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

An unusually upset-free opening weekend of the NCAA tournament produced a Sweet 16 rife with brand-name heavyweights but lacking small-school charm.

For the second time since the NCAA tournament bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985, every top-three seed advanced to the second weekend. The only other year that has happened was 2009.

Only Gonzaga and Houston are left from outside the sport’s power conferences, and neither of them are anybody’s idea of Loyola-Chicago and Sister Jean. Same with the lone Sweet 16 team seeded higher than fifth, an Oregon program with five-star recruits on its roster and the clout of Nike behind it.

The silver lining to the lack of early upsets is some compelling regional semifinal matchups on tap for Thursday and Friday. Here’s a look at how I’d rank the Sweet 16 from most likely to least likely to win the national championship:

1. North Carolina (29-6)

How it got here: Defeated Iona (16), Washington (9)

Outlook: If Nassir Little keeps playing the way he did during the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament, North Carolina will be awfully tough to beat. The heralded forward delivered the best back-to-back performances of his up-and-down freshman season this week, torching run-and-gun Iona for 19 points and then shredding Washington from the middle of its zone for 20. Little had shown flashes of promise before this weekend, but they’ve been sporadic at best. The projected NBA lottery pick has averaged 9.7 points and 4.6 rebounds, shooting only 26.5 percent from behind the arc and consistently looking confused defensively.

North Carolina's Nassir Little (5) reacts after making a basket against Louisville during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, March 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

2. Duke (31-5)

How it got here: Defeated North Dakota State (16), UCF (9)

Outlook: If Duke was a prohibitive favorite entering the NCAA tournament, there now might be a few people experiencing buyer’s remorse. The Blue Devils looked unexpectedly vulnerable in their first two games, only seizing control after halftime against North Dakota State before surviving UCF’s spirited upset bid. For Duke to beat the stronger opponents that await, the Blue Devils will have to figure out a way to counter opponents who defend them the way UCF did. The Golden Knights focused the entirety of their defense on Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish, clogging the lane and daring the other Duke players on the floor to beat them from the perimeter.

3. Gonzaga (32-3)

How it got here: Defeated Fairleigh Dickinson (16), Baylor (8)

Outlook: Gonzaga advanced to the Sweet 16 for the fifth consecutive season, the longest active streak of any program in the country. Only North Carolina and Duke have produced longer streaks since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams. For the Zags to advance to the Final Four for the second time in three years, they’ll have to defeat the Florida State team that ousted them in the Sweet 16 a year ago. The presence of Brandon Clarke should help Gonzaga defend the long, athletic Seminoles better this year, while a healthy Killian Tillie gives the Zags a perimeter-shooting big man they were missing last March.

4 Virginia (31-3)

How it got here: Defeated Gardner-Webb (16), Oklahoma (9)

Outlook: Virginia can’t shed the label of March underachiever until it reaches a Final Four, but perhaps the Cavaliers can relax to some extent now. They’re headed to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend for the third time under Tony Bennett, having survived a jittery first half against Gardner-Webb before performing more like themselves against Oklahoma. What will be critical for Virginia next week will be restoring Kyle Guy’s confidence. The catch-and-shoot specialist is 4-for-23 from the field during the NCAA tournament and missed all 10 threes he attempted against the Sooners.

5. Kentucky (29-6)

How it got here: Defeated Abilene Christian (15), Wofford (7)

Outlook: The defensive effort Kentucky unleashed to survive Wofford’s upset bid was very impressive. Unwilling to allow college basketball’s career leader in 3-point field goals even a sliver of daylight, the Wildcats denied Fletcher Magee the ball, bothered him with their length and athleticism and trapped him on ball screens, resulting in 0-for-12 shooting from behind the arc. All that bodes well for Kentucky entering next week, but questions about P.J. Washington’s lingering sprained foot are concerning. If Kentucky is without its leading scorer and rebounder next week, can the Wildcats still beat the likes of Houston or, gulp, North Carolina?

6. Michigan State (30-6)

How it got here: Defeated Bradley (15), Minnesota (10)

Outlook: The craziest stat from Michigan State’s rout of Minnesota on Saturday was that the Spartans won by 20 despite committing 16 more turnovers than the Gophers. It’s hard to gift your opponent 16 extra possessions and still win, let alone never be challenged. What made the difference for Michigan State was that it scored with ease when it didn’t turn the ball over and it held ice-cold Minnesota to 2-for-22 from behind the arc. It also didn’t hurt that Gophers star Jordan Murphy played just until the first TV timeout before conceding that a back injury was too debilitating for him to continue.

7. Florida State (29-7)

How it got here: Defeated Vermont (13), Murray State (12)

Outlook: While Ja Morant was the best player on the floor Saturday in Hartford, Florida State was the best team. By far, in fact. The long, athletic Seminoles made Morant work to generate offense at one end and scored at will at the other, turning one of the most anticipated second-round games of the weekend into a rout. Depth is always Florida State’s greatest weapon, but 10- or 11-man rotation Leonard Hamilton favors sometimes makes it easy to forget the Seminoles have some terrific individual weapons too. Slashing guard Terance Mann is playing the best basketball of his career, as is interior threat Mfiondu Kabengele.

