NCAA Tournament 2014: Power Ranking the Sweet 16 Teams
Crinkle up those brackets and throw them toward the trash can. Surely you were more accurate than Syracuse’s Trevor Cooney the past few weeks, right?
Whatever the case, it’s time to start over.
Kansas and Duke were overrated, UCLA and Iowa State didn’t receive nearly enough hype, and Kentucky and Michigan State are hitting their strides.
And, really, who had any idea Tennessee and Baylor could be this good?
It’s time to re-seed the NCAA tournament field, or at least what’s left of it. From worst to first, here’s how the remaining teams rank based not on their overall resume, but on how they play when it matters most.
The Flyers may be the lowest remaining seed in the NCAA tournament, but Archie Miller’s squad is hardly a Cinderella story.
This is a team that crept into the top 25 back in November after defeating Gonzaga in the Maui Invitational, where the Flyers finished third. Dayton tied for fifth in the Atlantic 10 with a 10-6 league record, but that’s nothing to scoff at considering the conference was awarded six NCAA tournament berths. To reach the Sweet 16, Dayton defeated tradition-rich Ohio State and Syracuse.
The Flyers feature just one player, Dyshawn Pierre, who averages in double figures. This is simply a blue-collar team that takes pride in its defense and in playing with energy.
College basketball fans—and analysts, too—spent the entire season fawning over freshmen. But other than Kentucky, teams with tough-minded juniors and seniors are the ones that have fared the best thus far in the NCAA tournament.
Stanford is a prime example.
A bubble team less than a month ago, Johnny Dawkins’ squad defeated Andrew Wiggins and the Kansas Jayhawks in the round of 32 and will now face Dayton in the Sweet 16. Stanford should be favored in this game. Size and length in the paint enables the Cardinal to employ one of the most menacing zone defenses in the country, and on the other end of the court, the athleticism and versatility of forwards such as Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis make for a difficult matchup.
Another player to watch is Chasson Randle, a junior guard who is averaging 18 points and four steals in two NCAA tournament games.
14. San Diego State
The Aztecs struggled in their round-of-64 game, when they needed overtime to get by New Mexico State, 73-69. They bounced back two nights later to defeat upstart North Dakota State, 63-44.
San Diego State often has difficulty scoring, especially against quality teams. The Aztecs average 70.6 points per game, a mark that ranks 196th in the country. And their field-goal percentage (43.7) ranks 202nd.
Point guard Xavier Thames has been a bright spot. He’s averaging 26.5 points and five assists through two games. He’ll need to come up huge against an Arizona squad that defeated San Diego State, 69-60, in San Diego Nov. 14.
This isn’t your momma’s Bo Ryan team.
These Badgers are more than capable of playing a fast-paced style that results in highlight-reel dunks and gaudy point totals. Just ask Oregon, which fell to the Badgers, 85-77, in the round of 32. Wisconsin had to rally from a 12-point halftime deficit to defeat Dana Altman’s squad and advance to the Sweet 16 to play Baylor in Anaheim on Thursday.
All five of Wisconsin’s starters are salty, but no player was as good during the NCAA tournament’s first weekend as point guard Traevon Jackson, who averaged 17 points, six assists and four rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field. His play against Baylor’s Kenny Chery will be a huge factor for a program seeking its first Elite Eight berth since 2005.
Once considered an NCAA tournament bubble team, the Volunteers have won eight of their last nine games, with the only setback coming against No. 1-ranked Florida. The biggest surprise was that Tennessee struggled early—not that it’s surging late.
This is an experienced, talented team that got hot at just the right time. The frontcourt of Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon is averaging 28.6 points and 23.7 rebounds in three postseason games. Josh Richardson (19.3 points, 3.3 assists) has also been on fire.
Tennessee isn’t favored to beat Michigan, but the Volunteers have the pieces to pull the upset.
Kevin Ollie’s Huskies carried the momentum from their overtime win against St. Joseph’s into Saturday’s round-of-32 game against No. 2 seed Villanova. Shabazz Napier scored 25 points in the 77-65 victory that catapulted Connecticut into the Sweet 16 against Iowa State.
