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The Sweet 16 Rootability Guide

Sports on Earth logo Sports on Earth 3/20/2017 Will Leitch

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After a whirlwind 48 hours of the NCAA Tournament -- remember when people were claiming this tournament was boring? -- we know a few things now:

  • Duke lost!
  • We will have a new champion this year.
  • Unless Kentucky wins, we will have a team that is winning its first title this decade.
  • Duke lost!
  • Plane crashes have a positive influence on team cohesion.
  • Your bracket is toast, but it was at least toast a day later than it usually is. But man, is it ever toast now.
  • People who claim the NCAA Tournament is boring will surely look foolish in a matter of hours.
  • Duke lost!

The games return Thursday night, which means if you are not a fan of any of the 16 teams remaining, you need a rooting interest. And you can no longer simply root against Duke. That's why we're here. Here are your Sweet 16 Rootability Rankings.

16. Kentucky.

Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox shoots near Cleveland State's Rob Edwards during the second half of a Nov. 23 game in Lexington, Ky. © James Crisp/AP Photo Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox shoots near Cleveland State's Rob Edwards during the second half of a Nov. 23 game in Lexington, Ky. If it's not gonna be Duke at the bottom, it has to be these guys. This Wildcats team isn't particularly unlikable itself, and you can count me in the "John Calipari is one of the few people honest about what college basketball actually is (as opposed to what we want it to be)" camp. But still: It's no fun to watch Kentucky win another national championship. (The Wildcats have the most recent one of anyone left in the field, in 2012.) Plus, the further Kentucky goes in the tournament, the more expensive the tickets are for the rest of us, thanks to its lunatic (in a good way!) fan base.

15. North Carolina. It's sort of a tough call here: You could flip the Heels or Kentucky and no one would argue with you. North Carolina has won a ton of championships -- none of which have been revoked yet! -- and how much fun is it to watch a team get its sixth ring? Especially when we're all still waiting, still, on the NCAA to rule on that academic scandal which, by the way, is still pretty terrible! What's going on with that, anyway? Also: We all love rooting against Duke, but this was maybe a bit much.

Let's cheer like we've been there before, Michael McDonald.

14. Baylor. Scott Drew has done an excellent job, and nothing specifically against these kids, but man, considering what has gone on at this university in the past five years, do they really want to be wearing "Baylor Mentality" warm-ups on the bench? The Baylor Mentality has covered up some pretty dark business, no?

13. Xavier. This is nothing against the Musketeers, a likable team with an underrated fan base that has overcome the loss of point guard Edmond Sumner to make this inspiring run to the Sweet 16. But the cognitive dissonance of this Xavier team winning a national championship -- the inability of any of us to make sense of it at all -- would almost be too much to handle. That said: If Xavier did sneak into the Final Four, I'd expect my tune to change significantly on this one.

12. UCLA.

Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins attempts a shot against the Kent State Golden Flashes during the first round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Golden 1 Center on March 17, in Sacramento, Calif. © Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins attempts a shot against the Kent State Golden Flashes during the first round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Golden 1 Center on March 17, in Sacramento, Calif. Lonzo Ball might be the most fun player to watch in this whole tournament, and this is a giddy, wild team with an exciting style of play. And we'll all be rooting for the Bruins against Kentucky. Let's still not forget that this is freaking UCLA, which has won 11 championships: They're not the Yankees, but in this context, they might as well be. Also: Anybody asked Steve Alford about Pierre Pierce lately?

11. Kansas. In any normal year, the fact that Bill Self is likely going to be elected to the Hall of Fame on the same day of the national championship game -- and that all that's holding him back from legendary status is that second title -- would be a feel-good story, a coaching great having everything come together for him at the exact right moment. But this is not that normal year.

10. Florida. WhatMike White has done in Gainesville has been impressive in what has turned out to be a banner year for the SEC, of all places. But Florida just won a championship a decade ago. Two of them, in fact.

9. Oregon. One of these years -- they were within one game last year -- Oregon is going to play in the Final Four, and the special uniform the Ducks break out for the occasion will render your television unusable.