8. Tennessee (31-5)

How it got here: Defeated Colgate (15), Iowa (10)

Outlook: There was nothing especially confidence-inspiring about Tennessee’s opening two NCAA tournament games. The Vols needed a late surge to survive Colgate and then squandered a 25-point lead against previously slumping Iowa before regrouping to win in overtime. Especially odd was second-leading scorer Admiral Schofield’s decision to remove himself from the floor down the stretch on Sunday in favor of Kyle Alexander’s superior defense and rebounding. Schofield received praise for his selflessness after Tennessee’s victory, but the reaction would have been very different had the Vols lost in overtime.

9. Michigan (30-6)

How it got here: Defeated Montana (15), Florida (10)

Outlook: Michigan may not have many players who can create scoring chances on their own, but my goodness the Wolverines can defend. They pressure the ball without fouling. They seldom allow anything easy in transition. They challenge shots at the rim. And they only allow opponents to take 30 percent of their field goal attempts from behind the arc, among the lowest in the country. Grinding offense and disciplined defense not surprisingly was the formula Michigan used to defeat Montana and Florida this week. Up next is Texas Tech, a defensive-oriented team that wins in a very similar way as the Wolverines.

10. Texas Tech (28-6)

How it got here: Defeated Northern Kentucky (14), Buffalo (6)

Outlook: Everything about Texas Tech’s 78-58 rout of Buffalo was encouraging for fans of the Red Raiders. Their No. 1 ranked defense smothered an elite offense, holding a Bulls team that scores over 85 points per game to nearly 30 below its season average. Their offense continued to find scoring threats in support of star Jarrett Culver as four other Texas Tech players reached double figures. The tests only get tougher from here for the Big 12 co-champs with Michigan awaiting in the Sweet 16, but the Red Raiders appear ready for the challenge.

11. Auburn (28-9)

How it got here: Defeated New Mexico State (12), Kansas (4)

Outlook: Only a few weeks ago, the knock on Auburn was that it hadn’t beaten anyone all season. The Tigers since then have reeled off 10 straight victories, won the SEC tournament and throttled Kansas to advance to the program’s first Sweet 16 since 2003. Auburn carries plenty of momentum and confidence into its matchup with North Carolina, a game that should be played at the fastest pace of any NCAA tournament game. Almost nobody plays faster than North Carolina does, and the freewheeling, 3-point-happy Tigers are happy to try to match that speed.

12. LSU (28-6)

How it got here: Defeated Yale (14), Maryland (6)

Outlook: In a game that featured a whole bunch of NBA prospects in the frontcourt, the difference between LSU and Maryland turned out to be at point guard. The Tigers had Tremont Waters, and the Terps didn’t. The last-second layup that Waters scored ensured him a place in LSU history and sent the Tigers to the Sweet 16 for only the third time in the past three decades. It also sets up a super-fun Sweet 16 point guard matchup between Waters and Michigan State’s Cassius Winston. LSU is talented enough to cause problems for Michigan State, but its poor 3-point shooting is a concern, as is its inability to keep opponents off the offensive glass.

13. Houston (33-3)

How it got here: Defeated Georgia State (14), Ohio State (11)

Outlook: For the first time since the Phi Slama Jama era 35 years ago, Houston is back in the Sweet 16. One year after falling to Michigan in the second round on a Jordan Poole 3-pointer at the buzzer, the Cougars left no doubt Sunday night with a convincing victory over Ohio State. The question now facing Houston is whether they can go any further in a loaded region also featuring surging Auburn and blue bloods North Carolina and Kentucky. The Cougars didn’t get too many chances against that caliber of competition this season, but they do own two wins in three games against Cincinnati and a victory over LSU.

14. Purdue (25-9)

How it got here: Defeated Old Dominion (14), Villanova (6)

Outlook: Mired in a month-long shooting slump, Carsen Edwards broke out in a big way during Purdue’s 87-61 demolition of reigning national champion Villanova. The volume-shooting guard erupted for 42 points on 12 of 21 shooting from the floor and 9 of 16 shooting from behind the arc. Edwards’ performance showcased Purdue’s ceiling when he’s on top of his game, just as his recent struggles showed the Boilermakers’ resilience when he’s not at his best. Prior to Saturday night, Edwards had shot 30.2 percent in Purdue’s previous eight games yet his team had only lost twice.

15. Virginia Tech (26-8)

How it got here: Defeated Saint Louis (13), Liberty (12)

Outlook: Virginia Tech’s path to its first Sweet 16 since 1967 wasn’t as easy as it looked. Liberty led the Hokies at halftime and remained competitive deep into the second half before finally succumbing to a strong Virginia Tech defensive effort. Virginia Tech now can prepare for maybe the most hyped game in school history, a Sweet 16 showdown against a Duke team that the Hokies already beat earlier this season when neither team was at full strength. Missing for Duke that night was national player of the year favorite Zion Williamson, while Virginia Tech did not have point guard Justin Robinson, who made his return Friday night.

16. Oregon (25-12)

How it got here: Defeated Wisconsin (5), UC Irvine (13)

Outlook: It’s a testament to the strength of this Sweet 16 that Oregon is undeniably the last team on this list. This despite evolving into a defensive juggernaut, reeling off 10 straight wins and defeating Washington, Wisconsin and UC Irvine by an average of 19 points over its last three games. While Oregon may struggle to score against top-seeded Virginia next week, the Ducks’ defense should keep them in the game. They pressure the ball, contest 3-point shots and rely on shot-swatting center Kenny Wooten to clean up mistakes when opposing players beat their man off the dribble.

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