NCAA Men's Tournament 2019: Power-Ranking the Sweet 16 Teams

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 26, 2019

NCAA Men's Tournament 2019: Power-Ranking the Sweet 16 Teams

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    De'Andre Hunter (12) and Ty Jerome (11)
    De'Andre Hunter (12) and Ty Jerome (11)Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    With all of the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 seeds still playing in the 2019 NCAA men's college basketball tournament, this might be the best Sweet 16 ever assembled.

    Power-ranking these 16 teams was no easy task, even with the given that all four No. 1 seeds belong up top and that the only remaining team seeded lower than No. 5 belongs at the bottom.

    For the most part—let's call it 80 percent—these rankings are based on how well the teams played during the regular season. But they aren't necessarily in the same order as they were in our pre-tournament power rankings because a significant amount of consideration was given to how they looked in their first two NCAA tournament games.

    Case in point: Both LSU and Tennessee dropped a few spots on account of their nail-biters, and there's a new ACC team at No. 1 after Duke's near-disaster against UCF.

    One important thing to note: Difficulty of path to the national championship has no bearing on this list. Rather, this could be considered a ranking of how we would reseed the remaining 16 teams based on perceived strength.

    (If it's title odds you're interested in, we published those earlier in the week.)

    We'll examine how teams played in the first two rounds, their biggest strengths and weaknesses, their MVPs and what they need to do to win it all, starting with the team that never should have been in the tournament in the first place.

16. Oregon Ducks

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    Payton Pritchard
    Payton PritchardChris Carlson/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Belonging. No one is confusing the No. 12 seed Ducks with the Duke Blue Devils, but Oregon doesn't look like a team that was barely a candidate for the NIT in late February. Payton Pritchard and Co. shut down a good Wisconsin squad in the first round and then just ran away from UC Irvine in the second half of that contest.

    Bread and Butter: Aggressive defense. It makes no sense that this team gave up 89 points in a loss to Texas Southern and allowed UCLA to average 88.5 points in two meetings because Oregon has been a brick wall lately. The Ducks have allowed 54.2 points during their 10-game winning streak, limiting eight of those opponents to 54 points or fewer. Kenny Wooten's blocks and Ehab Amin's steals are a problem.

    Achilles' Heel: Rebounding. This wasn't an issue when they had Bol Bol for the first nine games of the season, but Oregon isn't anything special on the glass. In fact, the Ducks were slightly out-rebounded in each of their first two tournament games. They also don't have consistent shooting, but they were on the mark in San Jose, draining 20 of 40 three-pointers.

    MVP: Payton Pritchard. With an honorable mention to Wooten, Pritchard is the player the Ducks couldn't live without. He logs a ton of minutes, running the offense from the point, shooting a lot of threes and playing solid on-ball defense. Pritchard was arguably already Oregon's most important player last year as a sophomore, and you can remove the "arguably" this season.

    Championship Blueprint: Suffocate with defense and hope the shots keep falling. Oregon is the unlikeliest championship candidate from the remaining field, but when you hold opponents to 54 points and shoot 50 percent from beyond the arc, you're going to win far more often than not.

15. LSU Tigers

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    Tremont Waters
    Tremont WatersMike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    How They've Looked: Inconsistent. Late in the first half of both opening-weekend games, there were stretches where it looked like LSU might blow things wide open. There was an 18-6 run against Yale and a 10-0 stretch against Maryland. They led by at least 14 at the end of each burst, but they barely hung on over the final 22 minutes or so. Basically, they were outplayed in both games aside from a few minutes.

    Bread and Butter: Offensive rebounds. Maryland's duo of Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith did a fine job of keeping LSU off the offensive glass, but how many other teams in this tournament have two 6'10" double-double machines destined for a long run in the NBA? The Tigers should get back to racking up second-chance opportunities this week.

    Achilles' Heel: Three-point shooting. The Tigers shot below 30 percent in both of their wins, and they're at just 32.0 percent for the season. Duke (30.7 percent) is the only other team that made it at least into the second round with a worse mark on the year.

    MVP: Tremont Waters. Naz Reid is probably the more enticing NBA prospect and the one whose physical prowess is most intimidating, but Waters is the Tiger who makes this team work. He's so active on both ends of the floor that his presence is missed during his limited minutes on the bench.

