March Madness Sweet 16 Power Rankings: UConn, Purdue, UNC top the list

Cinderella’s carriage is nowhere to be found entering the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. It does not mean that we went without upsets, with Oakland stunning Kentucky, Yale knocking off SEC champion Auburn and James Madison commanding Wisconsin. But, in recent years, we’ve reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament with a Cinderella left standing, until that magical run comes to an end against the sport’s heavyweights. It’s the nature of March Madness. We love it because it’s a one-game playoff, with six straight wins required to be crowned champion, but in some regards, by not being a seven-game series, anything is possible. 

In this particular tournament, we’re in for a potentially all-time Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. For just the fifth time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, the entirety of the top-two seed lines remains intact. 

Yes, the 1-seeds and 2-seeds are all still alive in each region, making up half of the 16 teams left. From there, you have a pair of 3-seeds, a pair of 4s, a pair of 5s, one 6 and 11th-seeded NC State. What does that mean? The teams that we have discussed all year long as the sport’s heavyweights are still in this thing and in contention for a title.

In a world where college basketball fans have come to expect David vs. Goliath in March, this is the Sweet 16 of the Goliaths, with 13 of the top-14 teams in the KenPom ratings still alive. 

For what it’s worth, those other four seasons where we saw the top-two seed lines still in the tournament entering the Sweet 16, here are the champions: 

2019: 1-seed Virginia
2009: 1-seed North Carolina 
1995: 1-seed UCLA
1989: 3-seed Michigan

The 1-line is where we begin our power rankings for this year’s Sweet 16:

1. UConn Huskies

The Huskies coasted to a pair of wins in Brooklyn this past weekend by a combined 56 points, becoming the first team in college basketball history to win eight straight NCAA Tournament games by at least 13 points. Their average margin of victory in the Big Dance over the last two years is 22. There was no sort of dropoff from the reigning national champions, who are the first defending champs to make the second weekend of the tournament since Duke did it back in 2016. As far as I’m concerned, this is UConn’s national title to lose, and I’d be shocked to not see them make the Final Four. 

2. Purdue Boilermakers

The spotlight was firmly on the Boilermakers entering this first weekend of the NCAA Tournament as they try to duplicate what Virginia did in 2019, getting redemption for a loss to a 16-seed in the previous year and winning a title. All Matt Patiner’s team did was win two games by a combined 67 points, the second of which was a 106-67 thumping of Utah State. The 39-point win matched the program’s largest margin of victory ever in the tournament and the biggest by any team in the Round of 32 since 1999. The Boilers are off to their fifth Sweet 16 since 2017, and get a draw with a Gonzaga team that they beat in Maui on Nov. 20. Zach Edey’s NCAA Tournament numbers through two games: 53 points, 35 rebounds, six blocks, five assists. 

3. North Carolina Tar Heels

I’m listing the Tar Heels at No. 3, and even thought about them at No. 2 because of the way they’ve grown into their identity and what they showed overcoming an early 26-14 deficit to Michigan State and winning the game in commanding fashion. This team has the perfect guard-big duo in RJ Davis and Armando Bacot, and the way Harrison Ingram has evolved into an X-factor is impressive. Hubert Davis deserves credit for this bounce-back season, and he could reach a second Final Four in his first three years. 

4. Arizona Wildcats

It’s what everybody is talking about entering the week: the potential for a Caleb Love Bowl in Los Angeles if the Wildcats get by Clemson and UNC beats Alabama. If we get that on Saturday night, it would be an NCAA Tournament TV ratings bonanza. The Wildcats won each of their first two tournament games by double-figures, but the reason why they aren’t higher is because I don’t fully trust the backcourt around Love. Credit to Jaden Bradley for stepping up in the second half in the win over Dayton, but this weekend is about Kylan Boswell bouncing back from a two-point showing against Dayton.

5. Duke Blue Devils

Remember, these are power rankings. This is not me going with my original bracket, which you can find below:

The Blue Devils impressed me in their wins over upset-minded Vermont and James Madison, drilling the Dukes by 38 points behind Jared McCain’s 30-point performance. With Houston awaiting, Jon Scheyer’s team has confidence with a top-five offense and a top-20 defense in the analytics. The key against the Cougars will be negating Jamal Shead, LJ Cryer and Emanuel Sharp with Duke’s three-headed monster of McCain, Jeremy Roach and Tyrese Proctor, and Kyle Filipowski being the best frontcourt player. I like Duke more and more as this game gets closer. 

6. Iowa State Cyclones

The Cyclones have four players averaging double-figures. They’ve posted single-digit turnovers in each of their first two NCAA Tournament games. Tamin Lipsey and Keshon Gilbert are two really talented guards that coexist well. There’s the dynamic freshman with upside in Milan Momcilovic, who has combined for 29 points in two tournament wins. Oh, and they’ve got the No. 1 defense in America. I love this Cyclones team, and they blew out Houston in the Big 12 championship game, so I’m putting them over the Cougars. 

