NCAA Tournament 2021: Power Ranking All 32 Teams Left in Round 2

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 21, 2021

NCAA Tournament 2021: Power Ranking All 32 Teams Left in Round 2

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    Gonzaga's Drew Timme
    Gonzaga's Drew TimmePaul Sancya/Associated Press

    We had to wait two years for the first round of the 2021 men's NCAA tournament, and it did not disappoint.

    A No. 15 seed (Oral Roberts) won for just the ninth time in tournament history. A pair of No. 13 seeds (Ohio and North Texas) pulled off upsets. And, perhaps weirdest of all, only one No. 12 seed managed to score one of those all-too-common first-round upsets.

    Through all that bracket-shredding madness, though, our initial 68-team power rankings held up surprisingly well. Ohio State (our No. 8) was the only team in our top 13 to bite the dust, and 21 of our top 27 teams survived the first round.

    And that, my friends, is the dream scenario. We got all of the first-round drama and a few Cinderella stories without sacrificing those high-profile Sweet 16 and Elite Eight matchups we all eyeballed as soon as the brackets came out.

    That said, the power rankings require a refresh.

    Rankings are still primarily rooted in how we felt about teams prior to the start of the tournament, but the order was shaken up a fair amount as a result of how teams looked in the first round.

    Generally speaking, if you're trying to decide which team to pick in a particular matchup, the higher-ranked team would be our suggestion. There are certainly matchup-based exceptions, but the teams at the top of the list are the ones with the least troubling Achilles' heels. Thus, they are the ones most likely to reach the Final Four.

32-27: Oral Roberts—Rutgers

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    Oral Roberts' Kevin Obanor
    Oral Roberts' Kevin ObanorRobert Franklin/Associated Press

    32. Oral Roberts Golden Eagles

    The cruel reality of ranking the remaining NCAA tournament teams after the first round is you're almost always going to end up with a last-place team that just won one of the biggest games in the history of its program.

    There's a reason Oral Roberts was a No. 15 seed, though, and that reason was terrible defense. Against all odds, the Golden Eagles were able to hold Ohio State's elite offense below one point per possession. But in five regular-season games against KenPom Top 100 opponents, Oral Roberts allowed 85.0 points.

    Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor are awesome offensive weapons, but defense is king in March. Though everyone outside of Gainesville would love to see this team reach the Sweet 16, a second win is highly unlikely.


    31. North Texas Mean Green

    Javion Hamlet is the star guard with the unforgettable name and the dad with the crazy awesome sweater, but the most incredible thing about North Texas has been its ability to stifle opposing big men.

    The Mean Green beat Charles Bassey in the C-USA championship, limited Loyola-Chicago's Cameron Krutwig and West Virginia's frontcourt duo in close losses to those teams and held Purdue's Trevion Williams in check until the closing minutes of Friday night's victory.

    North Texas is down near the bottom of our rankings, but this is a dangerous team that shoots pretty well and plays at a painfully slow pace.


    30. Abilene Christian Wildcats

    Abilene Christian forced 23 turnovers in its stunning win over Texas, and that was only marginally better than usual. The Wildcats led the nation in turnover defense, forcing 20.3 per game. And on a night where the refs swallowed their whistles time and again, ACU incredibly got all of those turnovers while only allowing Texas to attempt 11 free throws. (Normally, they allow more than 20 free-throw attempts.)

    I doubt they can do it again, because UCLA is a much less turnover-prone offense than Texas. But at this point, who cares? In just its eighth season since rejoining the D-I ranks, Abilene Christian has an NCAA tournament win. Fantastic stuff, and I cannot wait to see where Joe Golding ends up coaching next season.


    29. Ohio Bobcats

    Oral Roberts is the biggest potential Cinderella story as far as seeding is concerned, but Ohio is the more likely candidate to reach the Sweet 16 and become that team we all fall in love with—see: Loyola-Chicago three years ago.

    The Bobcats don't have Sister-Jean Dolores-Schmidt, but they do have Jason Preston, who actually impacts the game with his sensational play. He almost had a triple-double (31 points, eight assists, six rebounds) in a near-upset of Illinois in November, and he got even closer to one (11 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists) in Ohio's first-round upset of Virginia.

    Going to be fun to see what he can do against Creighton.


    28. Oregon State Beavers

    Out of nowhere, Oregon State has the best perimeter game in the country.

