NCAA Men's Tournament 2021: Power Ranking the Elite Eight Teams
The 68-team field for the 2021 NCAA men's tournament has been whittled all the way down to the Elite Eight, and against all odds, the Pac-12 is still fighting the good fight.
The ACC and Big East have been wiped out. The loaded Big Ten and Big 12 are down to just one team each, as are the AAC, SEC and WCC. But the Pac-12 makes up 37.5 percent of the remaining field.
Could the westernmost major conference finally win its first national championship since Arizona did it back in 1997?
If so, it's going to take a miraculous run on par with what those Wildcats did, beating not one, not two, but three No. 1 seeds en route to the title. As far as seeding is concerned, the three Pac-12 teams—No. 6 USC, No. 11 UCLA and No. 12 Oregon State—are the worst teams left in the field, by far.
From a power rankings perspective, though, the Trojans have continued their surge all the way into our top four, and even the Bruins have moved ahead of a certain high seed with a bad habit of digging itself into early holes.
One important thing to note: Difficulty of the 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 eight teams based on perceived strength.
We'll examine how teams have played thus far, their Most Outstanding Player candidates 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.
8. Oregon State Beavers
What We've Learned: Forcing opponents to play zone offense is a great way to pull off tournament upsets. We always kind of knew that because of the success Syracuse has had as a double-digit seed in recent years. But Oregon State shutting down Loyola-Chicago in the Sweet 16 shows it's more than just a Jim Boeheim specialty.
All three of Oregon State's opponents (Tennessee, Oklahoma State and Loyola-Chicago) were just OK from three-point range during the regular season, and then they shot a collective 23.1 percent against the Beavers. This Oregon State defense was nothing special during the regular season, but it has really forced teams out of their comfort zone in the dance.
Most Outstanding Player Candidate: Ethan Thompson. Oregon State's senior combo guard has averaged 20.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists, but his most lethal work has come at the free-throw line. After shooting 11-of-11 in the Pac-12 quarterfinal overtime victory over UCLA, Thompson has gone 25-of-26 from the charity stripe thus far in the NCAA tournament.
X-Factor: Free throws. Thompson has been awesome from the one-point line, but free throws in general are such a huge X-Factor in Beavers games. Because of their physical play on both ends of the floor, their average game includes slightly more than 40 combined free-throw attempts. Thus far in the tournament, Oregon State is making 86.2 percent of those freebies while opponents are down at 70.3 percent. And in the Elite Eight against an even more physical Houston squad, you better believe there will be free throws.
Championship Blueprint: Keep winning that three-point battle. Of the eight teams that played Saturday, Oregon State (38.5 percent) was the only one to shoot better than 27 percent from distance. And as noted above, they've held their three opponents to a combined 23.1 percent. Oregon State is guaranteed to be a substantial underdog the rest of the way, but with three-point splits like those, anything is possible.
7. Arkansas Razorbacks
What We've Learned: No lead is safe. Dating back to the regular-season finale against Texas A&M, Arkansas has trailed by double digits at some point in the first 22 minutes of five wins. The Razorbacks were down 14 early to Colgate before winning comfortably. Against both Texas Tech and Oral Roberts, the Hogs had to erase those big deficits and then survive a last-second shot to advance.
This was Eric Musselman's inexplicable M.O. while at Nevada, too. In the 2018 NCAA tournament, his team trailed Texas by 14 and fell behind Cincinnati by 22 before coming back to win both of those games. It also battled back from a 12-point deficit against Loyola-Chicago before losing by a single point. It's frustrating that his teams keep digging themselves into early holes, but it's also remarkable how often they're able to climb out of them.
Most Outstanding Player Candidate: Justin Smith. Moses Moody is the Razorback with the brightest NBA future, but he has struggled to find his stroke and went just 4-of-20 from the field against Oral Roberts. Smith has shouldered the load, though, averaging 20.3 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.0 steals. He was also crucial on defense against ORU, keeping Kevin Obanor from getting any open looks. (Obanor's only made three-pointer came during the only minute of the game that Smith was on the bench.)
