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Welcome to one of the most unexpected Elite Eights of all-time. After an archaic first three rounds of the NCAA tournament, there are four games left to determine who will make the trip to San Antonio for this year’s Final Four.
The last group standing at the regional finals features a No. 11 seed in Loyola and two No. 9 seeds in Florida State and Kansas State. It also features a pair of No. 1 seeds, with Villanova and Kansas both taking care of business thus far. Second-seeded Duke looms as a major national title threat.
Who’s the favorite to win it all right now? This is the Elite Eight, ranked.
8. Kansas State
This NCAA tournament has been defined by the unexpected, but there’s perhaps nothing more surprising than K-State’s run to the Elite Eight. The Wildcats were lucky to avoid top-seeded Virginia in favor of No. 16 UMBC in the round of 32. They somehow won a game against favored Kentucky in the Sweet 16 where they shot just 35 percent from the field.
Kansas State plays slow, ugly basketball, but it’s put them one win away from the Final Four. The Wildcats might mostly be a group of three-star recruits, but they defend at a top-15 level and do well to control the tempo in their favor (which is slow).
All K-State has to do to get to the Final Four is beat a MVC team in Loyola. That game feels like a toss-up.
7. Florida State
Florida State was a mediocre ACC team most of the season, finishing eighth in the standings with a 9-9 record and losing their first conference tournament game to a Louisville team that was snubbed from this field. So how the heck has this Elite Eight run happened?
You can start with a rare combination of size and depth, which has allowed FSU to grind down opponents Xavier and Gonzaga in their last two games. The roster lacks the projected NBA draft picks Florida State has had in recent years, but this is still a group of big, strong athletes that plays fast, gets you into foul trouble and makes momentum-changing plays on defense.
There’s nothing particularly attractive about Florida State’s brand of ball, it’s undeniably effective. Write them off at your own peril.
Loyola feels like a team of destiny right now. The Ramblers have won three NCAA tournament games by a combined four points on three game-winners by three different players. Does Loyola have any more magic left?
The last second drama for Loyola has obscured the fact that it was always a very good mid-major, one that now stands 31-5 on the season. The Ramblers rank top-25 in the country in defensive efficiency, hit 40 percent of their threes as a team and have a legit star at point guard in Missouri Valley Player of the Year (and former Iowa State recruit) Clayton Custer.
The Ramblers like to play slow and grind out victories, so they’re never going to have a big margin for error. It doesn’t matter. Loyola just keeps winning.
5. Texas Tech
Texas Tech could be the most athletic team and the best defensive team left standing. The Red Raiders are a top-five team in defensive efficiency, and they’re proving it in the tournament. No team has hit the 70s against Texas Tech so far in their three-game tournament run.
Keenan Evans is playing like the star senior point guard teams need to make a run in March. Zhaire Smith is a two-way force who is shooting up NBA draft boards. A matchup with Nova won’t be easy, but if any team has the defense to slow down the Wildcats, it’s Texas Tech.
Why does it feel like everyone is sleeping on the Jayhawks? As almost every other national title favorite has fallen in embarrassing fashion during the NCAA tournament, Kansas just keeps winning and winning big.
This isn’t your classic two-post Bill Self team. The Jayhawks play small around massive center Udoka Azubuike, flooding the floor with shooters and letting star point guard Devonte Graham run the show. The Jayhawks can heat up in a hurry from the outside, and that will be a big benefit against Duke’s zone in the Elite Eight.
This isn’t one of the most talented teams Self has had, but the pieces do fit together well, there’s a star senior point guard and a 280-pound center no one can matchup with. Credit the Jayhawks for being the rare powerhouse not to lay an egg in this tournament so far.
Michigan rides into the Sweet 16 on an 11-game winning streak. It took a miracle buzzer-beater from Jordan Poole to beat Houston and get them to the second weekend, but no team was more impressive in the Sweet 16 than the Wolverines.
Michigan thrashed a Texas A&M team that had just drilled North Carolina, hanging 99 points on the Aggies and turning the game into an offensive exhibition. Moritz Wagner is a star, and he’s surrounded by a group of capable wings, led by Charles Mathews and Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman. This is also the best defensive team of John Beilein’s career, ranked No. 3 in efficiency on KenPom. That’s a scary combination.
Michigan doesn’t have elite recruits or top NBA talents, but the pieces fit together, there’s balance, and it might be the best coached team in the tournament. If Michigan isn’t the favorite right now, it feels like a favorite.
The Blue Devils are finally playing up to their preseason hype. This is one of the youngest team’s in college basketball, but it’s also the most talented team on paper. The Blue Devils appeared to have real problems for most of the season, but there’s no doubt this team is playing its best ball at the right time.
Duke’s defense was a major question mark for most of the year, but a switch to a full-time zone now has Coach K’s team ranked in the top-10 of defensive efficiency. Duke is using its length and athleticism to its advantage on defense now, cutting off passing lanes and quickly closing out on shooters.
The offense has never been a question mark. Marvin Bagley III is the most dominant player left in the field. Fellow freshmen Wendell Carter and Gary Trent are also coming into their own. Senior guard Grayson Allen is still here too, providing shooting and scoring punch on the wing.
It’s a shame Duke vs. Villanova would be a Final Four matchup and not the national title. Because there’s only one team that seems like it could take the Blue Devils right now …
Villanova’s offense is operating at a historically high level right now. The Wildcats have the second best offensive efficiency rating of the KenPom era (since 2002) and they’re proving it in the tournament. Nova’s 44 threes through the first three games of this tournament are the most in NCAA tournament history.
‘Nova puts five shooters on the floor and gives the controls to star junior point guard Jalen Brunson. Brunson was brilliant against West Virginia, finishing with 25 points in the win. The Wildcats’ defense is also starting to come around, now ranking in the top-20 of the country in efficiency.
In one of the most chaotic tournaments ever, Nova exists as a real favorite. This looks like the best team in college basketball right now.