Sometimes, the NCAA tournament is full of surprises. And then there are years like this.
All of the 1-seeds will watch the Elite Eight from home. All of them.
The West Coast Conference, the Mountain West and Conference USA are still alive. The Big Ten and SEC, which combined to earn 16 bids in the NCAA tournament, have both been eliminated.
The national champion this year will not be higher than a 2-seed and could be as low as a 9-seed. Just one of the remaining teams has won it before. Nothing has made sense.
With that premise, we make our last attempt to reseed the field and all the chaos attached to it. At this point, we’re adding a lot of weight to the way a team is playing right now. But, please save your DMs. Your team is in the Elite Eight. Relax.
Sixty teams wish they were you right now. Enjoy the ride.
1. UConn Huskies
Original Seed: No. 4. Reseed: No. 1 overall
In one of the most dominant runs to the Elite Eight we’ve seen in college basketball over the last 20 years, the 2017-18 Villanova squad, which featured Wooden Award winner Jalen Brunson, won its first three NCAA tournament games by 26 points (Radford), 23 points (Alabama) and 12 points (West Virginia) for a combined margin of victory of 61 points. Nova remained untouchable, winning each of the rest of its games by double digits, including its second national title in three years.
Thus far, UConn has won its first three games by 24 points (Iona), 15 points (Saint Mary’s) and 23 points (Arkansas). That’s a combined margin of victory of 62 points. While the rest of the field (except Alabama, of course) has faced nail-biters and close calls at some point in their NCAA tournament experiences, the Huskies have not encountered any real adversity. That’s not due to the competition they’ve faced. Iona possessed the most efficient offense in the MAAC, and both Saint Mary’s and Arkansas were ranked top 15 in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom when they faced the Huskies. UConn has just been that good.
The chatter entering the NCAA tournament was that if Danny Hurley’s team reached its offensive ceiling, it would be difficult to beat. That has been true. But that’s also not the full story of a UConn team averaging 81.6 PPG through three tournament games. The Huskies have also been a serious defensive threat. Iona connected on just 36.6% of its shots inside the arc against them. Not one Saint Mary’s player finished with double figures against UConn. And Arkansas missed 43 of its 63 field goal attempts Thursday night. In the NCAA tournament, Adama Sanogo is averaging 23.3 PPG (75% clip from the field) and 9.6 RPG, while the team has made 45% of its 3-point attempts. That’s impressive. The Huskies look like serious national title contenders right now.
Up next: vs. Gonzaga (Saturday, 8:49 p.m. ET, TBS)
2. Texas Longhorns
Original Seed: No. 2. Reseed: 1
Throughout this season, Texas has defied the odds. What are the chances an interim coach who finished 37-48 in three years at UTEP could step in after Chris Beard was fired for domestic abuse allegations, and lead this team to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2008? Rodney Terry did that. What are the chances a stumbling team that went 5-5 entering the first week of March would somehow figure things out and gain momentum to make this run? Texas beat Kansas twice in seven days in March and won the Big 12 tournament. It has shattered myths in the NCAA tournament, too. Against Texas in the first round, Colgate — the best 3-point shooting team in the country — went 3-for-15 from beyond the arc. In the second round against Penn State, the Longhorns dealt with All-American Jalen Pickett by putting Timmy Allen on him. Pickett finished 5-for-13 with 11 points.
Xavier presented a unique assortment of challenges Friday. The Musketeers have size with 7-footer Jack Nunge. Souley Boum is a sixth-year point guard who rarely commits turnovers. And Sean Miller’s team has a 4-1 record this season against fellow Big East and Sweet 16 teams Creighton and UConn. Texas still led wire to wire, with a 20-point lead midway through the second half. The Longhorns have leadership in veteran Marcus Carr, who’s joined by a collection of players who range from 6 feet to 6-foot-9 but can all play both ways and run opponents off the floor in transition. And they don’t rely on one player. On Friday, Tyrese Hunter was one of five Texas players in double figures. The Longhorns could win a national title with an interim. After the season they’ve had, it wouldn’t be shocking.
