Sweet 16 teams, ranked by their national title chances in men’s March Madness

The first weekend of the 2024 men’s NCAA tournament had it all. There were upsets (bye, Kentucky), there were new stars born (hello, D.J. Burns and Jack Gohlke), and there were exciting finishes. After four days, the tournament is now left with 16 teams who all believe they have what it takes to break into the Final Four.

Chalk mostly held serve through the bracket. For only the fifth time since 1985, all of the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds advanced to the Sweet 16. For as much fun as the first weekend was, the second weekend should be even better with premier matchups and star players competing on the biggest platform in the sport.

With the first weekend wrapped up, we thought it would be a perfect time to re-rank the field by their chances at winning the 2024 national championship. Here’s how we see college basketball’s championship picture right now.

16. NC State Wolfpack

The beautiful thing about March Madness is that (nearly) every team in DI gets to control its own destiny. NC State is the ultimate proof of that. The Wolfpack had no chance to make the NCAA tournament this season before they went on a run for the ages: five wins in five days — including Ws over Duke, Virginia, and North Carolina — to complete a Cinderella run in the ACC tournament and earn their automatic bid. NC State beat No. 6 seed Texas Tech to start its run in the big dance, then caught a break when No. 14 seed Oakland upset a Kentucky team that was a trendy Final Four pick. The Golden Grizzlies gave NC State all it could handle, but the Wolfpack prevailed in overtime to punch its first Sweet 16 ticket since 2015.

Extra beefy big man D.J. Burns is the breakout star March Madness dreams are made of as a skilled interior scorer and high-feel passer. Casey Morsell is one of the tournament’s best perimeter defenders, D.J. Horne is a speedy guard leading the offensive attack, and Michael O’Connell is still riding the high from the biggest shot of his life to keep NC State’s season alive in the conference tournament. Cinderellas aren’t supposed to come from the ACC, but this Wolfpack team checks every box for the label. Their March magic isn’t done yet. — Ricky O’Donnell

Clemson v Baylor

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15. Clemson Tigers

Clemson found itself in the rare position of being an underdog as a No. 6 seed in its first round game against No. 11 seed New Mexico. The Tigers quickly made bookmakers feel stupid by roaring out of the gates and eventually delivering a 20+ point knockout punch. Clemson was again a +4.5 point underdog in the second round against a high-powered Baylor team. After their 72-64 win to bust into the Sweet 16, maybe it’s time to stop underestimating this group.

P.J. Hall and Chase Hunter sat on the bench as freshmen for Clemson’s last tournament team in 2021. Now they’re the Tigers’ two biggest stars. Hunter followed a great game vs. New Mexico with an even better performance against Baylor. He finished with 20 points and six assists against the Bears while hounding their talented guards defensively. Hall has battled foul trouble in both games so far, but the fact that Clemson reached the Sweet 16 without their best player playing his best is a testament to the rest of the group. Guess what, Clemson is about to be a big underdog again against No. 2 seed Arizona in the Sweet 16. That’s just the way they like it. — ROD

14. San Diego State Aztecs

San Diego State went to the national championship game as a No. 5 seed a year ago. They’re back into the second weekend as a No. 5 seed again this year. The Aztecs snuck past UAB in the opening round, and then walloped Yale on Sunday night to reach the Sweet 16. Just like last year, this team gets it done with defensive, ranking No. 11 overall in defensive efficiency according to KenPom. The offense is actually slightly better this year, thanks mostly to the senior year explosion of big man Jaedon LaDee. LeDee couldn’t crack eight points per game coming off the bench last year; now he’s scoring 22 points per night and playing like a man amongst boys. Add in returning rotation players Lamont Butler, Micah Parrish, and Darrion Trammell, and it shouldn’t be a surprise they made it this far. Of course, the Aztecs run ended last year to UConn, and the Huskies are again the opponent this year in the Sweet 16. There would be no sweeter way to get revenge. — ROD

Gonzaga v Kansas

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13. Gonzaga Bulldogs

Saturday’s game between Gonzaga and Kansas looked on its way towards becoming an instant classic. The Jayhawks led by one at the break as both teams started out hot from the field.

Midway through the second half that anticipated classic turned into a rout.

Gonzaga used a 15-0 run early in the second half to build a 63-49 lead, and by the time the game reached the under-four timeout the Zags had built a 22-point lead. A pick-and-roll game gave Kansas fits all afternoon, and while the Bulldogs remained red-hot in the second half, Kansas suddenly went ice cold from the field. At one point the Jayhawks were just 4-for-23 from the field in the second half.

