Ranking the Sweet 16 from most to least likely to win the national title

Jeff Eisenberg
·12-min read

A chaotic, upset-laden first week of the NCAA men's tournament has yielded a Sweet 16 nobody saw coming.

The interlopers include a 101-year-old nun, a team once predicted to finish last in its league and a 15 seed whose school motto is "Expect a Miracle."

There are as many Sweet 16 teams from the Summit League as from the Big Ten and the Big 12.

There are twice as many teams from the long-struggling Pac-12 as from any other single conference.

And yet for all the upheaval, there are still some familiar names at the top. Unbeaten Gonzaga remains the prohibitive favorite to emerge from its half of the bracket. And season-long foil Baylor remains a strong contender to be the Zags' title game opponent.

Which are the remaining teams with championship potential? And which are the teams unlikely to survive much longer? Here’s a look at how I’d rank the Sweet 16 from most likely to least likely to win the national title.

1. GONZAGA (28-0)

How it got here: Defeated Norfolk State (16), Oklahoma (8)

Up next: Creighton (5)

BetMGM odds to win tournament: +150

Outlook: Oklahoma had a smart game plan for Monday’s second-round game. Over and over again, the Sooners used ball screens to get Austin Reaves a favorable matchup against a Gonzaga big man and then let him try to create off the dribble. It was the best mismatch Oklahoma could create against the Zags, and yet it didn’t matter. Gonzaga weathered an initial punch, gathered itself and responded with a series of uppercuts of its own. The result: Zags 87, Sooners 71. In an upset-laden tournament, is there any doubt who the favorite is?

Mar 22, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Drew Timme (2) and guard Andrew Nembhard (3) react after a play against the Oklahoma Sooners during the second half in the second round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse. The Gonzaga Bulldogs won 87-71. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 22, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Drew Timme (2) and guard Andrew Nembhard (3) react after a play against the Oklahoma Sooners during the second half in the second round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse. The Gonzaga Bulldogs won 87-71. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

2. BAYLOR (24-2)

How it got here: Defeated Hartford (16), Wisconsin (8)

Up next: Villanova (5)

BetMGM odds to win tournament: +450

Outlook: The return of Baylor’s suffocating defense was the most encouraging sign from the Bears’ round of 32 victory over Wisconsin. They built a double-digit halftime lead and fought off every Badgers second-half run, forcing 14 turnovers during the game and surrendering only 0.98 points per possession. If Baylor continues to defend at that level and get contributions from Matthew Mayer off the bench, the Bears are the clear favorite to emerge from the wide-open right side of the bracket. There are fewer major obstacles in Baylor’s path now that fellow No. 1 seed Illinois and top-10 Ohio State have been eliminated.

3. MICHIGAN (22-4)

How it got here: Defeated Texas Southern (16), LSU (8)

Up next: Florida State (4)

BetMGM odds to win tournament: +900

Outlook: On Selection Sunday, the Big Ten landed a national-best nine NCAA tournament bids. Nine days later, Michigan is the league’s last hope. A flurry of big shots from Chaundee Brown and Eli Brooks helped Michigan rally past LSU on Monday to give the Big Ten a presence in the Sweet 16. The Wolverines stand alone because Ohio State and Purdue suffered stunning first-round upsets and Iowa and Illinois proved unprepared for tough second-round draws. Can Michigan overcome the loss of Isaiah Livers and redeem the Big Ten’s reputation? The Wolverines are capable but face a tough road with Florida State up next and Alabama looming.

4. ALABAMA (26-6)

How it got here: Defeated Iona (15), Maryland (10)

Up next: UCLA (11)

BetMGM odds to win tournament: +1000

Outlook: At its best, when it’s attacking in transition and its quick-trigger threes are falling, Alabama can beat anyone. That’s why the SEC regular season and tournament champs have a legitimate chance not only to get to the Final Four but to do damage there. Maryland got a taste of Alabama’s upside on Monday night as the Terrapins shot over 50 percent from the field, took care of the ball relatively well … and lost by 19. The Crimson Tide broke open the game with a barrage of deep balls, burying 16 of 33 from behind the arc to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2004.