Up next: vs. Miami (Sunday, 5:05 p.m. ET, CBS)
3. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Original Seed: No. 3. Reseed: 1
Before he launched a clutch 3 from the logo in the final seconds of Gonzaga’s 79-76 win over UCLA in the Sweet Sixteen on Thursday, Julian Strawther asked Mark Few for the green light to shoot the shot if he had a good look. Few said, “Absolutely.” There’s a confidence about this Gonzaga squad and its offensive capabilities that shows up in those critical moments. The Bulldogs, ranked first in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom, are a threat to win their first national championship as a result. They made 56% of their shots inside the arc against GCU in the first round. They played TCU in a tight game, but their 11 turnovers (14% turnover rate) contributed to their victory. Then, in another close affair against the Bruins, Gonzaga overcame a double digit deficit and made a 13-2 run down the stretch to set up a thrilling finish.
The Zags have now reached the Elite Eight for the fifth time under Few. Drew Timme’s numbers are ridiculous. He’s averaging 28.3 PPG through three NCAA tournament games. Opponents have to put extra defenders on him because of his versatility around the rim, which opens up the floor for everyone else. On Strawther’s miraculous game winner on Thursday, if you watch it again, you can see three UCLA defenders all anticipating the pass inside to Timme. They never imagined Strawther would shoot that shot and make it. Which is what makes Gonzaga so dangerous.
Up next: vs. UConn (Saturday, 8:49 p.m. ET, TBS)
4. San Diego State Aztecs
Original Seed: No. 5. Reseed: 1
As Brian Dutcher’s team chewed up its first weekend opponents, some didn’t believe the metrics that say this has been among the best defenses in America over the last six weeks. Why? San Diego State plays in the Mountain West, which is ranked sixth in KenPom’s rankings for conferences. But the Mountain West had four teams in the NCAA tournament teams — as many as the Pac-12 this season. SDSU finished with the most efficient defense in league play before it locked down Charleston and Furman, a couple of double digit seeds, in the first and second rounds. Entering its matchup against 1-seed Alabama on Friday, however, SDSU was still searching for credibility.
It came when the same defensive fortitude — the team is ranked first in adjusted defensive efficiency since Feb. 1, per barttorvik.com — worked against a Crimson Tide squad with a projected top-three pick in the NBA draft and the SEC’s best offense this season. Alabama had defeated Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Maryland by 43 points combined in the first two rounds. But Brandon Miller made just 15.8% of his shots and committed six turnovers in the 71-64 loss. SDSU for its part didn’t panic when it was down 48-39 early in the second half, instead launching a 23-5 run to regain control of the game. Darrion Trammell led his team with 21 points. He was the third different leading scorer in the NCAA tournament for SDSU. Everything about this SDSU run to the school’s first men’s Elite Eight appearance is real, and anyone who second-guessed them now realizes the Aztecs are as dangerous as any team in the field.
Up next: vs. Creighton (Sunday, 2:20 p.m. ET, CBS)
5. Miami Hurricanes
Original Seed: No. 5. Reseed: 2
Last year, Duke and North Carolina both reached the Final Four, highlighting the prowess of the ACC in Mike Krzyzewski’s final season. When those two are good, the ACC gets more national attention than any other league in America. But if they’re struggling, the narrative often turns to the ACC disappointing. It impacts the way we view its top teams. The latter was the case this season when Virginia lost to Furman in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and Duke lost to Tennessee in the second round. Miami was a trendy pick to lose to Drake in the first round.
But the Hurricanes are a difficult matchup for any opponent. Not only did they beat Drake and Indiana, they steamrolled 1-seed Houston, which entered Friday’s Sweet 16 game ranked top 15 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency on KenPom. The 89-75 win — which included 11-of-22 from beyond the arc, and Nijel Pack scoring 24 points — showed how difficult Jim Larranaga’s team can be to defend. The team’s guards are exceptional and Norchad Omier (12 points, 13 rebounds) continues to act as an enforcer with a sturdy 6-foot-7 frame. Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said his team had more challenges with Omier than it did with the 7-footers they had faced earlier in the season. Isaiah Wong, the ACC Player of the Year, is a versatile mismatch for most teams, too.
The Hurricanes are stacked with playmakers. But Miami’s defense is still ranked outside the top 100 in adjusted defensive efficiency — usually a bad sign for a team’s Final Four hopes. Still, its explosiveness and efficiency could carry this program to Houston.
