Reseeding the Sweet 16: 1 team stands out, but other contenders have emerged
The first weekend of the greatest sporting event in the world is behind us and it delivered as only the NCAA Tournament can, with buzzer-beaters, astonishing upsets, multiple Cinderellas to the Sweet 16 and, lest we forget this about winning a championship, a dominant favorite that looks head and shoulders better than the rest of the field.
If your bracket is busted—and I’m looking at you people who bought low on Arizona or bought in to the Duke 10-game win streak hype before the Wildcats were broken by Princeton and the Blue Devils bloodied by Tennessee — the Sweet 16 is a great chance to redeem yourself. Take the 16 teams remaining, evaluate their play over the season and the first weekend, and give yourself one last chance to be the smartest person in the room.
Our reseeding of the Sweet 16 has you in mind, and it is largely based on our belief of where these teams now stand, and how stunned we’d be if they played beyond the Sweet 16. Does the full body of work matter? Absolutely. We can’t, for example, forget that Michigan State looked very ordinary throughout B1G play before becoming the last B1G team standing, or that Arkansas finished 10th in the SEC, behind NIT teams like Florida and Vanderbilt.
The full body of work cuts both ways, though, and so before you laugh at Florida Atlantic, remember they are 33-3 and spent almost the entire season ranked in the top 25 in the NET and KenPom. Those Owls can flat out fly.
Here’s our reseeding of the Sweet 16, where every program in America wants to be when the season begins, but only the best remain.
16. Princeton Tigers
Original NCAA Tournament Seed: 61
Princeton dominated Missouri in the 2nd round 78-63 to advance to the program’s first Sweet 16 since 1967. The way Princeton is shooting the ball, they may be stronger than Saint Peter’s, which a season ago became the first 15 seed to reach the Elite 8.
PRINCETON IS RUNNING AWAY WITH IT 😱#MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/97bsREGhr2
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 18, 2023
They also control tempo, which is how they slowed two prolific offenses in their opening wins over Arizona and Mizzou. They’ve already faced an All-American big in defeating Arizona and Azuolas Tubelis, so they won’t be phased by Ryan Kalkbrenner, right? Maybe, but I’m still not sure I buy into a program that narrowly beat Penn just to get in the field and lost to the likes of Dartmouth (260th in KenPom) and Delaware (234th) to continue to beat great basketball teams.
15. Michigan State Spartans
Original NCAA Tournament Seed: 26
Death, Taxes, Izzo. Right?
Michigan State is playing with angels on their shoulders, pushed by the emotion of a campus and student body still grieving after a mass shooting on their campus on Feb. 13 deprived 3 students of their lives. Izzo, the most revered man on campus, has taken the task of honoring these students seriously, and now, his team is winning by doing what Tom Izzo teams always do in March: limiting mistakes and riding magnificent guard play, led by Tyson Walker (17.5 ppg, 0 turnovers in the first 2 rounds) and AJ Hoggard.
14. Florida Atlantic Owls
Original NCAA Tournament Seed: 33
The Owls have won 33 games with depth, great shooting and smart basketball. Two of those factors were a big part of their journey to the Sweet 16. The Owls committed just 16 turnovers in wins over Memphis and Farleigh Dickinson, who push tempo and love to turn you over. The Owls also played their customary 9 guys double-digit minutes, which means that when Farleigh Dickinson tired and Penny Hardaway’s talented bunch fought each other on the sidelines, the Owls were just waiting to play more basketball. The wild card? Florida Atlantic has not shot well in the NCAA Tournament from beyond the arc. They were just 17-for-57 from deep in those 2 games, a 29% average that is well under their season sniper’s mark of 37% as a team. Now they face the challenge of shooting better against Tennessee, the nation’s best defense.