    Prior to the Pac-12 tournament, the Beavers were shooting 34.2 percent and allowing 31.2 percent from distance. Respectable, but nothing special. During this four-game winning streak, though, they are 39-of-87 (44.8 percent) while holding opponents to 22-of-90 (24.4 percent).

    Until an opponent puts an end to that ridiculous split, Oregon State is going to remain difficult to beat. If and when "First 26 Games of the Season Oregon State" shows back up, though, this Cinderella story will come to an end.

    (And just so we are crystal clear, yes, this is a potential Cinderella story. I don't care what conference Oregon State plays in. When you haven't won an NCAA tournament game since 1982, you can be a Cinderella story.)


    27. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

    Rutgers made it into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991, and now it has its first tournament victory since 1983.

    Up next: The first Sweet 16 appearance since 1979?

    Well, not if Houston has anything to say about it, but that's going to be one heck of a physical battle between defensive-minded teams. As clearly demonstrated in the 60-56 win over Clemson, nothing comes easy against the Scarlet Knights. They didn't quite hit their usual quota of 13 combined blocks and steals, but clean looks at the rim were few and far between for the Tigers.

26-21: Syracuse—Creighton

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    Syracuse's Buddy Boeheim
    Syracuse's Buddy BoeheimGerry Broome/Associated Press

    26. Syracuse Orange

    Deja vu all over again. Syracuse somewhat controversially gets into the tournament field as a double-digit seed and then transforms all that sweat and stress from two months on the bubble into fuel for an unlikely tournament run. We saw it in 2016 and 2018, and we might be seeing it in 2021.

    The Orange didn't just beat San Diego State. They took out some frustration on the Aztecs. Buddy Boeheim has been hot for weeks, and he couldn't miss again in this one. Meanwhile, SDSU couldn't buy a three-point bucket and went scoreless for a stretch of more than 10 minutes spanning halftime.

    Was it a one-hit wonder for a Syracuse team that went 0-6 away from home against NCAA tournament teams prior to Friday? Or is this team gearing up for another Sweet 16 shocker?


    25. Oklahoma Sooners

    No De'Vion Harmon? No problem against Missouri. The starting sophomore guard was out for the first round because of COVID-19 protocols, but the Sooners were carried by Austin Reaves (23 points, six assists), Elijah Harkless (16 points, 10 rebounds) and Brady Manek (19 points) in his stead.

    It was Oklahoma's first win against an NCAA tournament team in more than a month, and it came against a Missouri team that had lost six of its last nine games. Hard to know if that was the start of a resurgence for Oklahoma or simply a situation where one of those two scuffling teams had to win the game.

    For now, we're assuming the latter, and we'll plan on eating a whole lot of crow if the Sooners knock off Gonzaga on Monday.


    24. Maryland Terrapins

    How you feel about Maryland depends on when you've watched them. The Terrapins won at Illinois, Wisconsin and Rutgers and twice beat Michigan State by double digits. They also ended the regular season with back-to-back losses to Northwestern and Penn State and suffered six losses by double digits.

    Against Connecticut in the first round, the Terrapins looked pretty good outside of their inability to end possessions with defensive rebounds. Heaven only knows if they'll look good or awful on Monday. That's the Maryland Way. But their quality wins and overall metrics paint the picture of a team that could mess around and reach an Elite Eight.


    23. UCLA Bruins

    For the ninth time in 10 tournaments, one of the winners of a "play-in" game has made it into the second round. And the way the Bruins are playing right now, they probably aren't stopping there. (In large part because they're drawing a No. 14 seed on Monday.)

    Between the two wins over Michigan State and BYU, UCLA shot 17-of-37 from three-point range while committing just 12 turnovers. Johnny Juzang has already scored 50 points in the tournament. If they had played anything close to this all season long, the Bruins wouldn't have been a No. 11 seed.

    We're still more than a little worried about that Bruins defense, but that suddenly super-efficient offense is a real danger.


    22. Florida Gators

    Former Michigan transfer Colin Castleton is a problem. At any rate, he was a major problem for Virginia Tech, going for 19 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks in the overtime victory that got the first round of the NCAA tournament started.