5. LOYOLA (26-4)

How it got here: Defeated Georgia Tech (9), Illinois (1)

Up next: Oregon State (12)

BetMGM odds to win tournament: +1400

Outlook: Loyola might be two victories from its second Final Four appearance in four seasons, but there’s no comparison between the 32-win 2018 team and this one. Those Ramblers won their first three NCAA tournament games by a total of four points and finished the year outside the KenPom top 30. These Ramblers have been a fixture in the top 10 of efficiency rankings all season and have thoroughly outplayed the Big Ten and ACC tournament champions to reach the Sweet 16. Now Loyola will assume the role of favorite against Oregon State. Between their disciplined defense and a motion offense that consistently generates open shots, the Ramblers will be a tough out.

6. HOUSTON (26-3)

How it got here: Defeated Cleveland State (15), Rutgers (10)

Up next: Syracuse (11)

BetMGM odds to win tournament: +900

Outlook: With only four minutes and change left in its second-round game against Rutgers, Houston trailed by eight and was in massive trouble. Only the Cougars’ remarkable knack for turning a missed shot into second-chance points saved them from an early exit. Houston rebounded a ridiculous 43.4 percent of their misses, none bigger than Tramon Mark’s go-ahead putback in the final minute. That could be a winning formula for Houston in the Sweet 16 against Syracuse too. The 2-3 zone makes the Orange particularly susceptible to being pummeled on the offensive glass.

7. OREGON (21-6)

How it got here: Defeated VCU (10), Iowa (2)

Up next: USC (6)

BetMGM odds to win tournament: +3000

Outlook: The seedings may suggest that Oregon eliminated Gonzaga’s biggest competition in the West Region. In reality, the seventh-seeded Ducks are a bigger threat to the Zags than second-seeded Iowa was ever going to be. Oregon is long, athletic and peaking in March, as Dana Altman’s teams so often seem to do. The Ducks have the ability to exploit mismatches by attacking off the dribble, something that any Gonzaga opponent has to do to stay in striking distance against a high-scoring Zags team whose lack of rim protection is one of its only weaknesses.

8. FLORIDA STATE (18-6)

How it got here: Defeated UNC Greensboro (13), Colorado (5)

Up next: Michigan (1)

BetMGM odds to win tournament: +2000

Outlook: Florida State did the suddenly impossible on Monday night. The Seminoles became the first in this NCAA tournament to defeat a Pac-12 team. A strong defensive showing and a career game from Anthony Polite helped Florida State put away Colorado and advanced to its third straight Sweet 16. The Seminoles confounded Colorado star point guard McKinley Wright, who finished with more turnovers (5) than baskets (4) or assists (1). In 2018, Florida State’s bid to reach the Final Four ended with a 58-54 Elite Eight loss to Michigan. Next weekend, the Seminoles will get their chance at revenge.

9. USC (24-7)

How it got here: Defeated Drake (11), Kansas (3)

Up next: Oregon (7)

BetMGM odds to win tournament: +2500

This feels too low for the dominant USC team that ran Kansas out of the gym on Monday night. And yet, it also feels too high for the enigmatic USC team that needed overtime to beat the likes of Cal Baptist, UC Riverside and Utah not that long ago. The increased aggressiveness of future top-five draft pick Evan Mobley is a huge reason why Good USC has been more common than Bad USC lately. The unselfish forward had been averaging 15 field goal attempts per game in the postseason before taking just six shots in Monday’s 85-51 demolition of Kansas.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 22: Drew Peterson #13 and Evan Mobley #4 of the USC Trojans react in the first half of their second round game against the Kansas Jayhawks in the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse on March 22, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 22: Drew Peterson #13 and Evan Mobley #4 of the USC Trojans react in the first half of their second round game against the Kansas Jayhawks in the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse on March 22, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

10. ARKANSAS (24-6)

How it got here: Defeated Colgate (14), Texas Tech (6)

Up next: Oral Roberts (15)

BetMGM odds to win tournament: +1600

Outlook: In two seasons, Eric Musselman has done what no one else has been able to do in a quarter century. Musselman has taken Arkansas back to the Sweet 16 for the first time since the days of Nolan Richardson and 40 Minutes of Hell. Now that Arkansas has stiff-armed Colgate’s upset bid and staved off a series of late surges from Texas Tech, the Razorbacks cannot afford to feel content with what they’ve accomplished. They have a gift-wrapped opportunity to reach the Elite Eight if they can halt the improbable run of an Oral Roberts team they outscored by 21 points in the second half three months ago.