13. San Diego State Aztecs
Original NCAA Tournament Seed: 17
Brian Dutcher’s team put together one of the first weekend’s most impressive performances in their 75-52 beatdown of Furman on Saturday afternoon. That was Aztecs basketball at its finest: suffocating defense, attacking offense that finishes at the rim, methodical tempo that wraps its arms around opponents like a boa constrictor once San Diego State takes a lead. The Aztecs shoot over 60% from inside the arc, and with their intense physicality, they resemble the types of teams that have troubled Alabama this season: Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas A&M. But after 2 games against Charleston and Furman, mid-major darlings without NBA athletes, the Aztecs get the most talented team in the field in Alabama on Friday night.
12. Xavier Musketeers
Original NCAA Tournament Seed: 12
Xavier was pushed by Kennesaw State, but then steamrolled a Pitt team that won 2 games in 4 days to earn the right to face Sean Miller’s team in the Round of 32. Souley Boum is a dude, one of the best guards left in the field who scored 15.5 points, 6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game in the opening 2 rounds. He didn’t even shoot well in Greensboro — which is a scary thought if he gets hot in Kansas City. Sean Miller has done a magnificent job with this team, but you have to think at some point, they’ll miss glue guy Zach Freemantle (15.2 ppg, 8.1 rebounds), no matter how well his replacement Jerome Hunter played in his first 2 NCAA Tournament games. Xavier also has one of the worst defenses, from a KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency standpoint (77th), remaining in the field. It didn’t cost them against a 14 seed and an 11 seed (the “easiest” path to the Sweet 16, by S-Curve ranking), but it may come the Texas game on Friday night.
11. Arkansas Razorbacks
Original NCAA Tournament Seed: 30
Yes, Arkansas finished 10th in the SEC. Before you blame injuries to Nick Smith and Trevon Brazile for that anomaly, remember that Florida finished 8th in the league even though it lost SEC Defensive Player of the Year Colin Castleton, Tennessee lost All-SEC guard Zakai Ziegler and finished 5th, and Vanderbilt rolled to the SEC Tournament semifinals without All-SEC big Liam Robbins.
Teams have injuries and don’t ultimately tank league play the way the Hogs did.
That said, Eric Musselman is an NCAA Tournament savant — with a switching, tough defense and a hot hand, space and pace isolation-heavy offense that is built for March. Arkansas has been here before, too, as this is their 3rd consecutive Sweet 16 trip under Musselman.
An Arkansas team playing its best basketball of the season now gets a UConn team that played its best basketball in November and December. Don’t be stunned if Arkansas lands in a 3rd straight Elite 8.
10. Kansas State Wildcats
Original NCAA Tournament Seed: 11
Jerome Tang’s team, picked to finish last in the Big 12, is now among the last Big 12 teams standing (Texas). The Sweet 16 run has been part great coaching and relentless belief (Tang didn’t even fill this roster until August — the ultimate “trust the process” move) and part the tandem of Markquis Nowell, the 5-8 Jersey/NYC tough guard who powered the Wildcats past Kentucky, and All-American wing Keyontae Johnson, whose recovery from a near-fatal collapse on the floor while a player at Florida in 2020 is one of the most heartwarming stories in the NCAA Tournament. Johnson is a 3-and-D mismatch nightmare who can score from anywhere and create his own look, as Kentucky learned in crunch time on Sunday.
KEYONTAE JOHNSON. CLUTCH ‼️#MarchMadness @KStateMBB pic.twitter.com/sNOXsW8vOL
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 19, 2023
K-State doesn’t rebound well — they lost the boards battle by 20 to Kentucky on Sunday, yet still won — which had not happened in an NCAA Tournament game since 2019-2020. But they are tough, don’t turn the ball over and are battle-tested, having played one of the nation’s most difficult schedules. Good luck eliminating them, especially if Nowell is intent on doing his best Kemba Walker.
9. Creighton Bluejays
Original NCAA Tournament Seed: 22
Creighton, a preseason top-10 team, is finally playing like one. Greg McDermott’s team overcame a magnificent performance from Terquavion Smith (32 points!) to squeak past NC State, then looked like a Final Four caliber team in beating Baylor, which they nearly led wire-to-wire, 85-76 on Sunday night. Ryan Kalkbrenner is an All-American and Ryan Nembhard has played like one thus far in the NCAA Tournament.
