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In the Sweet 16, the competition becomes more concentrated. If you’ve made it this far, it doesn’t matter where you came from. You are a dangerous basketball team.
Put another way, at this point you’re not sneaking up on anyone. Most seasons, that would refer most specifically to the mid-majors who’d reached the sport’s fifth-highest plateau. This year, however, the field is awfully chalky. That might mean fewer folk heroes, but it doesn’t mean fewer stories—or fewer opportunities for an interesting upset.
In the upset meter that follows, we’re breaking down each game to see whether or to what extent underdogs have the proven tools to take down their numerical superiors. By the same token, we’ll identify the top dogs that appear immune to such a challenge.
The likelihood of an upset in all eight Sweet 16 games is graded on a 1-10 scale, based on the matchup itself and performance in the tournament to date. We’ll also identify the challenge involved in knocking off the favorite, as well as some important statistics and factors to bear in mind. The games are ranked from least likely to most likely for an upset. Ready? Let’s get it on.
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Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
When: March 29, 9:39 p.m. ET
Duke is the favorite to win this tournament. Watching Zion Williamson crash into UCF’s 7’6″ Tacko Fall to get the layup and set up RJ Barrett’s go-ahead score was enough to dismay fans of any team other than the Blue Devils. Zion’s 32-point, 11-rebound performance helped push Duke to a 77-76 win and ended any chance of a Cinderella-style upset. Fall, Aubrey Dawkins and the Knights (haha) fought valiantly, but this time, the dragon swallowed them whole.
Noteworthy Numbers: 75 and 52
The first number is Duke guard Cam Reddish’s shooting percentage from beyond the arc against UCF on Sunday. Williamson rightly gets the lion’s share of the attention, with superfrosh Barrett a distant second. But Reddish is a quiet force for the team. He chipped in 13 points, four boards and two helpers against the Knights, but more importantly, he hit three of four three-pointers. Duke has taken barbs for being deficient in this area, and Reddish is no sharpshooter, but efficient performances like these mean a lot to the Blue Devils.
The second is the number of years it’s been since the Virginia Tech Hokies reached the Sweet 16. This team has had a hell of a year, and coach Buzz Williams, top player Kerry Blackshear and the rest of the Hokies deserve recognition for that. They should be happy with their accomplishments. They will surely fight hard against Duke, but it feels like it will all be for naught.
Zion Williamson. Aside from the 6’10” Blackshear, Virginia has no one over 6’7″. He should be able to have his way in the post. Blackshear is the difference-maker for the Hokies. He won’t and couldn’t to it alone but it all starts with him, especially defensively.
Upset Meter: 1.6
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When: March 29, 7:29 p.m. ET
North Carolina appears to be gaining power. After being pushed by No. 16 Iona before winning 88-73, the Tar Heels soundly defeated No. 9 Washington 81-59 on Sunday. Four players—Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson, Coby White and bench spark plug Nassir Little—scored in double figures, which more or less lines up with this season’s trend. It’s inside, it’s outside and it’s hard to deal with. And their defense isn’t half-bad, either, sitting 11th in the KenPom rankings.
Noteworthy Numbers: 15 and 16
The first number is the number of double-doubles on the season for Maye, the most recent of which came over the Huskies. The 6’8″ senior isn’t the most physically imposing forward in the world, but he has no off switch.
The second is the number of years since Auburn last made the Sweet 16. They did it by taking down a blue-blood program in Kansas. Could they take down another?
Auburn’s offense is sixth in the KenPom rankings. They’re clearly a good team, but their firepower is a little concentrated in guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper, who account for a combined 39 percent of the Tigers’ scoring.
That makes them vulnerable against a Tar Heels team that knows how to defend in the backcourt. North Carolina coach Roy Williams will probably use Little as his defensive stopper, and Johnson and White are solid, too. This could be a choke point for Auburn.
That said, no one made more threes this season than Auburn, who put away 396. Can they got hot? Sure, and that’s their best chance.
Upset Meter: 2.4
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Jamie Squire/Getty Images
When: March 29, 7:09 p.m. ET
That queasy feeling Spartans fans felt after their team’s tense 76-65 win over No. 15 Bradley in the opening round was quelled a bit by their 70-50 whipping of No. 10 Minnesota. The greatest rock-fighter in college basketball, Michigan State is more used to imposing adversity than surviving it, but it is pretty good at doing both.
Noteworthy Numbers: 57.1 and 36.9
The first number is Michigan State’s team shooting percentage against Minnesota. It’s hard to beat a team shooting 28-of-49 from the floor, plus 6-of-15 (40 percent) from three to boot.
The second is LSU’s shooting percentage from its 69-67 win over Maryland. Bit of a discrepancy there. LSU’s win was a pretty sloppy affair in which the Tigers and Terps combined for 22 turnovers and 29 personal fouls. Thanks to clutch play from Tremont Waters and Skylar Mays, LSU survived, but it was the kind of win that generates more relief than momentum.