X-Factor: JD Notae. Arkansas' sixth man has been curiously absent from the past two rounds. He's still playing, he's just not doing much, scoring a combined 11 points on 17 field-goal attempts with four turnovers. They were two of his worst performances of the entire season. But he's liable to explode for around 20 points on any given night, and it's in part because of his struggles that the Razorbacks just barely survived those games. They'll need him to show up in a big way against Baylor.
Championship Blueprint: Play with pace and get all three stars going. In games where Moody, Notae and Smith all scored in double figures, Arkansas went 9-1. The only loss was a road game against Oklahoma State that came right down to the wire before some Cade Cunningham heroics. The Razorbacks can hang with anyone when that trio is cooking.
6. UCLA Bruins
What We've Learned: Mick Cronin can actually win in March. In 11 previous trips to the dance, Cronin had been to the Sweet 16 just once. In his final seven years with Cincinnati, the Bearcats had an overall record of 3-7 in the NCAA tournament despite receiving a No. 8 seed or better in five of those tournaments.
Suffice it to say, that will no longer be a narrative that follows him around as he has now gotten this UCLA team from the First Four to the Elite Eight with two overtime victories along the way. The Bruins erased a late deficit in the opener against Michigan State, shut down a great BYU offense in the first round, withstood Abilene Christian's relentless pressure in the second round and then knocked off an all-around outstanding Alabama team in the Sweet 16. That's a wide variety of opponents that required great pregame planning and in-game adjustments by Cronin.
Most Outstanding Player Candidate: Johnny Juzang. Jaime Jaquez Jr. was unbelievably clutch late in the win over Alabama, and he has scored in double figures in all four of UCLA's games. If you want to put him here, it's totally warranted. But Juzang was the leader of the first three wins and is still averaging 20.0 points in spite of a tough night against the Crimson Tide. The Bruins survived without his A-game Sunday, but he needs to be some kind of special the rest of the way.
X-Factor: Pace of play. Not much about UCLA is reminiscent of recent Cincinnati teams, but the deliberately snail-like tempo is a Cronin specialty. The Bruins frustrated BYU, Abilene Christian and especially Alabama with that pace, refusing to get sped up. Michigan is also content to play a slower game, but if the Bruins beat the Wolverines and run into Gonzaga in the Final Four, that will be a most intriguing contrast of styles.
Championship Blueprint: Play the best possible 120 minutes of complete basketball. To win it all, UCLA would likely need to go through No. 1 seed Michigan, No. 1 seed Gonzaga and No. 1 seed Baylor. That would mean beating the best two-point defense in the country, the best two-point offense in recent memory and a team that ranks top-10 in three-point shooting, offensive rebounding and steals. There's no "blueprint" for surviving that gauntlet other than to avoid making any mistakes and hope the deep shots keep falling.
5. Houston Cougars
What We've Learned: The defense is as good as advertised. Even though KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings are designed to account for strength of opponents faced, no one was quite sure what to make of a Houston team that ranked in the top 10 but didn't face any particularly noteworthy competition aside from a November game against Texas Tech.
Well, through three rounds—granted, against a No. 15, No. 10 and No. 11 seed—that defense has been stellar, racking up a combined total of 15 blocks and 24 steals while limiting opponents to 54.0 points. The Cougars were particularly stingy in the Sweet 16 win over Syracuse, extinguishing the red-hot Buddy Boeheim and making it almost impossible for the Orange to get a clean look at the rim.
Most Outstanding Player Candidate: Quentin Grimes has been outstanding for Houston since mid-February. He's averaging 20.4 points while shooting 48.2 percent from three-point range over his last 12 games. Grimes has also been a key factor on defense with five steals over his past two contests.
Let's also give an honorable mention to Dejon Jarreau, who missed all but the first minute of the opener because of a hip injury before battling through the pain for 17 points against Rutgers. He also had nine points, eight rebounds and eight assists against Syracuse.
X-Factor: Making shots. Houston does so many things extremely well. Great defense. Minimal turnovers. Excellent offensive rebounding rate. But the Cougars often struggle to put the ball through the hoop. They shot 37.3 percent from the field against Rutgers and an almost equally rough 38.3 percent against Syracuse. Grimes made enough threes to get those wins, but they scored a combined 125 points on 126 possessions. That's going to be a problem if it continues into the Final Four when they start facing single-digit seeds.
