Only eight teams are still standing in the 2023 men’s NCAA tournament, and at this point, it truly feels like any of them can win the whole thing with every No. 1 seed already eliminated. After a thrilling round of games in the Sweet 16, we are left with four tremendous matchups for the regional championships. By Sunday night, the Final Four will be set, and the teams will be off to Houston to compete for the national title.
Before the Elite Eight begins, SB Nation’s writers ranked every team still in the field by their chances of winning the national championship. Each writer voted on the teams, and the averages determined these rankings.
Here’s how we’d rank the Elite Eight in the 2023 men’s NCAA tournament.
8. San Diego State Aztecs
The Aztecs rode one of the nation’s top defenses into the Sweet 16.
That same defense propelled them into the Elite Eight.
San Diego State ranked fourth in the nation in defensive efficiency according to KenPom, and we saw that defensive efficiency on the floor Friday night. The Aztecs flustered and harrassed Alabama’s offense all night, holding the Crimson Tide to just 32.4% shooting from the floor, and a dismal 3-for-27 — just 11.4% — from three-point land. San Diego State also held Alabama star Brandon Miller to just nine points on 3-for-19 from the field, and just 1-for-10 from three. Alabama guard Jahvon Quinerly also had four of his shots blocked during a three-minute stretch as the Aztecs took the lead in the second half.
On the offensive end guard Darrion Trammell led the way, leading the Aztecs with 21 points, while Jaedon LeDee chipped in another 12 points.
While it is true that the Aztecs faced a relatively easy path to the Sweet 16 — beating No. 12 Charleston and No. 13 Furman to get to this stage — but knocking off perhaps the best team in the nation is quite the addition to their resume. On this night the story was the San Diego State defense, and looking ahead, that suffocating defense could be enough to get them to Houston. — Mark Schofield
7. Florida Atlantic Owls
The Owls are built via years of consistent team-building and dedication to constructing the team that’s playing the Kansas State on Saturday. Of the players who have played over 10% of the Owls’ possessions, only one of them is a senior. That senior is guard Michael Forrest, who took on a diminished role from last year, moving to the bench, but shined as the star of the Sweet 16 win over Tennessee. Forrest is a part of a deep Owls squad that will play nine guys in each game, a group that is made largely up of sophomores that can come back next year.
The Owls have been through thick and thin. Since Dusty May took over, the Owls have consistently been over .500, but they’ve never had a season like this. FAU was in the CBI Tournament last year, and lost to Northern Colorado. In 2019, they lost in the first round of the CIT Tournament to Charleston Southern. This isn’t lightning in a bottle, no. This is constantly swinging the axe and getting results. The ball of clay that Dusty May has molded has finally turned into an Elite Eight crashing machine, and one thing is for sure: FAU is no Cinderella.
6. Creighton Bluejays
The Blue Jays are so versatile and so adaptable, it’s hard to see anyone beating them but themselves. On any given night any given player can take over, whether it’s the 7’1” Ryan Kalkbrenner going off for 31 points against NC State, Ryan Nembhard putting up 30 on Baylor, or Baylor Scheierman contributing 21 against Princeton. Their games have been close until the end, but they’ve only trailed for a few minutes of game time total. The Blue Jays seem to always be in control of the scoreboard and their emotions, and this cool demeanor has them on the doorsteps of the Final Four.
Kalkbrenner in particular has been as dominant as promised, and even with a less-than-stellar shooting night against Baylor, the Blue Jays had enough firepower to sustain his slump. Turnovers could be a weak point as Creighton has given up more than their opponent in every game this tournament, and they’ll be tested by a San Diego State team that just picked off Alabama nine times.
Creighton also hasn’t dipped deep into their bench yet, playing essentially a six-man rotation. They play smart defense, but if the fouls start stacking up the Blue Jays could be putting some fresh jerseys on the floor. It hasn’t happened yet though, and if cooler heads prevail, they’ll keep dancing. – Adam Ward
5. Kansas State Wildcats
Markquis Nowell has turned himself into a household name during this tournament, and that’s what so much of March is about. It’s impossible not to love the game of the Wildcats’ diminutive point guard, who transcends his 5’8” frame by being one of the best floor generals and distributors in college basketball.
K-State’s overtime win over Michigan State showcased his passing prowess to the nth degree, with Nowell finishing with a NCAA record 19 assists to go along with his 20 points.
The 26-9 Wildcats might not have jumped off the screen during the regular season. Sure, there were some big wins and the one-two punch of Nowell and Keyontae Johnson caught your eye, but this looked like a team who was overseeded after being a No. 3 with a 21st ranking in KenPom, and questions lingered about whether this team had the depth needed to last out the grind out the tournament.
All that has been pushed aside as the Wildcats have proven themselves not only worthy of that high seed, but transcended it. Kansas State took down Kentucky and Michigan State en route to the Elite Eight. Sure, they didn’t have the toughest path through the tournament, but Nowell and Johnson are a devastating one-two punch that an score in buckets, facilitate when needed, and lifts everyone around them.
Now the Wildcats aim to do something that hasn’t happened in a long, long time: Make the Final Four. You have to go all the way back to 1964 for the last time that happened, but this teams looks like the moment isn’t too big for them and they’re ready to keep this ride going.
4. Gonzaga Bulldogs
“This isn’t Gonzaga’s best team” is both an obvious assessment circling around the Zags all season, and a major testament to what Mark Few has built in Spokane. No, there isn’t a top-five NBA draft pick on this roster like there has been the last two years, but these Zags are still the best offensive team in the country, led by a four-year stud who may go down as the defining college basketball player of this generation.
