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Ranking Sweet 16 teams based on title potential

Scott Gleeson • Usa Today
| Monday, March 19, 2018 9:27 p.m
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The Duke Blue Devils mascot performs against the Rhode Island Rams during the first half in the second round of the 2018 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at PPG PAINTS Arena on March 17, 2018 in Pittsburgh.
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Players on the Kentucky bench react during the second half of a second-round game against Buffalo in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Saturday, March 17, 2018, in Boise, Idaho. Kentucky won 95-75.

Then there were 16.

The first weekend wasn’t short on madness, with the No. 1 overall seed, Virginia, getting bounced in the first round by 16th-seeded Cinderella Maryland Baltimore County.

But now the remaining contenders — or pretenders — are ready to fight in the second weekend for a trip to the Final Four.

Which teams are hottest? Which teams have the best matchup or the most favorable path to San Antonio? USA Today Sports ranks the 16 remaining teams in this year’s NCAA tournament — in order of national title-winning potential.

1. Duke Blue Devils

The Blue Devils were firing on all cylinders in the convincing second-round win Saturday over Rhode Island. With Michigan State gone and Kansas not at its best, the seemingly cluttered Midwest Region now feels like No. 2 seed Duke’s to lose. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has brought talented Duke teams to the Sweet 16 plenty of times, but rarely has he done so with an unstoppable asset in the form of 6-10 freshman forward Marvin Bagley III. He averages a double-double and injects energy into the rest of the team, which is no normal cast of role players. All-American senior guard Grayson Allen provides the veteran presence, while point guard Trevon Duval has been an X-Factor for this group with his facilitating and timely scoring.

2. Kentucky Wildcats

This team lost four consecutive games during a horrid February stretch to fall out of the SEC regular-season title race. However, they have come on strong in March, starting with an SEC tournament title followed by two impressive wins in the NCAA tournament. The difference has been on the defensive end, where the Wildcats have put the clamps on opponents and made that a priority.

Coach John Calipari has a mastery of getting teenagers to gel as a unit and play like veterans in this one-and-done era. Against an experienced Buffalo team, it was both the Wildcats’ jump-out-of-the-gym athleticism and locked-in defensive effort that made it a blowout. Kevin Knox can score in a variety of ways (three-pointers, jump hooks or floaters), while Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has given this group a go-to presence (he had 27 points and six assists vs. Buffalo). With the top four seeds gone in the chaotic South Region, the fifth-seeded Wildcats are the clear-cut favorite.

3. Villanova Wildcats

Villanova found another gear against Alabama in the second round, and has proven it can be one of the most unbeatable teams in this tournament. But the formula to be at that level takes stellar defense and a high percentage of three-point shooting (the Wildcats made 31 threes in the first two rounds). National player of the year Jalen Brunson (19.1 ppg, 4.7 apg) and NBA prospect Mikal Bridges make for a strong tandem, and give this team a significant edge in late-game situations. But it’s the role players and glue guys who help this team tick. The most important of those is Donte DiVincenzo, who brings instant offense off the bench and had five first-half triples to fuel this team against ‘Bama. Coach Jay Wright has as much, if not more, talent on this roster than he did in 2016 when ‘Nova cut down the nets in April.

4. Michigan Wolverines

Buzzer-beaters, such as freshman Jordan Poole’s 30-foot dagger to sink Houston on Saturday, can often coincide with a lucky-to-be-there factor. That’s far from the case here. Michigan has been a Final Four threat since late February, playing its best basketball late in the season en route to a Big Ten tournament championship. Coach John Beilein has the best defensive team he’s ever had in Ann Arbor, and that’s been wholly necessary to advance to the second weekend. The balanced offense hasn’t been fluent, with poor three-point shooting in the tournament (28 percent in two games) and leading scorer Mo Wagner (14.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg) averaging just 8.5 points a game. Michigan has been one of the least impressive Sweet 16 teams, and yet, its title chances are still higher based on the overall product and net-cutting potential.

5. Kansas Jayhawks

In reality, Kansas has overachieved this season given its lack of size and perimeter shooting.Winning the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles, as well as surviving the first two rounds without a 100 percent healthy Udoka Azubuike (KU’s only true big man), speak volumes for why the Final Four wall coach Bill Self’s program has faced the past two NCAA tournaments will fall this year. Big 12 player of the year Devonte’ Graham (17.4 ppg, 7.5 apg) makes this team tick. As usual, Graham and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk will need to shoot well for this team to win. Combo guard Malik Newman’s 28 points in a win over Seton Hall couldn’t have come at a better time.

6. Texas A&M Aggies

Texas A&M’s unexpected drubbing of North Carolina can be credited to two things: UNC’s horrid shooting day and the Aggies’ imposing front line of Tyler Davis, Robert Williams and DJ Hogg wreaking havoc. Hogg had 14 points off three three-pointers, while the twin towers of Davis and Williams combined for 10-for-12 shooting, 21 rebounds and eight blocks. While other teams need their guards to excel to win, Texas A&M has used a frontcourt formula to win, while limiting two of the best guard-oriented teams in the Dance — Providence and North Carolina.

7. Clemson Tigers

Clemson wasn’t exactly a hot team entering this tournament. But after two extremely dominant performances against New Mexico State and Auburn, that’s changed big time. The Tigers’ 31-point shellacking of Auburn set an NCAA tourney record for margin of victory. Hot shooting and solid all-around defense are the key ingredients for coach Brad Brownell’s group, which has gotten steady production from senior guard Gabe DeVoe (22 points in both NCAA tourney wins).