11. VILLANOVA (18-6)

How it got here: Defeated Winthrop (12), North Texas (13)

Up next: Baylor (1)

BetMGM odds to win tournament: +3000

Outlook: The lingering question facing Villanova is what to make of its two NCAA tournament victories so far. Is steamrolling Winthrop and North Texas proof that the Wildcats have figured out how to play without Big East co-player of the year Collin Gillespie? Or will the issues that Villanova had previously faced resurface against stronger competition? So far, there are encouraging signs that Villanova is adjusting to its new normal. Chris Arcidiacono and Bryan Antoine both appear more comfortable with increased roles, and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl has become more assertive with the ball in his hands.

12. SYRACUSE (18-9)

How it got here: Defeated San Diego State (6), West Virginia (3)

Up next: Houston (2)

BetMGM odds to win tournament: +3000

Outlook: It had an air of inevitability to it, didn’t it? Again, Syracuse barely slips into the NCAA tournament as a double-digit seed. Again, the Orange elevate their level of play at just the right time. And now, for the third time since 2016, they have advanced to the tournament’s second weekend. The Midwest Region is wide-open enough that Syracuse can dare to dream of a Final Four run, but its next matchup might be the most difficult. Houston’s best offense is often a missed shot. And Syracuse has yielded more second-chance opportunities than almost anyone in college basketball this year.

13. UCLA (20-9)

How it got here: Defeated Michigan State (11), BYU (6), Abilene Christian (14)

Up next: Alabama (2)

BetMGM odds to win tournament: +5000

Outlook: UCLA lost five-star recruit Daishen Nix to the NBA G League, best returning player Chris Smith to a torn ACL and rotational big man Jalen Hill to undisclosed reasons. Somehow, Mick Cronin coached the Bruins to the Sweet 16 anyway. The blossoming of guard Johnny Juzang and steady excellence from forward Jaime Jaquez has turned a very good UCLA offense into an elite one. Juzang has 67 points in three games, not bad for a guy who could barely get off the bench at Kentucky as a freshman. Jaquez had 27 points against Michigan State to rally the Bruins from a 14-point deficit.

14. CREIGHTON (22-8)

How it got here: Defeated UC Santa Barbara (12), Ohio (13)

Up next: Gonzaga (1)

BetMGM odds to win tournament: +2500

Outlook: Here’s the good news for Creighton: It’s headed to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1974 after outclassing Ohio and barely surviving UCSB’s upset bid. Here’s the bad news for Creighton: The competition is about to get a whole lot tougher. The Bluejays might be a couple spots higher on this list were they not the next speed bump in Gonzaga’s path to the Final Four. While Creighton’s potent offense will probably pile up some points against the Zags, the Bluejays might be overmatched at the other end of the floor.

15. OREGON STATE (19-12)

How it got here: Defeated Tennessee (5), Oklahoma State (4)

Up next: Loyola Chicago (8)

BetMGM odds to win tournament: +5000

Outlook: Less than two weeks ago, Oregon State entered the Pac-12 tournament knowing that winning it represented its only path to the NCAA tournament. Five win-or-go-home games later, the Beavers have improbably reached the Sweet 16 for the first time in 39 years. An improved offense has propelled Oregon State through the five-game gauntlet of UCLA, Oregon, Colorado, Tennessee and Oklahoma State. The Beavers have played through their big men more often and it has paid off, resulting in open looks for their backcourt too.

16. ORAL ROBERTS (18-10)

How it got here: Defeated Ohio State (2), Florida (7)

Up next: Arkansas (3)

BetMGM odds to win tournament: +10000

Outlook: In 1998, the televangelist Oral Roberts published a memoir aptly titled “Expect a Miracle.” Nearly a quarter century later, the private Christian school named after him has delivered one. Fueled by the devastating one-two punch of Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor, Oral Roberts has joined Florida Gulf Coast’s Dunk City team as the only No. 15 seeds to reach the Sweet 16. The upcoming matchup against Arkansas is a rematch of a Dec. 20 game that the Golden Eagles led by 10 at halftime. Oral Roberts is capable of putting a scare into the Razorbacks, but at some point the Golden Eagles have to start playing like a fourth-place Summit League team again … right?

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