Looking ahead, a matchup with Zach Edey and Purdue awaits. But their guard play, coupled with an offensive system that gave Kansas trouble, could give Gonzaga an edge in the Sweet Sixteen. — Mark Schofield

12. Alabama Crimson Tide

Alabama’s speed is undeniable. If the shot clock dips below 20 on a possession, something is very wrong. Where the Crimson Tide excel is in transition, snagging defensive rebounds and flying down the court. PG Mark Sears leads the charge, and often contorts his body to finish at the rim through contact. His heroics (28.0 ppg, 8.0 reb, 5.5 ast in the tournament) have carried the Tide to March Madness’ second weekend.

Bama didn’t have an issue with 13-seed Charleston in the first round, scoring a tournament-high 109 points. But against 12-seed Grand Canyon, they were only able to pull away in the final couple minutes. GCU slowed the game down by drawing fouls (they shot 37 free throws), and it noticeably affected Alabama, who only scored 72 in the win.

There were a few moments in the second half against GCU where Alabama was forced into a slow half-court offense and looked genuinely confused. If Nate Oats’ squad is going to get past North Carolina and into the final weekend of the tournament, it’s going to be by doing what they do best: putting the pedal down. — Adam Ward

NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament - Second Round - James Madison v Duke

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11. Duke Blue Devils

Duke’s matchup with budding Cinderella James Madison seemed like the ultimate trap game. Instead, the Blue Devils blasted the Sun Belt champs and left no doubt this team could live up to the program’s incredible lineage. Freshman guard Jared McCain feels like Duke’s biggest ceiling raiser, and when he gets hot from three-point range the Blue Devils can get scary. He shot 8-of-11 from deep against JMU on his way to a breakout 30-point performance. Remember this game when his name is called in the first round of the 2024 NBA Draft.

Duke has been playing through sophomore center Kyle Filipowski all year, and it continues to reap the rewards. Filipowski can score inside and out, but his passing is really what takes Duke to the next level. With Tyrese Proctor finally hitting his stride and Jeremy Roach providing another steady veteran hand in the backcourt, Duke has some serious talent even if the real superstars aren’t coming in until 2025. Houston is going to be an immense problem, but it would be silly to write off these Blue Devils now. — ROD

10. Illinois Fighting Illini

The last time Illinois made the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, Deron Williams and Dee Brown were powering a run to the 2005 national championship game. Yes, it’s been a while. This Illini team finally broke through under Brad Underwood behind an electric offense that currently ranks No. 1 in the country, per KenPom. The Illini essentially start five wings, giving them a rare lineup where everyone can confidently dribble, pass, and (Ty Rodgers excluded) shoot. Illinois’ offense powered them to a Big Ten tournament championship, and it isn’t letting up in the big dance.

Terrence Shannon Jr. is averaging 30.5 points per game during the team’s six-game winning streak. Marcus Domask transferred in from Southern Illinois, and has developed into a fantastic secondary scoring option as the team’s defacto point guard. Coleman Hawkins is skilled big man who stretches the floor on offense, and has held his own on the interior defensively. It’s irresponsible to talk about the Illini without mentioning Shannon is currently facing a rape charge in the state of Kansas. Our Illini community The Champaign Room has all the details on Shannon’s case with his next court date in May. — ROD

Dayton v Arizona

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9. Arizona Wildcards

With around 11 minutes remaining in Saturday’s second-round game between Arizona and Dayton, a three-pointer from DaRon Holmes II cut the Wildcats’ lead to just three. After breaking out to a 17-point lead in the first half, the Flyers upped the defensive pressure, and the Wildcats were in trouble.

But Arizona found a way to move on, withstanding the pressure and defensive tempo to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. As the game unfolded Arizona started to match pressure with pressure, finding ways to attack the Dayton press and create easy buckets for them. While the Flyers held Arizona below their season average of 88 points, Saturday’s win demonstrated that the Wildcats can find different ways to win, and can withstand the pressure game the Flyers brought to the floor.

That resilience should serve them well next weekend. — MS

8. Iowa State Cyclones

On Selection Sunday, there was a serious discussion about Iowa State sneaking a 1-seed after they walloped Houston in the Big 12 championship. Instead, they were pegged as a 2-seed. In two games they’ve made it loud and clear they probably deserved that 1-seed. They thoroughly dismantled South Dakota State 82-65 in the first round, and then recovered from a slow start to take down pesky Washington State 67-56 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

The key to their success: the Cyclones have forced 28 turnovers in two games. Their stifling defense traps aggressively, switches quickly, and forces bad & panicked passes. On the offensive side they share the scoring load, never over-relying on any individual to take over. They shoot incredibly efficiently, just a clip under 50% from three-point range on 37 attempts this tournament. They’re playing like one of the hottest teams in the nation right now, but could face buzzsaw Illinois and defending champion UConn next week.

