NCAA Men's Tournament 2021: Power Ranking the Sweet 16 Teams

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 25, 2021

NCAA Men's Tournament 2021: Power Ranking the Sweet 16 Teams

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    Gonzaga's Joel Ayayi
    Gonzaga's Joel AyayiPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    Throughout just about the entire 2020-21 men's college basketball season, it was Gonzaga at No. 1, Baylor at No. 2 and everyone else battling for the right to lose to Gonzaga or Baylor in the Final Four.

    As we peek ahead to the Sweet 16 with some power rankings, that hasn't changed one bit.

    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: Syracuse has leapfrogged four teams, and in five other cases, the order of two teams is the opposite of what it was 11 days ago.

    Gonzaga is still No. 1, though. Don't you fret about that.

    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.

    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's one win away from becoming the greatest Cinderella story ever told.

16. Oral Roberts Golden Eagles

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    Oral Roberts' Kevin Obanor
    Oral Roberts' Kevin ObanorAJ Mast/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Unfazed. Oftentimes, a mid-major team that's good enough to pull off a major upset never quite looks comfortable until it's too late. But thanks to early-season games against Missouri, Wichita State, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Arkansas, Oral Roberts hasn't shied from the moment. The Golden Eagles lost all five of those regular-season games, but they were close in four of them. That helped make this team believe it can beat anyone.

    Bread and Butter: Pick-and-pop action. Both Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor shoot well above 40 percent from three-point range and well above 85 percent from the free-throw line. With that dynamic duo, the Golden Eagles have adopted an "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" mantra of bringing the 6'8" Obanor to the top of the key to set a screen for the 6'1" Abmas, a setup from which anything is possible. It's basically the basketball version of football's run-pass option, and it's lethal.

    Achilles' Heel: Defense and rebounding. Oral Roberts allows more than 75 points per game and has an average rebounding margin of around minus-4.5 per contest. How it held Ohio State to 72 points in an overtime game remains the biggest conundrum of this entire tournament.

    MVP: Max Abmas. The nation's leading scorer averages 24.6 points per game, and he hasn't even had one of his monster performances yet in the tournament. His 29 against Ohio State and 26 against Florida were great, but there was a four-game stretch in February in which he averaged 37.3 while shooting 24-of-40 from three-point range.

    Championship Blueprint: More Abmas. More Obanor. And more incredible luck on the defensive end. Oral Roberts can score 80 on anyone. The key is finding a way to keep the other team from getting there.

15. Oregon State Beavers

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    Oregon State's Zach Reichle
    Oregon State's Zach ReichlePaul Sancya/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Stingy. Tennessee has two potential lottery picks. Oklahoma State has the all-but-certain No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft in Cade Cunningham. Yet, Oregon State held the former to 56 points and kept the latter team from getting into any sort of prolonged groove on offense. Defense wasn't a regular-season strength for the Beavers, but they had a magical weekend on that end of the floor, holding two favorites to a combined 30.5 percent shooting from the field.

    Bread and Butter: Scoring late in the shot clock. Among teams left in the tournament, only Houston (19.1) has a longer average possession length on offense than Oregon State's 18.9 secondsand Houston's mark is largely the product of offensive rebounds that extend possessions. This team loves to drain clock, and those late buckets are more demoralizing to the opposing defense.

    Achilles' Heel: Foul trouble. The second-round game against Oklahoma State was a bit excessive, but it's fairly common for Oregon State opponents to set up residence at the free-throw line. The Beavers allow about 21 free-throw attempts per game, which is a ton, given their slow pace of play. Also, while the past two weeks have gone well, Oregon State also does not have good year-to-date shooting percentages. With games against the elite defenses of Loyola-Chicago and (possibly) Houston on tap, those shooting woes could prove fatal.

    MVP: Ethan Thompson. The senior leader had 26 points against Oklahoma State and racked up 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists against Tennessee. He leads the Beavers in points, assists and steals, and it's unlikely this Cinderella story continues unless he stays hot.

