basketball-men-d1 flag

Andy Wittry | NCAA.com | March 26, 2021

Here's the case for why each Sweet 16 team could make the Final Four

Oral Roberts vs. Florida: Extended highlights from 2021 NCAA Tournament

Just 16 teams remain in the men's NCAA tournament. Those that are still dancing are halfway to the Final Four and a third of the way to a national championship. For some teams, such as No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga, this was what was expected, while this is uncharted territory for others, such as No. 15 seed Oral Roberts.

But each of them is in the 2021 Sweet 16 field with dancing shoes firmly laced. Here's the case for why each of the remaining teams in the 2021 NCAA tournament could make the Final Four.

West Region

No. 1 seed Gonzaga

Next opponent: No. 5 seed Creighton
Potential opponents in the Elite Eight: No. 6 seed USC/No. 7 seed Oregon

Gonzaga is the No. 1 overall seed and it's attempting to be the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976. Why could Gonzaga make the Final Four? Because no one has beaten the Zags so far.

No. 5 seed Creighton

Next opponent: No. 1 seed Gonzaga
Potential opponents in the Elite Eight: No. 6 seed USC/No. 7 seed Oregon

It's admittedly difficult to make a compelling case for any team to advance in the NCAA tournament when that team's next opponent is No. 1 seed Gonzaga. That's where Creighton — the second-place finisher in the Big East regular season standings and the Big East tournament runner-up — falls. The Bluejays beat Big East regular season champ Villanova by 16 points earlier in the season when the Wildcats were at full strength and they swept UConn in three meetings with the Huskies, but is Creighton, with its No. 24 offense and No. 32 defense, capable of knocking off the last undefeated men's basketball team in the land?

Here's what the Bluejays do well: they're a very good shooting team, as they make almost 56 percent of their 2-point attempts, and almost 44 percent of their field goal attempts come from behind the arc (37th nationally), where they make 36.5 percent of them (52nd nationally). If Creighton, whose offensive possessions last an average of 16 seconds, per kenpom.com, can play up-tempo on that end of the floor, while making Gonzaga work when it is on offense (Creighton's average defensive  possession is 18.3 seconds, 328th nationally), then maybe the Bluejays can find themselves in a competitive game with less than 10 minutes to play.

But Creighton's size, or its lack thereof, with just one rotation player taller than 6-8, could be problematic against Drew Timme & Co.

No. 6 seed USC

Next opponent: No. 7 seed Oregon
Potential opponents in the Elite Eight: No. 1 seed Gonzaga/No. 5 seed Creighton

The Trojans are up to No. 6 on kenpom.com, behind only the four No. 1 seeds and No. 2 seed Houston. So if you were to re-seed the Sweet 16 field, USC has a case to be as high as the fifth-best team remaining. The Trojans' next game is against Pac-12 foe Oregon, whom USC beat by 14 in the schools' only meeting this season. USC held Oregon to 40-percent shooting inside the arc, while USC rebounded roughly 47 percent of its missed shots.

All the Trojans have to do to make the Elite Eight is do something they've already done this season: beat Oregon.

Then comes a potentially much greater challenge: beating No. 1 seed Gonzaga. But the Trojans have the fifth-most efficient defense in the country, along with a top-15 offense, which can pack a scoring punch that's certainly needed to keep pace with the Zags. Gonzaga is the No. 1 2-point shooting  team nationally at 63.6 percent, while USC has the top 2-point defense, allowing opponents to make just 41.4 percent of their shots inside the arc. Something would have to give in that matchup. If USC's uber-talented freshman Evan Mobley can make life difficult for Gonzaga's Drew Timme and the rest of his Bulldogs teammates, while Mobley and his teammates crash  the offensive glass, then perhaps they could accomplish what no one else has this season: beat Gonzaga.

No. 7 seed Oregon

Next opponent: No. 6 seed USC
Potential opponents in the Elite Eight: No. 1 seed Gonzaga/No. 5 seed Creighton

Did you know that since the start of last decade, Oregon has 6.2 more NCAA tournament wins than expected, based on its tournament performances compared to the average performance of teams with its respective seeds? The Ducks, which made the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed in 2019, are back in the Sweet 16 despite having a seed and an NCAA tournament path that wouldn't indicate such a result is particularly likely.