LSU is mired in well-publicized controversy and an investigation that remains full of open questions even as LSU wended its way to this point. It may seem unfair to cast a shadow over the team because of what coach Will Wade is alleged to have done, but it has to be exhausting on one level or another, and it could make a difference as the miles of the tourney begin to pile up.
Speaking of which, the Spartans have not shown immunity to sloppiness and even a bit of controversy of their own. Head coach Tom Izzo’s outburst during the Bradley game has been dissected frame by frame. Though it pales in comparison to the Wade situation, it’s still the kind of thing that can wear you down. Their 22 turnovers against Bradley were nine more than their season average.
Upset Meter: 2.7
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Patrick Smith/Getty Images
When: March 28, 7:09 p.m. ET
Gonzaga did everything it could in its first two games to exonerate itself of that eye-popping loss to Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference tournament final. Thanks to an 87-49 win over No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson and an 83-71 defeat of No. 9 Baylor, their average margin of victory thus far is a crisp, clean 25.
That shouldn’t be shocking for the nation’s best offense, both according to the KenPom.com rankings and official NCAA statistics that have the Zags tops overall in efficiency (125.5) and points per game (88.8). They can score inside or from deep, in the half court or in transition. Their ball movement is a thing of beauty, and with four players—Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Zach Norvell Jr. and Josh Perkins—averaging double figures in scoring, it’s a pick-your-poison operation.
Noteworthy Numbers: 53.2 and 40.7
The first number is Gonzaga’s team field-goal percentage. Just like in scoring, the Bulldogs lead the nation in this category.
The second is the percentage Florida State has allowed. It’s not the nation’s best, but 31st in the nation isn’t too shabby either.
Just ask Murray State about the Seminoles’ D. En route to a convincing 90-62 win, FSU allowed superstar Ja Morant to go for 28—but made a clear effort to lock up the other guys and force someone else to step up under pressure. The other Racers responded with 34 points on 12-of-40 (30 percent) shooting. Even Morant needed 21 shots to get his, which put his 38.1 percent shooting for the game well below his season average of 49.9 percent.
In those data lie a potential advantage for Gonzaga: versatile big man Rui Hachimura. FSU makes a habit of taking out the other player’s best guy, but it excels at shutting down guards like Morant. The Seminoles are not quite as formidable inside and also are not the most transition-minded team. The Bulldogs could capitalize on both of those shortcomings, even if FSU does appear poised to put up a fight.
Upset Meter: 3.8
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Jamie Squire/Getty Images
When: March 28, 9:39 p.m. ET
Offense. No. 2 Michigan is second in the KenPom defensive rankings. No. 3 Texas Tech is first. Get out your coffee beans, because we are ready to grind.
Noteworthy Numbers: 37 and 37
The first number is the lowest number of points the Wolverines surrendered this season, coming Nov. 10 against Holy Cross.
The second is the number Texas Tech allowed Nov. 6 against Incarnate Word. That’s not a typo. These two defensive powerhouses share the same low mark—and set it four days apart from each other.
Sure, both numbers came against overmatched opponents, but they were hardly outliers. Michigan held opponents under 60 on 19 occasions. The Red Raiders did it 18 times, including on Sunday against Buffalo.
Defense is unquestionably the deal here, but, obviously, points must be scored. For Texas Tech, guard Jarrett Culver leads the team in points (18.8), rebounds (6.4) and assists (3.7). Michigan is a little more diversified, with Ignas Brazdeikis, Jordan Poole, Jon Teske and Zavier Simpson all contributing in various capacities.
The real difference-maker for Michigan, though, is guard Charles Matthews, who stepped on the March Madness court and instantly started playing the best basketball he’s played since suffering an ankle injury in February. His 15.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in the first two games are making the Wolverines a different team. Texas Tech is legit, and this is a must-watch game.
An upset is possible, but spurred by the booster rocket that is Matthews’ improved form, Michigan might not be quite the upset special it appears.
Upset Meter: 3.9
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Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
When: March 28, 9:59 p.m. ET
Something clicked in UVA a few days ago. Perhaps it was the prospect of a permanent wing in the Sports Losers Hall of Fame. Since the 6:43 mark of the first half against No. 16 Gardner-Webb, when the Bulldogs led the Cavs 30-16, Virginia has outscored its two tourney opponents 118-77.
The second team in that equation was No. 9 Oklahoma, who managed just 51 points to the Cavs’ 63 thanks to Virginia’s stellar defense—and this was despite the Sooners putting up 95 in the first round and receiving accolades for the best performance in the tournament’s first two days.
Noteworthy Numbers: 39.4 and 36.0
The first number is the combined field-goal percentage of Gardner-Webb and Oklahoma. That’s pretty good, especially considering how hot Gardner-Webb was early and how hot Oklahoma was in its entire first game (57.6 percent against Ole Miss).