    Even with his dominance in the paint, the Gators ran into trouble by committing a combined total of 37 fouls and turnovers—and by failing to commit the one foul they should have before Virginia Tech's game-tying three-pointer with two seconds remaining in regulation. Those fouls and turnovers were a common issue for Florida throughout the year, and it feels like it'll just be a matter of time before it ends their season.


    21. Creighton Bluejays

    Welcome to "Survive and Advance" season. Creighton trailed UC Santa Barbara by six points in the final five minutes, but clawed back and won by one when Amadou Sow's game-winning attempt rimmed out in the closing seconds.

    What does that mean moving forward? Well, nothing. Auburn just barely survived against New Mexico State in a 5-12 matchup two years ago, and then the Tigers went to the Final Four. Two years before that, Notre Dame narrowly avoided the 12-5 upset against Princeton and then got smoked by West Virginia two days later.

    Creighton has the shooting ability to go on a run, but poor rebounding and a brutal program history in the NCAA tournament—17 consecutive eliminations prior to the Sweet 16—makes the Bluejays a big question mark.

20-16: Wisconsin—Colorado

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    Wisconsin's Brad Davison
    Wisconsin's Brad DavisonRobert Franklin/Associated Press

    20. Wisconsin Badgers

    I've got to say, I did not foresee Wisconsin over North Carolina as one of the biggest blowouts of the first day of the first round. The Badgers did a surprisingly great job against North Carolina's four-headed frontcourt, and shooting 13-of-27 from three-point range is always a nice plus.

    But are the Badgers a sleeping dragon or a paper tiger?

    They've had so much trouble this season against top-tier opponents, and, let's be frank, North Carolina was not a top-tier opponent. Just about all of the metrics say this team is a force to be reckoned with, but they have blown so many chances to prove the predictive analytics correct. They could destroy that narrative in a hurry by upsetting Baylor.


    19. Oregon Ducks

    Well, we didn't get to see Oregon play in the first round. Its game was declared a "no contest" when VCU was unable to play due to multiple COVID-19 positives. Despite the strict protocols in place in Indiana, we knew there was a chance some team (or teams) would get knocked out without ever getting the chance to play. Still, that's a heartbreaking shame for the Rams.

    As we turn our focus to the second round, though, one has to wonder how this will impact Oregon. Every other remaining team won a game on Friday or Saturday, but Oregon's last game was an 11-point loss to Oregon State more than a week ago. Not exactly much positive momentum in advance of a tough battle with Iowa.

    The Ducks were one of the hottest teams prior to that loss to Oregon State. They had won 11 of their previous 12 games, finally hitting their stride at full strength. And a starting five in which everyone is either 6'5" or 6'6" with the ability to pass, rebound, defend and shoot threes could create some major matchup nightmares for just about any foe.


    18. Villanova Wildcats

    One thing that hasn't changed for Villanova in the absence of Collin Gillespie is its ability to avoid turnovers. The deep ball hasn't been falling for them lately, but the Wildcats have committed a total of just 20 turnovers over their last three games. I thought for certain that would become at least a minor issue without their veteran leader.

    And they do still have a bunch of capable three-point shooters. Gillespie was the most frequent gunner, but Jermaine Samuels, Caleb Daniels and Cole Swider all convert at a 39.0 percent clip or better. Justin Moore (31.4 percent) isn't that accurate, but he can catch fire from time to time. And Bryan Antoine is just now starting to play legitimate minutes after two years of battling injury, but he's 4-of-8 from downtown over his last four games.

    The defense as a whole is still mighty concerning, but Villanova has been almost unbeatable when shooting at least 32 percent from three-point range for the better part of a decade now. If those shots start falling again, this team is a danger to anyone in its path.


    17. Texas Tech Red Raiders

    Utah State's Neemias Queta lit up the Red Raiders to the tune of 11 points, 13 rebounds, seven blocks and six assists. But Chris Beard's swarming defense was too much for one big man to overcome, forcing 22 Aggies turnovers en route to a 12-point victory.

    While that turnover-forcing D can cause massive problems for some teams, the ones that can withstand the constant ball pressure—and actually make open jump shots from time to time, which Utah State could not do Friday—have had success against the Red Raiders. They went 2-10 this season against teams that received a No. 5 seed or better (both wins over Texas).


    16. Colorado Buffaloes

    Colorado was uncharacteristically lethal from three-point range against Georgetown, making a season-best 16 triples in a 96-73 blowout that nobody realistically saw coming. This was a good shooting team all year, especially from the free-throw line, but that type of complete dominance from distance was uncommon to say the least.

