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Jay Bilas’ NCAA tournament rankings: Sweet 16 edition

The 2019 NCAA tournament has been another great national championship event. Of course, those who are uneducated in the game, mistaking close contests for good basketball, claim that this tournament is a yawner because it doesn’t meet their standard for entertainment value — not enough buzzer-beaters or backdoor covers.

Instead, you have a confirmation of what The Bilastrator told you in the regular season (a regular season that matters in basketball): A few top teams were separated from the unwashed masses, there was a very soft bubble and there was only a handful of “little guys” who were legitimate threats to the top teams. When analytics gurus told you there were “historically great teams,” The Bilastrator pushed back and told you that his trained eye and massive brain determined that the middle and end of the pack were soft, which made the upper middle and very top look a bit better.

The Sweet 16 is interesting. Usually, after a crazy first two days in which a few big shots are picked off like wildebeests that stray from the herd crossing a crocodile-infested river, the tournament normalizes, and the cream rises. By late Sunday night, there are usually 13 major conference teams and three mid-major teams making up the Sweet 16. This year is a bit different. The top 14 teams in the KenPom rankings advanced. All four No. 1 seeds advanced. All four No. 2 seeds advanced. All four No. 3 seeds advanced. Two No. 4 seeds advanced. One No. 5 seed advanced. One double-digit seed advanced, a 12-seed.

Meanwhile, 14 of the Sweet 16 teams are from Power 5 conferences. Five ACC teams advanced. Four SEC teams advanced. Three Big Ten teams advanced. One Big 12 team advanced. One Pac-12 team advanced. Houston and Gonzaga advanced. Every team that College GameDay visited this season is in the Sweet 16.

As The Bilastrator told you in January, there is not a long list of teams that can win the whole thing. There are a half-dozen teams that are national championship-worthy, and all are still alive in the tournament. There are a couple of more that can sneak to a Final Four if one of the big shots were to fall down and have a catastrophe. But as you were told in so many editions of The Bilas Index this season, there are a select few that can cut down the nets in Minneapolis while freezing their tokuses off. Now that we are down to 16 teams, The Bilastrator will gladly provide you with The Bilas Index: Sweet 16 Edition. You’re welcome.

1. Duke Blue Devils

The Blue Devils advanced in dramatic fashion with a nail-biting win over UCF. This is the most talented team, with three lottery picks, two of whom can score almost at will in the paint. Duke’s paint scoring comes in large part from its defense, drives and offensive rebounds. Duke defends the ball and gets out into the open floor as well as any team in America, and the only things that can stop Duke are poor perimeter shooting and foul trouble. Any team that has Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett is the best team. Can this team be beaten? Absolutely. But so can every other team on this list.

2. North Carolina Tar Heels

Two months ago, it would have been difficult to imagine that North Carolina would be this good. For those who didn’t know or refused to admit it, Roy Williams is truly one of the great coaches of all time. He will not give in, and he develops his teams and players as well as anybody ever. The improvement of the Tar Heels’ defense, the relentless pursuit of the ball on the glass and the dogged determination to run are all amazing to watch — and ridiculously consistent. Cameron Johnson is one of the great (and underappreciated) college players this season. He never misses. Kenny Williams is the glue, Coby White is the speed and Garrison Brooks is the fiber. Luke Maye is the heart, and he’s all heart. If there is a better group of guys playing in the tournament, I’d have a hard time pointing them out.

3. Virginia Cavaliers

The Cavaliers looked traumatized in the first half against Gardner-Webb. They looked like fearful fliers during turbulence, white-knuckling through the flight, which is no way to play. The catastrophe of last season’s UMBC loss weighed on everyone’s mind and was not lost on the players. If Virginia had lost that game, it would’ve been akin to Michael Phelps losing in an Olympic prelim by drowning. Things normalized in the second half, and Virginia has been itself since. This is a fantastic basketball team. It is not as strong in the paint as past Virginia teams, but this team can shoot from multiple spots, with four players shooting over 40 percent from deep. Kyle Guy is a junior JJ Redick with his ability to move without the ball and hit tough ones, De’Andre Hunter is a lottery pick who can guard 1 through 5, and Ty Jerome is one of the nation’s best passers. Virginia has a good draw for a Final Four, too. It ain’t easy, but it is more than doable.

4. Gonzaga Bulldogs

Mark Few must be asking what he did to deserve this draw. To reach Minneapolis with his team in tow, Few has to navigate Florida State and the winner of Texas Tech-Michigan. Yikes. That will be two very physical, “crusade to score” games against ridiculously good defensive teams. But this is a ridiculously good offensive team. The Gonzaga backcourt is underrated. Josh Perkins is a creative passer and good scorer, and Zach Norvell is a shot-maker who can get hot in a hurry. Rui Hachimura is a star, but so is Brandon Clarke. Clarke is a pogo-stick jumper who protects the rim and scores around it like few others in the college game. Clarke will be the difference against Florida State.