    Championship Blueprint: Force turnovers, own the glass and keep getting lucky with three-point defense. LSU struggled to guard the perimeter for much of the season, but poor Yale couldn't buy a triple for the majority of that first-round game. If the opposing team's star shooter keeps going ice cold, the Tigers will be in business.

14. Virginia Tech Hokies

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    Ty Outlaw
    Ty OutlawNell Redmond/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Inconclusive. Virginia Tech shot well from three-point range but struggled inside the arc on both ends of the floor. The Hokies jumped on Saint Louis early and held the Billikens at bay, but they were far from dominant against Liberty. And there wasn't a player who was particularly impressive in both games. Though they made it through the pair of double-digit seeds, there wasn't much of a lasting impression.

    Bread and Butter: Threes. Aside from eighth man P.J. Hornewho barely saw the floor in either game this past weekendall of the Hokies can and will shoot the deep ball. Ty Outlaw (45.6 percent) is the best of the bunch, but Virginia Tech has seven players who shoot at least 34 percent while attempting at least 1.6 triples per game.

    Achilles' Heel: Size and perimeter defense. Kerry Blackshear Jr. is the only player on the roster taller than 6'6", so Virginia Tech is just OK on the glass and doesn't block many shots. And for what is almost always a four-guard lineup, the Hokies are astoundingly bad at defending the three-point arc, giving up a ton of treys with their zone. Neither Liberty nor Saint Louis was able to capitalize, but the Hokies aren't going to win the championship without running into an elite three-point-shooting team.

    MVP: Ty Outlaw. The sixth-year senior has embraced the stretch 4 role with open arms, attempting more than five threes per game while also serving as one of Virginia Tech's best defensive rebounders. He plays the type of role that Ethan Wragge held with Creighton a few years ago, except Outlaw makes more of an impact on the defensive end.

    Championship Blueprint: Shoot the lights out and frustrate opponents with (lack of) pace. Virginia Tech isn't anywhere near as gifted on the defensive end as Virginia is, but both teams from the Commonwealth play a similar style of agonizingly slow hoops with a steady supply of three-point daggers. As long as the Hokies keep shooting 40 percent from distance, they'll have a real chance against anyone.

13. Florida State Seminoles

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    Mfiondu Kabengele
    Mfiondu KabengeleElise Amendola/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Overwhelming. Florida State was overlooked behind Duke, Virginia and North Carolina for most of the season, but there was never any doubt about this team's size and athleticism. Against minor-conference teams Vermont and Murray State, the physical differences were just unfair. Neither the Catamounts nor the Racers shot better than 33.3 percent from inside the arc, while Florida State racked up a combined total of 10 blocks and 20 steals.

    Bread and Butter: Post presence. Thanks to all that size and athleticism, Florida State rebounds well and is tough to score against in the paint. The Seminoles beat a lot of teams by being bigger and stronger than them.

    Achilles' Heel: Offensive efficiency. Thanks to high-level rebounding and the ability to both draw fouls and hit free throws, Florida State's overall efficiency metrics are just fine. Much better than fine, actually. But in terms of both turnover percentage and effective field-goal percentage, the Seminoles are barely at the national average. Thus, an opponent like Duke or North Carolina that can keep them off the glass and the free-throw line would be their downfall.

    MVP: Mfiondu Kabengele. We screwed up in our end-of-season awards by not naming Kabengele the national sixth man of the year. This big man hasn't started a game all season, but he has certainly ended a few. He tallied 43 points and 17 rebounds in 52 minutes of action during the tournament's opening weekend, and he has blocked multiple shots in nine of his last 11 games.

    Championship Blueprint: Keep muscling and hope the shots fall. When Florida State shoots at least 35 percent from three-point range, it is almost unbeatableas demonstrated in the 90-62 win over Murray State. But if it's owning the glass and getting to the line, it can even survive cold nights against elite teams. FSU almost made the Final Four last year, and it has more than enough talent to get there this time.