Ryan Nembhard was cooking against Baylor:
– 30 PTS
– 8-13 FG
– 4-6 3PT
– 10-10 FT
– 2 STL pic.twitter.com/ihHgwzK7vc
— B/R Hoops (@brhoops) March 20, 2023
Creighton draws Princeton next, and while Creighton plays fast (112th in tempo), they won’t be as bothered as Arizona and Missouri were by Princeton’s methodical insistence on slowing the game down. If Creighton continues to score as efficiently as they did in the first 2 rounds, there is zero reason the Bluejays can’t reach the program’s first Final Four.
8. UCLA Bruins
Original NCAA Tournament Seed: 5
Other writers have more faith in the Bruins than I do, but I just don’t know how long the Bruins can keep defying the odds with all their injuries.
Mick Cronin’s team is the consummate hero that just can’t die. No matter how bludgeoned and battered the Bruins become, they just keep finding ways to win. At some point, the season-ending injuries to Jaylen Clark, whom Cronin calls the “best defender in the country” and Adem Bona, a shot-blocking nightmare (17th nationally in block rate), has to matter, right? Add David Singleton to the walking wounded, as he rolled an ankle late in the Bruins’ second round win over Northwestern. Cronin’s boys keep winning anyway, thanks to the splendid shot-making ability of Jaime Jaquez and the steady PG play of Tyger Campbell, who posted 17 assists in the first 2 rounds with just 2 turnovers. Will they be able to score with Gonzaga? That’s the tougher question.
7. Tennessee Volunteers
Original NCAA Tournament Seed : 14
The reasons to doubt the Volunteers entering March Madness were legion. They were without their best player, point guard Zakai Zeigler, and had largely struggled since he was lost for the year to injury. They aren’t as talented as other Rick Barnes teams that had failed in March, from the glorious, gritty, and fun Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams team that lost that epic Sweet 16 game to Purdue to last year’s group, which somehow wasted the talents of Kennedy Chandler, Zeigler, Santiago Vescovi and John Fulkerson by losing in the 2nd round to a decidedly average Michigan team. And of course there’s the 68-year-old Barnes himself, whose March failures have been the stuff of lore since he managed to lose in Round 2 with Kevin Durant.
#CollegeHoops ICYMI Santiago Vescovi first half clips vs Duke… He does it all#MarchMadness #Vols #CBBGlobal pic.twitter.com/XvEZTMxFYh
— MaceoBaller (@MaceoBaller16) March 18, 2023
Miss me with all of that. Doubt these Vols at your own risk.
They defend better than anyone in America, even in the absence of Zeigler. They play hardscrabble, physical, basketball and pound you on the glass (7th nationally in offensive rebounding), which makes up for the fact the team has but 1 good shooter (Vescovi). And like Barnes, who coaches like a man disrespected no matter how much he wins, they are a veteran squad with a chip on their shoulder.
They grown-manned their way past youthful Duke, which had just won 10 straight, and if they beat a similarly well-coached FAU team in the Sweet 16, the program’s first Final Four is there for the taking.
6. Texas Longhorns
Original NCAA Tournament Seed: 6
Texas is still a team heavily reliant on making 3-pointers to win, which makes it difficult to move them too far in either direction from where the committee originally seeded them (6th). Sir’Jabari Rice putting out another 23 points, 7-of-10 from deep type performance as he did against Colgate might be necessary against Xavier, which can really score. But the real key might be Dylan Disu, the Vanderbilt transfer whose 28 points — on an outrageously efficient 14-of-19 inside, helped the Horns hold off a streaking hot Penn State team late in the Round of 32. Texas has now won 6 straight, including 2 games against a 1 seed, Kansas, in that stretch. Another 2 wins and the Final Four shouldn’t surprise anyone.
