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Elite Eight teams in the men’s NCAA tournament, ranked by their title chances

SB Nation logo SB Nation 3/29/2021 Ricky O'Donnell
a man holding a football ball © Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

There’s always the concern that an upset-laden opening weekend makes for a boring conclusion to the NCAA tournament. So far, that hasn’t been the case in the men’s bracket even after a barrage of upsets through the first four days. The Sweet 16 still produced captivating basketball, and most importantly kept the top teams rolling right into the Elite Eight.

All three No. 1 seeds that advanced out of the first weekend are still alive as we head to the regional finals. We still have elite NBA talent playing in the tournament, with projected top-three picks Evan Mobley (USC) and Jalen Suggs (Gonzaga) about to face-off in a showcase game on Tuesday. Even the teams we can’t believe are here — UCLA and Oregon State, namely — have the size and the perimeter play to pull one more upset.

This tournament has already been so much fun, and it feels like the best is yet to come. We ranked the remaining eight teams in the men’s tournament by who has the best shot at winning it all.

8. Oregon State Beavers (No. 12 seed)

It would be an extreme understatement to say Oregon State wasn’t supposed to be here. The Beavers were picked to finish dead last in the Pac-12 before the season. They hovered around .500 for most the year, and had no chance of getting an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Oregon State entered the Pac-12 tournament on March 11 knowing every game it would play from here on out was a must win. After six games, the Beavers are still rolling.

Oregon State knocked out No. 8 seed Loyola-Chicago, 65-58, in the first game of the Sweet 16 on Saturday by flummoxing the Ramblers with a zone defense. After Loyola looked so good in knocking out No. 1 seed Illinois in their last game, the Beavers’ combination of size and athleticism finally made them look like a mid-major team. Ethan Thompson (22 points) is turning into a star shooting guard, Jerod Lucas can hit shots, Warith Alatishe is a long-and-bouncy wing who excels defensively, and Roman Silva is a 7’1 senior center who can bother shots at the rim. The Beavers milk the shot clock on every possession, and have the length to close out hard on shooters. It isn’t always pretty, but there’s no denying the results at this point.

This Beavers run is real. Houston shouldn’t be too comfortable.

7. UCLA Bruins (No. 11 seed)

The winningest program in the history of college basketball should probably not count as a Cinderella, but there’s no other way to explain how unlikely this UCLA run has been. The Bruins entered the year ranked No. 22 in the preseason polls, but lost arguably their best player, 6’10 forward Chris Smith, to a torn ACL eight games into the campaign. UCLA bounced back to dominate a large portion of its Pac-12 slate, but then lost its last three games of the regular season and before getting knocked out in its first game of the conference tournament. The Bruins just slid in to the big dance, earning a First Four matchup against Michigan State, which it trailed for most of the night before forcing overtime and pulling away in the extra frame.

The Bruins beat BYU and Abilene Christian easily to bust into the Sweet 16, but a date with Nate Oats and Alabama was always going to be a significantly more difficult test. UCLA was not supposed to win that game, not even when it took a double-digit lead into halftime, not when star wing Johnny Juzang fouled out, and especially not when the Tide forced overtime with a deep buzzer-beating three from Alex Reese. But somehow, UCLA responded in ultra-impressive fashion in the extra five minutes to keep this run going.

UCLA will be an underdog against Michigan in the Elite Eight, but the shot-making of their two 6’6 wings — Juzang and Jaime Jaquez — gives them a puncher’s chance. It’s bizarre that the Bruins ever made it this far. Why stop now?

6. Arkansas Razorbacks (No. 3 seed)

There’s an entire generation of college basketball fans who have never seen Arkansas enjoy this level of success in March Madness. The Razorbacks entered the second weekend of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996, back when head coach Nolan Richardson helmed one of the best programs in the country. Eric Musselman isn’t on that level yet in his second season on the bench for the Hogs, but he’s already taking the team to heights it hasn’t seen since Richardson’s heyday.

Oral Roberts gave the Razorbacks everything they could handle in its bid to be the first No. 15 seed to ever reach the Elite Eight, but Max Abmas’ game-winning shot bounced off the rim and the Hogs advanced with a 72-70 victory. It’s the second straight two-point win for Arkansas in the tournament, and once again it was not pretty. The Hogs shot only 1-of-9 from three-point range, and mostly won the game by dominating the offensive glass. Northern Kentucky transfer Jalen Tate led the way with 22 points, while star freshman Moses Moody shot just 4-of-20.

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Arkansas plays fast and attacks you defensively with a good mix of high-pedigree youngsters and battle-tested vets who don’t get overwhelmed by the moment. There are no style points to be had here, but the formula works, and Arkansas just keeps winning. If they beat Baylor, we’ll really start to believe.

5. USC Trojans (No. 6 seed)

USC was a frustrating team to watch for most of the season. Evan Mobley made it immediately apparent that he was a special talent, but it often felt like the Trojans didn’t know how to fully tap into his awesome ability. USC had tons of size inside but not many shot creators on the perimeter. It only took threes on 31.7 percent of its possessions (which ranked No. 307 in DI) despite having good shooters. It felt like Mobley should have been an even greater focal point offensively. Either those concerns were always overblown, or the Trojans just took some time to figure things out. Either way, they’re rolling at the right time straight into the Elite Eight.