8. Texas Tech Red Raiders

The Red Raiders have an active defense and two offensive weapons most teams don’t have in do-everything guard Keenan Evans and dynamic forward Zhaire Smith. Evans was clutch down the stretch against Florida, and is a game-changer with his playmaking. Protecting the paint will be a must for coach Chris Beard’s team against Purdue, as the Red Raiders coughed up 38 points near the rim against the Gators. Guarding the perimeter is a strong suit, with TTU ranking 14th nationally in field goal percentage.

9. West Virginia Mountaineers

Of all the teams from the nation’s best conference, the Big 12, West Virginia has been most impressive in two punishing wins against upstart mid-majors Murray State and Marshall. But much of the Mountaineers’ dominant performance against inferior teams has been based on that tempo-shifting press coach Bob Huggins’ teams perfect. This team forces a lot of turnovers but likely won’t have the same type of success against Villanova’s guards. All-American guard Jevon Carter frustrated Oklahoma’s Trae Young, Kansas’ Graham and Texas Tech’s Evans in Big 12 play. Will he have the same success against Villanova’s Brunson? WVU will need that and Carter’s perimeter shooting to win.

10. Purdue Boilermakers

Purdue would be way higher on this list if 7-footer Isaac Haas didn’t get hurt, but the way the Boilermakers showed resolve in a Sweet 16-clinching victory over Butler provides promise. That win was made possible by the clutch dagger of veteran Dakota Mathias in the closing minutes, and that type of play illuminates this team’s experience factor. Plus, Carsen Edwards and Vincent Edwards are offensive lightning rods that must help this defensively-themed team avoid major scoring lulls. Matt Haarms, Haas’ 7-foot replacement (where does Matt Painter get these tall dudes?) might be the biggest X-Factor of the Sweet 16.

11. Loyola-Chicago Ramblers

Loyola provides a Hoosiers feel to the Sweet 16 with its floor spacing and late-game heroics (the Ramblers advanced this far off two last-second game-winners, against Miami and Tennessee). But what really makes this team the ultimate threat as a mid-major are its sum-of-all-parts philosophy and team cohesion. There’s no superstar, and that’s by design. Coach Porter Moser has had two players — Donte Ingram and Clayton Custer — nail buzzer-beaters. And he’s got three or four more capable of doing it in another close-game situation. Cinderella luck? Or a damn good system. Why this No. 11 seed can go way further than expected: A defense that ranks in the top five nationally.

12. Nevada Wolf Pack

Nevada has presented a split personality in this NCAA tournament: The team that’s outmatched and stiff for more than half the game, and the team that’s possessed during a monstrous comeback and capable of becoming the worst-seeded team since UConn in 2014 to win the whole thing. Coach Eric Musselman’s team has provided two heart-pumping comebacks — a 14-point comeback overtime win over Texas in the first round and then a thrilling 22-point comeback to oust No. 2 seed Cincinnati on Sunday. Caleb Martin and Cody Martin, 6-7 twins with multidimensional skill sets, give Nevada a dangerous 1-2 punch. One key stat: the Wolf Pack ranks second nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio. Taking care of the ball bodes well for any team in March.

13. Gonzaga Bulldogs

Freshman Zach Norvell Jr. has been on an absolute tear and gives the ‘Zags, much less talented than last year’s national runner-up team, a puncher’s chance of getting to the Final Four. His 28 points (off six threes) and 12 rebounds were instrumental in helping Gonzaga dump Ohio State in the second round. The mainstay from Mark Few’s breakthrough team last year, Johnathan Williams, is a 6-9 forward who can pose major matchup problems. Rui Hachimura’s 25 points off the bench against Ohio State showed Few has a bigger arsenal than expected. Free-throw shooting has been a headache for this team, and that will have to change for any more wins in March.

14. Florida State Seminoles

FSU played exceptionally well in knocking off No. 1 seed Xavier, giving it the most impressive tournament win of any Sweet 16 team. Leonard Hamilton’s squad dispatched the Musketeers thanks to an 18-4 run that started on defense and was finished by a determined offense led by vets Terance Mann and Phil Cofer. The Seminoles have the deepest bench of the remaining teams.

15. Kansas State Wildcats

At first glance, the ninth-seeded Wildcats don’t have the offensive repertoire to compete with Kentucky, and were the beneficiary of catching 16th-seeded UMBC when the Cinderella magic ran out. So maybe KSU would be more respected if it beat top-seeded Virginia to get here. But there was a lot to take from a defensively-sound win over the upstart Retrievers. It showed, ironically, how Kansas State has channeled Virginia with not-so-pretty wins behind stellar defense and just enough offense. That was the blueprint in the first round against a potent Creighton offense, too. Barry Brown and Dean Wade will have to shoot well for Bruce Weber’s team to advance.

16. Syracuse Orange

Coach Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone is not easy to prepare for, and it took all three teams ‘Cuse has beaten — Arizona State, TCU and Michigan State — out of their offensive rhythms. But that likely won’t be the case against a Duke team that can handle the Orange’s length and shoot the lights out. The Blue Devils are used to seeing the 2-3. The reason Syracuse is last here is because of limited offensive options. Only three players can score, and no matter how great the defense is, there’s only so much Tyus Battle (19.3 ppg) can do to counter another team’s scoring bursts. The No. 11 seed deserves to be in this Sweet 16, but is nowhere near as good as 2016’s surprise Final Four squad.

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