5. Miami Hurricanes
Original NCAA Tournament Seed: 20
The biggest riser on this list, the ACC regular-season champions looked the part Sunday night, with Norchad Omier finally looking 100% again after the ACC Tournament ankle injury against Duke that had him hobbled a bit in Miami’s hard fought opening round win over a terrific Drake team. The Canes also appear to have found their mojo again offensively, lighting up Indiana in a game that was surprising, I guess, to anyone who hasn’t watched Miami light up good teams all season long (e.g., a 22-point win over Duke when Omier was healthy in February).
Isaiah Wong from the LOGO 🔥#MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/6CVE9eOg5D
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 20, 2023
Isaiah Wong is the best shot-maker left in the field, and his 27 points were complemented beautifully by Jordan Miller’s 19 points, 5 rebounds and 2 blocks. Miller is a future NBA starter who does everything — the kind of glue guy that wills a team to the Final Four. The Canes are well-coached, old, insanely efficient offensively (11th in KenPom Adjusted Offense) and with Omier (17 rebounds vs. Indiana), they have the balance that last year’s Elite 8 team lacked.
4. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Original NCAA Tournament Seed: 10
Mark Few’s team has won 11 in a row, the longest win streak among the Sweet 16 teams. They also have advanced to 8 consecutive Sweet 16s, and for those who would still insist Few is “overrated,” chew on this fact: The Zags have outperformed their seed line in 12 of the past 15 seasons. Talk about making sure you maximize your talent.
Gonzaga outperforms its seed yet again. 16 times in 24 years under Few and 12 of the last 15 years. pic.twitter.com/enVBjqvxPB
— Ken Pomeroy (@kenpomeroy) March 20, 2023
The Zags have the nation’s most efficient offense, and Drew Timme looked like a man on a mission in the first 2 rounds. They should be better than the banged up UCLA team they play in the Sweet 16 and if they win that game, the Holy Grail (national title) is in sight again for the little Jesuit school that could.
3. UConn Huskies
Original NCAA Tournament Seed: 13
The Huskies are a case study in how to rebuild a national power. Danny Hurley has done what great coaches do — reinvented himself and his offense — and the result has been a coach whose offenses were just “decent” at Rhode Island are now great at UConn. The Huskies use of stagger screen after stagger screen and Bilbao actions popular in Europe to free up post looks and shooters alike is modern offense at its best.
Triple Stagger Slip BLOB pic.twitter.com/O1J8Y0voVS
— Eric Fawcett (@EricFawcett_) March 20, 2023
The Huskies dominated both their opponents on the opening weekend, looking more like the team ranked No. 1 early in the season than the one that finished 13-7 in the Big East. It’s also worth noting that Hurley’s team has lost just 2 times since the beginning of February.
2. Houston Cougars
Original NCAA Tournament Seed: 2
Marcus Sasser looked a bit better in Houston’s 2nd-round game against Auburn. Let’s take that to the bank before we fret over how Houston was pushed by 16 seed Northern Kentucky and trailed Auburn by 10 at halftime. If the team that dominated Auburn in the second half — in Birmingham, Alabama no less — shows up in the Sweet 16, Houston may reach a hometown Final Four. The only team in the field ranked in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency, Kelvin Sampson’s team also defends the arc better than anyone else in the field (27.4% 3P FG percentage against), numbers that will be tested against sharpshooting Miami.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
Original NCAA Tournament Seed: 1
Alabama was marvelous on both sides of the basketball in their opening games, but their defense that allowed them to suffocate and pull away from Maryland in the Round of 32 was most impressive. Alabama held the Terrapins to a stingy .76 points per possession and just 1 3-pointer. Any lingering concerns about Brandon Millers health also seem to be put to bed, as the superstar freshman poured in 19 points and grabbed 7 rebounds in Round 2 after being held scoreless in the Tide’s tournament opener.
Alabama is deep and the most talented team remaining in the field, and their region includes only 1 type of a team that has troubled them this season: the gritty, physical, defense-first, hard-driving play of San Diego State, which the Crimson Tide will face in the Sweet 16.