The dream for every team that makes the NCAA Tournament is to win the national championship, but now that we're in the Sweet 16, that dream is much more real - though obviously some teams still have a much better chance than others.
Each team needs their stars to play well in order to advance in the tournament, but each team has one particular key to their gameplan that, when executed well or accomplished, gives them a great chance to advance. Here is that one key for each Sweet 16 team:
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#5 Kentucky Wildcats: Play the game at a fast pace
Thanks to a bundle of opening weekend upsets, Kentucky enters the Sweet 16 as the favorite to come out of the South. They've been playing their best basketball of the season at the right time, winning nine of their last 10 games, but this is still a group with flaws.
Kentucky still struggles to shoot from three, and while their half-court execution has improved thanks to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's growth running the show, they still struggle when the pace is slowed down due to that inability to stretch a defense. As good as the Wildcats looked in victories over Davidson and Buffalo, it's important to note that those wins aren't exactly telling about this team's upside. After all, they came over No. 12 and No. 13 seeds, respectively.
UK is at their best when they're out in transition and are real title threats if they can continue to play that way.
#7 Nevada Wolf Pack: Avoid slow starts
Nevada is shorthanded without Lindsey Drew, who is out for the season with a torn Achilles, and the Wolf Pack have been dealing with a very short bench to begin with. In fact, the same five players were on the court during Nevada's historic comeback over Cincinnati.
And there lies the problem - Nevada doesn't have the bodies to continually rally from the double-digits deficits they find themselves in without eventually tiring themselves out. Avoiding those holes early will be key for them.
#9 Kansas State Wildcats: Follow the Syracuse model
K-State is not a great offensive team (especially without the injured Dean Wade) but is one of the better defensive teams remaining in the tournament. Syracuse has the same pitfalls and roster limitations but has been able to make their own Sweet 16 run and pull upsets over high seeds by slowing the tempo and making the game ugly. Kansas State already plays that way to a certain extent, but they need to exaggerate that style to slow down whoever they'll face if they're going to make the Final Four.
#11 Loyola-Chicago Ramblers: Keep games close late
Obviously, Loyola has done this so far as they've won both of their tournament games on last-second shots. However, looking under the surface with this team, there's substance behind this run. They were among the most efficient teams in the country on both offense and defense during the season - which is why they were able to go blow-for-blow with very good teams in Miami and Tennessee.
I think the Ramblers are very capable of playing with all of the teams remaining in this region, but as the underdog, they'll continue to put major game pressure on their opponent if the game is close late. And, as we saw in the first weekend, Loyola knows how to win close games.
#1 Villanova Wildcats: Keep doing what you're doing
Villanova doesn't need to do anything differently. They've been the best team in the country all season long when totally healthy and showed their dominance on both offense and defense in that blowout win over Alabama.
Obviously, a team that shoots as many three-pointers as the Wildcats needs to be concerned about a cold shooting night, but they've shown a number of times this season that they're good enough everywhere else to overcome that. Right now, it looks like it's going to take a lot for someone to upset this group.
#2 Purdue Boilermakers: Let Carson Edwards take over
Purdue is being forced to change the way they play due to the Isaac Haas injury. He was their go-to guy in clutch situations and whenever they needed a basket to end a run.
Now, the Boilermakers have to figure out who will drive their offense. Sophomore point guard Carsen Edwards has already been carrying some of that burden, and even though this is a senior-laden team, Purdue's best chance to win is for them to turn everything over to their best player - which Edwards is.
#3 Texas Tech Red Raiders: Continued help for Keenan Evans
The Red Raiders are the best defensive team in the field now that both Virginia and Cincinnati have been eliminated, but the offensive play of Keenan Evans is why they were ranked in the top 10 this season. However, for Texas Tech to advance to the Final Four and beyond, they need another consistent offensive weapon.
Zhaire Smith stepped up as that option in Tech's win over Florida this weekend but needs to do so on a more frequent basis.