7. Houston Cougars 

Surviving ninth-seeded Texas A&M in overtime Sunday is why Houston drops down to No. 7 for me, but it doesn’t mean this team can’t make it to the national championship game. The Cougars’ backcourt trio, on their best day, is the best in college basketball with hard-nosed Jamal Shead and LJ Cryer being accompanied by Emanuel Sharp, who is red-hot, coming off a 30-point showing in the win over the Aggies. That said, A&M shot 29-for-45 from the free-throw line in the game. If the Aggies even make half of those 16, maybe it goes differently. I’m a bit worried about Houston’s lack of offensive depth and the frontcourt. 

8. Tennessee Volunteers

The Volunteers shot just 3-for-25 from 3-point land in the Round of 32 win over Texas, something that can’t continue against Creighton or else it’s going to be another disappointing early exit for Rick Barnes. That said, the win over Texas is a game the Vols might not have won in years past because of their offensive deficiencies. Dalton Knecht changes everything, having gone for 18 points and hitting a clutch 3 late. You can’t overstate what he’s meant alongside Santiago Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler in the backcourt. 

9. Creighton Bluejays

The Bluejays won the best game of this tournament, a double-overtime victory over Oregon, 86-73, a final score that doesn’t reflect how tight it was before Greg McDermott’s team scored 15 unanswered in the second OT. For the Jays to beat Tennessee, they will need Trey Alexander to shoot better than 7-for-21 from the floor, and for Steven Ashworth to continue to make defenses pay when they are constantly focused on the Creighton scoring wings. What makes this team a Final Four dark horse? Three-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year Ryan Kalkbrenner, who had 19 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks in the win over the Ducks. He does such a great job taking away the middle defensively. 

10. Illinois Fighting Illini

The Illini have the hottest guard in the country at the moment in Terrence Shannon Jr., who has scored at least 30 points in three of his last four games and is averaging 30 PPG in the last six contests. Between him and Marcus Domask, Illinois could wreak havoc in Boston and actually provide a test to UConn because this team has superstars who can get into a scoring battle and be right in it with their bucket-getting skills. 

11. Marquette Golden Eagles

Tyler Kolek’s return is what has the Golden Eagles 40 minutes away from what would be just the program’s second Elite Eight appearance in the last 20 years. In two games since coming back from an oblique injury, the Marquette point guard has combined for 39 points and 22 assists. He delivered the clutch bucket in the lane in Sunday’s win over a Colorado team that might have been seeded 10th, but is 22nd in KenPom. 

12. Clemson Tigers

Clemson men’s basketball program has reached the Sweet 16 just twice since 1997. Both appearances have come in the Brad Brownell Era, and he has shut down any remnant of a doubt about him with this run to the second weekend. Chase Hunter is the key cog in the Tigers’ offense right now, combining for 41 points in the last two games. The Tigers’ defense in the win over a really offensively gifted Baylor team impressed me. 

13. Gonzaga Bulldogs

For Mark Few to make a nation-leading nine consecutive Sweet 16 appearances is incredible for a program out of Spokane, Washington. This Zags team has gone from being on the bubble five weeks ago to dancing, and now they’ve got a red-hot point guard in Ryan Nembhard, a big in Graham Ike, who is flourishing, and the versatile Anton Watson. Their offensive efficiency is through the roof, but they’ll need to be close to perfect to be in it with Purdue, while also negating everything Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer do from downtown. 

No. 5 Gonzaga’s keys to slowing down Purdue, Zach Edey

No. 5 Gonzaga's keys to slowing down Purdue, Zach Edey

14. Alabama Crimson Tide

Alabama’s wins over Charleston and Grand Canyon were impressive, and this team showed a nice response after falling in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals to Florida. So, why do I have the Tide down at 14th? That defense is still concerning to me. Can they beat North Carolina? Of course, but they need Rylan Griffen and Aaron Estrada to be great. Estrada cannot go 4-for-14 like he did versus Grand Canyon. 

16. North Carolina State Wolfpack

Not even three weeks ago, the Wolfpack were 17-14 and heading to the NIT at best. Fast-forward to now, and they’ve won seven in a row, made the program’s first Elite Eight since 2015, and Kevin Keatts appears to be in line for a pretty contract extension. DJ Burns, the 6-foot-9, 275-pound senior, is one of the best stories in the country, averaging an impressive 16.4 points and 4.6 rebounds per contest during this seven-game stretch. DJ Horne is stirring the drink in the backcourt, while 6-10 junior Mohamed Diarra has come out of nowhere with four double-figure performances in the last five games. He had five such performances throughout the entire season before the ACC Tournament. I do believe the Wolfpack can hang in with Marquette because of their scoring options. The question: Can this team stop Kolek and Kam Jones? That seems like a tall task. 

16. San Diego State Aztecs

It feels disrespectful to put the Aztecs down at the bottom with them not being the lowest seed, but somebody has to be there. To go to the Sweet 16 in back-to-back years is impressive, and obviously, last year was a magical run for Brian Dutcher’s program in making their first national title game. Jaedon LeDee has been exceptional with at least 25 points in four of his last five games. My issue: perimeter shooting consistency, and what happens in SDSU’s offense beyond LeeDee. That’s why I can’t see the Aztecs getting past UConn.

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John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.


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