If they can make it through those two though, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be title favorites. — AW

Oregon v Creighton

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7. Creighton Bluejays

The line between success and failure is impossibly thin in March, and no team personifies that more than Creighton. A year ago, the Bluejays came within one controversial foul call of breaking into the Final Four, a place they’ve never been in program history. This season has had Final-Four-or-bust expectations from the very beginning, but their year was suddenly on the brink in the final seconds of regulation in their round of 32 game against No. 11 seed Oregon. Baylor Scheierman’s pull-up jumper took the Bluejays to overtime, but it took two extra sessions for them to come away with the win. Creighton can breathe a sigh of relief in a survive-and-advance tournament, but they’ll have to be a lot tighter to get past Tennessee and back into the Elite Eight.

Creighton has the pieces to compete against any opponent. Ryan Kalkbrenner is an elite rim protector and lob threat, Scheierman is a big wing with a deep bag of scoring tricks, and Trey Alexander is a 6’4 scoring guard initiating the offense. Also watch out for Mason Miller, the son of Mike Miller, a 6’9 sniper who is shooting 45 percent from three this season. Stopping Dalton Knecht should be priority 1-2-3 against Tennessee, and it’s certainly easier said than done. This is what Creighton has been building for the last two years. Now it’s time to make it all worth it. — ROD

6. Marquette Golden Eagles

A year ago, the Marquette Golden Eagles entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed but were bounced out of the second round by a double-digit seed.

They made sure that did not happen again in Indianapolis.

A strong second half — along with the return of Tyler Kolek from an oblique injury — helped Marquette knock out 15th-seeded Western Kentucky in the opening round on Friday. Then on Sunday, the Golden Eagles faced another double-digit seed, 10th-seeded Colorado. Early on it looked as if Marquette was going to win going away, as they enjoyed an 11-point lead at the break. But the Buffaloes opened the second half with a run of their own to eventually take a 55-54 lead with around 15 minutes left. But that is when Kolek, the nation’s leader in assists per game, hit a short jumper to give Marquette the lead back.

They never trailed again.

What awaits Marquette in Dallas in the Sweet Sixteen? A third-straight game against a double-digit seed. N.C State’s incredible run — starting in the ACC Tournament — puts them on a collision course with the Golden Eagles. But if Marquette shoots as well as they did in Indianapolis (they shot 47.8% against Western Kentucky and a whopping 61.8% against Colorado) the Golden Eagles could be headed to Phoenix. — MS

Texas v Tennessee

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5. Tennessee Volunteers

This Tennessee team was supposed to be different. The Vols always have elite defenses under head coach Rick Barnes, but the offense historically hasn’t been good enough for a Final Four run. Dalton Knecht was supposed to change all that as an All-American wing who can get buckets from all three levels. After a dominant March Madness opener, Tennessee’s worst nightmares played out in their round of 32 matchup against Texas: the Vols shot just 33.8 percent from the floor, and made only 3-of-25 shots from three-point range. That’s typically a losing formula, but Tennessee’s trusty defense was enough to deliver a Sweet 16 trip.

It’s hard to imagine the offense can overcome another inept performance against a team as good as Creighton. Knecht can catch fire at any moment, and a marquee matchup against Baylor Scheierman should bring out his best. Zakai Zeigler always gets after it defensively at the point of attack, but it’s easy to imagine the Bluejays daring him to shoot after a 1-of-8 performance from three-point range vs. Texas. Tennessee reached the second weekend in part because it was able to dominate the offensive glass vs. the Longhorns, but that won’t be so easy against Ryan Kalkbrenner. If this Tennessee team really is different, it’s going to have to show it in the Sweet 16. — ROD

4. Houston Cougars

Houston has quietly become one of the best college basketball programs in the country under Kelvin Sampson, and this year’s team is yet another example of it. Houston entered this tournament as a No. 1 seed for the second straight year. With a dramatic overtime win over Texas A&M in the round of 32, the Cougars are now onto the Sweet 16 for the fifth straight year straight year, the second-longest streak in men’s college hoops behind Gonzaga’s nine straight trips. Houston could have taken a step back this year for multiple reasons: a season-ending Achilles tear to Terrence Arceneaux, a move from the AAC to Big 12, and the loss of first two first round NBA draft picks from last year among them. Still, Houston is rumbling into the second weekend again with eyes on making their second Final Four in the last four years.