Up next: vs. Texas (Sunday, 5:05 p.m. ET, CBS)
6. Creighton Bluejays
Original Seed: No. 6. Reseed: 2
Amid the chaos, there is a theme in this NCAA tournament. The teams that have survived hit their respective strides late in the season. Whatever they had to figure out before then — well, they finally did, when it mattered most. UConn has lost one game since early February. Florida Atlantic has the most wins (34) in America, and has won 10 in a row. Texas won the Big 12 tournament title and beat Kansas twice in the last month. Gonzaga, SDSU, Kansas State and Miami all had moments in recent weeks that suggested they were trending in the right direction too.
Creighton, however, might have made the most sudden and fortuitous turn. Over their last 19 games, the Bluejays have been a top 10 team on barttorvik.com, going 15-4. Entering Friday’s 86-75 Sweet 16 win over Princeton, they had made 55% of its shots inside the arc and held their opponents under 45% since Jan. 11 — both top 30 in the country. The Bluejays were getting better. They just needed the NCAA tournament to showcase those improvements. They’re now on their way to their first men’s Elite Eight appearance since 1941, with an offensive effectiveness that has to be respected. And they can turn to different heroes. It was Ryan Kalkbrenner (31 points) against NC State in the first round and Ryan Nembhard (30 points) in the win over Baylor in the second. Kalkbrenner (22 points) led all scorers again Friday. Overall, Creighton has propelled itself to this stage after connecting on 42% of its 3-point attempts over the last two games and registering 116 points per 100 possessions in the NCAA tournament.
Up next: vs. San Diego State (Sunday, 2:20 p.m. ET, CBS)
7. Kansas State Wildcats
Original Seed: No. 3. Reseed: 2
In the Wildcats’ 98-93 overtime win over Michigan State in the Sweet 16 on Thursday — one of the greatest games in recent NCAA tournament history — it was easy to see the impact of Markquis Nowell, who finished with 20 points and 19 assists (an NCAA tournament record). There was also the lob to Keyontae Johnson a split second after it appeared Nowell was having a conversation with head coach Jerome Tang. There were Michigan State’s frantic defensive adjustments in pick-and-roll situations as Nowell’s movements and speed confounded defenders who didn’t know whether to hedge and stay with him or drop and anticipate the pass in the paint.
The NCAA tournament’s greatest individual backcourt contributor thus far has made a measurable impact. Per Synergy’s Shot Quality (expected points per shot) metric, which is an “objective way to evaluate the quality of each shot,” Nowell has made 0.24 points per shot above expectation in the NCAA tournament. To put that in context, Steph Curry has the top mark of 0.24 points per shot above expectation in 3-pointers at the top of the key over the last five years in the NBA, per Synergy Sports. Nowell also scored or assisted on 63 of 98 points (64%), the most since ESPN Stats & Information began tracking that data in 2010. Bottom line, Nowell is doing some ridiculous stuff on the basketball court right now, whether you believe the eye test or the metrics, and he possesses a Kemba Walker-like momentum that could end with the program’s first national championship.
Up next: vs. FAU (Saturday, 6:09 p.m. ET, TBS)
8. Florida Atlantic Owls
Original Seed: No. 9. Reseed: 2
During the 2007-08 season, the world met a young man named Steph Curry, who led 10-seed Davidson to the Elite Eight. Curry had the makings of a future pro at the time, and was the difference-maker for the Wildcats. One of the soon-to-be NBA star’s strengths was his resilience: Davidson entered the NCAA tournament on a 22-game winning streak, adding to it with victories against Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin before falling to the eventual national champion, Kansas.
You can’t compare FAU to that Davidson team regarding personnel. The Owls don’t have an NBA lottery pick. But, similar to the Wildcats then, this is a mid-major that has forgotten how to lose. Johnell Davis (18.6 PPG) and Co. entered the 2023 NCAA tournament with a 30-2 mark in its last 32 games. Their familiarity with winning continues to fuel a program that hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game prior to this month. Against Memphis, FAU held it together and made clutch plays as the Tigers crumbled in the first round. Fairleigh Dickinson, which had knocked off 1-seed Purdue in the first round, had a five-point lead over FAU midway through the second half in the second round. The Owls responded with a 19-7 run to regain control. Against Tennessee and the No. 1 defense in America on Thursday, a 10-0 run in the second half changed the tone in favor of Dusty May’s squad.
This FAU run isn’t a fluke. This is a program with a winning pedigree, which has continued through the NCAA tournament.
Up next: vs. Kansas State (Saturday, 6:09 p.m. ET, TBS)