Oregon blew the doors off of No. 2 seed Iowa 95-80, after the Ducks' first-round game against No. 12 seed VCU was declared a no-contest due to COVID-19 issues at VCU. Oregon made 11 3-pointers at a 44-percent clip against Iowa, which bested the 3-point-proficient Hawkeyes in both categories. Four Oregon players scored at least 17 points, led by Chris Duarte's 23. This is a Ducks team that won the Pac-12 regular-season title and it's currently ranked No. 18 on kenpom.com, showing that Oregon's potential is arguably much greater than that of a No. 7 seed. This is a team that  dealt with inconsistent roster availability and when at full strength, the Ducks have proven they're quite good.

East Region

No. 1 seed Michigan

Next opponent: No. 4 seed Florida State
Potential opponents in the Elite Eight: No. 2 seed Alabama/No. 11 seed UCLA

No Isaiah Livers, no problem — at least so far for No. 1 seed Michigan. The Wolverines are still ranked No. 3 nationally on kenpom.com, with an offense and a defense that ranks inside the top 10 nationally in terms of efficiency. Michigan took No. 8 seed LSU's best punch and the Wolverines still won by eight, as starting guard Eli Brooks and do-it-all reserve Chaundee Brown each scored a team-high 21 points with eight combined 3-pointers.

Michigan's next opponent, No. 4 seed Florida State, excels at offensive rebounding and 3-point shooting, so if the Wolverines can crash the defensive glass and run the Seminoles off the 3-point line, then there's certainly a path to the Elite Eight. If they're there and they meet No. 2 seed Alabama, it will be more of the same as the  Crimson Tide attempts almost half of its shots from three, and Michigan could learn something from No. 15  seed Iona's game plan as the Gaels held Alabama to just 16 3-point attempts and only five makes.

Michigan may not be at full strength without Livers, but the Wolverines have proven they're still playing at a very high level.

No. 4 seed Florida State

Next opponent: No. 1 seed Michigan
Potential opponents in the Elite Eight: No. 2 seed Alabama/No. 11 seed UCLA

Florida State won its first two NCAA tournament games by 10 and 18 points, respectively, holding both UNC Greensboro and Colorado to less than 55 points. After Colorado unleashed an impressive 3-point barrage against No. 12 seed Georgetown, the Seminoles held the Buffaloes to just 6-of-25 shooting from deep. Florida State has the tallest average height in the country, per kenpom.com, which helps explain why opponents shoot less than 44 percent from 2-point range against them. There  are few easy shots against Florida State.

And the Seminoles are even better offensively, thanks to their 38.2-percent 3-point shooting and a group that rebounds almost 35 percent of its missed shots. No one in the country can match their size and few teams can match their athleticism, so if Florida State can pick off a Michigan team that isn't at full strength, then bottle up No. 2 seed Alabama similar to how Florida State held Colorado in check from 3-point range, then the Seminoles could make the Final Four.

No. 11 seed UCLA

Next opponent: No. 2 seed Alabama
Potential opponents in the Elite Eight: No. 1 seed Michigan/No. 4 seed Florida State

UCLA is only a Cinderella based on its seed, but not by its name or even performance. This Bruins team was 13-3 in the Pac-12 after Feb. 25, poised to potentially take home a regular season title but they lost their next four games. This is a group with impressive size and talent on the wings, with the likes of Johnny Juzang, Jaime Jaquez and Jules Bernard. The latter two players are both 40-percent 3-point shooters, which makes them critical in a potential upset over No. 2 Alabama, which loves to shoot from deep.

UCLA plays at one of the slowest tempos nationally and if the Bruins are hitting from deep, then that can give them a much-needed edge in a low-possession game.

No. 2 seed Alabama

Next opponent: No. 11 seed UCLA
Potential opponents in the Elite Eight: No. 1 seed Michigan/No. 4 seed Florida State

Alabama's defensive efficiency has the same national ranking as Alabama's NCAA tournament seed — No. 2. That's the biggest reason to buy into the Crimson Tide's Final Four hopes. But in addition to playing elite-level defense, Alabama can play at a blistering pace, while almost exclusively taking shots that are either 3-pointers or shots at the rim, which means the Crimson Tide may not be vulnerable to a slow, low-possession game like some other teams with great defenses. Alabama has won eight games in a row and its next opponent was always guaranteed to be a double-digit seed, given the matchup between No. 11 seed UCLA and No. 14 seed Abilene Christian.