Championship Blueprint: Out-hustle opponents and hit shots. Few teams scrap and claw quite like Houston does, which makes the Cougars so tough to beat. But they leave themselves vulnerable to upsets on those poor shooting nights. When they shoot at least 46 percent from the field, though, their average scoring margin is 31.9 points. (They have reached that mark 12 times.)
4. USC Trojans
What We've Learned: The late-season swoon was a red herring. There was a point in mid-February when USC was 17-3 overall and still had an outside shot at playing its way into a No. 1 seed. Then, out of nowhere, the three-point defense violently defied the Trojans. Their first 20 opponents shot a combined 30.4 percent from downtown—28.5 percent if you take out the unreal 20-of-41 effort by Cal Baptist in the season opener. But from Feb. 17 through the end of the Pac-12 tournament, USC's opponents shot 44.5 percent from beyond the arc, resulting in four losses.
That unsustainably bad luck was, well, unsustainable. Drake, Kansas and Oregon all struggled from distance against the Trojans, and USC had minimal difficulty with any of those teams because of it. With that aspect of USC games back to normal, the brothers Evan and Isaiah Mobley have been too much for opponents to handle.
Most Outstanding Player Candidate: Evan Mobley. USC's 7'0" freshman center impacts the game in such a ridiculous number of ways, and that was on full display in the Sweet 16 against Oregon. He only had six field-goal attempts, but he racked up 10 points, eight rebounds, six assists and two blocks. It was his seventh consecutive performance with at least 10 points, eight rebounds, multiple assists and multiple blocks. Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham is going to go No. 1 in the NBA draft, but this young man is going to be one hell of a consolation prize for whichever NBA team gets the No. 2 pick.
X-Factor: Free-throw shooting and two-point defense. The latter is a positive X-factor. The Mobley brothers are large and in charge in the paint, and they're liable to give Gonzaga fits in the Elite Eight. The former is a negative X-factor, though. Heading into the Sweet 16 game against Oregon, USC was averaging 21.4 free-throw attempts per game but only made 64.3 percent of them. The Trojans were great from the stripe against the Ducks, but that type of Achilles' heel can take down any titan in this tournament.
Championship Blueprint: Continue to dominate with defense and size. NCAA tournament opponents have managed just 58.3 points per game against the Trojans, unable to figure out how to navigate this gigantic rotation. However, the teams they've faced thus far pale in comparison to what lies ahead. (Kansas was good but not at full strength.) If USC holds Gonzaga below 60 points, it might need to erect a statue of Evan Mobley and Andy Enfield the next day. That said, the Trojans are the toughest defense Gonzaga has faced all season, so don't count this team out.
3. Michigan Wolverines
What We've Learned: The Wolverines have offense, too. All season long, the focus has been on Michigan's lethal interior defense, and rightfully so. Hunter Dickinson and Co. have been a Wolverines Wall in the paint, holding opponents to 42.4 percent on two-point attempts. They do it with limited fouls and few second-chance opportunities. It's easily their biggest strength.
But these guys can score in bunches, too. Michigan has put up at least 76 points in each tournament game, averaging 81.3 thus far. Most of us assumed the Wolverines would slip a bit on that end without Isaiah Livers, who averaged 13.1 points and was their best three-point shooter before suffering that stress fracture in his foot. In Livers' stead, though, Brandon Johns Jr. has stepped up in a huge way, averaging 10.7 points in the tournament after scoring in double figures just once during the regular season.
Most Outstanding Player Candidate: Too soon to tell. With 12.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game, Franz Wagner is probably Michigan's front-runner here. It's a tight race, though. Dickinson is at 14.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game, Eli Brooks is at 12.7 points per contest with a 16-2 assist-to-turnover ratio, and Chaundee Brown Jr. has been so crucial off the bench over the past two games.
X-Factor: Turnovers. Michigan's defense excels at getting stops but not at forcing turnovers. It wasn't a problem against an often-sloppy Florida State team in the Sweet 16. However, in that second-round win over LSU, the Wolverines were minus-eight in turnover margin and struggled to pull away despite shooting much better than the Tigers.