12. Tennessee Volunteers

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    Admiral Schofield
    Admiral SchofieldPaul Vernon/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Shaky. Early in both wins, it looked like Tennessee was going to decimate the competition. The Volunteers were up 36-20 late in the first half against Colgate and had a 44-19 lead on Iowa at roughly the same juncture of their game. But they let the Raiders make things interesting, and they let the Hawkeyes claw all the way back to force overtime.

    Bread and Butter: Pounding the paint. Tennessee has a bunch of capable three-point shooters. Four Volunteers have made at least 44 triples this season. But they are at their best when running the offense through Grant Williams down low. There might not be a more dangerous player with the ball in the triple-threat position from either elbow. He can drive, pass or pull up with the best of them.

    Achilles' Heel: Three-point defense. Colgate exploited this to the tune of 15 treys in the first round, and Auburn got any three-point looks it wanted in two games against Tennessee earlier this month. With Purdue and possibly Virginia due up in the next two games, this Achilles' heel could become a full-blown disaster in the next week.

    MVP: Grant Williams. Only Murray State's Ja Morant and Furman's Matt Rafferty accumulated more KenPom game MVPs than Williams had this year, so he's kind of a big deal. He has active hands and great vision, which make him a huge part of what Tennessee wants to do on both ends of the floor. But it's his ability to just go get a bucket when the Vols need one that makes him special.

    Championship Blueprint: Protect the defensive glass and play a full 40 minutes. Tennessee should be surging into the Sweet 16 with a ton of momentum, but it backed its way into close wins that should've been blowouts. Those types of second-half letdowns can't happen now that the competition is much tougher.

11. Purdue Boilermakers

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Outstanding. Purdue didn't shoot that well in the opener, but the Boilermakers destroyed Old Dominion with defense, holding the Monarchs to 27 percent shooting. The second game against Villanova was a much different story, as Carsen Edwards paced Purdue to 87 points and 16-of-30 three-point shooting against the Wildcats. Hard to believe this was the same team that lost to Minnesota twice in the first half of March.

    Bread and Butter: Efficient offense. Purdue is great on the offensive glass, and it doesn't commit many turnovers. It shoots a ton of threes, and when those are falling, best of luck slowing the Boilermakers down. They are fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency.

    Achilles' Heel: Three-point defense. Purdue was much better in this department over the final five weeks, holding its last 11 opponents to 28.0 percent. But much of that can be attributed to the schedule, as the Boilermakers haven't faced a top-100 three-point-shooting team since January. They still give up a lot of looks from the perimeter; opponents just haven't been hitting them. Once they run into a team like Virginia, things could get out of hand.

    MVP: Carsen Edwards. The junior lead guard has scored at least 21 points in six of his last seven games, including twice that many (42) in Saturday's win over Villanova. Whether he's making his shots or not, he's going to keep shooting. If he stays hot, Purdue could win it all. If he goes cold, the Boilermakers could lose by 20 to anyone.

    Championship Blueprint: Get Edwards going and control the glass. With big men like Matt Haarms and lesser-utilized Trevion Williams, Purdue ought to have a positive rebound margin in every game. Combine that with Edwards shooting 40 percent or better from the field, and you've got a recipe for a championship—especially if the three-point defense holds up for another two weeks.

10. Houston Cougars

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    Corey Davis Jr.
    Corey Davis Jr.Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Major. One of the big questions in college basketball for the past few seasons has been about whether the AAC is a power conference. It's sandwiched between the P6 and the mid-majors and will remain there until further notice. But this representative from the league sure does look like it belongs in a Sweet 16 littered with high majors. The Cougars shut down both Georgia State and Ohio State and they are going to give Kentucky a run for its money Friday.

    Bread and Butter: Field-goal defense. Houston doesn't force many turnovers, but it does force opponents to take bad, contested shots. In a category crowded with the likes of Duke, Virginia, Michigan and Texas Tech, it is Houston that leads the nation in defensive effective field-goal percentage, limiting opponents to 27.8 percent shooting on threes and 42.7 percent on twos.

    Achilles' Heel: Scoring against good defenses. Prior to the NCAA tournament, Houston played a grand total of eight games against KenPom top-50 teams: Cincinnati (three times), UCF (twice), LSU, Oregon and Utah State. In five of those games, there were held to 65 points or fewer, including a season-low 57 points against Cincinnati in the AAC championship. Opponents with dominant interior defenses have been a problem for the Cougars.

