INDIANAPOLIS — Two more days until the Final Four field is set.
Before we take that huge step to the ultimate stage of the season, let’s look for a few minutes at the Elite Eight and evaluate how this octet of schools got here. Time for a rank and re-seed. I’m listing the teams based on a combination of tournament performance and team strength. I watched every one of these squads win in the past two days, so some in-person takeaways will be included as well.
It’s an assorted group, this Elite Eight. This year marks the first time since 2011 that we won’t have a regional final between a No. 1 and No. 2 seed. No. 11 UCLA’s upset of No. 2 Alabama secured the 13th upset of this tournament (an upset is defined by the NCAA as a team seeded five spots or worse defeating its opponent). The 2021 Big Dance is now tied with 1985 and 2014 as the most upset-riddled brackets in history. And we’ve still go three rounds to go — and three more opportunities in the next two days.
All of these teams have been impressive — how could you not be when you make it this far? — but here’s how I would rank them heading into Monday evening.
Who they’ve beaten: No. 16 Norfolk State, No. 8 Oklahoma, No. 5 CreightonWhat I’ve seen: The best team in college basketball this season — and in many seasons. It was a joy to watch Gonzaga peacefully pull away, like a stroll through a field, vs. Creighton Sunday afternoon at Hinkle Fieldhouse. (Zags 83, Jays 65.) The Bulldogs have won their first three games by an average of 22.3 points and are showing almost no signs of weakness. Corey Kispert was the team’s leading scorer in the first round; Drew Timme has been the most valuable player, and high scorer, the past two. Tuesday night it may well be Jalen Suggs, who is maybe the most irresistible player in terms of watchability in this tournament. Three wins down, three more to go for sports immortality. No. 6 USC should provide Gonzaga’s toughest test since December.
Who they’ve beaten: No. 16 Hartford, No. 9 Wisconsin, No. 5 VillanovaWhat I’ve seen: A team that’s almost completely fallen back into its groove of dominance. The Bears have won their three games by an average of 16.0 points and performed as the fourth-best defensive unit in the tournament, according to BartTorvik.com’s metrics. Scott Drew’s Bears were down 30-23 at the half vs. Villanova at Hinkle on Saturday — then outscored Nova 37-21 in the second half and held the Wildcats to one of their worst offensive outputs in tournament play in program history. Against Wisconsin, Baylor had just four turnovers, none of which were of the live-ball variety. Against Nova, just six turnovers. BU’s 6.7 turnover average is the lowest of any team still standing. One more win gets the Bears to their first Final Four since 1950, under Bill Henderson.
Who they’ve beaten: No. 16 Texas Southern, No. 8 LSU, No. 4 Florida StateWhat I’ve seen: A skillfully coached team that was faded hard by many and predicted to fall prior to the Elite Eight (OK, and the Sweet 16) but has nonetheless averaged 81.3 points without its best player (Isaiah Livers) and separated from all of its opponents by the 10-minute mark of the second half. I almost put Michigan above Baylor, but without Livers I think the seeding needs to still be this way. The Wolverines got buckets at will Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse vs. Florida State. U-M had 15 second-half layups and disassembled FSU’s intimidating, long defense to cruise along again. Juwan Howard has pulled off a fabulous coaching job. No school has more NCAA Tournament wins since 2013 than Michigan’s 17.
4. USC Trojans
Who they’ve beaten: No. 11 Drake, No. 3 Kansas, No. 7 OregonWhat I’ve seen: An overlooked team finally getting its respect. USC has won its three games by 64 points, which is the second-largest aggregate margin of victory by any seed No. 6 or worse in history. Listen, my bracket is sort of a shambles. (Though five out of eight isn’t TOO bad.) But the one non-obvious Elite Eight pick I nailed was the same one I’ve been telling you about in the Power Rankings and on CBS Sports HQ since January: USC is legit, a team I tabbed as a Final Four dark horse months ago. The Trojans elbowed Oregon out of the way early in the first half of Sunday’s final tip and never looked back. This team is more than the Mobley Bros., but having them sure does present one mind-meld of a puzzle for opponents. Andy Enfield basically built this team with almost nothing but transfers. It’s going to be an unreal story if it can pull off the upset Tuesday.
Who they’ve beaten: No. 15 Cleveland State, No. 10 Rutgers, No. 11 SyracuseWhat I’ve seen: The No. 3-ranked team at KenPom get a little bit lucky but also exert its will on teams. The victory against Cleveland State is an afterthought at this point, but how about the Rutgers escape from last weekend? Had the Scarlet Knights not forgotten how to play basketball for much of the final two minutes of that game, Houston’s hanging at the crib at this point. Houston went Houston, though; it won ugly, and proudly. The win against Syracuse Saturday night was authoritative. I saw Kelvin Sampson’s team decide, with emphasis, that Syracuse was just done. The 62-46 win marked SU’s lowest point total in program history in the NCAAs. If Houston wins Monday, it will become the first team to make the Final Four without playing a single-digit seed.
6. UCLA Bruins
Who they’ve beaten: No. 11 Michigan State, No. 6 BYU, No. 14 Abilene Christian, No. 2 AlabamaWhat I’ve seen: A revival of a blue blood. UCLA’s 88-78 win over Alabama Sunday night at Hinkle was a game I’d rank in the top three of the tournament. The vibe of that building in a good game is tantalizing, even at 25% capacity. They have to figure out a way to play tourney games in Hinkle every four years or so moving forward. It would be a missed opportunity otherwise. The way UCLA pulled off its OT win on Bama was probably not something that can be duplicated in the next decade-plus of tournament competition. UCLA had merely 25 points in the second half … then dropped 23 on Alabama’s head in OT, doing so after the Crimson Tide’s Alex Reese hit a 26-foot shot at the end of the second half to (temporarily) save the Tide’s hide. UCLA lost its best player, Johnny Juzang, to a foul-out with 2:26 to go in a 60-all game. UCLA is the first team since VCU in 2011 to play in the First Four and reach the Elite Eight. UCLA’s also the third No. 11 seed to beat a No. 2 in history.
Who they’ve beaten: No. 14 Colgate, No. 6 Texas Tech, No. 15 Oral RobertsWhat I’ve seen: The team that’s had the shakiest way to get to this point. The Razorbacks beat TTU and Oral Roberts by two points apiece and would no longer be in the field had Max Abmas’ 3-point attempt been two inches to the right. But it wasn’t, and Arkansas is still dancing. The No. 3 seed in the South is set for a SWC reunion vs. Baylor. Per Torvik, Arkansas is pretty clearly playing the least efficiently of any team still left. But it won’t be put last because this is obviously not the worst of the group. Eric Musselman knows his team has to have better shot selection in order to get the Hogs back to the Four for the first time since 1995. Could be a spicy one vs. Baylor Monday night.
Who they’ve beaten: No. 5 Tennessee, No. 4 Oklahoma State, No. 8 Loyola ChicagoWhat I’ve seen: One of the most unlikely regional-final runs from a power-conference team in history. Oregon State’s win at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Saturday afternoon was a dose of Loyola’s own medicine. The Beavers are back in the Elite Eight for the first time in 39 years, doing so in no small part because of foul shooting. Oregon State is shooting 86.2% from the stripe (56 for 65), the highest rate in this year’s Dance. With UCLA and OSU still alive, it marks the third time an NCAA Tournament has two double-digit seeds playing in the Elite Eight (1990 and 2002 the other ones). OSU’s opponents are shooting 23.1% from 3-point range, which in turn has made OSU the third-stingiest defense, behind USC and Gonzaga, in the tournament.