    Championship Blueprint: Keep up the seemingly unsustainable defense. Heading into the tournament, all but one of Oregon State's last 26 opponents shot better than 33.3 percent from the field. But the Beavers kept their first two tournament foes below that mark. Keep holding teams well below one point per possession and anything is possible.

14. Creighton Bluejays

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    Creighton's Marcus Zegarowski
    Creighton's Marcus ZegarowskiMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Iffy. Creighton trailed 58-52 in the final five minutes of its first-round win over UC Santa Barbara, only advancing when Amadou Sow's point-blank game-winning attempt missed the mark. Outside catching fire late in the first half for a 16-2 run, Creighton basically played to a draw against Ohio on Monday too. At their best, maybe the Bluejays could challenge Gonzaga. They definitely have not looked their best yet.

    Bread and Butter: Making buckets. Creighton shoots 55.9 percent inside the arc and 36.5 percent beyond it. (Those numbers were both a good bit higher four games ago.) Marcus Zegarowski is the best of the three high-volume three-point shooters, leading a starting lineup in which everyone averages at least 10 points per game.

    Achilles' Heel: Free throws and rebounds. Creighton is shooting just 56.1 percent from the charity stripe over its last eight games, and it lost the rebounding battle in five of those contests. The Bluejays have lost four games in which they shot better than 46 percent from the field, largely because of these two problem areas.

    MVP: Zegarowski. For the third consecutive year, Zegarowski has over 100 assists and over 100 rebounds while making at least 42 percent of his more than 140 three-point attempts. There have been 15 total instances of that line in the past three years, and he's the only one to get there twice, let alone three times.

    Championship Blueprint: Capitalize on the shooting percentages. Creighton's effective field-goal percentage (55.4) is nine points better than what it allows on defense (46.4). Despite the struggles in rebounding and the limited turnovers forced on defense, this team can shoot its way to any victory.

13. UCLA Bruins

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    UCLA's Johnny Juzang
    UCLA's Johnny JuzangDavid Zalubowski/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Composed. Even though Michigan State led for the vast majority of the First Four matchup, the Bruins never panicked. They shot well and almost entirely avoided turnovers in the first-round win over BYU. And after watching Abilene Christian pick Texas' pocket for 40 straight minutes, Tyger Campbell and Co. withstood the Wildcats' pressure like it was nothing.

    Bread and Butter: Slow-paced offensive efficiency. UCLA doesn't often light up the scoreboard, but that's because it plays slow and doesn't take that many three-pointers. This is an efficient team that shoots well, doesn't commit turnovers and typically excels in the rebounding battle.

    Achilles' Heel: Getting defensive stops. Opponents shoot 34.2 percent from distance and 49.6 percent from inside the arc and turn the ball over on just 17.5 percent of possessions. In all three categories, UCLA ranks outside the top 150 in the nation and among the bottom five of remaining teams.

    MVP: Johnny Juzang. It's hard to believe this guy could barely get on the floor for Kentucky last season, because he has been such a key shooter for the Bruins. Through three tournament games, Juzang is averaging 22.3 points, and shooting 51.0 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from downtown. He doesn't do a whole lot else in the box score, ranking either third or lower on the team in rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. When he's hitting shots, though, UCLA doesn't need him to do anything else.

    Championship Blueprint: Keep avoiding dominant bigs. UCLA's rebounding numbers are solid, but this team has limited frontcourt depth. The Bruins might knock off Alabama, but it's hard to see them playing big enough to beat the Michigan-Florida State winner or Gonzaga in the Final Four. They might need to shoot the lights out in those games.

12. Villanova Wildcats

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    Villanova's Justin Moore
    Villanova's Justin MooreDarron Cummings/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Better than expected. In Villanova's first two games after losing Collin Gillespie for the year to a torn MCL, it lost to Providence and Georgetownteams that each went 13-13 this season. Both games went down to the wire, but it wasn't a great look right before the tournament. Impressively, though, the Wildcats not only survived a pair of upset bids but also beat both Winthrop and North Texas by double digits.

    Bread and Butter: Turnover-free offense. The Wildcats lead the nation in turnover percentage on offense, giving the ball away on just 13.2 percent of possessions. In the entire season, they've only had five games with 10 or more turnovers. If that holds up against Baylor's aggressive defense, Villanova would enter the Elite Eight as perhaps the top non-Gonzaga candidate to reach the national championship.