    MVP: Corey Davis Jr. Both he and Armoni Brooks average at least eight three-point attempts per game at a clip just above 38 percent, but Davis is the better overall scoring threat because of his ability to get to the rim or the free-throw line. Davis is also a great secondary passer and a good source of steals for this defense.

    Championship Blueprint: Don't let up on defense. Even if the Cougars don't shoot that well, they can continue to win games with their defense and their rebounding. After all, they've won 33 games while ranking outside the top 100 in both three-point and two-point percentage on offense. If Davis and Brooks get hot over the next two weeks, Houston could win it all.

9. Auburn Tigers

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    Bryce Brown (2) and Chuma Okeke (5)
    Bryce Brown (2) and Chuma Okeke (5)Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    How They've Looked: Hot. Auburn entered the Big Dance on an eight-game winning streak, including four wins in four days at the SEC tournament. The Tigers looked a little worse for wear at points during the first-round win over New Mexico State, but they got back on track in a big way against Kansas in the second round. The Jayhawks tried to make things interesting down the stretch, but that game was over at halftime.

    Bread and Butter: Threes and steals. According to Sports Reference, Auburn is the only team since at least 2010-11 to accumulate 400 or more threes and 300 or more steals in a single season. Villanova had at least 310 threes and 250 steals in each of the last four seasons, but Auburn kicked it up a notch in both departments. The Tigers also have 173 blocks, which ranks eighth nationally.

    Achilles' Heel: Defensive rebounding. A negative byproduct of hunting for steals and blocks is that Auburn is often out of position for boards. The Tigers rank 333rd in defensive rebound percentage, which is the worst by far among remaining tournament teams.

    MVP: Chuma Okeke. Auburn has a sensational backcourt duo in Bryce Brown and Jared Harper, each of whom makes a lot of threes and gets a good number of steals. But Okeke leads the Tigers in rebounds, steals and blocks and has contributed 52 threes to the cause at a 38 percent clip. He does a little bit of everything, and he helps tie it all together.

    Championship Blueprint: Keep on trucking. Auburn had more steals (18) than turnovers (17) in the first two rounds, and it made 25 threes between those two wins. That's the blueprint. Ideally, the Tigers would quit losing the rebounding battle by such a wide margin, but it's not necessary if they keep shooting well and continue dominating the turnover game.

8. Kentucky Wildcats

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    Reid Travis
    Reid TravisStephen B. Morton/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Incomplete. The Wildcats didn't miss PJ Washington in the opener against Abilene Christian, but they had a tough time against Wofford without the star big man. Both Cameron Jackson and Keve Aluma were huge on the glass for the Terriers, and Kentucky only shot 46.2 percent from inside the arc. If Fletcher Magee hadn't missed all 12 of his three-point attempts, Kentucky would be watching the Sweet 16 from home.

    Bread and Butter: Interior defense. If Washington is able to play next weekend, Kentucky should get back to owning the glass and protecting the rim at a high level. Even Tennessee's dominant frontcourt had trouble scoring inside in all three games against the Wildcats. At full strength, this is often the Great Wall of Lexington.

    Achilles' Heel: Three-pointers. Both shooting threes and defending them has been an issue for Kentucky all season. The Wildcats have made more than seven triples just once in their last 15 games. Opponents haven't found the mark yet in the NCAA tournament, but Tennessee shot 10-of-21 in eliminating UK from the SEC tournament. It's going to be an issue at some point.

    MVP: Reid Travis. Washington would normally be the answer here, but with him out, Travis has averaged 16.0 points and 10.0 rebounds through two tournament games. The Wildcats should continue to ride their graduate transfer from Stanford until further notice.

    Championship Blueprint: Dominate in the paint and win the foul battle. Kentucky has made 73 more free throws than its opponents have attempted this season, and that was a huge factor in the win over Wofford (17 Kentucky makes compared to nine Terriers attempts). The occasional three would be nice, but the Wildcats don't need much more than twos and free throws to win most games.