Almost 47 percent of Alabama's shots are threes, which means the Crimson Tide can reasonably hit more than 15 3-pointers in a game, which combined with the team's elite defense, is a recipe for a potential Final Four appearance.

South Region

No. 1 seed Baylor

Next opponent: No. 5 seed Villanova
Potential opponents in the Elite Eight: No. 3 seed Arkansas/No. 15 seed Oral Roberts

Baylor both dispatched its first-round opponent, No. 16 seed Hartford, is a classic, dominant performance from a No. 1 seed — a 79-55 victory in which Hartford committed 24 turnovers — then the Bears won by 13 against a Wisconsin team that is ranked in the top 15 nationally on kenpom.com, despite being a No. 8 seed.

So the Bears didn't have an unsettling first-round performance, then they handled a Wisconsin program that has proven capable of upsetting higher-seeded opponents in the past. As Baylor looks ahead to its Sweet 16 matchup against No. 5 seed Villanova, it sees an opponent that won the Big East regular-season title, sure, but the Wildcats lost starting point guard Collin Gillespie to a season-ending knee injury, which will really put their typically sure-handed ball-handling to the test against Baylor, which forces a turnover defensively on nearly 25 percent of its opponents' possessions. The Bears' 24.7-percent turnover rate ranks third nationally and they'll be facing a Villanova squad that has committed the fewest turnovers nationally, on a percentage basis (13.2 percent), and that has committed only 26 turnovers in its last four games without Gillespie.

This collection of Villanova players has played a lot of basketball together (and won a lot), but a Baylor team that makes 41.5 percent of its threes, grabs almost 37 percent of its missed shots and, yes, hounds opposing ball-handlers, should provide a unique challenge.

If Baylor wins, it'll either face in the Elite Eight an athletic Arkansas team that likes to run but isn't particularly gifted at making or defending threes, or a No. 15 seed in Oral Roberts. You could make the case that Baylor has the most favorable path to the Final Four of any remaining team, given that its next opponent is without the co-Big East Player of the Year, and that it could potentially face a No. 15 seed with the Final Four on the line.

No. 5 seed Villanova

Next opponent: No. 1 seed Baylor
Potential opponents in the Elite Eight: No. 3 seed Arkansas/No. 15 seed Oral Roberts

Despite losing co-Big East Player of the Year Collin Gillespie, Villanova has advanced to the Sweet 16, even though only 41 percent of Bracket Challenge Game users predicted the Wildcats to win their first two games. Villanova still has another co-Big East Player of the Year in Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who's the team's leading scorer and best rebounder among active players. Plus, the Wildcats beat No. 12 seed Winthrop by 10 and No. 13 seed North Texas by 23, so even though Villanova has yet to play a single-digit seed in the NCAA tournament, it has won by double digits in both games, showing the merits of the rest of the roster sans Gillespie.

Villanova has the No. 6 offense in the country in terms of efficiency and it'll need that offense to be firing on all cylinders in order to make the Final Four. The Wildcats have only had 12 turnovers in two NCAA tournament games and just 26 in four games without Gillespie, so if Villanova can continue to take care of the ball against a Baylor defense that forces a lot of turnovers and if the Wildcats can continue to make more than 35 percent of their threes and more than 53 percent of their twos, then maybe they have enough gas in the tank to continue their NCAA tournament run.

No. 3 seed Arkansas

Next opponent: No. 15 seed Oral Roberts
Potential opponents in the Elite Eight: No. 1 seed Baylor/No. 5 seed Villanova

For the first time since 1996, Arkansas is back in the Sweet 16. The Razorbacks escaped No. 6 seed Texas Tech on Sunday and now they'll face No. 15 Oral Roberts, which is just the second No. 15 seed to ever advance to the Sweet 16. In case you didn't know, these two teams met in December in Arkansas' Bud Walton Arena, where the Razorbacks won 87-76. Can Arkansas also win the rematch? NCAA.com found that over a 12-year period from 2008 through 2019, NCAA tournament matchups between teams that met once in the regular season were won 67 percent of the time by the team that won the first matchup.