    Achilles' Heel: Defense. Opponents shoot 44.1 percent from the field against Villanova, which puts this defense outside the top 200 nationally in that regard. The Wildcats especially struggle to defend the perimeter. They don't force many turnovers and have allowed eight opponents to shoot better than 40 percent from three-point range, losing five of those contests.

    MVP: Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. Villanova's big man leads the team in both points (16.0) and rebounds (8.3), and he has become Villanova's top assist man in the tournament with six dimes in each game. Much like Cameron Krutwig at Loyola-Chicago, Robinson-Earl has become a point center. The difference is Villanova's frontcourt leader is a legitimate threat from the perimeter.

    Championship Blueprint: Remain lethally efficient on offense. Against North Texas, Villanova made 15 three-pointers and only committed five turnovers. It's almost impossible to lose with numbers like those.

11. Oregon Ducks

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    Oregon's Chris Duarte
    Oregon's Chris DuartePaul Sancya/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Recovered. While UCLA has played three games, Oregon has gotten just the one, since its first-round opponent (VCU) had to bow out of the tournament for COVID-19 reasons. In that game, though, the Ducks bounced back from an ugly 75-64 Pac-12 tournament loss to Oregon State by lighting up Iowa's defense for 95 points. It was Oregon's highest-scoring game of the season, but far from the only time it looked like this offense could win a title.

    Bread and Butter: Versatility. Each member of Oregon's starting five has had multiple games with at least three made three-pointers, at least one game with 19 points and at least one game with seven rebounds. Four of the five have also had at least five assists in a game, and the exception to that is LJ Figueroa, who has four points-rebounds double-doubles, including one game with 20 points, 14 rebounds and five steals. Even if two of the starters have an off night, the other three are liable to beat you.

    Achilles' Heel: Size. The all-wings approach makes for entertaining and hard-to-defend offense, but the trade-off is that Oregon frequently struggles in the paint on defense. Nine of Oregon's last 10 opponents scored at least one point per possession, and even the exception (Arizona State) got to 73 points in a 74-possession game. All but one of those opponents made at least 50 percent of their two-point attempts.

    MVP: Chris Duarte. Oregon's go-to guy changes from one possession to the next, but Duarte is the leading scorer, the most consistent three-point shooter and the best defender. He's the guy the Ducks could least afford to lose to early foul trouble. The good news on that front is he has committed two or fewer fouls in all but one game this season.

    Championship Blueprint: Come out ahead of the mismatches. Iowa's Luka Garza scored 36 points on Monday, and Oregon still won that game by 15. The Ducks can't always count on destroying the opposing defense like that, but it shows they can win even without size.

10. Syracuse Orange

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Lethal. From the beginning of January through the end of the regular season, Syracuse averaged 72.0 points per game, shot 42.9 percent from the field and went 9-7. But in both NCAA tournament games (and one of its ACC tournament contests), Syracuse shot better than 51 percent while holding its opponent below 38 percent. West Virginia almost pulled out a win in spite of that split, but what a phenomenal opening weekend for the Orange.

    Bread and Butter: As of late, the bread and butter is three-point shooting. But Syracuse has always been about that 2-3 zone. San Diego State fell a little too in love with trying to shoot over the zone and missed 29 three-point attempts. West Virginia didn't embrace the three ball enough and shot just 15-of-44 from inside the arc. Either disaster is liable to befall any opposing offense.

    Achilles' Heel: Defensive rebounding. The No. 1 downside to playing zone is it's hard to box out, since you're defending a space and not a man. As a result, Syracuse allows 12.7 offensive rebounds per game. Sometimes they get away with it, but the Orange are 7-7 when allowing at least 10 and 2-4 when allowing at least 15. With Houston (second in offensive rebounding) on deck and Baylor (sixth in offensive rebounding) potentially waiting in the Final Four, it's probably going to burn Syracuse before much longer. 