7. Michigan State Spartans

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    Cassius Winston
    Cassius WinstonNati Harnik/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Sloppy. The Spartans beat Minnesota by 20 in the second round, but they had to overcome a minus-16 turnover margin to do it. If Jordan Murphy hadn't hurt his back a few minutes into the gamealmost eliminating Minnesota's rebounding presenceor if the Golden Gophers had shot better than 2-of-22 from three-point range, things would've been much different. At any rate, teams better than Minnesota will make the Spartans pay if they don't value the ball.

    Bread and Butter: Paint protection. Opponents shoot 41.6 percent on two-pointers against Michigan State. The Spartans are No. 2 in the nation in that category and rank top-20 in block percentage. They don't have a singular rim-protector like Tacko Fall or Matt Haarms, but they do have three forwards (Nick Ward, Xavier Tillman and Kenny Goins) who work like mad to deny easy buckets.

    Achilles' Heel: Turnovers. The game against Minnesota was an extreme example, but it wasn't an anomaly. Turnover margin has been a concern for Michigan State for several years now. Usually, the Spartans lose that battle because they rarely get steals and are just OK as far as avoiding committing turnovers. But if they have an off night and start throwing the ball away, it can get ugly.

    MVP: Cassius Winston. There's not a better floor general than this dude. Over the past two seasons, Winston has been right up there with Iowa State's Monte Morris on the list of elite college basketball lead guards of the past decade. He is averaging 18.9 points and 7.6 assists per game and has had at least 21 points or eight assists in 16 of his last 17 games.

    Championship Blueprint: Stop giving away possessions. Michigan State is either above-average or great at every facet of the game except for turnovers. With the exception of the overtime loss to Indiana in which the Hoosiers shot 50 percent from three while the Spartans shot 36 percent from the free-throw line, Michigan State has won by at least seven every time it has won the turnover battle over the past two seasons.

6. Texas Tech Red Raiders

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    Jarrett Culver
    Jarrett CulverCharlie Riedel/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Typical. If you've watched Texas Tech at all the past two seasons, neither of its first two games was out of the ordinary. The Red Raiders didn't shoot that well, but they smothered the opposing teams' best scoring options and won comfortably anyway. There were steals, there were blocks and there were no open looks for Northern Kentucky or Buffalo. Business as usual.

    Bread and Butter: Rim protection. Texas Tech leads the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency largely because of Tariq Owens and Norense Odiase. The two big men don't spend a ton of time on the court together, but there's always one of them in the lane to block shotssimilar to what Purdue had in Isaac Haas and Matt Haarms last season. The Red Raiders force many more turnovers than those Boilermakers did, making them tough to figure out.

    Achilles' Heel: Cold spells on offense. Texas Tech was held to 1.0 points per possession or worse in each of its six losses. In each game, there was a stretch of about 10 minutes during which it seemed like the Red Raiders couldn't hit water in the ocean. They had turnover issues in most of those games too.

    MVP: Jarrett Culver. The sophomore does everything for Texas Tech. He's an assertive scorer first, but he's also an aggressive defender, a willing passer and an impressive rebounder for his size. He went through a shooting slump in the middle of Big 12 play, but he is 4-of-9 from deep thus far in the tournament.

    Championship Blueprint: Defend, defend, defend. If defense wins championships, Texas Tech has as good of a shot as anyone. More than half of its opponents have failed to score 60 points, and the Red Raiders are 26-1 when allowing 67 points or fewer.

5. Michigan Wolverines

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    Zavier Simpson
    Zavier SimpsonCharlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Impenetrable. Montana averaged 0.81 points per possession against Michigan in the first round. That was still better than Florida's 0.80 PPP performance over the weekend. Both teams shot worse than 39 percent from inside the arc. Florida only attempted two free throws. Granted, neither of those teams entered the tournament with elite offenses, but it was painful watching them try to put together anything against the Wolverines.

    Bread and Butter: Mistake-free basketball. Michigan does not allow easy buckets. It keeps opponents off the offensive glass. It rarely commits fouls or turnovers. Simply put, this team values every possession on both ends of the floor. It is difficult to put together any sustained run against the Wolverines.

    Achilles' Heel: Scoring. Michigan does all of the little things better than most teams, but it ranks outside the top 100 on KenPom in both two-point and three-point percentage. It also ranks roughly 300th in both offensive rebounding percentage and free-throw rate. As a result, putting up points is an occasional struggle.

