Ranking the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 teams by which has the best chance to win the national title:
1. Kentucky: The tournament’s overall No. 1 seed needs to pick it up on offense, but the Wildcats won their two games in Louisville, Ky., by double digits, so there’s not a lot to complain about. Cincinnati’s vigorous press rattled John Calipari’s club a bit, but Kentucky has four days to prepare for West Virginia’s tough backcourt traps. It also helps that Kentucky has big guards who can throw over the Mountaineers defense.
2. Wisconsin: I still think the Badgers have the best chance of knocking off Kentucky – not that they will – but Bo Ryan’s team had its hands full Sunday with Oregon, and the path to Indianapolis is not easy. North Carolina has all kinds of height and will try to run the Badgers into the floor. Plus, it looks as if Wisconsin will have to beat Arizona in the Elite Eight for the second year in a row.
3. Duke: Of the four regions, the Blue Devils appear to have the easiest path to Indianapolis. They will face Utah first in Houston, then probably Gonzaga. Jahlil Okafor continues to be a load inside, but Duke’s key player is Justise Winslow, a muscular 6-foot-6 freshman who is Mike Krzyzewski’s X-factor. If Winslow plays well, the Blue Devils might steal the whole thing.
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4. Michigan State: Tom Izzo really is the Man of March. He has the Spartans peaking at the right time, as Sunday’s 60-54 win against East No. 2 seed Virginia showed. Izzo doesn’t have a great player, but he has plenty of effective ones who are playing together. If Travis Trice keeps making shots, Magic Johnson will be rooting for his alma mater at the Final Four in Indianapolis.
5. Arizona: Sean Miller will face his former employer when his Wildcats play Xavier in the West Region semifinals. Arizona was as impressive as any team the first weekend, routing Texas Southern, then burying Ohio State by 15. The Wildcats might be playing their best basketball at just the right time.
6. Notre Dame: Mike Brey became a sentimental favorite when, after the Irish beat Butler in overtime Saturday night, the Notre Dame coach revealed his 84-year-old mother died that morning of a heart attack. The Irish, though, don’t need much sentiment. Notre Dame is plenty good, and is the pick here to make the Midwest final.
7. Gonzaga: Just when it looked as if the Bulldogs might have a Final Four-worthy team, Duke stands in the path of Mark Few’s team. First, Gonzaga must get past UCLA in Houston, but the Bulldogs have beaten the Bruins once this season. Kyle Wiltjer has continued his hot shooting right into the NCAA tournament, but Duke would be a tough obstacle in the regional final.
8. Oklahoma: I didn’t pick the Sooners to reach the Final Four out of the East – poor Virginia – but I thought Lon Kruger’s team was a sleeper. Then Oklahoma nearly fell asleep against Dayton in Columbus, Ohio, before rallying. Kruger knows what he’s doing, and Oklahoma-Michigan State will be a war in Syracuse, N.Y. I think the Sooners will come up just short, however.
9. Louisville: Rick Pitino has the Cardinals in the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive year, a school record. He did it without Chris Jones. He did it with a team that is challenged offensively. The guess here is the Cards reach the Elite Eight in Syracuse but don’t have enough to get past Michigan State.
10. Utah: Delon Wright is a terrific player, maybe as NBA-ready as any player in the tournament, but I doubt that he’s enough to get the Utes past Duke or on to Indianapolis. Utah does play excellent defense, however, and will need more of that to pull the Sweet 16 upset.
11. Wichita State: The Shockers righted one wrong Sunday, beating a Kansas team that refuses to play its in-state rival. No doubt Gregg Marshall’s club aspires to pay back Kentucky for ruining Wichita State’s undefeated season in last year’s Round of 32. First, however, the Shockers must take down Notre Dame and that won’t be easy.
12. North Carolina: Roy Williams got the Tar Heels to the Sweet 16 by surviving Harvard and subduing Arkansas. UNC has enough height and athleticism to give Wisconsin trouble, but I’m not sure the Tar Heels are disciplined enough to withstand the Badgers’ fundamental basketball. Interesting matchup, though. North Carolina will want to run. Wisconsin won’t.
13. N.C. State: Kudos to Mark Gottfried, who led the Wolfpack to a comeback win against Louisiana State, then upset No. 1 seed Villanova. N.C. State now will face a Louisville team that it beat during the regular season, so the Wolfpack knows it can be done. Doing it a second time won’t be easy.
14. West Virginia: Bob Huggins reinvented his team this season, buying into friend Kevin Mackey’s full-court press and vicious traps. The Mountaineers force more turnovers than any team in the country. They also foul (almost) more than any team in the country. That could give Kentucky problems Thursday night in Cleveland, but it’s doubtful West Virginia has the talent to pull the upset.
15. UCLA: I have to give the Bruins credit: They played well in Louisville, upsetting Southern Methodist on a controversial goal-tending call, then rolling over Alabama-Birmingham, which had no answer for Tony Parker in the post. Bryce Alford shot lights-out at the KFC Yum Center. However, it’s likely Steve Alford’s club cools off in Houston.
16. Xavier: Chris Mack has done a great job getting into the Sweet 16, but the Musketeers got a break playing a gassed Mississippi and then Cinderella Georgia State, which saw the clock strike midnight Saturday.