    MVP: Buddy Boeheim. The son of the legendary head coach has averaged 24.2 points over his last nine games, making just under five three-pointers per contest. If any player is going to simply shoot his team to four more wins, it's either Boeheim or Oral Roberts' Max Abmas.

    Championship Blueprint: In the past decade, there have been 63 NCAA tournament games (including both of Syracuse's thus far) in which a team shot at least 51 percent while allowing below 38 percent. Those teams went a perfect 63-0. If that's not a championship blueprint, I don't know what is.

9. Florida State Seminoles

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    Florida State's Scottie Barnes
    Florida State's Scottie BarnesGerry Broome/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Inconsistent. Then again, being inconsistent has been pretty consistent for Florida State. The defense was great through the first two games, holding both UNC Greensboro and Colorado under 55 points. There were prolonged stretches in each game where it still looked like the Seminoles might lose, though, because they couldn't muster anything on offense. Maybe that strong finish against the Buffaloes (33 points in less than 10 minutes) will carry into the Sweet 16.

    Bread and Butter: Size. Per, Florida State leads the nation in average height, and that pays dividends in the form of offensive rebounding and contesting shots. "Point guard" Scottie Barnes, 6'9", is a constant matchup problem for opponents, and 7'1" Balsa Koprivica has been critical in the paint.

    Achilles' Heel: Turnovers. UNC Greensboro couldn't fully tap into Florida State's occasional sloppiness, but it's a definite issue. Over the final five games before the start of the tournament, the Seminoles turned it over 18.0 times on average. Also, in spite of its size advantage, Florida State struggles with defensive rebounds on a regular basis. Colorado grabbed 15 offensive rebounds on Monday; it just couldn't do anything with them.

    MVP: Scottie Barnes. He's not the most efficient player on the roster, but Barnes tops the Seminoles in both assists and steals, leading the team on both ends of the floor. He's certainly the FSU player NBA teams are most interested in, likely to be a top-10 pick in a few months.

    Championship Blueprint: Cut down on the giveaways and make it rain threes. It's almost unfair that the Seminoles have the tallest team in the country and shoot 38.2 percent from three-point range, but that's why Florida State has been such a tantalizing Final Four pick all year, in spite of its woes in turnovers and defensive rebounding.

8. Arkansas Razorbacks

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    Arkansas' Justin Smith
    Arkansas' Justin SmithDarron Cummings/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Lethargic. Fifteen minutes into the opener against Colgate, Arkansas trailed 33-19. Less than 10 minutes into the second-round game against Texas Tech, the Hogs were down 23-13. In both games, they eventually woke up in a big way, turning those double-digit deficits into a double-digit lead in the span of 20 game minutes, but what's up with those slow starts? The Razorbacks also trailed Texas A&M by as much as 14 and fell behind Missouri by 10 earlier this month, so at least they're used to it?

    Bread and Butter: Speed. Arkansas is a jack-of-all-trades team, and it does it all with tempo. Texas Tech slowed the Razorbacks and turned that game into a rock fight, but the Razorbacks usually play in games with at least 72 possessions and don't mind getting up into the 80s from time to time. That Sweet 16 game against Oral Roberts should be an entertaining track meet.

    Achilles' Heel: Defensive droughts. With the grain of salt that Arkansas plays at a faster pace than most, this team has allowed at least 78 points in 10 of its last 22 games and lost six of those contests. In those six losses, Arkansas also shot a collective 38-of-137 (27.7 percent) from three-point range, so it's often a double whammy.

    MVP: Justin Smith. Moses Moody is the soon-to-be lottery pick, but Arkansas lost three out of four games in January while Smith was recovering from an ankle injury. The Hogs have been almost unbeatable while he has been healthy, though. Smith had 29 points, 13 rebounds and five steals in the opener against Colgate and racked up another 20 points against Texas Tech.

    Championship Blueprint: Run and don't gun. When Arkansas can push the pace, get to the rim with regularity and get some blocks and steals, it is lethal. When Moody and JD Notae start settling for threes in the half-court offense a little too often, the Razorbacks lose their edge. The more free-flowing the game, the better Arkansas' chances of winning.

