March Madness 2021: Ranking the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16

Ranking the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 field from Gonzaga to Oral Roberts.

After the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament, expectations were sky-high for the return edition to make good on the missed madness. Boy, the opening weekend did not disappoint whatsoever. Upsets ran rampant throughout the first few days of the dance with the likes of two No. 2 seeds and a No. 1 seed all falling prior to the Sweet 16. Even a No. 15 seed followed in the footsteps of “Dunk City” to become the second-ever to reach the second weekend. The first few days of the 2021 NCAA Tournament put the madness in March and was a blast to witness.

Indiana has done a commendable job hosting the event and the Big Dance’s return to the sporting world’s center stage is exciting. And while the hectic, four-games-at-once upset central of opening weekend has passed, the Sweet 16 presents us with some of the best teams in the nation still vying for the chance at cutting down the final nets in early April. Three No. 1 seeds still remain, including the two teams that everyone has been waiting to see face off all season long.

Has this entire year really just been exposition for Gonzaga vs. Baylor? Perhaps, but those two teams still need to win three more games apiece to reach that matchup.

Now that the Sweet 16 is set, let’s dive into every team and rank where they belong.

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16. Oral Roberts Golden Eagles (18-10)

The Cinderella of the opening weekend, Oral Roberts became just the second No. 15 seed to ever reach the Sweet 16. While I would love to reward that with a higher spot on this list, I’m not sure that would quite be warranted; ORU was still a No. 15 seed to begin with for a reason. Regardless, that isn’t meant to take anything away from this accomplishment. The Golden Eagles’ high-powered offense has been superb in the Big Dance behind the elite pick-and-pop duo of Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor. These two, in particular, have etched their names into March Madness history already and it wouldn’t be a total shock to see them continue the run.

Whether or not their hot streak will continue remains to be seen, but the fact is that ORU took down a No. 2 (Ohio State) and No. 7 (Florida) seed to get to this point. The Golden Eagles did not have the benefit of playing any lower seeds and still came away with unexpected victories. ORU’s defense has been more impressive in the NCAA Tournament than it was during most of Summit League competition. If they can continue to generate stops and Abmas/Obanor continue to dominate offensively, the Sweet 16 might not be the end of their magical run. Arkansas is a tough matchup for anyone but the Golden Eagles have not shied away from challenges yet.

15. UCLA Bruins (20-9)

The lone “First Four” team remaining, UCLA barely snuck into the Big Dance but has made its mark since then. Namely, Johnny Juzang has been absolutely electric as one of the NCAA Tournament’s star performers to date. The Kentucky transfer is averaging 22.3 points per game through three games while connecting on a trio of 3-pointers in each contest. He has been the guiding force through this run, while UCLA’s defense also held both of the last two opponents to fewer than 65 points. The Bruins have risen all the way to No. 24 on KenPom and could warrant a higher placement on this list as a result.

UCLA has not had the toughest road of teams to reach the Sweet 16. The Bruins beat a pair of double-digit seeds in Michigan State and Abilene Christian, sandwiched around a No. 6 seed in BYU. And while UCLA was incredibly impressive, particularly in the last two, they do not have the “elite” win other teams have already acquired in this tournament. UCLA will face its toughest test of the Big Dance next weekend when it faces the up-tempo Alabama Crimson Tide. Regardless, this UCLA team has gone from a fringe bubble team to the Sweet 16 in just a matter of weeks. Impressive.

14. Oregon State Beavers (19-12)

Oregon State needed to win the Pac-12 Tournament just to make the Big Dance. Well, it did just that. Then, the Beavers needed to upset a No. 5 (Tennessee) and a No. 4 (Oklahoma State) seed to reach the Sweet 16. They did that too, and by double-digits in both games. The Pac-12 has been incredibly impressive during the NCAA Tournament but Oregon State has been the best story. The Beavers have essentially come out of nowhere to be a national darling that is a blast to watch.

Ethan Thompson is a star that is finally receiving the attention that he deserves while Jarod Lucas is a sharpshooter who has been at his best recently (at least 10 points in nine straight games).