    Before that statement performance, the Buffaloes' season was perhaps more defined by the questionable losses (Cal, Utah and Washington) than the quality wins. However, those questionable losses had weird components—a late meltdown against Utah, a 1-of-18 three-point disaster against Washington—in what was otherwise a highly efficient campaign on both ends of the floor.

    We spent a lot of time arguing about where Colorado should have been seeded, but there was never any doubt that this team had second-weekend potential.

15-11: LSU—Kansas

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    LSU's Cameron Thomas
    LSU's Cameron ThomasMark Humphrey/Associated Press

    15. LSU Tigers

    The NCAA tournament's first unstoppable force vs. immovable object showdown went emphatically in favor of the unstoppable force. After a slow start for the first nine minutes, LSU had no problem finding points in a 76-61 victory over St. Bonaventure. Freshman phenom Cameron Thomas led the way with 27 points while Trendon Watford, Darius Days and Aundre Hyatt each had points-rebounds double-doubles.

    The 61 part was particularly impressive for LSU, which last held an opponent below 65 points more than two months ago. It's probably more of a testament to St. Bonaventure's pace of play and mediocre shooting than a sign that LSU is finally figuring things out on defense, but let's just say it wasn't a bad showing by the Tigers. If they continue holding opponents to a 33.3 field-goal percentage, their tournament run is just getting started.


    14. Loyola-Chicago Ramblers

    This Ramblers bunch is even better than the one that went to the Final Four three years ago. And when they shoot like they did in the 71-60 win over Georgia Tech (11-of-27 from three-point range), they're almost impossible to beat.

    Loyola-Chicago is so efficient on defense and so stingy with offensive rebounds and free throws—GT got one and five, respectively—that three-point buckets feel like they're worth four or five.

    That doesn't necessarily mean they're going to upset Illinois in the second round, but they could.


    13. West Virginia Mountaineers

    West Virginia has been...I don't want to say "inconsistent," because the Mountaineers haven't had any truly bad full-game performances yet this season. However, you don't really know what you're going to get from them from one night to the next. I suppose the best description would be: chameleon-like.

    Some nights they do it with steals. Other nights, they get lava-hot from distance. And then there are the games where the 'Eers just offensive rebound their opponent into oblivion. They had to dig themselves out of some massive holes during the regular season, but I suspect it's because they needed some time to figure out which camouflage to embrace.

    In the first-round win over Morehead State, West Virginia did a little bit of all three yet still led by just one point about six minutes into the second half against an inferior opponent that shot better than 50 percent from two, better than 50 percent from three and grabbed 10 offensive boards. The 'Eers don't get blown out, but they also don't win many games convincingly because of those defensive issues.


    12. Florida State Seminoles

    UNC Greensboro's swarming defense gave Florida State all it could handle, forcing 15 turnovers and holding the Seminoles without a single made three-pointer. But Florida State's length was even more of a nuisance for the Spartans in a 64-54 victory for the ACC squad.

    We've seen this before from Florida State. In all three games against North Carolina, the 'Noles coughed up the ball at least 17 times. In two of the three battles with Georgia Tech, they turned it over more than 20 times. Such is life without a conventional point guard.

    It was the mid-February game against Virginia when FSU really emerged as a popular title contender, but the five turnovers and the 13 made three-pointers in that game were both season-best marks. The Seminoles are obviously unbeatable when they have a game like that. But even on the sloppier days, their size and athleticism gives them a good chance against anyone.


    11. Kansas Jayhawks

    Eastern Washington's Tanner and Jacob Groves were the internet sensation of the early window of games Saturday. The brothers combined for 58 points against the Jayhawks. However, it wasn't enough as David McCormack, Ochai Agbaji and Marcus Garrett each had at least 18 points and seven rebounds in a 93-84 victory.

    The McCormack portion of that was most noteworthy, as we didn't know what to expect from KU's big man after he was forced to miss the Big 12 tournament because of COVID-19 protocol. He came off the bench in this game and only logged 25 minutes, but he didn't look any worse for wear. That's huge for the Jayhawks as they wait to see when fellow starting forward Jalen Wilson will be able to rejoin the team.

