The dust has settled on the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. What the event has lacked in upsets it has made up for in intrigue and thrilling games. Oh wait, that’s not entirely true either. But lest we get too discouraged, feast your eyes upon the remaining teams. They all have something in common.
They are good. Very few pretenders. But not all have realistic aspirations of winning it all. Here are 10 that do and find themselves in the best situation going forward
The Cavaliers decided to play the hits again and fall behind against a No. 16 seed. Then they woke up and looked every bit the team that lost only three times all year. A suffocating defense, veteran guard play and a path that includes Oregon won’t have Tony Bennett sleeping like a baby, but looking at the board, I’m not sure any other team is in a better position. Ty Jerome is one of the smoothest and calmest operators to take the court in a long time. I fully expect him and the rest of UVA to maintain a resting heart rate of 50 deep into the tournament.
#2 North Carolina
The Tar Heels put handcuffs on Washington. If they play lock-down defense, then forget about it. Luke Maye and company will be perfectly comfortable running with Auburn, then should have a serious advantage over a P.J. Washington-less Kentucky or Houston. Coby White looks like the next great floor general when it matters and Nassir Little is capable of dropping an avalanche of points at any time.
Let’s be brutally honest here. Coach K’s team should be out of this tournament. But they aren’t. Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and some interesting officiating helped the Blue Devils avert disaster against UCF. Putting them this low is not a contrarian play. Simply put, they look mortal. Should they survive Virginia Tech — a team that beat a Zion-less squad earlier this year — they’ll have to figure out Michigan State. Talent-wise, there’s no one who can match up with them, though. And it’s reasonable to believe Zion will literally move heaven and earth to keep his title hopes alive.
The Zags shook the rust off from a disappointing West Coast Conference tournament and throttled teams they were supposed to throttle. Brandon Clarke had a game for the ages against Baylor, dropping 36 points on 15-for-18 shooting. Florida State does present unprecedented length, but give Mark Few a full week to prepare and he’ll be able to figure something out.
#5 Michigan State
Flirted with disaster against Bradley, but were rescued by Cassius Winston. Weathered an absurdly overblown “Tom Izzo yells sometimes” storyline to throttle Minnesota by 20 despite a nasty turnover habit. This is a team that’s been doubted all year and rose to the occasion. Maybe it’s time to stop doing that. Still, Tom Izzo’s 1-101 career record against Coach K is a bit concerning.
John Beilein is a master at knockout play. His Wolverines play suffocating defense, have the ability to win ugly, and have a recent March je ne sais quoi about them. Zavier Simpson is the ultimate pest, Jon Teske is a formidable and versatile big man down low, and Ignas Brazdeikis has the confidence and swagger to handle any moment. The Wolverines also protect the basketball well, so Texas Tech’s swarming defense may not be as effective. If the maize and blue start actually knocking down threes, look out.
The bad news for the Wildcats is that P.J. Washington’s health is in question. The good news is they’re winning without him. Wofford was a scary proposition, but couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn from distance. Tyler Herro is a long, capable defender and Reid Travis has picked up some of the slack. Kentucky should be able to match Houston’s physicality but must find its stroke from 3-point range.
It was touch-and-go there for a bit as the Volunteers tried to build an homage to the Atlanta Falcons and blow a 25-point lead. Thankfully for Rick Barnes, All-Everything forward Grant Williams was able to take over in overtime against Iowa in the second round. In times of need, Tennessee can turn to Admiral Schofield or Jordan Bone for answers. This is a deep, challenging roster. It’ll have better athletes than Purdue and force the pace against Virginia, but hey, it could happen.
One could make the argument the Boilermakers posted the most impressive win in the tournament by destroying Villanova. Carsen Edwards went off, dropping 42 points on blistering shooting. The thing is, Purdue lives by Edwards and dies by Edwards. The fear is that a 7-for-29 night is looming just around the corner. Matt Haarms needs to continue being a force inside and Ryan Cline has to knock down some big shots. Matt Painter, one of the more underrated coaches in the nation, may finally get his big moment.
#10 Texas Tech
The Red Raiders held Northern Kentucky to 37 percent shooting and Buffalo to 36 percent from the field. Coach Chris Beard has a seemingly never-ending stable of fierce and competitive players to throw out on the court. Nothing is given to opponents and every 50-50 ball is a war. Not so scary on paper, but they play the games on the hardwood.