The Beavers have climbed over 100 spots on KenPom since mid-January. They once slotted as low as No. 153 following a 6-5 start to the year and are now all the way up to No. 50. Head coach Wayne Tinkle has done a phenomenal job with this group as OSU plays an exciting brand of basketball with outstanding ball movement. Oregon State will face Loyola Chicago for a spot in the Elite Eight.

13. Syracuse Orange (18-9)

Did people really doubt double-digit seed Syracuse? Once again, the Orange barely snuck into the NCAA Tournament field only to immediately turn heads with their suffocating 2-3 zone. While the ACC might be familiar with facing this defensive style every year, head coach Jim Boeheim is seemingly always able to fluster an opponent or two in the Big Dance. This time around, Syracuse dismantled San Diego State in the opening round before hanging on against former Big East rival West Virginia. The Orange have now reached the Sweet 16 and took a difficult path to get here.

Buddy Boeheim has been the star of the show for the team as of late. The coach’s son has hit at least five 3-pointers in seven of his last nine games dating back to the regular season. He posted 30 points in Syracuse’s first-round win over SDSU and then 25 against West Virginia. While Houston, its next opponent, will be more prepared for Syracuse’s zone given the larger preparation window, Boeheim is the type of offensive weapon who could still push this squad to the Elite Eight.

12. Creighton Bluejays (22-8)

Creighton was on the brink of a first-round upset on Saturday when the Bluejays narrowly came away with a win over 12th-seeded UC Santa Barbara. Sometimes the teams that receive scares in their first games are the ones that end up making deep runs regardless. The Bluejays responded in the second round with a dominant 14-point win over Ohio, a far more favorable matchup than UCSB. Creighton hasn’t been the offensive juggernaut that it was a season ago, but its defense is substantially better.

Splashing home trifectas will be the recipe to success for a potential Elite Eight berth. Creighton will be tasked with facing Gonzaga next and will likely be a double-digit underdog. In order to pull off the upset, the Bluejays will need their stars to shine. This especially means a huge game from guard Marcus Zegarowski; it would also be nice if senior sniper Mitch Ballock could escape from his recent funk. Ballock is only 7-of-27 from deep over his last five games.

11. Oregon Ducks (21-6)

Oregon is a team that was destined to be under-seeded in the Big Dance. Missing Will Richardson for its first 12 games was detrimental to the overall resume and the Ducks have looked much better with him on the floor. Since Richardson’s second game back, Oregon holds a 12-2 record and has improved 22 spots on KenPom. Richardson adds another punch to the roster that also features a Third Team All-American in Chris Duarte. Head coach Dana Altman always finds a way for Oregon to hit its stride at the perfect time and that seems to be the case again this year.

COVID-19 protocols allowed Oregon to advance past VCU in a first-round matchup that was determined a no-contest by the NCAA. The Ducks showed their might on Monday afternoon, though, with a 15-point romping of Iowa. They scored 56 points in the first half and a whopping 95 in total. Oregon is playing at a high level right now and is a legitimate threat to continue advancing even as a No. 7 seed. Its offense features a bevy of versatile 6-5 and 6-6 wings who can get downhill and finish or hit from three. The Ducks rank 10th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency.

10. Villanova Wildcats (18-6)

No Collin Gillespie, no problem? The Wildcats looked especially strong during the opening weekend without their star guard. Behind Jeremiah Robinson-Earl’s interior dominance, Villanova rolled over a pair of double-digit seeds in Winthrop and North Texas by 10 and 13, respectively. The Wildcats didn’t have to face the toughest of competition over the past few days but Villanova was a trendy upset pick early and those hopes were quickly squashed.

JRE was awesome over this past weekend, but Justin Moore and Caleb Daniels stepping up in Gillespie’s absence was equally as important. Moore and Daniels combined for 51 points over the two victories and will need to continue to provide strong contributions in the scoring column. Coach Jay Wright is one of the best in the business and will have a gameplan to take down top-seeded Baylor next weekend. In order for that to happen, the Wildcats will need to live up to holding the sixth-best adjusted offensive efficiency rating in the nation; Moore and Daniels will play a big role.