    We're operating under the assumption Wilson won't be available in the second round, but he might be back if Kansas gets through to the Sweet 16. That could be a tournament-changer, because the Jayhawks were looking great late in the season when Wilson and McCormack were thriving.

10-6: USC—Houston

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    USC's Evan Mobley
    USC's Evan MobleyJohn Locher/Associated Press

    10. USC Trojans

    USC struggled over the final month leading up to the NCAA tournament, but that was mostly due to poor luck with three-point defense. A return to normalcy in that area would make the Trojans a serious threat for a deep run, and Drake's 7-of-23 performance in the first round was a great start for USC.

    When teams shoot like that from distance against the Trojans, those teams usually struggle to score at all. And with the way Evan Mobley has been dominating as of late (20.5 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.0 blocks over his last four games), those games can turn into blowouts in a hurry.

    USC's projected path to the Final Four (Kansas, Iowa, Gonzaga) is a brutal one, but you're looking at a KenPom Top 10 team that just might be able to pull it off.


    9. Arkansas Razorbacks

    After falling behind Colgate 33-19 in the first half, the Razorbacks turned up the pressure and finally started making some shots of their own. Colgate rarely shot itself in the foot with turnovers during the regular season, but the Raiders coughed up the ball 22 times against a Razorbacks team that was way more physical and athletic than anything the Patriot League had to offer.

    That "early deficit; huge comeback" formula is nothing new for Arkansas. The Hogs have now trailed by at least 10 points in the first half of four of their last five wins. But while they are comfortable playing from behind, there's serious concern that they'll eventually dig one of those holes against a team good enough to keep them from climbing out of it.

    That said, Arkansas' pace of play and offensive talent makes it a real threat to reach the Final Four. Five Razorbacks scored at least a dozen points against Colgate, and they can beat anyone when that happens.


    8. Alabama Crimson Tide

    Alabama's 68-55 win over Iona wasn't much of a confidence builder. The Crimson Tide committed 14 turnovers, had eight shots blocked and shot just 5-of-16 from three-point range. The blocks and turnovers have plagued the Crimson Tide all season, and the three-point shooting is critical because they usually take nearly 50 percent of their shots from the perimeter.

    It was, however, a vivid reminder that this team is exquisite on defense. Not that Iona's offense was any good during the regular season, but the most efficient defense in the country clamped down in a big way in the second half, resulting in a win by double digits on a woeful night of offense.

    Can Alabama survive another offensive dud like that against a more capable opponent? Not if the regular season is any indication. The Crimson Tide went 1-5 when scoring fewer than 70 points. But that defense does make it feel like they always have a chance.


    7. Oklahoma State Cowboys

    On the one hand, Oklahoma State wasn't all that dominant in its 69-60 win over Liberty. Cade Cunningham finished with 15 points, but he had a rough night thanks in large part to early foul trouble. Without getting much from their star, it wasn't until the final minute that it really felt like the Cowboys had things under control.

    On the other hand, whoa, a nine-point win? I didn't know the Cardiac Cowboys knew how to win a game that comfortably. Most of their games have been decided by five points or fewer, and it sure looked like they were headed for yet another nail-biter.

    They usually win those games, though, and only Illinois (12) had more Quadrant 1 wins this season than Oklahoma State's 10. It's kind of cruel that they're on a collision course for a Sweet 16 showdown, but if that matchup comes to fruition, the winner of that game is going to enter the second half of the tournament feeling like the top threat to knock off Gonzaga.


    6. Houston Cougars

    Take out the bizarre 82-73 loss to East Carolina, and Houston has been outstanding all season long.

    The Cougars don't have the high-profile wins that most of the top teams can boast, but that's primarily a byproduct of what was a rough year for the AAC as a whole. What Houston does have is ridiculously efficient defense and one of the best offensive rebounding units in the country, both of which were on full display in the 87-56 first-round shellacking of Cleveland State.

    Houston occasionally has a nightmare of a time trying to put the ball through the hoop, though that has been a much less frequent issue over the past six weeks than it was early in the year. As long as that doesn't resurface in a big way, this is going to be one of the toughest teams to knock out of the tournament.

5. Michigan Wolverines

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    Michigan's Franz Wagner
    Michigan's Franz WagnerMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    Why They'll Win It All

    Michigan's defense is awesome.