    MVP: Zavier Simpson. Outside of Zion Williamson, there might not be a more valuable player left in the tournament. Simpson averages 3.5 assists per turnover and is a relentless on-ball defender. He doesn't often score more than a couple of buckets, but he is the heart and soul of the Wolverines.

    Championship Blueprint: Suffocate with defense and get Charles Matthews going. And by "going," we're not necessarily talking about a 20-point performance. Michigan just needs to get something out of him, because it is 25-1 when he scores at least seven points. Compare that to a 5-5 record when he either doesn't play or scores six points or fewer, and it's obvious how important he is to the Wolverines' cause. His 22-point performance in the opener was a great omen for a deep run.

4. Gonzaga Bulldogs

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    Brandon Clarke
    Brandon ClarkeJeff Swinger/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Rejuvenated. Gonzaga was awful in the WCC championship game. Full stop. Out of nowhere, the most efficient offense in KenPom history couldn't buy a bucket against a team it had beaten 94-46 one month prior to that night. But the Bulldogs put a hurting on Fairleigh Dickinson in the first round and surged to an early 37-19 lead over Baylor before putting that game into cruise control too.

    Bread and Butter: Winning the two-point battle. Gonzaga makes 62.2 percent of its two-point attempts and holds opponents to 43.1 percent. That massive gap is partially due to the 18 games against WCC foes, but the Zags were also better in two-point percentage in games against Duke, Tennessee and North Carolina. They just couldn't stop Admiral Schofield from hitting threes and couldn't keep the Tar Heels off the offensive glass. Otherwise, they would've won those contests.

    Achilles' Heel: Defensive rebounding. It isn't as much of an issue for Gonzaga as it is for Auburn or Tennessee, but the Bulldogs do allow more than their fair share of second-chance opportunities. Duke and North Carolina both got back nearly half of their misses against Gonzaga. Baylor had a dozen offensive rebounds Saturday night.

    MVP: Brandon Clarke. If making and defending twos is what is most important to Gonzaga's success, how could anyone else be the MVP? Clarke makes 71.6 percent of his two-point attempts and blocks more than three shots per game. He single-handedly destroyed Baylor, shooting 15-of-18 with five rejections.

    Championship Blueprint: Dominate in the paint and get Josh Perkins as comfortable as possible. In the loss to Saint Mary's, Perkins looked like late-career Chuck Knoblauch trying to throw the ball to first base. When he gets uncomfortable during a game, he goes from looking like one of the 10 best point guards in the country to a complete liability. If the fifth-year senior can play well for four more games, Gonzaga should win the title.

3. North Carolina Tar Heels

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    Luke Maye
    Luke MayeStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

    How They've Looked: Bouncy. North Carolina doubled Iona in rebounds in the first round and did the exact same thing to Washington two days later. Nassir Little (39 points in 38 minutes) has been living up to the preseason hype as a projected top-five draft pick after what had been a hit-or-miss regular season. If UNC's sixth man keeps playing like this, beating the Tar Heels just became a whole lot harder.

    Bread and Butter: Speed and boards. While a lot of good teams (Virginia, Michigan, Kansas State and Cincinnati, to name a few) like to slow the game down and frustrate you with defense, North Carolina prefers the opposite approach. The Tar Heels love to run, and they know they have the talent (and conditioning) to beat anyone in a game with 70 or more possessions. They can take made free throws by the opposing team and somehow turn them into transition buckets.

    Achilles' Heel: Defending the arc. North Carolina had some great wins over Duke, Florida State and Gonzaga this season, but those teams don't shoot many threes. Teams that are comfortable attempting 30 shots from deep can get (and have gotten) plenty of buckets against the Tar Heels. North Carolina can usually keep pace with its own offense, though.

    MVP: Coby White. Luke Maye is probably the toughest man-to-man matchup on the roster because of his combination of three-point range and relentless rebounding, but White is the star who makes this freight train run so smoothly. Hard to believe North Carolina replaced a three-year starter and the 2017 NCAA tournament MOP (Joel Berry II) and got better at point guard, but it did.

