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Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Power rankings: Sweet 16 teams

By Eamonn Brennan

After three rounds of NCAA tournament basketball, 52 teams have been eliminated from the Big Dance.'s Eamonn Brennan and Andy Katz take stock of who's left and debate the Sweet 16's power rankings.

EAMONN BRENNAN: Morning, Andy! To clarify the debate beforehand -- and to keep readers from tossing out every reason under the sun about why their team is being "disrespected" -- let's stipulate that the only important criteria is how a team is playing right now. That doesn't mean we throw out the whole season, of course. But it does mean that the barometer here is a little different from most power rankings and polls: If you were coaching a baseline replacement-level team, which Sweet 16 qualifier would you least want to play this weekend? Why?

I'll go ahead and start us off: No. 1 is obviously Ohio State. So who's your No. 2? Could it be ... VCU?!

ANDY KATZ: Are we ready to anoint Ohio State as the overall No. 1?

The Buckeyes certainly proved that they are the dominant choice for the top spot in the power rankings with the way they played against George Mason. If Ohio State shoots the way it did against the Patriots, it will be tough to punch out before Houston, regardless of how tough the Newark regional will be this weekend. On to No. 2.

BRENNAN: OK, so we agree. The Buckeyes made that one pretty easy Sunday. (That was a pretty decent team OSU bum-rushed in the second round. At least that part of my bracket still looks OK.)

No. 2 is where things get a little bit tricky; I wasn't really joking about the VCU pick. After all, if we're just talking about right here, right now, well, I'm not sure any non-OSU team has played as well as the Rams through the first two rounds of the tournament. Considering VCU did what it did in blowouts versus No. 6 seed Georgetown (a good but struggling team) and No. 3 seed Purdue (a just plain good one), doesn't VCU deserve the nod as the most dangerous team in the tournament right now? Who else has looked better?

KATZ: I agree that VCU has looked like the second-best team in the field at times, especially as it knocked off USC, Georgetown and Purdue in convincing fashion. But I can't go there yet. I have to pick Kansas as the second seed because the Jayhawks are still a worthy No. 1 seed and did what they were supposed to do in advancing to the Sweet 16. VCU is close but not close enough to put the Rams at No. 2. Kansas is my pick for second in our power ratings.

BRENNAN: Fair enough. The thing that concerns me about ranking VCU so high is that clearly this team is very hot. That sounds counterintuitive, but it makes sense: The Rams don't remotely resemble the team they were in the regular season, and they scored at a nigh-historical rate against Purdue (1.48 points per possession). They almost have to come back to Earth at some point, right? That said, I'm not sure you could look at the first weekend of the tournament and not totally fear this VCU team. I'm ranking the Rams third. Care to argue for anyone else?

KATZ: I'm not going to disagree that VCU is playing the third best of any team in the NCAA tournament. But I can't get past what I think will occur from this point forward. The Rams are close again, but third is still too high for me. I have to consider what is also ahead this weekend. And that's why I'll put Duke in the third slot. I watched Kyrie Irving this past weekend. He struggled at times but then made the winning shot for the Blue Devils. Irving now gives Duke another option to make a play with Nolan Smith. Smith was the better scorer throughout the game, but Irving made the play when it mattered most. Duke is in my No. 3 slot in the power rankings.

BRENNAN: I'll be honest: I was a little shocked Duke collapsed so thoroughly in the second half versus Michigan. I kept wondering when the Blue Devils were going to stop staring down Michigan's 1-3-1 zone and get back to attacking the defense like they had all first half. Instead, they got flat and let the Wolverines get back in the game -- Duke's poor shooting Sunday isn't a great sign for the future, either -- and but for a few inches, Michigan would have taken the reeling Blue Devils into overtime.

In other words, I was much more impressed with what VCU did this past weekend. I'm not convinced Duke can keep advancing if their shooting goes cold, and I'm not convinced the Blue Devils have anyone who can stop Arizona's Derrick Williams in the high pivot or on the block.