    Even though the Wolverines rarely force turnovers and have had some terrible luck in the "free-throw defense" department—opponents shoot 75.6 percent from the charity stripethey rank sixth in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. It often takes about a dozen passes and most of the shot clock to get off a clean look against this defense.

    Then, after all that work to get a bucket, there's a good chance Michigan is going to march right back down to the other end of the court and either nullify or beat your two points, because the Wolverines also rank seventh in adjusted offensive efficiency.

    Even though Isaiah Livers is out with a stress fracture in his foot, Michigan is still loaded with scoring options. Four other Wolverines (Mike Smith, Franz Wagner, Chaundee Brown and Eli Brooks) have made at least 30 three-pointers at a better than 37 percent clip, and Hunter Dickinson is a force in the paint.

    Gonzaga and Illinois each rank in the top eight in both AdjOE and AdjDE, but Michiganat least as of Saturday eveningis the only team in the country that's top seven in both categories. Hard to beat a team that well-rounded unless that team shoots itself in the foot.


    Why They'll Get Knocked Out

    Michigan's year-to-date numbers are fantastic, but the March-specific numbers on offense are concerning. Prior to the win over Texas Southern, Michigan had lost three of its last five games, averaging 66.4 points and shooting just 42.8 percent from the field in its first five games of the most important month of the season.

    At one point, the gap between Michigan offensive and defensive effective field-goal percentages was best in the nation and one of the best in KenPom history. The gap (10.3 percent) is still impressive, but the offense has come crashing back to earth. And with the team's best three-point weapon (Livers) out for the foreseeable future, that's not something likely to correct itself any time soon.

4. Iowa Hawkeyes

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    Iowa's Luka Garza
    Iowa's Luka GarzaMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    Why They'll Win It All

    For most of the season, the skinny on Iowa was: great offense; mediocre defense. And those types of teams usually get bounced early in the NCAA tournament.

    That has changed in a big way over the past six weeks, though.

    The offense is still great. No doubt about that. The Hawkeyes get stifled every now and again (most notably the 79-57 loss at Michigan), but they usually roll out of bed with 70 points. Luka Garza is unstoppable in the paint, they almost never commit turnovers, and everyone can shoot the three.

    And while the offense continues to thrive, the defense has improved by leaps and bounds. Freshman forward Keegan Murray has been so huge for them in that regard. The Hawkeyes allowed 90.2 points in their first five losses, but they've held their last 11 opponents to roughly 67 points per game.

    It's a bit reminiscent of the 2014-15 Duke team that won a national championship. You've got the force of nature in the paint surrounded by a ton of three-point weapons, and you've got a defense that all of a sudden figured things out after a few embarrassing performances on that end of the floor in the middle of conference play.


    Why They'll Get Knocked Out

    Though the defense has clearly improved, I still wouldn't dare call it elite. It's more like the Hawkeyes went from only caring about offense to realizing they should probably exert some energy on defense, too.

    Iowa doesn't force many turnovers, still has some issues preventing three-point looks and allows a few too many second chances. The Hawkeyes gave up 79 in the loss to Michigan and 82 in the loss to Illinois. While those are much more surmountable point totals than the 99-88 loss to Gonzaga or the 89-85 loss to Ohio State earlier in the year, it's still a tough ask.

3. Illinois Fighting Illini

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    Illinois' Ayo Dosunmu
    Illinois' Ayo DosunmuMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    Why They'll Win It All

    Inconsistent play from the "other" members of the Fighting Illini was a concern at points throughout the season, but the supporting cast to Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburnparticularly senior shooting guard Trent Frazier and freshman point guard Andre Curbelohas been fantastic as of late.

    With those two guys doing their thing, Dosunmu and Cockburn become that much more unstoppable. As a result, Illinois has scored at least 73 points in 15 of its last 16 games, winning each of those contests.

    Drexel kept things interesting for about 15 minutes during what was an atypically slow start for the Illini. But once the offense woke up, it was game over. Late in the first half, the Illini scored on nine consecutive possessions and blew the game wide-open.

    Granted, Drexel isn't Gonzaga. But there were prolonged stretches in recent wins over Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan in which it felt like the Illini would never have an empty trip again.

    Now for the scary part: As far as KenPom is concerned, the Illinois defense is even more efficient than its offense. As long as they don't run into one of those games where it feels like Dosunmu and Cockburn are the only options, the Illini are going to be very difficult to beat.