Championship Blueprint: Don't change anything. If we end up with Michigan vs. Gonzaga in the Final Four, it's going to be a battle for the ages between the best interior defense of the season and the best two-point offense in at least two decades. Michigan might not win that showdown, but if any team is equipped to stifle Gonzaga's offensive onslaught, it's the Wolverines. I wrote as much back in early February.
2. Baylor Bears
What We've Learned: Can survive a poor shooting night. That's always the big question with teams that do a lot of scoring from three-point range, because it is all but inevitable that there will be a night in the tournament when the deep ball betrays you.
Prior to Saturday, there had only been three games in which Baylor shot worse than 31.6 percent from the perimeter: the loss at Kansas, the loss to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament and a game at Iowa State in which the Bears trailed the league's worst team with 10 minutes remaining. But despite an awful 3-of-19 (15.8 percent) afternoon against Villanova in the Sweet 16, the Bears got the W by locking up point guard-less Villanova on defense and scoring relentlessly in the paint.
Most Outstanding Player Candidate: Davion Mitchell. 'Twas a toss-up between Mitchell and Jared Butler after the first weekend, but Butler had a brutal game against Villanova while Mitchell simply carried the Bears on both ends of the floor. It's hard to believe he only scored 14 points against the Wildcats, because it felt like every time Baylor needed a bucket, there was Mitchell either flipping up some wild driving layup or draining a mid-range jumper. Through three games, he's averaging 14.0 points, 4.3 assists and 2.3 steals, and he is the leader of a defense allowing just 56.3 points.
X-Factor: Bench production. It's just unfair that Baylor brings not one but two guys off the bench who shoot better than 40 percent from three-point range (Adam Flagler and Matthew Mayer), as well as a big man who puts in work on defense and on the offensive glass (Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua). That bench trio has combined for at least 24 points in each of Baylor's first three tournament games. Mayer was the team's leading scorer against Wisconsin. Flagler led the way against Villanova.
Championship Blueprint: Keep thriving on defense. Baylor is a great three-point shooting team (usually) and an excellent offensive rebounding team (always), but the Bears had struggled on defense in the weeks leading up to Selection Sunday. Three more games of defending like they have thus far and they'll win it all.
1. Gonzaga Bulldogs
What We've Learned: Can destroy non-WCC teams, too. Those of us who have been watching Gonzaga all season long are all too familiar with this team's ability to make any foe look helpless. The Zags ran away from Virginia, Kansas and Iowa on neutral courts and even gutted out a win over West Virginia on a night where Jalen Suggs suffered an injury and Drew Timme fouled out. (That was the only time in 29 games this season where Gonzaga didn't win by double digits.)
For whatever reason, though, Gonzaga brings out some of the most annoying casual fans who want to complain that the Zags wouldn't be as good if they played in a "real" conference. Well, they just destroyed the Big 12's Oklahoma and the Big East's Creighton to reach their fourth Elite Eight in six tournaments. Y'all might want to start workshopping a new excuse for not liking the best team in the country.
Most Outstanding Player Candidate: Drew Timme. The fu manchu is fun, but it's the vision and footwork that make Timme so lethal. Double-team him and he'll make the perfect pass out of it. He has at least three assists in each of his last six games. But not double-teaming him is an even worse decision, because he'll either ballet dance his way right around the defender, draw a foul or both. Per KenPom, Timme has an O-rating of 106 or better in 28 of 29 games this season. Even Luka Garza fell short of that mark six times.
X-Factor: Perimeter defense. Creighton got a lot of open looks from three-point range against Gonzaga, but it just could not get anything to fall. And in the first half of the WCC championship against BYU, we saw what can happen when an opponent takes full advantage of Gonzaga's biggest weakness. It's most likely going to take at least 90 points to beat Gonzaga, and it's easiest to get those three at a time. Could be a problem against Baylor.
Championship Blueprint: Keep on trucking. Even on what was a bit of an off day for both Corey Kispert and Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga shot 75.8 percent from inside the arc and assisted on 67.6 percent of made field goals in blowing out Creighton. This team is so loaded and so unstoppable on offense that it feels like it would take the perfect game to beat them.