Posted: Tuesday March 22, 2005 12:35PM; Updated: Wednesday March 23, 2005 12:18PM
No more polls, no more RPI ratings, no more Luke Winn Power Rankings. No matter who you think the 16 best teams were this season, the only ones that matter are the 16 that can still win the national championship.
The following list of Sweet 16 teams isn't necessarily a ranking from best to worst. It's the order of who has the best chance of cutting down the nets April 4, based on their remaining draw, potential matchups and what we've seen from them in the first two rounds:
Not only did the Tar Heels look untouchable in blitzing Oakland (96-68) and Iowa State (92-65), but the rest of their region also parted like the Red Sea. North Carolina's next opponent, five-seed Villanova, lost star big-man Curtis Sumpter for the rest of the tourney (ACL tear), and the Heels' potential Elite Eight foe will be either six-seed Wisconsin, which was fortunate just to survive Northern Iowa and Bucknell, or 10-seed N.C. State, whom the Tar Heels beat by double digits in each of their two regular-season meetings.
There's no question the Illini face a tougher road to get to the Final Four than the Tar Heels. While Illinois' guards will likely be the antidote that finally diffuses Cinderella Wisconsin-Milwaukee's pesky press, either Elite Eight opponent, Oklahoma State or Arizona, has the type of players who can run with the Illini.
Eddie Sutton's team has its work cut out for it in Chicago this weekend, but if it can make it through that gantlet it can make it through anything. On the surface, you might think the Cowboys' closer-than-expected opening wins over Southeast Louisiana (63-50) and Southern Illinois (85-77) were signs of trouble, but on the contrary, the fact they advanced despite low productivity from star Joey Graham is a scary sign for future opponents. And their physical defense could cause problems for Sweet 16 foe Arizona.
Granted, the Blue Devils looked shaky against Delaware State (57-46) and Mississippi State (63-55), but they're still the best of the remaining bunch in Austin and they're the one team left that can beat North Carolina. That said, upcoming opponent Michigan State did give the Blue Devils trouble before falling 81-74 in a Nov. 30 meeting at Cameron, but if Duke can survive the Spartans, big man Shelden Williams would give them an advantage against Kentucky and is possibly the one player in America who could neutralize Utah-star Andrew Bogut.
No disrespect to Washington, but the Cardinals are still our favorite to make it out of Albuquerque, which became substantially weaker with the early exits of the No. 2 (Wake Forest) and No. 3 (Gonzaga) seeds. Louisville has won 11 consecutive games, and if it makes it to the Final Four, tenacious perimeter defenders Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean would give them a fighting chance against players such as Illinois' Dee Brown, Oklahoma State's Graham and Arizona's Salim Stoudamire.
After largely cruising through their first two games against Montana (88-77) and Pacific (97-79), the Huskies face a stern test next in Louisville. A win, however, would go a long way toward validating them as a top seed, and they'd get a break the next round by facing either six-seed Texas Tech or seven-seed West Virginia. How much fun would it be to watch Nate Robinson and the Huskies' speedy guards go against Brown and the Illini in the Final Four?
UAB's full-court press proved little resistance for the Wildcats in an 85-63 second-round victory thanks, in part, to Stoudamire's outside shooting. Arizona is playing well, but faces a daunting challenge to make it out of its regional, which has Oklahoma State and Illinois. The Wildcats also lost two of three to Albuquerque top-seed Washington.
Tubby Smith's aggressive defense can give any team trouble, but these Wildcats would be an even bigger surprise than Smith's 1998 team if they win the title. They're raw, and they lack the big-time scorer a team usually needs to carry them the distance. You never know, though; freshman point guard Rajon Rondo could reprise the role of Arizona's Mike Bibby in 1997.