#5 West Virginia Mountaineers: Half-court offense
We know how good West Virginia's defense is. We also know how good Jevon Carter is. That said, in all of their losses this season, West Virginia has had one major problem - they go through extended stretches where they're unable to score off of their half-court offense. Neither Murray State nor Marshall was able to do anything to slow them down, but as they face better competition (starting with Villanova on Friday), that's a problem they need to fix or they won't advance.
#1 Kansas Jayhawks: A healthy Udoka Azubuike
Unfortunately, there's nothing Kansas can really do to control this, but they're not making a Final Four/national championship run without their only reliable big man. As good as KU's guards were against Seton Hall, the game was still close because of the way they were dominated inside. That game showed how critical Azubuike is to their success - especially in a potential Elite Eight matchup against Duke.
#2 Duke Blue Devils: Consistency on defense
Speaking of the Blue Devils, their season completely turned around when they switched to a 2-3 zone as their primary defense and now look like a championship favorite. However, that zone still has major holes when Duke doesn't communicate, which still happens from time to time. Offense isn't a struggle for a team with this much talent but they occasionally revert back to bad habits on the defensive end.
#5 Clemson Tigers: Gabe DeVoe, star player
Clemson played well above their talent level this season - which is a tribute to the job head coach Brad Brownell has done - but they've taken their game to another in the tournament thanks to point guard Gabe DeVoe.
He has done his best to step up since Donte Grantham went down with a knee injury in January, and his play has directly correlated to the success of the team. Since Grantham's injury, the Tigers are 8-0 when DeVoe scores at least 17 points. When he hasn't, Clemson is just 1-6.
In order for Clemson to continue their run, they're going to need DeVoe to continue to play at a high level.
#11 Syracuse Orange: Tyus Battle's offensive takeover
We already discussed Syracuse's offensive struggles and their strategy a little bit above, but it's worth mentioning again - they want to play extremely ugly in an effort to keep the game close until the end when they can rely on Tyus Battle to hit a big shot.
Battle has managed to do that in the tournament, but in order for the Orange to beat the likes of Duke and Kansas, they're going to need more consistent offense and Battle is the only guy who has shown he can provide it.
#3 Michigan Wolverines: Offensive execution
The Wolverines have uncharacteristically struggled offensively to this point in the tournament, but I don't have any reason to believe that will continue. They've been one of the best offensive teams in the country over the past month and simply looked rusty following the long layoff after the Big Ten Tournament.
Michigan has survived thanks to their top five defense but needs to get back to playing the high-level offense we've come to expect from this group if they're going to make the Final Four.
#4 Gonzaga Bulldogs: Backcourt consistency
Gonzaga had sizable leads over both UNC-Greensboro and Ohio State before seeing those leads vanish. Big shots from freshman Zach Norvell Jr. have ultimately bailed the Bulldogs out but the underlying problems with this team - inconsistent guard play and a lack of athleticism - have been the reason why the Zags have given up those leads. Finding consistency from that backcourt (Josh Perkins in particular) is the key to the Zags making their second consecutive Final Four.
#7 Texas A&M Aggies: Quality play out of T.J. Starks
Texas A&M has suddenly started playing like the team that rose to No. 5 in the country in December as opposed to the team that went 9-10 in SEC play. Why? Freshman point guard T.J. Starks has finally given the Aggies some reliable play at the position.
Robert Williams and Tyler Davis provide Texas A&M with one of the better frontcourts in the country, but guard play matters more than anything else in the NCAA Tournament. Starks has provided that, averaging 18.0 points and 6.5 assists per game in the tournament - up from 10.1 points and 2.3 assists in the regular season. That needs to continue for the Aggies if they're going to make the Final Four.
#9 Florida State Seminoles: Balanced attack
Florida State is one of the most puzzling teams in the tournament this year. They were 4-6 in their last 10 games heading into the Big Dance and don't have any one thing they do particularly well. However, they've managed to go on two runs (first half vs. Missouri, second half vs. Xavier) that have kept their season going.
How have they managed to do so? An extremely balanced attack. The Noles had 10 different players score against Missouri and had five players reach double figures against the Musketeers. I have my doubts about this team, but if they can continue to play as a team and get contributions from everyone, there's a chance they can continue their run.Back to the NCAA Newsfeed