So history says that Arkansas, which is seeded 12 seed lines better than Oral Roberts, will likely win in the Sweet 16, too.

The good news for Arkansas is that it has already proven it can beat a good opponent in the NCAA tournament without playing its best. Against Texas Tech, the Razorbacks shot just 23 percent from three (4-for-17), they were out-rebounded on the offensive and defensive end, and they played the Red Raiders to a draw in terms of turnovers forced, yet they still won. One of the most important metrics for Arkansas for its next matchup is defensive free throw rate, which measures how many free throws an opponent takes for every field goal attempt. Oral Roberts is the No. 1 free throw shooting team in the country at 82.4 percent and the Golden Eagles have a chance to finish as the best free throw shooting team in the history of the sport. But Arkansas allows opponents to attempt just 29 free throws for every 100 field goal attempts, which is better than the national average.

When Arkansas plays its game, the Razorbacks play as fast as anyone in the country and they really limit opponents' 2-point attempts and makes with their shot-blocking capability. That will be important in a potential matchup with No. 1 seed or No. 5 seed Villanova, both of whom have athletic, veteran rosters.

No. 15 seed Oral Roberts

Next opponent: No. 3 seed Arkansas
Potential opponents in the Elite Eight: No. 1 seed Baylor/No. 5 seed Villanova

The case for Oral Roberts advancing in the NCAA tournament is that it has already beaten the second-best seeded team in its region, No. 2 seed Ohio State, then backed up that performance with another win over a high-major opponent in No. 7 seed Florida. They have the DNA to potentially continue their Cinderella run, too. They attempt more than 46 percent of their shots from three, and they make 38-percent of their 3-point attempts, which is dangerous for any higher-seeded team. Plus, Oral Roberts makes more than 82 percent of its free throws, which has paid significant dividends in its upsets over Ohio State and Florida, and could once again benefit the Golden Eagles in a close game.

Don't forget that sophomore guard Max Abmas (24.6 ppg) and junior forward Kevin Obanor (19.0 ppg) are the highest-scoring duo in men's basketball, which gives the Golden Eagles the firepower to potentially compete with Arkansas, and then potentially Baylor or Villanova.

Midwest Region

No. 8 seed Loyola Chicago

Next opponent: No. 12 seed Oregon State
Potential opponents in the Elite Eight: No. 2 seed Houston/No. 11 seed Syracuse

There's a lot of reasons to like Loyola Chicago's chances of advancing to the Final Four. First, the Ramblers already defeated (handily) the No. 1 seed in their region, Illinois, and they have the No. 1 defense in the country, which should keep them in any NCAA tournament game they'll play. Plus, two of the three other teams remaining in their region are No. 12 seed Oregon State and No. 11 seed Syracuse, so Loyola Chicago is actually the second-best seed left standing.

Two of Loyola Chicago's starters — Cameron Krutwin (No. 3 on kenpom.com's national player of the year standings) and Lucas Williamson were integral pieces on the Ramblers' 2018 Final Four team, so two of their most important players have already made the Final Four. Loyola Chicago's next opponent, Oregon State, plays at one of the slowest tempos nationally, they foul a lot and their 2-point percentage is well below the national average, showing potentially cracks that could lead to a likely exit for the No. 12 seed.

Meanwhile, the best-seeded team left in Loyola Chicago's region is No. 2 seed Houston, which only beat No. 10 seed Rutgers by three points on Sunday, showing that the Cougars are by no means invincible.

No. 12 seed Oregon State

Next opponent: No. 8 seed Loyola Chicago
Potential opponents in the Elite Eight: No. 2 seed Houston/No. 11 seed Syracuse

The case for Oregon State's Cinderella run continuing for two more games is as follows: the Beavers have won five consecutive elimination games, dating back to the Pac-12 tournament. If Oregon State had lost any of those games, its season, or at least its NCAA tournament hopes, would've been over. However you want to describe that winning streak — toughness, mental fortitude, etc. — that counts for something, even if it's difficult to measure.