    Championship Blueprint: Stay the course. Outside of a close game when Virginia caught fire from deep and a one-point loss to Duke with Zion Williamson back in action, North Carolina is undefeated since mid-January. If the Tar Heels keep running and rebounding like there's no tomorrow, the ceiling is the roof.

2. Duke Blue Devils

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    Zion Williamson
    Zion WilliamsonSean Rayford/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Lucky. North Dakota State hung with Duke for about 23 minutes in the first round, and UCF gave the Blue Devils all they could handle for a full 40. Were it not for an unlucky roll on a Knights putback attempt at the buzzer, the No. 1 overall seed would be watching the rest of this tournament from home.

    Bread and Butter: Transition buckets. Steals and blocks that turn into run-outs are Duke's specialty. If they end with a stadium-shaking dunk, even better. When things slow down and the Blue Devils have to run half-court offense, they are dominant in the paint—both in two-point percentage and offensive rebounds.

    Achilles' Heel: Threes and free throws. Alex O'Connell (39.5 percent) is the only Blue Devil shooting better than 33.3 percent from deep, and he didn't even play against UCF. And though two of Zion Williamson's missed free throws turned into Duke's best offense this week, it's more than a little noteworthy that both he and RJ Barrett miss at least one out of every three one-point attempts.

    MVP: Zion Williamson. There's a reason the selection committee wanted to see what he looked like in the ACC tournament before deciding on Duke's seeding. Between the ACC and NCAA tournaments, Williamson has scored at least 21 points in every game. And he has come back from that knee injury with a better three-point stroke, hitting 7-of-15 (46.7 percent) in those five contests.

    Championship Blueprint: Ride Zion and hit some threes. That UCF game was the perfect storm of circumstances, including an opponent that shot 50 percent from three-point range. It's going to be so hard for any opponent to replicate that, which will make it tough to knock off Duke unless it has one of those nights where it cannot buy a perimeter bucket. Even if the Blue Devils just shoot 30 percent in each game, that should be enough.

1. Virginia Cavaliers

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    De'Andre Hunter
    De'Andre HunterSean Rayford/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Relieved. After 53 weeks of hearing about the UMBC fiasco, Virginia looked extremely uncomfortable in the first half against Gardner-Webb, trailing 28-14 at one point. But the Cavaliers showed up in a big way after that, going on a 41-13 run over the course of the next 17 minutes. After one De'Andre Hunter bucket, both he and Ty Jerome were screaming in jubilation as though they had exorcised those demons. Even though Kyle Guy shot 0-of-10 from distance against Oklahoma, the Cavaliers cruised to victory.

    Bread and Butter: Unyielding defense. Virginia has held nine of its last 11 opponents below 60 points, and Duke is still the only team to put up 72 or more against the Wahoos. Both Gardner-Webb (39 percent) and Oklahoma (36) shot better from three-point range than Virginia usually allows (27.8), yet those teams scored 56 and 51, respectively. It's so hard to score in the paint or get offensive rebounds against this pack-line D.

    Achilles' Heel: Dominant isolation offense. The strength of Virginia's defense is rooted in quick closeouts, help defense and generally making the opposing team uncomfortable trying to pass the ball. But in losses to Duke and Florida State, the Cavaliers (especially 5'9" Kihei Clark) had a hard time stopping guys like RJ Barrett who are comfortable backing down defenders before hitting mid-range shots. Granted, no defense in the country is perfectly equipped to stop that offense, so it's hardly a unique-to-Virginia Achilles' heel. Because of this team's snail-like pace of play, though, every mid-range bucket feels more like three or four points.

    MVP: Ty Jerome. It's really a three-headed MVP shared by him, Guy and Hunter, but Jerome runs the offense, gets the most steals and paces things on both ends of the floor. The Cavaliers would be in some trouble if Guy or Hunter missed a game, but they'd be hurting big-time if Jerome was out.

    Championship Blueprint: Stick to the script and don't panic. The Cavaliers avoided another No. 16 seed disaster, but they still have to figure out how to get to the Final Four for the first time under Tony Bennett and then adapt to playing for a title. It has felt for a while like this style is built for a championship, but it hasn't worked out the past few seasons. Perhaps this is finally the year.


    Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.