USC blew out its third straight opponent in this tournament by disposing of Oregon in the Sweet 16 on Sunday night. This suddenly looks like a legit powerhouse, with a top-15 offense, a top-five defense, and a future NBA star tying it all together. The Trojans have tremendous length on the inside with Mobley and his older brother Isaiah protecting the paint. The perimeter players are knocking down shots. All of this might be surprising if you watched USC all season, but none of it seems like a fluke right now.

USC vs. Gonzaga might be the most anticipated game of the tournament so far. The Zags haven’t seen anything like Mobley yet. USC’s defense is about to face the ultimate test against one of the best offenses college basketball has ever seen in the modern era. USC’s tournament run has been full of special performances so far. Let’s see if they have one more left in them.

4. Houston Cougars (No. 2 seed)

Kelvin Sampson has quietly been building a sustainable winner in the American Athletic Conference over the last six years. His Houston Cougars have won at least 21 games in each of those seasons, and would be making their fourth straight tournament appearance if last year’s postseason wasn’t canceled. This is Sampson’s best team yet thanks to a roster that has both continuity and star-power. As the big boys in the Midwest region have fallen, Houston just keeps going.

The Cougars blitzed Syracuse’s vaunted zone with speed and shooting in a 62-46 victory in the Sweet 16. Houston finished with three times as many assists as the Orange even as they shot just 7-of-26 from three. Star guard Quentin Grimes, a former Kansas transfer, led the way with 14 points, while former UMass transfer DeJon Jarreau added nine points, eight assists, and eight rebounds. Houston is top-8 in the country in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and typically plays at an ultra slow pace with an emphasis on hitting the offensive glass. It isn’t the most glamorous style, but the Cougs haven’t been stopped yet.

Going against Syracuse’s zone should prepare Houston for an Oregon State team that used a zone to beat Loyola in the last round. With one more win, Sampson will finally get his due for what he’s been building for years.

3. Michigan Wolverines (No. 1 seed)

Michigan men’s basketball was one of the most successful programs in the country over the last decade under John Beilein, but there was no guarantee it was going to continue when Juwan Howard took over the program two years ago. Plenty of other former NBA stars had gone back to coach their alma maters and flamed out, but Howard was always too sharp for that. Despite starting the season as the final team ranked in the AP Poll, the Wolverines quickly made it apparent that they were one of the best teams in the country. Not even an injury to star senior forward Isaiah Livers just before the tournament has changed that so far during this postseason.

Florida State was a trendy pick to upset Michigan in the Sweet 16, but the Wolverines owned all 40 minutes on their way to a 76-58 win. This game showed why Howard’s team is ranked in the top-10 in efficiency on both both sides of the ball. Franz Wagner, a 6’9 combo forward, played like the NBA lottery pick he’s projected to be with 13 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists. Star freshman Hunter Dickinson (14 points) looked great in the middle, while Chaundee Brown (12 points) again proved he’s one of the country’s best reserves. Mike Smith and Eli Brooks are an undersized backcourt, but both are so good in their roles. Brandon Johns filled in admirably for Livers, and will need to keep that up for this run to continue.

The Wolverines still have an incredibly talented front court even without Livers, and the guards are able to get a bucket in a pinch. This looks like an extremely deserving No. 1 seed even if we can’t quite put them ahead of the two other top seeds still standing in the bracket.

2. Baylor Bears (No. 1 seed)

Baylor has been one of the best teams in college basketball for two straight seasons now with a core led by the guard trio of Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell, and MaCio Teague. The Bears never got to show what they were made of last season before the pandemic canceled the tournament, but they would have been a No. 1 seed and a favorite to reach the Final Four for the first time in Scott Drew’s career. Drew’s team has picked up right where it left off this season, only with even more weapons and another year of built-in chemistry this time around.

After a shaky first half, Baylor looked every bit like a powerhouse in closing out No. 5 seed Villanova, 62-51, in the Sweet 16 on Saturday. Mitchell was electric with his pesky on-ball defense and quick-strike driving ability. Butler had a cold shooting night but still a found a way to get to the basket for a couple key second half buckets. Adam Flagler, a newcomer this season as a transfer from Presbyterian, added 16 points off the bench. The Bears have so many different guards who can cut you up on offense while still being able to get after you on the defensive end (No. 27 in efficiency).

This is an elite team in every way, one that is absolutely good enough to win the whole tournament. It’s going to take a Herculean effort for any team to knock them out.

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (No. 1 seed)

Gonzaga has looked like the best team in the country from the very first game of the season, when they dropped 102 points in a breezy win over Kansas. The Zags ran the table through the rest of the non-conference slate — including wins over West Virginia, Iowa, and Virginia, all of whom were top-4 seeds in March Madness — and then stayed undefeated by blitzing West Coast Conference opponents. This has looked like one of the best college basketball teams in recent memory by the eye test, and the numbers back it up: Gonzaga’s adjusted efficiency margin of +37.82 is the highest since KenPom started tracking the stat in 2002.

Creighton played well in the Sweet 16 and still lost by 18 points in a win that showed off Gonzaga’s embarrassment of riches. The Zags have an All-American-caliber player at guard (Jalen Suggs), on the wing (Corey Kispert), and in the front court (Drew Timme). Their three-guard, four-out offense is a blur of cutting, spacing, and ball movement with knockdown shooters dotting the arc. Joel Ayayi and Andrew Nembhard would be stars elsewhere but are significantly overqualified as fourth and fifth options with the Zags. Good luck stopping this attack.

The Zags are good enough to be men’s college basketball’s first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976. They’re the favorites until someone proves they can knock them off.


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