8. Arizona.

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - MARCH 18: The Arizona Wildcats react against the St. Mary's Gaels during the second round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 18, 2017 in Salt Lake City, Utah. © Christian Petersen/Getty Images SALT LAKE CITY, UT - MARCH 18: The Arizona Wildcats react against the St. Mary's Gaels during the second round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 18, 2017 in Salt Lake City, Utah. It might be nice for ticket sales, but something would feel a little wrong if Arizona ended up getting to play for a national title at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, wouldn't it? That said: It was actually sort of cool when Butler tried to win a championship in Indianapolis. But Arizona -- which does have a championship on its resume, in 1997 -- isn't exactly Butler.

7. South Carolina. Frank Martin is terrifying now, but know that he really has settled down from his Kansas State days.

Beating Duke is probably enough for you to be American heroes, South Carolina. No need to push it too much further from here.

6. Butler. The Bulldogs have been a blast this tournament, and what Chris Holtmann has done this season -- with a team that wasn't even supposed to be one of the better teams in the Big East -- is quite impressive. But is this the Butler team you want to break through? I imagine Brad Stevens winning multiple titles with the Celtics and then coming back here, one more time, to finally win that national championship he was so close to getting. This is a little fantasy scenario that I just made up in which there might as well be a unicorn or a centaur. 

5. Purdue. Before you trot out more jokes about Caleb Swanigan being heavy in middle school, you should read this Myron Medcalf piece about what Swanigan dealt with growing up. And then remember you're watching the best player Purdue has had since Glenn Robinson. I probably have Purdue too low.

4. West Virginia.

BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 18: Elijah Macon #45 of the West Virginia Mountaineers dunks against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the second round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at KeyBank Center on March 18, 2017 in Buffalo, New York. © Maddie Meyer/Getty Images BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 18: Elijah Macon #45 of the West Virginia Mountaineers dunks against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the second round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at KeyBank Center on March 18, 2017 in Buffalo, New York. Bob Huggins is one of college basketball's great characters -- I'm personally obsessed with his stool, and by "stool" I mean the chair he sits on during games -- but he has never won a national championship despite being 16th in all-time wins. He has made two Final Fours. This entertaining team wouldn't be the worst pick for his third.

3. Michigan. Michigan just made the national championship game four years ago and won the title in 1989. (At every mention of that title, this Illinois alum is legally required to start grumbling.) So it ordinarily wouldn't be nearly this high on the list. But you're really rooting against the team that hasn't lost since it was in a plane crash?

2. Gonzaga. I've written about this already, but even if you have reservations about Gonzaga itself (the team, the school, the fans, whatever), what the Zags stand for and what they could represent is more important than any beefs you might have with them. If Gonzaga makes it to the national championship game and plays North Carolina, or Kansas, or Kentucky, you're telling me you're really not gonna root for Gonzaga? C'mon.

1. Wisconsin. The Badgers are plenty likable -- Madison is a fantastic city, Bucky Badger is an all-time underrated mascot, cheese is awesome -- but this team, and these players, are worthy of your specific fandom. Even if you don't like their politics -- and I might argue that you should -- that any collegiate athlete, people who notoriously have little to no power, would speak out on so many issues, is deeply impressive. And so many of them do it on the same team. Even if you're not convinced by the activism, even if you're not convinced by Nigel Hayes' awesome Jordan-fake-spin-move to beat Villanova, then at least be convinced by Hayes' goofing around with an NCAA stenographer at the tournament two years ago.

How do you not cheer for that guy? On, Wisconsin!

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Email me at leitch@sportsonearth.com; follow me @williamfleitch; or just shout out your window real loud, I'll hear you. Point is, let's talk.

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North Carolina's Kennedy Meeks holds the championship trophy as he celebrates with his teammates after the finals of the NCAA college basketball tournament against Gonzaga, on April 3, in Glendale, Ariz. North Carolina won 71-65. 2017 NCAA tournaments

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