Not many teams in the country boast a leader as impressive as Napier, a senior who helped the Huskies win an NCAA title ring as a freshman in 2011. The point guard always seems to perform his best when the lights are the brightest. He averages 17.8 points and 5.9 assists.
With Ryan Boatright (14.0 points, 4.0 assists) at shooting guard, the Huskies have one of the best backcourts in college basketball. Their frontcourt, however, is a potential area of concern.
Connecticut has won seven of its last nine games, with both of the losses coming against Louisville.
Welp, so much for all that malarkey about Steve Alford not being able to get past the NCAA tournament's opening weekend. The former New Mexico coach has done a masterful job in his first season with the Bruins.
UCLA won’t be favored in its Sweet 16 game against Florida, but there’s no reason to believe the Bruins can't win. They beat Arizona in the Pac-12 title game and then crushed their first two NCAA tournament opponents, Tulsa and Stephen F. Austin, by 17 points each.
Point guard Kyle Anderson is the biggest reason for UCLA’s success. At 6’9”, the sophomore is one of the most difficult matchups in the country. Seriously, how many point guards average 8.7 rebounds? Anderson ranks second on the team in scoring behind Jordan Adams and first in assists.
The maddening thing about UCLA has been the Bruins’ tendency to play terribly against mediocre opponents. Among UCLA’s eight losses are setbacks against Washington State, Oregon State and Utah.
9. Iowa State
The Cyclones showed a ton of heart by beating North Carolina two days after third-leading scorer Georges Niang went down with a season-ending foot injury.
Iowa State has made 21 of its 43 attempts from three-point range during the tournament and hopes to continue its tear against Connecticut.
Forward Melvin Ejim was the Big 12 Player of the Year, but the catalyst for Iowa State in the NCAA tournament has been point guard DeAndre Kane, a senior who averaged 19 points, 8.5 rebounds and six assists in the Cyclones' first two games. Against North Carolina, Kane was responsible for scoring or assisting on 43 of Iowa State’s 85 points, including 15 of the final 17.
Kane’s matchup with Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier should be a good one.
Few teams in the tournament were as impressive in their first two games as the Bears. Scott Drew’s squad defeated Nebraska, 74-60, in a game it led by 21 points. Two nights later, Baylor clubbed Creighton, 85-55, ending the career of National Player of the Year Doug McDermott. The NCAA’s fifth all-time leading scorer had just three points in the decisive first half against Baylor’s zone defense and finished with only 15.
Baylor is one of the hottest teams in the field. The Bears started 2-8 in conference play before rallying to finish 9-9. They then reached the title game of the Big 12 tournament, where Drew’s team fell to Iowa State. Baylor has won 11 of its last 13 games overall.
Baylor boasts elite size, athleticism and length, which makes its zone defense stifling. Seven-foot center Isaiah Austin and 6’10” forward Cory Jefferson are playing the best basketball of their careers, and the Bears tout one of the country’s top long-range weapons in Brady Heslip, who is shooting 46.8 percent from beyond the arc.
The unsung hero, however, has been point guard Kenny Chery, a junior college transfer who has elevated his game since bouncing back from a turf toe injury that left him either sidelined or hobbled throughout much of January. Chery’s injury was one of the main reasons for Baylor’s slow start in the Big 12.
John Beilein has done a masterful job with the Wolverines. Last year’s NCAA runners-up lost Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA draft, and then Mitch McGary went down with a season-ending back injury.
Michigan captured the Big Ten title outright and has now won nine of its last 10 contests, with the only setback coming in the Big Ten tournament championship game against surging Michigan State. Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas averaged 16 points and 4.5 assists in his first two NCAA tournament games against Wofford and Texas, and was 7-of-15 from three-point range.
Michigan’s one weakness is its lack of size and strength in the paint, although that didn’t prove to be a major factor in its round-of-32 victory over Texas, which has one of the better frontcourts in the country.
