Sweet 16 preview: Sleeper picks for the Final Four

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March has officially gone insane. After a historic weekend, 16 teams remain, and the field is a strange one. Only two No. 1 seeds made it to the Sweet 16 — the fewest since 2004 — and though just one Cinderella is left, there are as many No. 7, No. 9 and No. 11 seeds as No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 seeds.

For the first time ever, one region sends none of its top four seeds to the Sweet 16, as Virginia, Cincinnati, Tennessee and Arizona were all upset in the South.

UMBC’s win over Virginia marked the first victory ever for a No. 16 seed over a No. 1 seed in the tournament, and the Retrievers didn’t just win—they blew Virginia out. UMBC entered the game as 20-point underdogs and left with a 20-point win, busting countless brackets along the way.

The dust has settled on last week’s insanity, but March still has some madness left in it. These next two rounds feature some interesting matchups, and some surprise teams could make it to the Final Four. Here are three teams to look out for heading into this weekend.

Loyola Chicago (11th seed)

The Ramblers are on a 12-game winning streak and haven’t lost since late January. Led by dynamic scorers Clayton Custer and Donte Ingram, who both hit game-winners last weekend, Loyola Chicago has an efficient and balanced offense.

They shoot 50.6 percent from the field — good for 3rd in the nation — and have a long-range threat in Custer, who shoots 46 percent from deep. The Ramblers’ team-oriented offense also features five players who average 10 or more points per game.

On the defensive end, Loyola Chicago is stout as well: Ingram’s 6’6” frame makes it tough on opposing guards to create offense, and the Ramblers allow the fewest points of all the teams left in the tournament at 62.2 points per game.

Loyola Chicago’s schedule is also favorable. Today, they face off against No. 7 seed Nevada, which came back from a 22-point deficit to defeat Cincinnati last week. Nevada has an explosive offense but an extremely porous defense — the team comes in at in 109th adjusted defensive rating — providing a hole that the Ramblers have the weapons to exploit. If the game comes down to the line, defense will decide the game, and on this front, Loyola Chicago has the edge.

If the Ramblers can defeat Nevada, they will need to get past either 5th-seed Kentucky or 9th-seed Kansas State, two very beatable teams, to reach the Final Four.

Clemson (5th seed)

Clemson’s path to the Final Four is a bit more treacherous, as it must beat No. 1 seed Kansas and likely No. 2 seed Duke to make it to San Antonio. The Tigers, though, have the pieces required to compete with these college basketball blue bloods.

Clemson is a quick team; the Tigers start three speedy guards and two nimble 6’8” forwards, who swarm the ball on defense and push the ball in transition. Guards Gabe DeVoe and Marcquise Reed lead the way on offense, as both penetrate well and make plays for their teammates.

DeVoe is also a high-volume, high-efficiency three-point shooter, as he averages 2.5 made threes on 39.9 percent from behind the arc. Against Auburn last weekend, DeVoe put all his talents on display, finishing with 22 points on 6 of 9 from three, with five assists and five rebounds in a blowout win.

In the frontcourt, Elijah Thomas and Aamir Simms are dynamic big-men who have the athleticism to create matchup problems. Both run the floor well and have great hands, which created a number of easy dunks against Auburn.

In order to beat Kansas and Duke, Clemson will need to stop Devonte’ Graham and Marvin Bagley III, and the Tigers have what it takes. They hold opponents to 40.4 percent shooting, and they post the nation’s 7th-best adjusted defensive ranking.

Texas A&M (7th seed)

Where Clemson’s strength is in its quickness, Texas A&M’s greatest asset is its size. DJ Hogg is a 6’9” forward with three-point range, good vision and passing ability, while Tyler Davis and Robert Williams, who both stand at 6’10” anchor the paint and can protect the rim on defense and finish strong on offense.

With this core, the Aggies grab an average of 41.3 rebounds per game, good for fifth in the nation, and post the eighth-best adjusted defensive ranking in the nation. Against North Carolina last week, the Aggies outrebounded the Tar Heels, 47-36, and held UNC to 33.3 percent shooting on their way to a 21-point blowout.

Texas A&M’s road to the Final Four involves Michigan and likely Gonzaga, two elite teams with strong defenses. But the Aggies have a stingy defense of their own, and they can rely on their core frontcourt to take them to the Final Four.

Tim Sun writes for Bear Bytes, The Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].