Houston has owned the No. 1 defense in the country all season. The Cougars don’t have great size in the middle, but they contest every shot, force turnovers at the No. 3 rate in the country, and blow up multiple actions in the halfcourt on seemingly every possession. Jamal Shead is the head of the snake as a First-Team All-American guard who initiates the offense and sets the tone defensively at the point of attack. L.J. Cryer has found a perfect role as a secondary scorer, while Emanuel Sharp can also get hot as a shot-maker. The big men attack the offensive glass and wear you down over the course of the game. For all Houston’s success, the talent doesn’t feel overwhelming here, but the game plan and execution does. If Houston can survive an epic meltdown in the final minutes vs. Texas A&M, they should be able to survive anything. — ROD

Michigan State v North Carolina

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3. North Carolina Tar Heels

North Carolina trailed No. 9 seed Michigan State by 12 points only 10 minutes into their round of 32 matchup on Saturday night. Suddenly, a switch flipped: Armando Bacot started playing bully ball inside, freshman point guard Elliot Cadeau was dropping dimes all over the court, and the Tar Heels’ defense began generating stop after stop. UNC ran away with the win in the second half, in the process fully cementing that last year’s failure to make the NCAA tournament was nothing but a fluke. This program is still as good as ever, and everything is clicking at the right time.

North Carolina’s starting unit fits together perfectly. R.J. Davis is an All-American with a deadly three-point shot, Cadeau is a pass-first point guard always looking to set up his teammates, Bacot owns the paint on both ends, Cormac Ryan is a veteran gunner from deep, and Harrison Ingram is the type of big wing who can play all over the court that this team lacked last season. Head coach Hubert Davis is proving he was always the right man for the job. UNC may have been the “fourth” No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday, but it looks like a true powerhouse right now as it rolls into the Sweet 16. – ROD

2. Purdue Boilermakers

No team faced more pressure in March Madness than Purdue, not after the Boilermakers became the second No. 1 seed to ever lose to a No. 16 seed in last year’s first round. Purdue faced no such problem this year: their blowout win in the opening round against Grambling was followed by an even bigger blowout against Utah State to punch their ticket to the Sweet 16. Purdue didn’t just exorcize its demons in the first weekend; they provided an indelible show of force that certifies them as arguably the biggest favorite to win the whole thing.

Zach Edey is generational in every sense of the word. On the brink of becoming the sport’s first back-to-back national player of the year since Ralph Sampson, Edey is wrecking havoc through the bracket with his soft touch, high motor, relentless rebounding, and consistent ability to generate free throws. Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer have looked good so far as Edey’s primary co-stars, but it’s the development of the deeper supporting cast that is really promising. Trey Kaufman-Renn had 18 points and eight rebounds in the win over Utah State, while freshman guard Myles Colvin hit three three-pointers off the bench. Purdue has the best player in the field, and the team around him is humming in perfect harmony. The pressure will continue to be on this group, but in some respects the scariest part is already over. — ROD

NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Brooklyn

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1. Connecticut Huskies

A men’s college basketball team hasn’t won back-to-back national championships since Joakim Noah and Al Horford’s Florida Gators in 2006-2007, in case you needed evidence of the difficulty of what UConn is trying to do. A year ago, the Huskies won a national championship as a No. 5 seed last year by beating their opponents by an average of more than 20 points per game. Somehow, they’re off to an even better start this year. Dan Hurley’s team was never tested in the first two rounds, using a whirling offensive system and smothering paint protection to waltz into the second weekend. This felt like the best team in college basketball coming into the tournament, and nothing they’ve done so far should dissuade that belief.

Donovan Clingan is a unique force at this level. At 7’2, 280 pounds with a 7’6 wingspan, Clingan is an immovable object with impossible length to dominate at the rim at both ends. He finished two blocks short of a triple-double as the Huskies blasted Northwestern in the round of 32. The UConn guards are excellent at finding him for lobs when they’re not attacking downhill themselves or slinging passes to the corners for three-pointers. Tristen Newton continues to play like an All-American in this tournament. Stephon Castle, who might be this team’s best NBA prospect, is blossoming into a highly-versatile defender and strength-based creator for the halfcourt offense. UConn has shooters almost everywhere else, and when they get hot a blowout is usually in the cards. It’s amazing UConn looked so good against a solid Northwestern team despite shooting 3-of-22 from three. The Huskies have bigger tests coming, but their best game still feels better than anyone else in the country’s. — ROD

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