So far, I've got Ohio State, Kansas, VCU, Duke. After that ... I'm debating. Who are your first few teams outside that top three or top four?

KATZ: The reaction to Michigan's defense was difficult to watch. Duke couldn't handle it and was flummoxed. But that's over now. The Blue Devils survived. I'm comfortable going chalk here with my top three of Ohio State, Kansas and Duke. I may surprise you a bit with my fourth team on the power rankings list. I'll go with Connecticut in this spot. The Huskies won the Big East tournament with five games in five days, then crushed Bucknell and ran away past Cincinnati in the second half. UConn has a difficult path to get to Houston with nearby San Diego State and then possibly Duke. Still, at this juncture, the Huskies are my No. 4.

BRENNAN: As an aside, "flummoxed" is one of my favorite words. Excellent usage.

I can see the UConn pick; as long as Kemba Walker is playing well, anything remains possible for these Huskies. That said, I'm not a huge fan of that matchup with San Diego State, and not just because of geography. My next pick might be a surprise as well: I'll take Wisconsin at my No. 5 -- the Badgers looked as solid as ever in their win over Kansas State, and even 38 points from Jacob Pullen and an incredibly rare 2-of-16 night from Jordan Taylor couldn't keep the Badgers out of the Sweet 16.

KATZ: OK, now we're really starting to go down different paths. My No. 5 choice is North Carolina. I know the Tar Heels should have lost to Washington had the Huskies not gone down some sort of intellectual vacuum in the final few possessions. But the Tar Heels still have the most feared front line with John Henson, Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes, and it's hard to argue against the way Kendall Marshall is playing right now. The Tar Heels will have to be a tougher team against Marquette so they don't get flummoxed by Buzz Williams' crew.

BRENNAN: Well played, sir. We're not diverging too far; I think UNC is deserving of a nod at No. 6. For me, No. 7 is Kentucky. The Wildcats caught a lot of flak during the regular season for (a) failing to win on the road and (b) failing to win close games. Those issues haven't reared their respective heads in the tournament so far, and with Texas out of the field, they remain the toughest Sweet 16 matchup for any of the No. 1 seeds.

KATZ: OK, you've been pushing me on VCU for quite a number of posts, and I'm ready to buy into the Rams at No. 6. VCU was one of the last teams in the field if not the last, but the Rams have played as well as any team in the field. They became the first team in NCAA tournament history to have to win three games in a week and all against high-level teams in USC, Georgetown and then the stunning dismantling of Purdue. VCU also has a legit shot to knock off Florida State and, I would say, should be favored.

BRENNAN: Agreed. If you had told me two weeks ago that I'd be writing the following sentence: "I can't wait to see VCU's offense match up with Florida State's defense with an Elite Eight berth on the line," I'd have told you to see a well-respected psychiatrist. But here we are.

No. 8, then? I'll admit that this is where I start to get a little flustered. I could go with Connecticut. I could go with BYU. I could go with Florida. I could go with San Diego State. In the end, I think I'll go with BYU, if only because that win over Gonzaga -- which came two days after Gonzaga destroyed St. John's -- was hugely impressive. Slot UConn in at No. 9 for similar reasons. Both teams have their stars on track, and both teams are getting timely, crucial contributions from supporting pieces.

KATZ: Well, you've jumped two spots on me, Eamonn. My top six right now are Ohio State, Kansas, Duke, UConn, North Carolina and VCU. For my No. 7, I'll head out West with Arizona. I love the way the Wildcats finished off Texas with a special play from Derrick Williams. Arizona also made the plays to take down Memphis in the second round.

As for No. 8, I'm going back to my Final Four pick out of the West in San Diego State. The Aztecs have lost two games this season -- both against BYU. San Diego State could have lost the Temple game twice but still found a way to win. I've already ranked three teams ahead of the Aztecs in the West. But I still think highly enough of them to keep them in the top eight.

