Sweet 16 Vegas Rankings: Will Duke or Villanova Take the Top Spot?
© Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
It has been a wild ride from 351 to 68 to 16. Just look at Syracuse, which didn’t even finish in the top 10 of the final ACC regular-season standings, but will be one of the final 10 teams still alive on Friday night when it takes on Duke. This feels like a good time to release a specific Sweet 16 power rankings update, given what we learned over the past few weeks.
As a reminder: I’m doing this from a betting perspective. So, for example, the No. 1 team would be favored over every other team on the list, and so on. Got it? Let’s get to it.
16. Kansas State
Star forward Dean Wade is apparently “98%” certain he’ll play against Kentucky. A healthy Wade could create problems for a UK team that has had holes defensively at the rim. Plus, Wade’s mobility will open the floor for KSU’s quick backcourt. Given how well both KSU and UK defend ball screens, that could turn their game into a grinder quickly. However, UK’s newfound efficient half-court offense mixed with KSU’s defensive rebounding struggles will probably be too much to overcome in the battle of the Wildcats.
We’ve seen this story many times before in March. Syracuse brings a limited offensive group to the dance, but opponents fail to capitalize against head coach Jim Boeheim’s well-oiled 2-3 zone. The Orange then improbably knock off even good zone offenses, which we saw last Sunday against Sparty. Michigan State had a remarkable +24 field-goal attempt differential, but still somehow lost. Syracuse’s zone creates some seemingly impossible box scores, which makes the Orange a team you simply can’t count out, no matter how much its offense struggles.
The Pack is difficult to match up with, as head coach Eric Musselman has five positionless offensive threats in a spread out pick-and-roll scheme. The flip side of that coin is that the Pack is vulnerable at the rim and on the glass. While Cincinnati exposed that weakness with great results for 30 minutes, the versatility of Nevada eventually won out. If Musselman’s squad could overcome a frontcourt such as Cincy’s, the Pack can realistically beat anyone in the field. We do know Nevada won’t ever lay down and die. Expect a very loose group — which is playing with house money after overcoming second-half deficits of 14 and 22 — to make it to the second weekend.
13. Loyola Chicago
The Ramblers are perhaps the most cohesive team left in the field. They play outstanding team defense, particularly in pick and roll, and the offense moves the ball at an incredibly high level. Don’t overlook the fact that the Ramblers were more physical than Tennessee, which was arguably the most physical team in the entire tournament.
12. Florida State
The ‘Noles have all the pieces to continue their march to San Antonio, as few teams in the country can boast the size and athleticism 1-5 that head coach Leonard Hamilton has at his disposal. However, when the game turns into a half-court grind, which Gonzaga specializes in creating, I’m not sure FSU can consistently manufacture points in its half-court offense.
The curious case of the Boilermakers. Obviously, the injury to big man Isaac Haas is a big blow for Purdue’s title hopes. I’m reluctant to think his presence on the floor with some sort of Inspector Gadget elbow brace would make it worthwhile for head coach Matt Painter to have a glorified decoy in the paint. That said, Purdue still potentially has a potent offensive team without Haas. In the Boilermakers’ second-round game, Painter experimented with an extremely small lineup, shifting forward Vince Edwards to the 5 with big man Matt Haarms off the floor. However, Butler quickly pounced offensively, as that lineup was clearly a non-starter on defense. The Boilers will clearly miss Haas’ size against Texas Tech, which attacks the rim aggressively with the most athletic front court in the field.
Nearly every pundit in the country, myself included, wrote Clemson off before its first-round matchup with a very good New Mexico State team. The Tigers would prove all of us wrong, as they have simply looked like one of the best offenses in the entire tournament. That makes Clemson very dangerous, as head coach Brad Brownell’s teams always defend at an elite level. Given how well Clemson surprisingly matches up with Kansas, one of the more under-the-radar stories of this wild tournament could get amplified in Omaha.