The second is the field-goal percentage of Oregon’s two opponents (Wisconsin and UC Irvine). Though Virginia gets more acclaim for its defense, Oregon is outstanding on that end as well.
Virginia head coach Tony Bennett, architect of this magical pack-line defense that will one day deliver us all from our enemies, gets a lot of credit when the Cavs win and a lot of blame when they lose. It’s a minor miracle he didn’t lose his job after last year’s historic loss to University of Maryland Baltimore County. But he did a great job steadying his team against Gardner-Webb when his nerves must have been just as shaky.
This is an unusual team in several ways. Win or lose, Bennett is its beating heart. That can cut either way. Your opinion of Oregon’s upset chances depends on your opinion of the coach.
On the Oregon side, it’s a no-brainer. Payton Pritchard leads the current roster in assists (4.6) and steals (1.9), and he’s second in points (12.9) After previous top scorer Bol Bol went down with an injury, it was Pritchard who carried them to the Pac-12 tourney title (he was tourney MVP).
But don’t forget about Kenny Wooten. The 6’9″ sophomore is the Ducks’ biggest defensive weapon. He followed four blocks and six rebounds Friday against Wisconsin with a game-changing seven blocks and nine boards when Oregon defeated No. 13 UC Irvine on Sunday.
Upset Meter: 4.9
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John Minchillo/Associated Press
When: March 28, 7:29 p.m. ET
Tennessee has looked outstanding at times this tournament, but as was the case in the regular season, the Volunteers are prone to lapses. They needed overtime to stave off a comeback from No. 10 Iowa before winning 83-77, and that came after barely surviving No. 15 Colgate 77-70 in the opening round. Still, this is a tough test for Purdue.
Tennessee is a deep team led by three legitimate NBA prospects in forward Grant Williams and guards Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bone.
Noteworthy Numbers: 25 and 42
The first number is the deficit Iowa faced before storming back to push Tennessee into overtime. The Volunteers are the same team that spent several weeks atop the national polls and then finished the season with four losses in their last 10 games. This was against an incredibly tough SEC schedule, mind you, but it still illustrates a bona fide issue.
The second is the scoring output from Purdue’s Carsen Edwards in the Boilermakers’ 87-61 dismissal of defending champion Villanova. This followed a 26-point effort against Old Dominion, which itself followed weeks of criticism over his shooting slump.
And everyone was hyper-aware of that slump because Edwards scores more than twice as much per game (23.6) as the team’s second-leading scorer (Ryan Cline with 11.7) while taking an average of 19.3 shots per game.
Edwards, Edwards, Edwards. He doesn’t need to score 42 points to be a huge factor in this game. Two things are certain: (1) he will shoot and (2) he will never not shoot.
If the slump is gone for good, that’s trouble for Tennessee. If it re-emerges, he could shoot Purdue right over the cliff. Without him, the Boilermakers probably don’t have the firepower to mount a big comeback if the Vols storm out to an early lead, as is their wont.
For Tennessee, it’s Grant Williams. Tennessee’s best player pulled them back from the brink against Iowa. He’s their rock and he’ll be indispensible moving forward.
Upset Meter: 5.5
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Harry How/Getty Images
When: March 29, 9:59 p.m. ET
Another likable underdog, another narrow escape by the perennial powerhouse. But when it held off No. 7 Wofford 62-56, Kentucky showed both vulnerability and strength.
More on the vulnerability momentarily, but it would be hard not to notice Kentucky’s length and athleticism at every position. They may not be at full strength, but the Wildcats have plenty of fight left. They’ll need it.
Noteworthy Numbers: 0 and 2
The first number is the number of threes Wofford guard Fletcher Magee made against Kentucky. This is the same Magee who, in the first round against Seton Hall, went 7-of-12 from three en route to 24 points. Kentucky held him to eight points.
Magee took the same amount of three-point attempts he did in the first round and made none of them. And this is a guy who hardly needs a clean look to get a good shot off. That says something about the Wildcats’ ability and focus.
The second is the number of Houston Cougars who are both (1) in the team’s top seven for scoring and (2) over 6’5″. (It’s Fabian White Jr. and Breaon Brady, by the way.) This is as guard-heavy as a rotation can get. It’s obviously effective, but there are literal, observable limitations.
Kentucky forward PJ Washington, who will impact the game whether he steps on the court or not. The Wildcats’ leading scorer recently suffered a foot injury. He didn’t play in either of the first two tournament games, and his status for this one is uncertain.
Kentucky fans are surely looking for something to go their way. Poor guys. When will their program get a break? Just kidding. Best of luck, PJ.
Houston’s second-leading scorer is Armoni Brooks, but this team moves as a group, like one of those clouds of birds where everyone moves in the same direction. They work the ball around, shoot from the perimeter and swarm the boards. Despite their lack of size, the Cougars are seventh nationally with 40.9 rebounds per contest. Brooks leads the team with 6.5 boards a game, so he’s clearly important to them in multiple areas.
Upset Meter: 7.2