The analytical argument for a potential Final Four run for Oregon State is that the Beavers are solid — not great, but solid — on both ends of the floor, with the No. 42 offense and No. 72 defense, so if their play on either end of the floor improves for a game or two, then they could continue performing at a level better than that of a typical No. 12 seed. Oregon State makes 76.7 percent of its free throws, which could be the difference in one-possession game, and the Beavers' opponents are shooting just  30.7 percent from deep, which is one of the best marks nationally.

Oregon State probably isn't "supposed" to win its next game, just like it wasn't "supposed" to win its last five, yet it did each time.

No. 11 seed Syracuse

Next opponent: No. 2 seed Houston
Potential opponents in the Elite Eight: No. 8 seed Loyola Chicago/No. 12 seed Oregon State

In Syracuse's last six games, Buddy Boeheim — Jim's son — has scored 25, 30, 31, 27, 24 and 26 points, respectively, and he earned the game's MVP honors in six of them, based upon kenpom.com's metrics. So Syracuse, with its top-15 offense, has someone who's playing like an All-American, while the Orange's defense held No. 6 seed San Diego State to 1.03 points per possession and No. 3 West Virginia to 1.04 points per possession. The national average was just above 1.02, so Syracuse held single-digit seeds to offensive performances that were only barely above average, even though Syracuse's defense on the season ranks just 87th nationally.

Rebounding was arguably the difference for No. 2 seed Houston in its 63-60 win over No. 10 seed Rutgers, as the Cougars grabbed 43 percent of their missed shots and 74 percent of available defensive rebounds, and that could be the key to their Sweet 16 matchup against the Orange, as Houston ranks No. 1 in offensive rebounding percentage and Syracuse ranks 340th in defensive rebounding percentage. If Syracuse doesn't get beat up on the boards and if Buddy Boeheim can make another run at a 30-point performance, then the Orange has a shot of advancing.

Syracuse's offensive efficiency — specifically its ability to take care of the ball and make free throws — could be a way to beat Loyola Chicago and its top-ranked defense in a potential matchup.

No. 2 seed Houston

Next opponent: No. 11 seed Syracuse
Potential opponents in the Elite Eight: No. 8 seed Loyola Chicago/No. 12 seed Oregon State

Houston is currently ranked No. 4 on kenpom.com, so only three teams in the country — Gonzaga, Baylor and Michigan have a better efficiency margin. It's hard to find many teams with a better record than the Cougars' 26-3 mark and they have the advanced numbers to back it up. Houston can make the Final Four because it's clearly the best-seeded team left in the region (with No. 8 seed Loyola Chicago being the second-best seed remaining) and Houston's play all season long suggests it's on the short list of the best teams the country.

No further explanation needed.

 
1939-49 Brackets: 1939 |1940 | 1941 | 1942 | 1943 | 1944 | 1945 | 1946 | 1947 | 1948 | 1949
1950s: 1950 | 1951 |1952 | 1953 | 1954 | 1955 | 1956 | 1957 | 1958 | 1959
1960s: 1960 | 1961 | 1962 | 1963 | 1964 | 1965 | 1966 |1967 | 1968 | 1969
1970s: 1970 | 1971 | 1972 | 1973 | 1974 | 1975 | 1976 | 1977 | 1978 | 1979 
1980s: 1980 | 1981 | 1982 | 1983 | 19841985 | 1986 | 1987 | 1988 | 1989
1990s: 1990 | 1991 | 1992 | 1993 | 1994 | 1995 | 1996 | 1997 | 1998 | 1999
2000s: 2000 | 2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009
2010s: 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014| 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018 | 2019 
COVID-19 and college sports: Latest updates and schedules

2021 NCAA baseball tournament preview: Ruston Regional

Here's a preview of the Ruston Regional, which features No. 16 Louisiana Tech.
READ MORE

Colleges and conferences with the most players drafted in the 2021 NFL Draft

The SEC set a record with 65 players selected in the 2021 NFL Draft.
READ MORE

College basketball transfers and roster winners from Week 2 of the offseason

Andy Katz ranks the top 10 winners of the second week of the offseason, based on transfers and NBA Draft decisions.
READ MORE
Presented by
Presented by
Presented by

Subscribe To Email Updates

Enter your information to receive emails about offers, promotions from NCAA.com and our partners