March Madness 2021: Sweet 16 matchups ranked
By Mark Titus
FOX Sports College Basketball Analyst
THE OPENING TIP
While no sane person on God’s green earth would suggest that losing last year’s NCAA Tournament was in any way worth it, there’s no denying that the first taste of March Madness in two years did all it could to make up for lost time. You’d think at some point we’d stop pretending to know what’s going to happen in this thing (it is called March Madness for a reason, after all), but this year has taken what we thought we knew to be true and completely turned it upside down.
The Big Ten and Big 12 are actually bad? The Pac-12 is actually great? And I’m supposed to believe a No. 8 seed for Loyola makes sense when anyone with two eyes and a functioning brain could have told you that the Ramblers’ win over No. 1 seed Illinois was less of an upset and more a case of the better team winning?
Speaking of Illinois, Ayo Dosunmu was one of three first-team All-Americans — Luka Garza and Cade Cunningham were the others — to suffer a premature loss in the second round. Wisconsin handed Roy Williams his first career opening-round loss on Friday, three days before USC handed Kansas its worst NCAA Tournament loss of all time. In the opening round alone, No. 13 seed Ohio knocked out (technically defending national champion) Virginia, No. 15 seed Oral Roberts knocked out No. 2 seed Ohio State, and No. 14 seed Abilene Christian knocked out Big 12 Tournament champion Texas (and rubbed it in with a horns down celebration for good measure).
The point is that when you look back on everything that happened in the opening two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, it’s almost inconceivable that it all took place over the course of just four days. I didn’t even mention Jeff Boals tearing up as he addressed his team one final time, Javion Hamlet’s dad, Mick Cronin’s dad, Rick Pitino giving Alabama all it could handle, VCU’s unprecedented exit from the tourney, Rutgers winning its first tourney game in 38 years or Eric Musselman becoming the first person to guarantee his spot in this year’s One Shining Moment video with his celebration after beating Texas Tech. Oh, and the very first full day of action featured three overtime games!
Given all that has transpired, it should come as no surprise that we are left with one of the highest Sweet 16 seed averages we’ve ever seen.
A longstanding tradition in college basketball media is to use the break between the second round and the start of the Sweet 16 to reseed the remaining teams. This, of course, is a fool’s errand, given that every team placed in the lower half of these reseeding lists always feels aggrieved, often for good reason. After all, at this point in the tournament, each remaining team has won a couple of games and therefore started to talk itself into being a team of destiny, and I will not be the one to rain on anyone's parade.
Still, you — the college basketball consumer — have an insatiable appetite for lists, tiers and power rankings, and it is my job to deliver exactly that to you. So in lieu of reseeding the remaining teams, I’ll do it this way. Here are my rankings of the Sweet 16 games I’m most looking forward to seeing this weekend.
USC blew out Oregon in their only meeting this season, but history has taught us that there’s no way of knowing what to expect when a rematch happens in the NCAA Tournament. What I do know is that these are the two best teams in the conference that has dominated the tournament thus far, and whichever team survives here could pose some matchup problems for Gonzaga in the Elite Eight (assuming the Zags can get past Creighton, of course).
The best team in the Big Ten vs. the best team in the ACC in a rematch of the 2018 Elite Eight? Two coaches at very different points in their careers, each looking for his first Final Four? Balsa Koprivica vs. Hunter Dickinson in a battle of 7-footers? Sign me up for that.
The shot-making figures to be off the charts in both of these games. Gonzaga, Baylor and Villanova have KenPom’s top three remaining offenses in the tournament, and while Creighton isn’t quite consistent enough to be in the mix with those three, when the Bluejays are on, they can pour in points as well as anyone.
No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 11 UCLA (7:15 p.m. ET Sunday, TBS)
You’d be hard-pressed to find a basketball player with more confidence than Johnny Juzang at the moment, just like you’d be hard-pressed to find a coach who loves his team more than Nate Oats. UCLA will have its hands full with Bama’s stifling defense, and if the Tide shoot as well as they did against Maryland (16-of-33 from the 3-point line), it won’t make a lick of difference what UCLA does or does not do in this game. But I’m certainly going to enjoy watching Juzang try to carry the Bruins to another upset win.
No. 3 Arkansas vs. No. 15 Oral Roberts (7:25 p.m. ET Saturday, TBS)
When these two teams met in December, Oral Roberts took a 10-point lead into the halftime break ... only for Arkansas to score 57(!) second-half points and win going away. Budding cult hero Max Abmas, who scored just 11 points in the first meeting, figures to play a bigger role for the Golden Eagles this time around, which has to make you feel good if you’re an ORU fan. But Arkansas is also much better than it was in December, and the Razorbacks have looked like national title contenders for the better part of two months now. While this should be a fun, up-tempo game, I expect the Hogs to be in control most of the way as Oral Roberts’ Cinderella run comes to an end.
The most dangerous force in college basketball is quickly becoming a Syracuse team in March with nothing to lose. While the first thing that probably comes to mind when you think of Jim Boeheim’s program is the 2-3 zone defense he has utilized forever, the truth is that this team has buttered its bread on the offensive end of the floor, with Buddy Boeheim (four straight 25-plus point games) leading the way. It will be fascinating to see if Buddy can continue his scoring barrage against a Houston team that plays excellent defense and is the new favorite to come out of the Midwest region after Illinois’ loss to Loyola.
No. 8 Loyola vs. No. 12 Oregon State (2:40 p.m. ET Saturday, CBS)
The tables have turned for Loyola, which has become the hunted after stealing America’s heart during the Ramblers’ run to the 2018 Final Four. I have this last on my list not because I’m dumb enough to think the teams' seeds mean anything at this point. Rather, I expect this to be a defensive battle that might not be the most appealing brand of basketball for a casual fan. Still, Cameron Krutwig is a bona fide star for Loyola, and Oregon State — which never won more than three games in a row during the regular season — has to be considered among the hottest teams in the country after knocking off UCLA, Oregon, Colorado, Tennessee and Oklahoma State in the past two weeks.
BIG TEN STAT OF THE WEEK
Just last week, I featured my favorite team reactions from Selection Sunday. This week, it’s time to showcase the best celebrations from the first four days of the tournament. College basketball fans were treated to plenty of outstanding postgame dancing this past week, courtesy of some smaller schools that pulled off stunning upsets.
Here are some of my favorite celebrations from the opening week of the tournament.
1. Abilene Christian head coach Joe Golding dancing with his team following the win over Texas
2. Ohio head coach Jeff Boals celebrating with his team following the upset win over Virginia
3. North Texas slapping its name on the NCAA Tournament bracket
4. The Loyola Ramblers' celebration of their upset win over No. 1 seed Illinois
THIS WEEK IN TITUS & TATE
The Sweet 16 is here, and we previewed all eight matchups on the pod. Tate and I break down which teams have the most at stake this weekend, and we are joined by Creighton standout Marcus Zegarowski before the Bluejays’ matchup against No. 1 seed Gonzaga. FOX Sports College Basketball Analyst and friend of the program Andy Katz also joined us to talk about Jim and Buddy Boeheim, his time covering the tournament and the gap between games.
See you next week!
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