7. Loyola-Chicago Ramblers

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    Loyola-Chicago's Cameron Krutwig
    Loyola-Chicago's Cameron KrutwigPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Under-seeded. It's not a surprise that Loyola-Chicago ended up as a No. 8 seed, even though everyone knew the Ramblers were, at worst, a top-20 team. The selection committee opted to weigh Loyola's mediocre best wins more heavily than its metrics. But then the Ramblers held both the ACC tournament champion and the Big Ten tournament champion to 60 points or fewer, and the seeding looks even worse than it did on Selection Sunday.

    Bread and Butter: Defense. The Ramblers lead the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, have held 20 consecutive opponents to 65 points or fewer and have allowed 55.8 points per game. The public didn't much care while the Ramblers were shutting down Illinois State or Southern Illinois. After watching them completely lock up the Fighting Illini, though, people are ready to believe this defense is for real. 

    Achilles' Heel: Manufacturing points. On offense, the Ramblers are average at best at offensive rebounds, drawing fouls and avoiding turnovers. And while the defense gets a good number of steals, they rarely turn into fast-break opportunities. (Only one of their 17 steals in the first two rounds resulted in a made field goal within 10 seconds.) It's basically all half-court offense, which they're quite good at. But whether they draw Houston or Syracuse in the Elite Eight (if they can get past Oregon State first), that team's interior defense and shot-blocking prowess will be a problem.

    MVP: Cameron Krutwig. The mustache-wielding center leads Loyola-Chicago in points, rebounds and blocks, and is a close second-best on the team in assists and steals. He's not a perimeter threat at all (1-of-7 from three in his 133-game career), but his ability to initiate offense from the top of the key kind of makes him a stretch 5 anyway.

    Championship Blueprint: Defense and deuces. For so many college basketball teams, it's all about getting hot from three-point range. With Loyola-Chicago, though, it's all about clamping down on defense so that the points scored by the Krutwig-led interior offense will be enough for victory. It's a refreshing breath of old-school air that served the Ramblers well three years ago. And this Loyola-Chicago team is substantially better than it was in 2018.

6. USC Trojans

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

    How They've Looked: Stellar. Outside Gonzaga, no team was more impressive during the tournament's first weekend than USC. The Trojans shut down Drake in the first round and then suffocated Kansas in an 85-51 blowout. That's quite the far cry from the USC team that couldn't do much of anything on defense late in the season in losses to Arizona, Utah and Colorado (two).

    Bread and Butter: Protecting the paint. After holding Drake and Kansas to a combined 25-of-82, USC leads the nation in two-point defense. The Trojans didn't even block that many shots (11), but their length clearly bothered the Bulldogs and the Jayhawks from start to finish. USC also generally grabs a lot of offensive rebounds, but it didn't miss many shots in those first two games.

    Achilles' Heel: Free-throw shooting. At 64.3 percent, USC is tied with Creighton for the worst free-throw percentage among remaining teams. (The next-worst is Baylor at 69.9 percent.) It didn't matter in the slightest against Drake and Kansas, but the Trojans have shot below 59 percent from the stripe in four of their last five games. Missed late free throws doomed both Ohio State and Purdue in their first-round losses. It's one of those "it eventually becomes a major problem" things.

    MVP: Evan Mobley. USC's likely one-and-done phenom leads the team with 16.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game. It's his 7'0" presence in the paint that makes the Trojans so difficult to score against. He has racked up at least 10 points, eight rebounds, multiple blocks and multiple assists in each of his six games in March.

    Championship Blueprint: Keep the status quo. In both tournament games, USC shot at least 50 percent while holding its opponent below 30 percent. Per Sports Reference, no team in at least the past decade has lost a game while meeting both of those conditions.

5. Houston Cougars

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    Houston's Quentin Grimes
    Houston's Quentin GrimesMark Humphrey/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Tenacious. Houston grabbed 14 offensive rebounds in each of its first two tournament wins and racked up a combined 27 blocks and steals between the two games. And in the Rutgers win, the Cougars had to battle back from a nine-point deficit in the final five minutes to survive and advance. Throw in the fact that starting point guard DeJon Jarreau got knocked out of the opener with a hip injury and was playing at considerably less than 100 percent against the Scarlet Knights, and there's no questioning this team's toughness.

