which would be Jim Boeheim’s least likely run. This team believes it can do it and that was so evident by its poise in the final two minutes to defeat the Spartans Sunday in Detroit.
15. Loyola-Chicago: The Ramblers are the Cinderella story of the Sweet 16. Donte Ingram buried the game-winning 3-pointer to beat Miami. Clayton Custer beat Tennessee with the game-winning jumper with 3.6 seconds remaining. And the defense, the anchor for Porter Moser’s team, allowed each of those power conference foes to score only 62 points.
Most anticipated game
Texas A&M vs. Michigan, West Region, Los Angeles, Thursday, 7:37 p.m., TBS: I love this game. The Aggies have tremendous size and athleticism. Michigan has the overall better offense, when shots are falling and a pop off the bench. John Beilein has a few days to figure out how to control the backboard. The Aggies are flying high on their most impressive tournament win in quite some time. This could be the best game of the weekend.
Most pressing injury
Dean Wade, Kansas State: Wade told reporters in the locker room following Sunday’s win over UMBC that he is 98 percent sure he will play in the Sweet 16 game against Kentucky in Atlanta Thursday. They need him. The 6-10 forward led Kansas State with 16 points a game and has to play if the Wildcats are going to pull off the upset over Kentucky. Wade sat out the two games in Charlotte after also missing the Kansas semifinal Big 12 tournament loss with this foot injury.
Kentucky in Atlanta: This will be Rupp Southeast. The Wildcats got shipped to Boise as the No. 5 seed. Kentucky didn’t get the Boise State locker room (Arizona did Thursday and then Gonzaga did Saturday). The Wildcats had to get one of the lower-level hotels as they are slotted by seeds. But now the Wildcats are the highest remaining seed left in the South Region. Oh, and it has always been a home-away-from-home for Big Blue Nation.
Syracuse vs. Duke, Omaha, Friday: Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has used the zone more and more with his big, long, lineup. Syracuse always uses its zone. Whose is harder to score on will be the test Friday in Omaha. Krzyzewski has done a tremendous job of adapting to his personnel, as he always does, and absorbed plenty of zone knowledge by working with Jim Boeheim during their time together with the Olympic team.
The Player of the Year race
Jalen Brunson vs. Devonte Graham: Villanova and Kansas don’t play each other and won’t unless they meet in the Final Four. But how the two Naismith finalists (the other two are Arizona’s Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III of Duke) could determine who gets the award the following week. This may not be about simply points, but rather overall leadership by the two lead guards this weekend.
The breakout star
Zach Norvell, Jr., Gonzaga: The redshirt freshman was hurt last season and wasn’t a contributor to the Zags title-game run. But if Gonzaga gets back he will be one of the main reasons. The lefty has a smooth step-back corner 3, that he used to drain UNC Greensboro. He was money again in holding off Ohio State. Norvell finished with 28 points and 12 boards in the win over the Buckeyes. He was 6 of 11 on 3s. He will be one of the stars of 2019, regardless of how far the Zags get in the next two weekends.
Eric Musselman, Nevada: Musselman doesn’t shy away from the camera with or without his shirt on. He is in constant motion (and he is in great shape for a 53-year old). And he is loving every second of this run. If the Wolf Pack were to beat Loyola and get to the Elite Eight with a chance to get to the Final Four then Musselman will be stuffing the quote sheets at the open media session this weekend. He has done a marvelous job turning the Wolf Pack into a consistent winner.
The ageless one
Leonard Hamilton, Florida State: Hamilton is going to be 70 years old in August. He is ageless. Google his photos over the past 10-plus years and he looks the same. I’m not sure what his secret is but he continues to look marvelous. He recruits well. He coaches this team up defensively. And occasionally, as we see this week, his teams can become a major surprise.
Chris Beard, Texas Tech: Beard’s run to the Sweet 16 caps off quite a path. Beard has been an assistant at all levels of Division I, a head coach at two different junior colleges, a coach in the ABA, to Little Rock to a 19-day stint at UNLV before settling in at Texas Tech two seasons ago. He has earned this Sweet 16.
The party crasher
Loyola-Chicago: The Ramblers last played in the NCAA tournament 33 years ago. They are making the most of this opportunity and have given the city of Chicago yet another magical postseason (see: Northwestern a year ago). Loyola’s most famous basketball event on campus in the past 18 years prior to this run was it held Yao Ming’s first workout in the United States when he arrived from China. Now, they the uninvited guests that aren’t in a hurry to leave.
Jevon Carter, West Virginia: Carter plays as hard as any player remaining in this field. He is the perfect Bob Huggins player and he deserves all the praise he should be receiving. He scored 28 points, picked up five steals and had five assists and four rebounds as well as making 10 of 18 shots (5 of 7 3s) in a masterful performance against Marshall. He was good against Murray State, too, with 21 points, eight assists and six steals in that win two days earlier. The senior guard is making the most of his moment.
The unassuming one
Brad Brownell, Clemson: This is the perfect example of why a coach should be given time. The Tigers were close to turning the program and Brownell knew it but he had to have the backing after Clemson went six seasons without making the NCAA tournament after an appearance during his first season on the job in 2011. Brownell didn’t complain when Donte Grantham, the team’s second-leading scorer, was lost for the season after 19 games. Instead, they continued to be an efficient team that didn’t quit. And now they are rolling into the Sweet 16. Well done.
The shot maker
Dakota Mathias, Purdue: The Boilermakers desperately needed a bucket, a big shot, to escape the comeback from Butler. Mathias delivered. Purdue coach Matt Painter spoke highly of him Sunday in Detroit, happy that he’s got a reliable senior, who doesn’t shy away from the big moment. Mathias made 3 of 6 3s in the win over Butler. He will probably have to bury at least that many to beat Texas Tech. But he will relish the role of being the one to deliver.
A character and a gentleman
Mo Wagner, Michigan: Wagner hasn’t hit his highs in production in the tournament with 12 and seven against Houston and five and six versus Montana. But no player showed more sportsmanship than Wagner, seeking out the Cougars’ Corey Davis to console him amid a delirious celebration after the Jordan Poole game-winning 3-pointer. Few players, coaches, take the time to do that in that instance, but Wagner did. He’s also a joy to watch and cover, exhibiting tremendous enthusiasm throughout the game.
I really enjoyed watching Houston’s Corey Davis compete. And then he suffered this.— Jeffrey Parson (@JeffreyParson) March 18, 2018
But then a classy move from Mo Wagner.
What a way to finish in Wichita. pic.twitter.com/CHZqeq7lWp
Marvin Bagley III, Duke: If there is one player who could end up being an intimidating presence this weekend then it’s Bagley. He scored 22 in each of Duke’s first two games, grabbing a combined 16 boards. But he’s capable of doing what he did to Notre Dame in the ACC tournament last week where he put up 33 and 17.