2018 NCAA Tournament: One reason to believe in every Sweet 16 team
From Villanova to Loyola, one reason to think each Sweet 16 team might win it all
After the historic and unforgettable first weekend that was in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, the Sweet 16 has been set. Not only did we see the first-ever 16-over-1 upset in the men's tournament but also early losses for several top seeds and, for the first time since the tournament began its seeding system in 1979, there is a region with no top-four seeds in the Sweet 16.
With parity alive and thriving during this particular edition of March Madness, the chances of a top team like Villanova or Duke seem more likely. It's likely all perception skewed by recent results, perception that ignores the dominance shown by both teams amid of the chaos of the first weekend, but if it's going to be one of those years where nothing goes as planned, the teams that we already penciled in to be at the Final Four should be on high alert.
So with a wide-open view of the remaining tournament action, we've assembled at least one reason to believe in each Sweet 16 team. We begin in the South, where No. 1 and No. 4 didn't make it to the weekend, No. 2 was on the wrong end of an all-time comeback and No. 3 was on the wrong end of Sister Jean.
No. 5 Kentucky
Welcome to Catlanta. The traveling caravan that is Big Blue Nation will take up residence in Atlanta this weekend, giving Kentucky some home cooking that only adds to the many advantages that seem to be working out for John Calipari and the Wildcats. The on-court reason to believe in Kentucky is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. While Kevin Knox is the bigger star, Gilgeous-Alexander is the kind of player who can win NCAA Tournament games with his ability to break down defenses with the ball in his hands and make big plays on defense with his length.
No. 7 Nevada
A mid-major team has never been mistaken for a bully, but the way Nevada has pulled out the chair from under both Texas and Cincinnati in its two wins has been absolutely devastating for the defeated and electric for the Wolf Pack. Believe in Nevada because you don't want to be on the opposite side the next time they break a win probability chart.
No. 9 Kansas State
Believe in Kansas State because the Wildcats are battle-tested. Bruce Weber's team was one of only four in the Big 12 to finish with a league record above .500, joining Kansas, West Virginia and Texas Tech (all of whom are still alive in this tournament). The profile was loaded with incredible wins but it was solid, and there's no way a team that was one bucket from knocking off Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse is going to feel intimidated or out of place against Kentucky.
No. 11 Loyola-Chicago
Sister Jean's scouting reports and the vibes around Loyola are undefeated so far in the NCAA Tournament. Even if you ignore the potentially storybook, made-for-a-movie scenarios at play here with the lovable underdog, Loyola has simply been the most clutch team in the NCAA Tournament. The Ramblers have beaten the SEC regular season co-champions and the No. 3 seed in the ACC Tournament by a combined three points, with one buzzer beater.
No. 3 Michigan
Sometimes the toughest games in deep tournament runs happen prior to the Final Four, and I get the feeling that Jordan Poole's buzzer-beater against Houston (and the absolute fist-fight of a basketball game that preceded it) could be that game for the Wolverines. It's a tournament of small margins and ending up on the right side of that Houston game is the kind of break that can spark something special in later rounds.
No. 4 Gonzaga
Believe in Gonzaga because if Gonzaga was going to lose it probably should have already been to UNC-Greensboro. Freshman Zach Norvell Jr. is having a breakout postseason, and while many of the familiar faces of last year's Final Four run are gone, the core of this program knows exactly how to handle these situations.
No. 7 Texas A&M
Size matters, and the combination of Tyler Davis and Robert Williams was so impactful that even the defending champion North Carolina Tar Heels didn't have an answer. Texas A&M hasn't played its best basketball all year, but it's playing pretty well right now thanks to that frontcourt.
No. 9 Florida State
You can't put this Florida State team away. The thing that makes Leonard Hamilton's 2018 team so dangerous is its depth and versatility, with enough bodies and athleticism to pester teams -- like FSU did on Sunday to beat Xavier -- with full court pressure and running the fast break on nearly every opportunity. Xavier seemingly had the game won several times only to see the Seminoles march back, steal the lead and stun the No. 1 seed in the Second Round.
No. 1 Villanova
Not every national champion has to conquer all of the bosses to beat the game. Sometimes the bracket breaks your way and just being the best remaining team is the accomplishment needed to cut down the nets. As top seeds dropped left and right, there was Villanova steady as ever, putting the ball in the basket more efficiently than anyone else in the country.
No. 2 Purdue
If Purdue was going to be truly derailed by the loss of big man Isaac Haas, it was probably going to happen against a scrappy Butler team on Sunday. The fact the Boilermakers were able to respond and win should inspire confidence, along with the lights-out three-point shooting that will have to carry the way moving forward.
No. 3 Texas Tech
Keenan Freaking Evans. He could be the "Kemba Walker" figure of this year's tournament. Texas Tech's defense will break the will of the opposition and Evans, a senior and one of the best players in the Big 12 all season, is the guy who makes the winning plays.
No. 5 West Virginia
Believe in West Virginia because one game could open things up for Bob Huggins to return to the Final Four for the first time since 2010. Beating Villanova is going to be a monumental task for the Mountaineers, but if they can pull it off the odds are favorable with Texas Tech (a team that WVU beat twice) and Purdue as the last hurdles.
No. 1 Kansas
If guard play conquers all in the NCAA Tournament, you have to love the chances of a team led by a fiery guard with a clutch streak. Big 12 Player of the Year Devonte' Graham is kind of college player that can carry a team deep into March. Doubting Bill Self now might prove as fruitful as those who doubted Kansas' ability to win the Big 12 for a 14th straight season, and no one wants to be that wrong twice.
No. 2 Duke
Outside of Villanova, Duke is the best team left in the tournament. The Blue Devils might not win it all, but they're the only other team that has the look of a team that can go and win four more games and cut down the nets. Marvin Bagley III might be the best player on the court every time he takes the floor in Omaha, but he doesn't always have to play like it for Duke to win.
No. 5 Clemson
Brad Brownell is playing with house money. Clemson might have been tempted to make a change at head coach after several frustrating years on the wrong side of the bubble, but by sticking with Brownell the school finally got to see the return on its investment in the form of the first Sweet 16 appearance since 1997.
No. 11 Syracuse
This year has a lot of 2016 flavor to it for Syracuse, with a team whose even acceptance into the Big Dance was doubted from the jump. Jim Boeheim's NCAA Tournament success over the years speaks for itself, and if Tyus Battle can keep coming up with huge clutch shots the Orange could keep this run going all the way to San Antonio.
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