    Bread and Butter: Defense and offensive rebounds. Those numbers in the first two games were par for the course. This is one of the most aggressive defenses in the country, as well as one of the best offensive rebounding teams. The Cougars aren't unbeatable, but you won't find a more physical-but-under-control team.

    Achilles' Heel: Shooting. Despite the 14 offensive rebounds, nine steals and four blocks and despite holding Rutgers to 60 points, Houston barely made it into the Sweet 16 because sometimes it can't buy a bucket. This is one of the most efficient all-around teams, and yet it has been held to a field-goal percentage of 39.1 or worse 10 times this season. By comparison, Gonzaga hasn't been held below 49.1 percent.

    MVP: Quentin Grimes. The Kansas transfer is one of the exceptions to Houston's bad-shooting rule, averaging 18.1 points and 3.4 made threes per game. Over his last five games, he's 23-of-43 (53.5 percent) from downtown and has carried the Cougars through several close wins already this month.

    Championship Blueprint: Hope enough shots fall. Houston has held all but two of its 29 opponents to 68 points or fewer, and it averages 14.3 offensive rebounds per game. That is definitely a winning formula if the team can just avoid one of those disastrous 35 percent shooting nights. The big question that keeps the Cougars from ranking in our top four is the unknown of whether they can do it against elite opponents. Outside the November win over Texas Tech, the best opponent they faced all season was Rutgers on Sunday.

4. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Alabama's Herbert Jones
    Alabama's Herbert JonesMark Humphrey/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Splashy. Alabama struggled to hit shots in the opener against Iona but made up for it and then some with a 16-of-33 three-point performance while blowing out Maryland. That pattern of being incredible one night and a little iffy the next is what makes Alabama so scaryboth to pick in your bracket and to face as an opponent.

    Bread and Butter: Defense. Alabama is the basketball embodiment of the golf axiom: "Drive for show, putt for dough." The ability to make it rain from three-point range is the showy driving, but the ability to lock down on defense is the profitable putting. It's because of that defense that the Crimson Tide could survive an off shooting night. For teams like Baylor, Villanova, Creighton and Syracuse, that doesn't ring quite as true.

    Achilles' Heel: Empty possessions. It's one thing to miss shots. It's another thing to not even get shots to the rim. Alabama ranks 344th in opponents' block percentage and 302nd in opponents' steal percentage. In both regards, the Crimson Tide are by far the worst among the remaining teams. Add to it that they miss nearly 20 three-point attempts per game, and this often scorching-hot offense can occasionally run ice cold.

    MVP: Herbert Jones. The springy senior shoots threes less often than any of the other regularsand has missed 16 consecutive attemptsbut Jones cleans up in all the other areas. He leads Alabama in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, which means he's always making an impact.

    Championship Blueprint: Dominate the perimeter battle. On average, Alabama makes 4.6 more threes and forces 1.7 more turnovers than its opponent. And when it either tied or won both of those categories, it went 13-1 this season. If the threes are falling and they aren't shooting themselves in the foot with turnovers, the Tide should be able to beat anyone.

3. Michigan Wolverines

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    Michigan's Eli Brooks
    Michigan's Eli BrooksRobert Franklin/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Healthy. The human body cannot survive without its liver, but Michigan is doing surprisingly well without Isaiah Livers, who's out with a foot injury. We know the Wolverines are not healthy, but they've shown no ill effects of lacking Livers, at least on offense. They put up 82 against Texas Southern and 86 in the win over LSU. I suppose we'll see what happens once they face a defense that ranks in the top 100, though.

    Bread and Butter: Effective field-goal percentages. Michigan ranks 18th on offense and sixth on defense in that category, with a gap between the two of 10.7 percent. The only other teams with a gap of at least 10 percent are Gonzaga (13.7) and Colgate (10.8). And while we've all poked fun at the Big Ten's failures in the first two rounds, there's no question that Michigan faced the toughest schedule among that trio.