    Why They'll Get Knocked Out

    Though the defense is great in terms of adjusted efficiency, Illinois doesn't force many turnovers and occasionally runs into major issues defending in the paint. (Cockburn is a force of nature, but he's not much of a shot-blocker.) In five of their six losses, the Illini allowed at least 81 points.

    It shouldn't be a problem Sunday, and it might not have a significant impact until the Final Four. But with Gonzaga presumably waiting as the final boss in the national championship, limited turnovers and porous two-point defense sure sound hard to overcome.

2. Baylor Bears

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    Baylor's Jared Butler
    Baylor's Jared ButlerMark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Why They'll Win It All

    In its 79-55 victory over Hartford, Baylor made 11 threes, grabbed 14 offensive rebounds, racked up 15 steals and didn't even look like itself. Starting power forward Mark Vital fouled out after playing only 11 minutes (his first DQ of the entire season), and AP first-team All-American Jared Butler had an off night, shooting just 5-of-16 from the field.

    But that combination of threes, steals and offensive rebounds is Baylor's calling card. The Bears have been so dominant in all three categories all season long, and there are not many teams capable of stifling two of those three strengths, let alone all three.

    Similar to Gonzaga, there are so many guys on this team who can hurt you. Butler and Davion Mitchell are the ones with the most NBA potential, but MaCio Teague and Adam Flagler can both catch fire from distance, while Vital and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua make a major impact on defense and on the offensive glass. Even Matthew Mayer and LJ Cryer can both make it rain when Scott Drew goes that deep into his bench.

    That wide variety of options means Baylor is less susceptible to an off night than most teams. And then the versatility of their strengths makes Baylor one of the most matchup-proof teams in the tournament.


    Why They'll Get Knocked Out

    Baylor is most of the way back to its pre-COVID-19-pause form, but the defense is still a little off. The Bears looked fine against Hartford, but their previous seven opponents averaged 75.1 points, shot almost 40 percent from downtown and only committed 14.3 turnovers.

    As great as Baylor is at threes and offensive rebounds, allowing 75 points per game at their national-average pace of play is a fine way to get into trouble against an inferior opponent.

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs

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    Gonzaga's Corey Kispert
    Gonzaga's Corey KispertPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    Why They'll Win It All

    Gonzaga has been a clear-cut top-two team all season, and at this point, the Zags are in a league of their own.

    Slowing down this offense is a pipe dream. The Zags entered the tournament averaging 92.1 points per game and were only held below 82 three times. (They still won each of those games by at least 14 points.) They shoot better than 55 percent from the field and their two-point offense (63.9 percent) is the greatest in KenPom history.

    I've made this comparison countless times, but trying to slow down this year's Gonzaga basketball offense is like trying to shut down this past season's Alabama football offense. Jalen Suggs is Mac Jones. Drew Timme is Najee Harris. Corey Kispert is DeVonta Smith. All of those guys were legitimate candidates for National Player of the Year, and that iron sharpening iron has made Gonzaga so, so sharp.

    The defense is doggone good, too. Gonzaga occasionally gives up a lot of points, but it also plays at one of the fastest paces in the country. Using possessions calculated by KenPom, Gonzaga's least efficient defensive performance of the season was against BYU in the WCC championship, when the Cougars were "NBA Jam" on fire for the entire first half and ended up scoring 78 points in a 70-possession games (1.114 points per possession).

    Gonzaga still won that game by 10. In fact, it won every game except for one by 10, and the Zags get a mulligan for only beating West Virginia 87-82 in a game where Suggs suffered an Achilles injury in the first half. Once he returned to the game, though, they took over and haven't looked back since.


    Why They'll Get Knocked Out

    Well, how often does the best team actually win this tournament?

    As far as the metrics are concerned, this is the best men's college basketball team since 2014-15 Kentucky. Those Wildcats lost in the Final Four. Virginia entered both the 2018 and 2019 tournaments as the most efficient team in the country, losing to UMBC in 2018 and winning it all in 2019.

    We call it March Madness for a reason.

    But if you want me to highlight a potential area of concern, BYU highlighted it in that WCC title game. Gonzaga's three-point defense is just OK. Eight opponents have shot at least 38 percent while making at least eight triples against the Zags. Could be a problem if they run into an Alabama, Creighton or Villanova on a night where that team just refuses to miss.


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