The best thing about a chalkish Sweet 16 is that the potential for top quality teams to make it to the Final Four is very high. In a way, we’re on pace for a perfect NCAA Tournament —well, not for you, Sparty—in that we got some historic upsets in the first round and some incredibly close games with buzzer-beaters galore and multiple overtimes over the first weekend en masse, but the 16 teams that made it to the second week are pretty darn good, with no true party crashers.
Of the 256 potential Final Four possibilities to come out of the Sweet 16—four regions and four teams in each makes for a ton of options for Houston—there are some outcomes that are surely more likely than others, and there are some outcomes we, as a college basketball collective, know will be more fun to watch than the rest. Here’s a look at some of the best and worst options for the 2016 NCAA Basketball Final Four.
There weren’t a lot of upsets in the first two rounds that had too much impact on the bracket (ahem Michigan State) and those double-digit seeds that did advance to the Sweet 16 are unfortunately playing each other. Unfortunately for them!
Sure, we are guaranteed one 10 or 11 seed in the Elite Eight, but that also means no other region has a seed worse than a seven still alive. And that knowledge leads to the worst of all potential Final Four options—upsets in every game, in every region.
A No. 1 seed has made the Final Four in eight of the last nine seasons, but what if none of the four remaining top seeds get to Houston this year? What if they all lose in the Sweet 16, and the upset trend follows in the Elite Eight? We’d be left with a Final Four of No. 7 Wisconsin, No. 11 Gonzaga, No. 5 Maryland and No. 4 Duke.
That average ranking of 6.75 would be worst than the 2011 Final Four which featured a 3,4,8 and 11 seeds, making it the worst Final Four, by seed, ever.
All ACC (the bad one)
The ACC has a record six teams in the Sweet 16, almost guaranteeing that at least one will make it to the Final Four. But what if four make it? And what if those four aren’t the four the rest of the country wants to see?
Gone would be North Carolina and Virginia, both top seeds. Instead, we could have an all ACC Final Four with No. 6 Notre Dame, No. 10 Syracuse, No. 3 Miami and No 4. Duke. That Final Four would be competitive, but nobody—not even the ACC—wants to see it.
What’s the opposite of tradition?
Of the 16 teams that remain in the NCAA field, 13 have gone to a Final Four at least once in school history.
North Carolina leads the way with 18 Final Fours, followed in this field by Duke with 16 and Kansas with 14. Indiana has reached the Final Four eight times, Syracuse five, Oklahoma and Wisconsin four apiece. Villanova has been to the Final Four four times, but the 1971 appearance was vacated after a player had been ruled ineligible. Maryland and Virginia have each been to the Final Four twice and Iowa State, Notre Dame and Oregon have all gone once in school history.
Only Gonzaga, Texas A&M and Miami haven’t made it to the Final Four, so if we advance those three teams and throw in Notre Dame, the least storied program in a stacked East Regional this season, we would get a Final Four with very little history at all.
Defense wins (boring) championships
There are some fantastic defenses left in the NCAA Tournament, and while Virginia is clearly the class of the bunch, we shouldn’t be rooting for the Cavaliers if we want to see a fast-paced, open competition for the title.
Virginia surrenders just 59.5 points per game this season and they score just 70.9, the third lowest in the Sweet 16. Virginia and Syracuse—two teams favored to face each other in the Elite Eight—are ranked 231 and 243 in the nation, respectively, in scoring offense. Add in Virginia’s stifling defense—ranked second in the country only behind Wichita State in points allowed per game—and they are certainly more boring (if scoring is your thing) than Syracuse, which ranks 27th in defensive scoring, giving up 64.8 points per game while scoring just north of 70.
Wisconsin may be the most boring team in the tournament, both in terms of style and production. They allow 63.9 points per game (18th in the nation) while scoring just 68.1 points (278.)
The South doesn’t really have a boring team. Villanova has the best defense, giving up 63.6 points per game (15) but they score the second most in the region too, dropping 77.5 per game this season. Maybe the answer is Miami, as they score 75.4 ppg (121) while giving up 66.7 (51).
In the West, it’s certainly not Duke or Oklahoma, that’s for sure, as both teams are in the top 20 in scoring and rank 184 and 147, respectively in defensive scoring. Somewhat by default it would be Texas A&M, which gives up just 66.1 points per game (43) while scoring 76.8 (84) the fewest in the region.
Offense can win championships too
There are six teams in the tournament that average more than 80 points per game. North Carolina and Indiana are nearly identical at 82.5 per game, and they both give up just about 69 on the defensive end. Let’s give the nod to the top seed.
Kansas averages 82 points per game as well, the most in the South, while Iowa State in the Midwest not only scores just over 82 this season, they give up 74.7 points per game, ranked 249 in the NCAA. Out West, Duke edges Oklahoma by a point, and nearly a point and a half to the bad on the defensive end.
It might not be better basketball, but if it’s higher scoring, anything can happen, so it’s surely more exciting.
All ACC (the good one)
We talked about the bad ACC Final Four, but the good one is really, really good.
North Carolina would face Virginia in a battle of conference titans, with the winner taking on the victor of a game between Miami and Duke. Looking at the bracket, this Final Four isn’t just a hypothetical option, it’s a real possibility. No conference has ever sent four teams to the Final Four, and this year the ACC has as good a chance as any.
The Best Players (and Senior Leaders)
This one is simple: which team has the best players, and the players we want to watch? Sure, Duke has Grayson Allen, Brandon Ingram and one of the last remaining Plumlees on Planet Basketball, but Oklahoma has Buddy Hield and…a bunch of other guys who are also playing with Buddy Hield.
Indiana has Yogi Ferrell, but Carolina has a slew of top players, led by Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige if he can ever figure out how to hit a damn shot.
Maryland has tremendous talent, and so do Miami and Villanova, but Kansas has riden this wave “we don’t have any stars” despite the efforts of Frank Mason III, Wayne Selden Jr. Devonté Graham and Perry Ellis, and it doesn’t look like it will be ending soon.
Gonzaga has Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer, but Virginia has solid players like London Perrantes and Anthony Gill to pair with national player of the year candidate Malcolm Brogdon.
What’s more, Virginia has the most seniors on its roster in the Midwest region, and that means something in this tournament. There are a ton of seniors and graduate students on these teams—55 across the 16 teams, to be exact—and while some of them are walk-ons or bit players, many have leading roles for their teams.
All four top seeds have made the Final Four one time since the tournament expanded back in the 1970s. That year, 2008, both North Carolina and Kansas made the last weekend, with Kansas winning the title.
With three top seeds making the Final Four last year, it would be a pretty wonderful outcome if they all made it this year. Certainly, it would make for some great basketball.