BRENNAN: The San Diego State-UConn game is a hugely interesting one. I'm still not sure how I feel about this SDSU team's chances of knocking off Duke, provided that ends up being the Elite Eight matchup out West. You could see the Temple game either as a harbinger of future defeat -- maybe the Aztecs just really can't get shots against top defenses? -- or as a sign that this team's defense, although very good, isn't quite the elite unit the Aztecs need it to be. (After all, Temple's offense wasn't exactly brilliant this season.) Fact is, I remain unconvinced but intrigued.

Because we're already hovering around 10 or so teams apiece, I'll cut to the chase and just give you my whole Sweet 16 power rankings list. You do the same. Let's see whether there are any major bones of contention left to pick, especially among the bottom half:

1. Ohio State
2. VCU
3. Kansas
4. Duke
5. Wisconsin
6. UNC
7. Kentucky
8. BYU
9. UConn
10. Florida
11. San Diego State
12. Arizona
13. Butler
14. Richmond
15. Marquette
16. Florida State


KATZ: OK. So far I'm at:

1. Ohio State
2. Kansas
3. Duke
4. Connecticut
5. North Carolina
6. VCU
7. Arizona
8. San Diego State

Now here's where it gets interesting. My next line of teams are:

9. Kentucky
10. Florida State
11. Butler
12. Florida
13. BYU
14. Wisconsin
15. Marquette
16. Richmond

I know I'm going to hear it from Kentucky fans, but the Princeton game scares me from putting the Wildcats higher up on this power ranking food chain right now. Florida State was impressive in dismantling Notre Dame, but it was more about how poor the Irish were in that game. Butler has been a terrific story but should have lost to ODU and Pitt. Florida looked good in winning but against two mediocre tournament teams.

Although BYU crushed Gonzaga in surprising fashion, it's still early to push the Cougars higher in these rankings. The Badgers beat a solid Kansas State, but once again, I struggled to find a home for the them, Marquette can get fired up for a 15-slot on these rankings, but once again, the Golden Eagles beat teams that are similar (Xavier) or that they already had taken out (Syracuse).

Richmond probably has the longest shot to win at this juncture with Kansas staring the Spiders in the face in the Sweet 16. And the Spiders had what was probably the easiest third-round opponent in Morehead State.

I think you have Wisconsin too high and Arizona way too low. Other than that, I can't dispute it too much.

BRENNAN: Don't get me wrong: I was impressed with Arizona in its win over Texas. But the Longhorns did just about everything they could to lose that game -- and then some -- and Arizona allowed them to mount a second-half comeback and needed a remarkably lucky quick-trigger, five-second call to lead to the go-ahead basket late. Frankly, the Wildcats could just as easily have gone down in the first round to Memphis. (And I won't even bring up the no-call on Williams on Memphis' final possession. Wait ... whoops.)

I won't lie: I don't know how you can have Wisconsin that low. The Badgers utterly crushed a very good Belmont team in the first round, then proceeded to down one of the hotter teams, and hottest players, in the nation in Kansas State and Pullen two days later. And Taylor isn't going to play that poorly two games in a row.

I also think Florida State is a bit too high. If the Seminoles are making shots, they deserve that distinction, but if they revert to what they've been all season -- a great defensive team with no scoring to speak of -- they'll be right back to square one. And Richmond is probably still underrated. The Spiders got an easier third-round path to the Sweet 16, sure, but they did knock off a good Vanderbilt team to get there.

I know which fan base is going to be mad at both of us: Florida's. The Gators are No. 10 in my rankings and No. 12 in yours, and they feel they should be higher. I'm just not sure whom I'd bump to make that happen.

KATZ: I agree with you, Eamonn. Florida will not be pleased. But the Gators can prove us wrong, win the Southeast Regional and get to the title game. This season, that's all plausible.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for and can be reached at