Four ways we could get from Sweet 16 to Final Four
After a dizzying opening week that whittled the field from 68 to 16, our remaining NCAA tournament participants find themselves halfway to the pinnacle that is the Final Four. But Indianapolis seems a lot closer for some than others.
Which four teams will still be standing a week from now? Let’s look at a few possible variations.
My Best Bet for a Final Four
I admittedly haven’t picked much right so far this tournament, but at least my original Final Four are still standing. Why change now?
Kentucky (Midwest): Cincinnati was able to match the Wildcats’ physicality for about a half, but eventually Kentucky’s insane length became impassable. "It’s hard to see the rim,” Bearcats guard Troy Caupain told reporters afterward. "I mean, they’re blocking shots at the top of the backboard.” If a team’s going to take down the 36-0 Wildcats it will need to both frazzle them defensively and knock down a whole bunch of threes. Sweet 16 opponent West Virginia can do the former but not the latter. Notre Dame and Wichita State are scarier but still long shots.
Arizona (West): Arizona has one thing few teams in this tourney do: An elite veteran point guard, T.J. McConnell. He was at his do-it-all-best in Saturday’s victory over Ohio State, scoring 19, dishing six assists, grabbing six rebounds and notching five steals. The second-seeded Wildcats will likely be viewed as the underdogs if they do end up facing No. 1 seed Wisconsin in the Elite Eight, but Arizona is just as talented, just as seasoned and a little bit better defensively.
Oklahoma (East): The Sooners showed serious mettle in fending off pesky Dayton in front of a highly partisan crowd. The Flyers had all the momentum after climbing back to build a 49-40 lead seven minutes into the second half, but OU clamped down on defense, holing Dayton without a field goal for more than eight minutes. Buddy Hield did not even have a great game, but he did make the most important play with his last-minute block to negate a turnover. This is a tough, defensively stout squad, not to mention the highest remaining seed in the region.
Duke (South): The Blue Devils may have a harder road over the next two games than any of my other picks. Nobody wants to play Utah, the No. 8 team overall in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings, one with a superstar in Delon Wright. Win that and the Blue Devils may get a brutal Elite Eight matchup with Gonzaga, whose bigs would present a legit challenge for star Jahlil Okafor. But I still believe Duke is the best team in the tournament not named Kentucky.
An Equally Plausible Final Four
It’s too late to enter this one in a pool, but I may end up wishing I had.
Kentucky (Midwest): There’s no equally plausible scenario in this region.
Wisconsin (West): Frank Kaminsky and Co. got a scare from Oregon, and they’ll face an even bigger test Thursday against North Carolina. But these aren’t your father’s Badgers. They can run the floor with anybody, which they’ll need to do to keep pace with the Tar Heels. They’ve continually excelled in tough games. The 1 and 2 seeds are basically equal in this region, so flip a coin between Arizona and Wisconsin if both win once more.
Michigan State (East): Tom Izzo’s team could be this year’s version of 2014 UConn – a seventh seed that underachieved for much of the regular season but began to jell at just the right time. Behind tourney-tested seniors Travis Trice and Branden Dawson, the Spartans have won six of their last seven, the sole setback an overtime defeat to Wisconsin in the Big Ten tourney title game. And they’re now playing in a region where the No. 1 (Villanova) and No. 2 (Virginia) seeds are gone.
Gonzaga (South): Mark Few’s team got one monkey off its back by reaching its first Sweet 16 since 2009, and it hardly broke a sweat to do it. If the Zags are ever going give Few his first Final Four berth, this is the team to do it, what with a national player of the year candidate (Kyle Wiltjer), two challenging big men (Przemek Karnowski and Damontas Sabonis) and a pair of four-year starting guards (Gary Bell and Kevin Pangos). The Zags should handle UCLA. Then that last hurdle will be tough but hardly unattainable.
The All-Wild Card Final Four
Wichita State (Midwest): A year ago Kentucky ruined the Shockers’ undefeated season. Wouldn’t it be wild if Wichita returned the favor? Before you laugh, keep in mind that Wichita State is no average No. 7 seed. They’re the No. 10 team in the country, per KenPom. And their three most important players, Ron Baker, Tekele Cotton and Fred VanVleet, have already played in a Final Four, where they took Louisville to the wire two years ago. The Shockers were outstanding in their runaway win over Kansas, and Notre Dame won’t faze them.
North Carolina (West): Roy Williams’ Tar Heels have as much pure talent as any team in this region with Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Justin Jackson, but to this point they’ve exhibited Final Four potential only in bits and spurts. But if we’ve learned anything this tournament it’s just how many high-caliber teams the ACC produced this season. Would anyone really flinch if the conference’s fifth-place team made a run to the Final Four?
Louisville (East): Rick Pitino has repeatedly insisted, as he did again after last Friday’s squeaker over UC Irvine, that, “We’re not a great team this year.” Then his Cardinals put together one of their best offensive nights of the season against Northern Iowa, averaging 1.18 point per possession, while their defense was characteristically stifling. Next they get an N.C. State team they lost to in the teams’ lone meeting but finished two games above in the ACC standings.
Utah (South): Basketball junkies have been high on the Utes all season, but they entered the NCAA having won just three games against teams that reached the tourney. Of course they’d also suffered a slew of close losses to ranked teams. Having already survived a very good Stephen F. Austin team and handled No. 4 seed Georgetown, Delon Wright and the Utes are fully capable of giving Duke fits. Pull off that upset and maybe they’ll get a third meeting with UCLA.
The Not-Going-to-Happen Final Four
West Virginia (Midwest): The Mountaineers would actually be a perfectly reasonable sleeper pick in any other region. Bob Huggins’ team is feisty, as evidenced by their 23 forced turnovers against Maryland. Unfortunately they’re in a region with Kentucky. Put Notre Dame in this same category.
Xavier (West): Chris Mack’s sixth-seeded Muskies should be commended for reaching their fifth Sweet 16 in eight years, but this is where their good fortune will likely end. This team has gotten much better up front down the stretch, but Matt Stainbrook and Jalen Reynolds will struggle against Arizona’s size.
N.C. State (East): The reason the Wolfpack were able to beat Villanova – they’ve got a very talented core of players – is also the reason their season-long inconsistency was so maddening. It’s highly unlikely they’ll be able to string together four straight wins against quality foes.
UCLA (South): It’s not unprecedented for a No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four … but it’s happened only three times in 30 years (1986 Louisville, 2006 George Mason and 2011 VCU). That the Bruins might have to beat both a No. 2 (Gonzaga) and No. 1 (Duke) seed to get there makes it that much more implausible.
Take a few days to catch your breath before we get back to it Thursday. Four more days of games will decide our four invitees to Indianapolis. The only thing I know for sure is it will be four of the 16 teams I just mentioned.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.