5. Michigan State Spartans

The Spartans should not be this good. With so many injuries, including the loss of Joshua Langford, it seems impossible that this team could be top-five and still among the half-dozen favorites to win the whole thing. Tom Izzo has done a masterful job with this group, which is not as talented as some of his prior Final Four teams. Cassius Winston is the best passing point guard in the tournament and the engine of the team. But the keys to the team are Kenny Goins and Xavier Tillman, two guys who are known as “role players.” If they continue to play at a high level, the Spartans can be champions. Michigan State is one of only five teams, all still alive in the Sweet 16, that are in the top 11 in both adjusted offensive and adjusted defensive efficiency.

6. Kentucky Wildcats

This one is simple. Kentucky is top-five if PJ Washington is healthy and playing. Kentucky is not among the top 10 without him. The win over Wofford was one of the best wins of the tournament because the Wildcats are not the powerful interior scoring and finishing team without Washington, one of the nation’s best players. Kentucky’s defense was stellar against one of the best shooting teams in the country in Wofford, a top-10 offensive team. That defense will keep Kentucky competitive against anyone, but to score with anyone, Washington needs to be in the lineup.

7. Michigan Wolverines

The Wolverines have a great draw. The game against Texas Tech pits the two best defensive teams in the country, but Michigan has better offense. Will that carry the day? Zavier Simpson, known as “Captain Hook” for his running hook shot that he banks off the glass, is no longer a liability from the foul line, and that could be the difference late in a game. With a healthy Charles Matthews, Michigan is in a great position to reach the Final Four.

8. Tennessee Volunteers

An old-school team with players who grew up together, the Volunteers are fully prepared for this challenge. The matchup with Purdue will be determined by Tennessee’s ability to limit Carsen Edwards, the best scorer remaining in the tournament. Jordan Bone is the best point guard in the SEC, and Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield are a formidable, undersized tandem of scoring frontcourt players. Tennessee can score with almost anyone. The question is whether Tennessee can defend and rebound on the defensive end at a high level for extended stretches.

9. Florida State Seminoles

This team is tough to deal with because of its size, athleticism and incredible depth of talent. Leonard Hamilton brings in big, strong body after big, strong body. This team plays hard and is relentless on the defensive end. The way to beat Florida State is to make the Seminoles cough up the ball, which they do at a nearly 20 percent clip. Florida State has won 15 of its past 17 games, losing only to Duke and North Carolina.

10. LSU Tigers

Talented and athletic, with two shot-makers and playmakers in Skylar Mays and Tremont Waters, LSU is good. The way to beat the Tigers is to rebound the ball. The LSU initial-shot defense is good, but the Tigers are vulnerable on the defensive glass. Michigan State can exploit that if the Spartans do not turn the ball over.

11. Texas Tech Red Raiders

This is the best defensive team in the country, and the offense has consistently improved the past two months. Don’t get caught up in the numbers with this team because only the numbers of the past month really count. That is who Texas Tech is. Jarrett Culver is a spectacular player who will have the opportunity to show it off. He is one of the best and most efficient players in the country. He is a star now, but he is just scratching the surface of how good he is going to be. That’s scary.

12. Houston Cougars

The Cougars are tough as nails. Undersized at almost every position, Houston fights. The Cougars fight for rebounds, fight for position, fight for loose balls and fight for respect. Well, they have the latter, and they will continue to fight for the former three. Will Houston beat Kentucky? With a healthy PJ Washington, probably not. Without Washington, Houston will win. It is that simple. I love this Houston team.

13. Purdue Boilermakers

This is an excellent offensive team — and not just because of the greatness of Carsen Edwards. Watch this team run offense; it is beautiful. On the defensive end, Purdue is very good but not quite as powerful. Nojel Eastern is an underrated defender, and he can guard anyone. Purdue has beaten Villanova and Michigan State this season. The Boilermakers are capable of beating Tennessee. They would not be favored against Virginia.

14. Auburn Tigers

The Tigers had the best performance of the tournament against Kansas, and they played fearless offensive basketball. Auburn brings chaos at both ends of the floor, turning you over and stretching you out with fearless 3-point shooting. Bryce Brown and Jared Harper make up a fabulous backcourt, but they are not alone in importance. Six Tigers have hit 30 or more 3-pointers this season, and Auburn turns opponents over on 25 percent of possessions. This team is a pain to play.

15. Virginia Tech Hokies

With a healthy Justin Robinson, the Hokies are legit. What Virginia Tech does as well as anyone is shoot the ball from deep (39.5 percent, ninth in the country). They run great actions, and they have a versatile big man in Kerry Blackshear Jr. He can hit from deep and drive it, and he is a fabulous passer out of the high post and low post.

16. Oregon Ducks

What a turnaround for Oregon. The Ducks have won 10 in a row because of defense (15th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom), Kenny Wooten‘s shot-blocking and finishing, and Payton Pritchard‘s leadership, scoring and passing. The Ducks can spread you out, and they play with deliberate speed on both ends. This team isn’t fast-paced (328th in tempo), but when it has a chance to run, it runs.

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