9. Florida State Seminoles (18-6)

Florida State was threatened a bit during its opening-round matchup with UNCG but nonetheless pulled away for a 10-point victory down the stretch. Two days later, the Seminoles became the first team in field to take down a Pac-12 opponent with an 18-point beatdown of Colorado. Head coach Leonard Hamilton is making a habit of reaching the second weekend and his sights are now set on advancing even further this year. Florida State is an excellent 3-point shooting team and boasts the 14th-best adjusted offensive efficiency rating in the nation. This is the program’s best offense ever under Hamilton while still featuring their patented defensive length.

Anthony Polite has been particularly strong in FSU’s first two NCAA Tournament games, recording 34 total points, nine rebounds, six assists, and five steals while committing just one turnover to this point. He also buried four 3-pointers in the win over Colorado. If Polite continues to play at this level, the Seminoles are going to be tough to beat.

8. Houston Cougars (26-3)

Houston needed a major comeback in the final minutes against Rutgers to reach the Sweet 16. The scare was enough to warrant a lower ranking than its seed would indicate. The Cougars have been one of the nation’s best teams all year long and their No. 4 spot on KenPom supports the team’s dominance. Houston is arguably the favorite to reach the Final Four from its region, even though its next opponent is scorching-hot Syracuse.

The Cougars are one of the most intriguing teams in the Sweet 16. They have been flat-out dominant throughout the vast majority of this year without receiving much attention. Houston holds top 15 rankings in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency with several other statistics that would suggest a deep March run. Houston is incredible defensively with the nation’s top effective field-goal percentage allowed and is No. 2 in offensive rebounding rate. These elite defensive traits could translate to an Elite Eight appearance or even further.

7. USC Trojans (24-7)

The nation’s “efficiency darling” this season, USC holds the No. 6 ranking on KenPom entering the Sweet 16. During the opening weekend of the Big Dance, the Trojans threw their weight around to the tune of a 16-point win over Drake and a 34-point destruction of Kansas. Their elite interior defense has been on full display while flashing offensive ability as well. The Mobley brothers were especially impressive in propelling this team to the second weekend.

USC holds the nation’s fifth-best adjusted defensive efficiency rating. While they do surrender a decent amount of 3-pointers to their opposition, the Trojans prevent interior scoring as well as any team in the field. With Evan Mobley dominating underneath, opponents are shooting just 41.4 percent on 2-point attempts against USC, which is the best defensive mark in the nation. A crazy stat: Baylor is converting a higher percentage on 3-pointers (41.5 percent) than USC’s opponents are converting on 2-pointers (41.4 percent).

6. Loyola Chicago Ramblers (26-4)

Loyola Chicago entered the NCAA Tournament with the nation’s best adjusted defensive efficiency rating and proved its dominance during the opening weekend. The Ramblers first took down Georgia Tech and then stifled Illinois in a second-round victory to advance to the Sweet 16.

Porter Moser’s team is well-connected defensively while featuring one of the nation’s top stoppers. Lucas Williamson did more than just show his defensive prowess over this past weekend, though; Williamson also scored 35 total points on 13-of-21 shooting from the field. His production is sometimes overshadowed by All-American teammate in Cameron Krutwig.

Loyola is not a Cinderella this season. While the slipper fit in 2018, the Ramblers are a better team now than the Final Four group and are playing to their potential. This squad is elite defensively and features a bevy of 3-point shooters around Krutwig.

5. Arkansas Razorbacks (24-6)

Eric Musselman’s collection of freshmen and transfers was enough to warrant plenty of preseason hype that is coming to fruition. Now a Sweet 16 team on the back of elite defensive and an electric pace, the Razorbacks are playing their best basketball of the season with 11 wins in their last 12 games. During this past weekend, Arkansas took down Colgate by 17 and then managed to squeak out a hard-fought win over Texas Tech.

Arkansas is one of the more balanced offensive squads in the country. Freshman wing Moses Moody is a future NBA player who leads the way, but the team’s former transfers are experienced and capable of taking big shots when necessary. Justin Smith was flat-out incredible in Arkansas’ first two wins: 49 points, 19 rebounds, 3 blocks and 5 steals on 18-of-28 shooting from the floor. Add in Jalen Tate and JD Notae as elite transfer guards and it’s easy to like what the Razorbacks bring to the floor.