    Achilles' Heel: Forcing turnovers. It's not really a problem, since the Wolverines generally do such a great job of defending without fouling, contesting shots and getting defensive rebounds. But forcing just 10.0 turnovers per game on the year stands out like a sore thumb. LSU only committed three turnovers on Monday, one of which was a controversial offensive foul.

    MVP: Eli Brooks. Consummate glue guy. Michigan is 22-2 when its senior shooting guard logs at least five minutes, and one of the two losses was a 68-67 game against Ohio State less than 24 hours after the Wolverines lost Livers. He doesn't always score a ton, but he's an indispensable leader.

    Championship Blueprint: Just play Michigan basketball. It wasn't even a month ago that everyone was talking about Michigan potentially being better than Gonzaga. The 23-point loss to Illinois sans Ayo Dosunmu quashed that narrative in a hurry, but this is still an excellent team. So long as Brandon Johns Jr. remains solid in Livers' stead, Michigan should at least reach the Final Four and give Gonzaga and/or Baylor a run for its money.

2. Baylor Bears

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    Baylor's Davion Mitchell
    Baylor's Davion MitchellMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Defensive. It only took two games after the COVID-19 pause for Baylor's offense to get back to normal, but we had been waiting for weeks to see if the defense would ever regain its form. The Bears finally looked good on that end of the floor during the tournament. Hartford didn't start scoring with any regularity until that game was all but over, and then Baylor held Wisconsin to 63 points just two days after it lit up North Carolina for 85.

    Bread and Butter: Threes. The ridiculous thing about Baylor is that it leads the nation in three-point percentage at 41.5 percent and is one of the best offensive rebounding teams at 36.5 percent. That means out of every 100 three-point attempts, 41.5 go in and 21.5 result in a second chance. With rates like those, it's a wonder the Bears ever bother shooting twos. (But they're good at those too.)

    Achilles' Heel: Defense when not forcing turnovers. Baylor averages 9.1 steals per game, and when it gets 10 or more, it almost always wins by double digits. Things can get a little dicey when the Bears aren't forcing those turnovers, though, as opponents shoot 43.0 percent from the field and average more than 10 offensive rebounds per game.

    MVP: Javion Butchell or Dared Mitler, whichever amalgamation of Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell you prefer. Excluding Miami's Chris Lykes (who only played in two games), Butler and Mitchell are the only players in the country who average at least 14.0 points, 4.5 assists and 2.0 steals per game while shooting better than 40 percent from distance. It's ridiculous that Baylor has two guys that versatile as well as six other major contributors.

    Championship Blueprint: Keep getting defensive stops. The end goal is beating Gonzaga, and allowing a bunch of offensive rebounds and open looks is no way to do that. If that defense continues to thrive/improve during the next three rounds, though, game on.

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs

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    Gonzaga's Drew Timme
    Gonzaga's Drew TimmeMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    How They've Looked: Normal. Gonzaga destroyed Norfolk State, and after an initial scoring burst by Oklahoma, it had little difficulty with the Sooners. This tournament has gone off the rails in many places, but the best team in the country is right on its usual track.

    Bread and Butter: Constant, uptempo scoring. Have you ever played a rec league softball game against that one team with an entire lineup full of guys who can bloop singles to wherever the defense isn't aligned? That's what it's like to face Gonzaga's onslaught of two-point buckets. At a certain point, you feel helpless and just want the game to end so you can go drink your parking lot beers.

    Achilles' Heel: None. No team is perfect, but Gonzaga is about as close as we've seen in a long time. The reason people constantly bring up the West Coast Conference as Gonzaga's biggest flaw is A) those people don't watch college basketball in November and December and B) there's not a valid complaint to make about this year's Zags. 

    MVP: Drew Timme. You could easily convince me that Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs or even Joel Ayayi is actually Gonzaga's most valuable player, but Timme is the most indispensable. The Zags could get by if one of those guards had to miss a game. They would be in some serious trouble without their big man.

    Championship Blueprint: Don't panic. This is the best team in the country, and it's not all that close. As long as Gonzaga keeps doing its thing and doesn't melt down if and when it gets a stiff test for 40 minutes, it should win the national championship.


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