They won the ACC regular-season title and the ACC tournament title, and now the Cavaliers are in the Sweet 16. So, yeah, anyone who doubts Tony Bennett’s squad at this point probably needs to have their head checked.
Virginia’s slow, methodical motion offense gives teams fits, and its bruising, physical style of defense makes it a threat against any opponent. A healthy Michigan State squad will probably be the best team Virginia has faced all season.
Forget everything you knew—or thought you knew—about Kentucky entering the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats are a different team.
John Calipari’s squad played its best game of the season in Sunday’s 78-76 victory over No. 1 seed Wichita State. It was a high-level performance by both teams, and a Wildcats victory wouldn’t have been possible without a combined 39 points from oft-criticized twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison.
“If they keep playing that way, they’ll be cutting down nets,” Wichita State point guard Fred VanVleet said.
As good as its guard play was on Sunday, Kentucky is equally potent in the frontcourt, where Julius Randle—a sure-fire NBA lottery pick—averages 16 points and 12.5 boards. Center Willie Cauley-Stein averages 2.5 blocks while 7’0”, 265-pound freshman Dakari Johnson is a load in the paint.
With seven McDonald’s All-Americans, Kentucky is easily the most talented No. 8 seed in the history of the NCAA tournament. Three of its 10 losses came against No. 1 overall seed Florida, including a one-point setback in the title game of the SEC tournament. The Wildcats’ best regular-season victory came Dec. 28 against Louisville at Rupp Arena. The defending national champion Cardinals have improved immensely since that game. But so has Kentucky.
The Wildcats are the best defensive team in the country on a per-possession basis. Only three times this season (including twice by UCLA) did a team score 70 or more points against Sean Miller’s squad. A lot of that is because of freshman Aaron Gordon, who didn’t receive nearly as much attention as some of his more highly touted classmates but is enjoying just as much success as any of them.
Even without forward Brandon Ashley, who went down with a season-ending knee injury Feb. 1, Arizona has maintained its status as a Final Four favorite.
3. Michigan State
The casts and braces are off, and the aches and pains are gone. Finally, we’re seeing the real Michigan State Spartans instead of the injury-plagued team that manned the court for most of the season. Tom Izzo’s squad has a realistic chance to advance to the Final Four and win the NCAA title.
It’s no coincidence that the Spartans’ most important players in the NCAA tournament are their two projected first-round draft picks: Adreian Payne and Gary Harris.
The 6’10” Payne, who scored 41 points against Delaware on Thursday, is an incredibly tough matchup because he can score from both the paint and the perimeter. And he can guard almost any position. Harris’ three-point shooting will be a huge factor against No. 1 seed Virginia and its pack-line defense.
Forward Branden Dawson averaged 18 points and 8.5 rebounds in his first two NCAA tournament games.
The Cardinals were a bit underwhelming in victories against Manhattan (71-64) and Saint Louis (19 turnovers). Still, it’s tough to doubt a team that has been to two straight Final Fours.
The defending national champions have won 14 of their last 15 games, and all but two of the victories were by double digits. Kentucky, however, will provide a stiffer test than anything Louisville has faced in the past few months. Kentucky defeated Rick Pitino’s squad Dec. 28 and played its best game of the season in a round-of-32 win against previously unbeaten Wichita State.
Pitino, however, has a career record of 16-0 in the Sweet 16, so you can bet he’ll have his team prepared.
Who in this field is hungrier than the Gators? Florida has four senior starters who have lost in the Elite Eight each of the past three seasons.
Billy Donovan’s squad has won 28 straight and wasn’t really tested in its first two NCAA tournament games against Albany and Pittsburgh, but that will change this week when it faces UCLA in the Sweet 16. The Bruins are one of the country’s best offensive teams from the perimeter, where Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams can rack up points in a hurry. But Florida has a noticeable advantage in the paint and on the offensive glass with bruisers such as Patric Young and Dorian Finney-Smith.
No path to the Final Four is easy, but Florida’s appears more favorable than most.
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.