Gonzaga is now on the doorstep of its third Final Four in the last six men’s NCAA tournaments after a heart-pounding against the UCLA Bruins in the Sweet 16 that nearly ended in hyper-humiliating fashion for the Zags. Gonzaga blew a 10-point lead in the final 2:30 of regulation when Amari Bailey hit a go-ahead three-pointer. Few called timeout and drew up a play for Julian Strawther, who hit a deep three to beat the Bruins that felt eerily similar to Jalen Suggs’ game-winner in the 2021 Final Four in this same matchup. The crowd that believes Gonzaga is “perennial chokers” despite eight straight Sweet 16 appearances and multiple Final Four berths never would have gotten over this late game collapse built on turnovers and missed free throws, but somehow the Zags still pulled it out.
Gonzaga showed its strengths and weaknesses in victory. Drew Timme was incredible offensively with 36 points, but UCLA scored so much on the other end by attacking him in high ball-screens. Gonzaga’s shooters were cold in the first half before snapping to life in the second. Gonzaga can score with anyone — they’re the No. 1 offense in the country — but calling their defense average might be too complimentary. No one is anointing Gonzaga this year, and at this point we should know no one will fully believe in them until they cut down the nets in the last game of the season. Either way, this is a still a very good team, and it has the chance to out-score anyone it plays. — ROD
3. Miami Hurricanes
Miami doesn’t have the best offense in the country by the numbers — it was merely No. 11 out of 363 DI teams entering the Sweet 16, according to KenPom — but it sure feels like they do. The Hurricanes run basketball’s version of the spread-and-shred, spacing the floor with shooters and dynamic dribble-drive ball handlers even if it means they usually don’t have a traditional big man on the floor. Miami’s defense, ranking outside of the top-100 entering Friday night, was supposed to be the real issue. You’d never know it by watching them in March Madness.
The Hurricanes survived an upset bid from No. 12 seed Drake in round one, then flexed all over Indiana in their next win. They saved their best game for the Sweet 16: matched up against presumptive tournament favorite No. 1 seed Houston, Miami left no doubt they were the better team. Miami’s offense tore through Houston’s top-five defense, getting to the rim at will, hitting 11-of-25 three-pointers, and generating so many easy buckets in transition. The thing about having a poorly rated defense is sometimes the other team just misses. That happened on Friday, when Houston went 9-of-31 from three.
How do you stop this Miami offense? No one has had an answer yet. Good luck out-scoring them. While many college basketball coaches have cried about the NIL and transfer portal, Miami is back in the Elite Eight after getting Nigel Pack $800K of NIL money to transfer from Kansas State. He hit seven three-pointers in the win over Houston. In so many different ways, Miami has adapted to times. It’s put them one win away from their first Final Four ever. — ROD
2. UConn Huskies
Shortly after arriving in Las Vegas, the Connecticut men’s basketball team found that several of their rooms in the hotel were, well, in the kind of shape many people find themselves in after a night on the Strip.
That forced a change of hotels, and perhaps the Huskies took their travel frustrations out on Arkansas. Connecticut used a pair of runs to pull away from the Razorbacks, the first of which was a 14-0 run in the first half which turned a three-point Huskies lead into a 34-17 lead. Then, after leading at the break by a 46-29 edge, Connecticut used a 9-0 run in the second half to build a 62-33 lead. Arkansas did not notch their first field goal of the second half until the 13-minute mark.
Throughout the season, the Huskies were one of the most efficient offensive teams in the nation, and they showed that again Thursday night. Connecticut came into the tournament ranked third in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency, and they were certainly efficient against Arkansas. The Huskies shot 57.4% from the floor, and 45% from three-point land. They were also dominant on the glass, particularly on the offensive end. Connecticut outrebounded Arkansas 43-31, and they notched 11 offensive rebounds. Sophomore guard Jordan Hawkins led the way with 24 points, with junior forward Adama Sanogo adding another 18 points and eight rebounds.
The last time the Huskies advanced to the Elite Eight? 2014, when they qualified as a seven-seed out of the East Regional. They went on to win the title.
Could they do it again? Their performance against Arkansas is a strong case in their favor. — Mark Schofield
1. Texas Longhorns
The scariest defense in college basketball right now? En route to their Elite Eight appearance, the Longhorns held the best three point shooting team in the nation (Colgate) to 20% from distance in a blowout, and completely stifled one of the highest-scoring teams in the nation in Xavier, holding them to one of their lowest-scoring games of the entire season. And even when the offense didn’t click (against Penn State the Longhorns shot 7.7% from three) they locked down defensively and controlled the floor.
It’s not just smart schemes and active hands, the Longhorns are fundamentally wearing down their opponents by boxing out strong, cutting off pesky driving guards, and flying in transition for easy points. Major kudos to interim coach Rodney Terry who has this team completely zoned in.
Marcus Carr has been solid but not quite outstanding… yet. He’s due for a huge game. Dylan Disu was shooting a mind-boggling 75.4% from the floor this tournament, but sat out the Xavier win with a bone bruise in his foot and was seen wearing a boot on the sidelines. His absence didn’t seem to affect the team significantly, but his availability and overall health will be a big story against Miami. The Hurricanes have an unstoppable force of an offense; will this immovable object defense budge? – Adam Ward