SportsPulse: While there are no real Cinderellas left in the tournament USA TODAY’s Trysta Krick explains why that’s okay and looks ahead to the Sweet 16.
And then there were 16.
The NCAA tournament’s first two rounds trimmed the 64 teams down to 16 and now those survivors will square off Thursday through Sunday in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
But which of these teams has the best chance to cut down the nets in Minneapolis? USA TODAY Sports ranks the Sweet 16 teams based on title potential.
1. Gonzaga (No. 1 seed, 32-3): The Bulldogs’ high-octane offense has shown no signs of slowing down, blowing out Fairleigh Dickinson and Baylor. Rui Hachimura (20.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and Brandon Clarke (16.4 ppg, 8.4 rpg) are versatile 6-8 forwards who are difficult to match up against. Hachimura was a first-team All-American, but it was Clarke who broke out in the ‘Zags’ second-round win over Baylor — recording 36 points and five blocks. Coach Mark Few has proven he can out-coach his rivals, best evidenced by the November win over Duke.
2. Virginia (No. 1 seed, 31-3): The Cavaliers have the best defense, limiting opponents to 55 points a game this season and holding their first weekend opponents — Gardner-Webb and Oklahoma — 53.5 points a game. This is also the best three-point shooting team left in the tournament (41 percent), though Kyle Guy went 0-for-10 from three in UVA’s win over OU. The Cavs overcame a first-half deficit in their first game — which is an accomplishment after being upset by No. 16 UMBC last year — and are playing with extra motivation now.
3. Duke (No. 1 seed, 31-5): The Blue Devils survived a game against No. 9 UCF that even coach Mike Krzyzewski acknowledged his team should’ve lost. That’s what happens when a well-coached team like UCF plays with urgency and forces Duke to shoot outside (Tre Jones was 1-for-8 in the UCF game. Sunday’s near-upset showed how beatable Duke is and it makes the Blue Devils’ title chances suddenly feel far more difficult. But Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett have the ability to step up in pressure-packed situations.
WINNERS/LOSERS FROM MARCH MADNESS:Recapping the first weekend
4. North Carolina (No. 1 seed, 29-6): The Tar Heels looked like title contenders in their second halves during blowout wins over Iona and Washington after coach Roy Williams made adjustments. But their first halves were a different story, with UNC trailing to No. 16 Iona at halftime. Luke Maye remains a consistent force, while point guard Coby White has blossomed into a star. Naz Little provided 20 points and seven rebounds off the bench against Washington.
5. Florida State (No. 4 seed, 29-7): The Seminoles hammered Murray State to advance to the Sweet 16 to continue their strong play late this season. Their only losses in the last two months have come against Duke and North Carolina. Leonard Hamilton’s team has size — starting with 7-foot-4 big man Christ Koumadje. Leading scorer Mfiondu Kabengele, a 6-10 forward, has turned it up a notch in this tournament, averaging 21.5 points and 8.5 boards.
6. Texas Tech (No. 3 seed, 28-6): The Red Raiders’ profile has risen from a sleeper Final Four pick to one of the frontrunners. Jarrett Culver has been exceptional in the NCAAs, scoring 29 points in the first round vs. Northern Kentucky and recording 16 points and 10 rebounds against Buffalo, which was limited to a season-low 58 points.
7. Kentucky (No. 2 seed, 29-6): The Wildcats survived an upset scare against Wofford and were able to advance to the Sweet 16 without leading scorer and rebounder PJ Washington, who is expected to play this weekend. Kentucky has improved perhaps more than any team this season from November to March, and it starts with UK’s freshman guards. Veteran Reid Travis has added an extra dimension since his return from injury, averaging a double-double (16 points, 10 boards) in these NCAAs.
8. Michigan State (No. 2 seed, 30-6): The Spartans haven’t looked their best in these NCAAs, struggling to put away No. 15 seed Bradley and turning the ball over 22 times in their second-round win over Minnesota. But Cassius Winston gives this team a chance to win on any night, and big man Nick Ward is getting closer to playing at full health.
9. Michigan (No. 2 seed, 30-6): The Wolverines look like a national title contender when they’re not playing Michigan State, which they lost to three times this season. Michigan eased past Florida in the second round and coach John Beilein has elevated this team’s defense to the level it was as last year’s national title runner-up, only trailing Virginia in points allowed. The Wolverines get offense in a variety of ways, but it’s point guard Zavier Simpson who is the catalyst. Need proof? Watch Simpson’s cross-court bounce pass to Isaiah Livers for a dunk.
10. Purdue (No. 3 seed, 25-9): The Boilermakers dismantled defending national champion Villanova by 26 points in the second round. Carsen Edward’s 42 points in that rout helped the All-American guard break out of a shooting slump and showed what a threat Purdue can be when its offense matches its defensive level.
11. LSU (No. 3 seed, 28-6): With head coach Will Wade suspended, the Tigers were considered vulnerable. But the SEC regular-season champion is still standing after beating Yale and Maryland, and it is gelling when it matters most. On paper, this might be the most talented team in the tournament. Tremont Waters (15.1 ppg, 6.0 apg) leads four players averaging double figures, and 6-10 big man Naz Reid is an NBA talent that can ignite this team with his play on both ends.
12. Houston (No. 3 seed, 33-3): The Cougars cruised through first weekend matchups against Georgia State and Ohio State, beating both teams by a combined 45 points. This was, Houston was the clear-cut best team in the American Athletic Conference, where UCF and Cincinnati were its top challengers, and it could reach the Final Four now. Corey Davis Jr. has been one of the biggest stars of this tournament, averaging 23.5 points and pouring in seven three-pointers in the win over Georgia State.
13. Auburn (No. 5 seed, 28-9): The Tigers have won 10 games in a row, including an impressive, tempo-controlling win over Kansas in the second round and a one-point win against New Mexico State in the first round. This team lives and dies by the three. The Tigers’ backcourt duo of Jared Harper and Bryce Brown combined for 43 points vs. KU, accounting for nine of Auburn’s 13 triples.
14. Oregon (No. 12 seed, 25-12): The Ducks are riding a 10-game winning streak and coach Dana Altman has turned this team into a defensive juggernaut. Oregon has looked dominant in wins over Wisconsin in the first round and UC Irvine in the second round. Kenny Wooten (seven blocks vs. UC Irvine) and Payton Pritchard (averaging 18.5 points and 7.5 assists in the NCAAs) are major difference-makers for this underdog.
15. Tennessee (No. 2 seed, 31-5): The Volunteers avoided one of the biggest meltdowns in NCAA tournament history, letting a 25-point lead slip away vs. Iowa but winning in overtime in the second round. SEC player of the year Grant Williams had six points and an assist in OT. But in postgame comments, Admiral Schofield aptly summed up why the Vols are so low on this Sweet 16 list: “The way we started the game, that’s the team we win (with). The way we finished the game, we can’t have that.”
16. Virginia Tech (No. 4 seed, 26-8): The Hokies played two inferior opponents in Saint Louis and Liberty and didn’t exactly prove much. The return of point guard Justin Robinson has been a huge boost, but it won’t be enough to replicate their February victory over Duke when Williamson was out with a knee injury.