4. Michigan Wolverines (22-4)

Michigan looked the part of a No. 1 seed this weekend even while playing without Isaiah Livers. The Wolverines moved past their No. 16 seed as expected and then finished strong in a victory over an offensive juggernaut in LSU. The Wolverines are now the only remaining Big Ten team and will be tasked with carrying the league’s torch. They have their hands full with Florida State in their next game but still have high hopes of potentially reaching the Final Four. Michigan and Gonzaga are the only two Sweet 16 teams that rank in the top 10 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency.

Playing without Livers is tough but the Wolverines still have plenty of firepower. Hunter Dickinson and Franz Wagner are frontcourt stars while Chaundee Brown stepped up his game dramatically this weekend. Brown, a Wake Forest transfer, scored 21 in the win over LSU on 6-of-9 shooting from the floor. This was his season-high and hopefully a sign of things to come in Livers’ absence. Eli Brooks also scored 21 in the win, marking his fourth straight game with at least 12 points scored. Michigan remains a threat to win the natty.

3. Alabama Crimson Tide (25-6)

Alabama is one of the rarities in college hoops. Not many teams in the sport are capable of maintaining the nation’s second-best adjusted defensive efficiency rating with a top 15 tempo. Only Gonzaga and Arkansas manage to come close to replicating a similar combination of pace and defense. Head coach Nate Oats has done a phenomenal job revamping the Crimson Tide this season and they are remarkably dangerous, especially when hitting from the perimeter. This was evident in the Tide’s second-round win over Maryland in which they shot 16-of-33 from distance en route to a 19-point victory.

Herb Jones is a legitimate All-American as one of the best all-around players in college hoops. Perhaps the biggest ceiling-raiser of late, though, has been Jahvon Quinerly. The Villanova transfer is averaging 15 points and 3.9 assists per game on .527/.429/.750 shooting splits over Alabama’s current eight-game winning streak. He was named the SEC Tournament MVP and has carried those performances into the Big Dance. Quinerly is arguably the nation’s best sixth man.

2. Baylor Bears (24-2)

Baylor entered this season facing sky-high expectations as a projected top 3 team poised to compete for the national championship. The Bears have not disappointed. From the opening tip of the campaign four months ago, this team has lived up to the hype while deservedly sitting in the nation’s No. 2 spot throughout the year. Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague form arguably the best starting backcourt in the country while Adam Flagler is an excellent sixth man.

The Bears are the nation’s top 3-point shooting team with a 41.5-percent clip from deep. They also own the possession battle by ranking sixth in offensive rebounding rate and third in defensive turnover rate. Mark Vital is an elite defender and frontcourt piece. During the opening weekend of the Big Dance, they rolled over Hartford and then knocked off an experienced Wisconsin team by double digits two days later.

Matthew Mayer was crucial in the two wins while showing his impact as a dynamic reserve. He was most impressive in the win over the Badgers, posting 17 points on 5-of-12 shooting with six rebounds and two steals as well. With his versatility as a shooter at 6-9, Mayer is a difficult matchup for most opponents.

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (28-0)

Gonzaga has been the nation’s No. 1 squad all season long and the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament was further proof. The Bulldogs predictably rolled over Norfolk State in their first-round game before dispatching Oklahoma to reach the Sweet 16. Head coach Mark Few’s team holds the top adjusted offensive efficiency ranking in the nation while holding the eighth-best mark on the defensive end. This group plays at a frenetic pace offensively and features superstars in the post (Drew Timme) and from beyond the arc (Corey Kispert).

One of the understated parts of Gonzaga’s roster construction is the size of its guards. Jalen Suggs (6-4), Andrew Nembhard (6-5) and Joel Ayayi (6-5) form a trio that is nearly impossible for most opponents in the country to combat. These three all defend at a high level and can be dangerous around the rim. Suggs is a dynamic finisher; Nembhard is a superb creator, and Ayayi does a little bit of everything. The three have started together in eight of Gonzaga’s last nine games and make this team all the more dangerous.

Gonzaga remains the favorite to win the national championship. The Bulldogs are a perfect 28-0 and have won all but one game (West Virginia on Dec. 2) by double digits. Can anyone slow them down? They have been the epitome of dominance to this point.

Header image courtesy of Jack Dempsey/NCAA Photos via Getty Images.

Lukas Harkins
Lukas Harkins

Heat Check CBB national writer and bracketologist



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