9. Texas A&M
When the Aggies play cohesively, they have the best frontcourt in the field. While everyone else has embraced “pace and space”, the remaining lumbering dinosaur finds itself with an advantage around the rim. Head coach Billy Kennedy’s squad has certainly exploited that edge so far in this tourney. TJ Starks is a dynamic but volatile presence at the point. He can either propel the Aggies all the way to San Antonio, or have a game that sends them packing against methodical Michigan.
The Wolverines have a decided “sideline edge” in the Sweet 16. No coach in the country can concoct a game plan to exploit mismatches within his 2 Guard offense quite like John Beilein. Combine that Michigan’s defense, which is playing at a level previously unseen with even Beilein’s best teams, and you have a legit title contender.
7. West Virginia
West Virginia is playing like a veteran team with poise on both ends of the court. Unfortunately, running into Villanova’s buzzsaw offense puts a cap on its ceiling. Pressing Villanova simply never works out for any team. That said, the combination of WVU’s ability to pressure teams into mistakes in high leverage situations and manufacture points outside of half-court offense plays well this time of the year.
6. Texas Tech
When the Red Raiders are healthy, few defenses in the country are better. Finding consistent offense against Tech’s souped-up, hyper-athletic, modified pack-line scheme is extremely difficult. Plus, few teams have an alpha scorer such as point guard Keenan Evans and a phenomenal game planner in head coach Chris Beard.
The time off before heading to another quasi-home destination in Omaha should certainly help big man Udoka Azubuike’s knee. That should subsequently help a leaky defense that allowed 79 points in 71 possessions to Seton Hall. (To be fair, a good chunk of that Hall scoring came in a bizarre final minute). There’s no doubting KU’s offense, as Devonte’ Graham is the best overall guard in the tournament. However, between Lagerald Vick, Svi Mykhailiuk and Malik Newman, the Jayhawks have plenty of holes defensively.
Guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is playing at an absolutely incredible level in this tournament . . . on both ends of the floor. His play over the past month has transformed Kentucky from a stagnant half-court offense into one of the best in the country. Gilgeous-Alexander has also been setting up guard Hamidou Diallo on offense. Diallo has always played elite defense, but now he heads to Atlanta with sky-high confidence on both ends. UK had the country’s highest ceiling in terms of talent; the on-court product is matching that potential at just the right time.
Junior guard Josh Perkins is playing like a lite version of ex-Gonzaga guard Nigel Williams-Goss, which I mean as a compliment. Perkins’ steadiness as a facilitator paired with an off the charts athletic and versatile frontcourt makes the Zags a legit national title threat once again. Gonzaga is the hardest team in the Sweet 16 to generate easy points against. The Zags don’t allow anything in transition or at the rim, while rebounding incredibly well on the defensive end. There’s very little volatility with this team, especially given the way Perkins is currently playing on the ball.
It seems like a lifetime ago that we were worried about Duke’s defense, but as has been written about ad nauseam, the switch to the massive 2-3 zone completely changed everything. It has made the Blue Devils the most balanced team in the Sweet 16. While the defense has certainly turned Duke into arguably the team to beat, the steady play of guard Trevon Duval takes the Blue Devils to another level. Duval was consistent and confident with the ball against URI’s aggressive guards, totaling 7 assists to just 1 turnover. A steady on ball presence makes the Duke offense absolutely lethal.
Be terrified. Head coach Jay Wright’s squad looks like the 2016 national champion Villanova team right now. The offense, which was never a concern, is humming at a typical Nova rate, while the defense has vastly improved since mid-February. The addition of a healthy Phil Booth on the perimeter certainly helps in that regard. Without Booth, Nova looked lost at times in Wright’s constantly switching man-to-man defense without him. In addition to Booth, Eric Paschall’s defense makes Nova elite on both ends of the floor. Paschall defended brilliantly against Alabama. I thought the Tide could give Nova issues because big, athletic wings tend to exploit bad switches against the Wildcats. However, Paschall defended at a level comparable to forward Mikal Bridges. That’s a game changer for Villanova, which puts it on a tier above the rest of the Sweet 16 field.
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