After a weekend of upsets, the field of 68 teams has been winnowed down to just 16. All have a chance to cut down the nets in San Antonio next month, but the meaning of a national title would be different for every program. For some, it’s the culmination of a lifetime dream. For others, a bookend to a glorious legacy or proof that a system of play is valuable. In all cases, hanging a banner at season’s end is the ultimate goal. But the impact of winning a title reaches far beyond the rafters.
Here’s what’s at stake for every team remaining in the Big Dance:
Just Happy to Be Here
Look at Sister Jean! The Ramblers’ team chaplain, known for her warm smile and detailed scouting reports, has gone from a local pillar to a national—pardon me, an international—sensation. That Loyola-Chicago made it this far was a surprise to most, but even for Sister Jean, a national championship run would come as a shock: She picked the Ramblers to only reach the Sweet 16.
Lower-seeded teams make the last 16 every year, but if Loyola-Chicago wins it all, this team will ascend to myth status. The list of recent underdog Final Four appearances is short but memorable. There was George Mason in 2006, VCU in 2011, Wichita State in 2013, and South Carolina last spring. Each of those teams was celebrated in their time, and likely will be for years to come, but none won the championship. That’s where Loyola-Chicago can set itself apart from Cinderellas of years past. If the Ramblers cut down the nets, they’ll be the little 11-seed that could. It’s not improbable to think that Loyola could push past Nevada and make its way into the Elite Eight. And while imagining the Ramblers winning a national title—Loyola-Chicago’s first since 1963, when it helped break the race barrier in the sport—might seem far-fetched, remember that almost no one but Sister Jean thought they’d make it this far in the first place.
Thirteen years ago, Bruce Weber was on top of the world. His Fighting Illini squad was on its way to a 37-2 final record in a season that culminated with a loss in the 2005 national title game. Weber’s Illinois program seemed destined to continue challenging the country’s top teams for years to come. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Star point guard Deron Williams declared for the draft, and the 2005-06 Illinois team reached just the second round. It was the furthest they’d go under Weber again until his dismissal in 2012.
Kansas State’s win over UMBC sent Weber back to the Sweet 16 for the first time since that 2005 season, and with a win over Kentucky, K-State would be in good position to return to the Final Four for the first time since 1964.
Kansas State plays in the shadow of its cross-state rival, Kansas, and while the Jayhawks have reached a number of Final Fours and taken at least a share of the past 14 Big 12 conference crowns, the Wildcats have been erratic, occasionally missing the tournament altogether. A national title would not only give fans something to cheer about after years of mediocrity, but it would also cement Kansas State as a player on the national circuit and give Weber the championship he nearly won all those years ago.
Nevada has already matched the best season in school history. The Wolf Pack has tied its program record for wins in a season (29) and reached its second-ever Sweet 16. The last time Nevada made it this far, in 2004, it fell to eventual runners-up Georgia Tech by five; this season, they’ll be favored to reach their first Elite Eight. What Eric Musselman’s squad has been able to do this season is commendable. Led by NC State transfers Cody and Caleb Martin, the Wolf Pack not only took down Mo Bamba and Texas but overcame a 22-point second-half deficit to beat no. 2 seed Cincinnati. Like their Sweet 16 opponent, Loyola-Chicago, a national championship would give the Wolf Pack ownership of one of the great Cinderella runs in the sport’s history and match fellow Mountain West Conference member Boise State as a legendary spoiler on the national state.
One More Win Would Be Nice
All four schools in this tier have similar reputations: They’re all football schools with monstrous athletic departments that occasionally field stellar basketball squads. Of the teams on this list, though, none has been as consistently great as Florida State. Since 2009, Leonard Hamilton’s teams have made six trips to the NCAA tournament and have advanced to the Sweet 16 twice. Last season, despite entering the Dance seeded third, the Seminoles were drubbled by no. 11 seed Xavier, 91-66. After getting their revenge last weekend by upsetting the top-seeded Musketeers, 75-70, Florida State has an opportunity to advance from the West region and make its first Final Four since 1972.
Unlike past successful FSU teams, these Seminoles are without a go-to scorer. Senior forward Phil Cofer leads the team with 13 points per game but lacks the same clutch shooting ability former Florida State stars like Michael Snaer possessed. Continuing a run to the national title will be difficult, but for a fan base more worried about what Deondre Francois will look like in the spring game, making it this far has been more than enough.
Clemson’s success on the basketball court has never matched its victories on the gridiron. The Tigers have never reached a Final Four, and their only Elite Eight came on the back of Larry Nance Sr.’s outstanding 1980 season. More recently, when the Tigers had stars like K.J. McDaniels or Jaron Blossomgame, they never so much as qualified for the NCAA tournament; this is the school’s first Dance since 2011. So, it was surprising the Tigers opened their season 14-1 with wins over Ohio State, Florida, and Louisville. While they couldn’t maintain that rate of success throughout the year, wins over North Carolina, Miami, and Florida State secured Clemson’s spot as a no. 5 seed, and its 84-53 annihilation of no. 4 seed Auburn earned its inclusion in the Sweet 16.
Like with Florida State, a national championship would do little to divert the focus of a fan base constantly fixated on its football team, but it would at least give the school a leg up on in-state rival South Carolina. The Gamecocks were the belle of the ball last spring, knocking off Duke, Baylor, and Florida en route to a Final Four appearance. That’s a tough mark to match, but if the Tigers can one-up them and win it all, you can bet that fans in Columbia will hear about it the next time they visit Death Valley.
Y’all mind if we talk about Zhaire Smith for a minute? Because we need to talk about Zhaire Smith. I ask you, dear reader, can you remember another time when a guard playing his first-ever tournament game soared like an eagle and finished a 360 alley-oop? Because I can’t.
360 ALLEY OOP IN A TOURNAMENT GAME! ARE YOU KIDDING ME!? pic.twitter.com/lVCfYhaua4— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 15, 2018
Texas Tech made the Sweet 16 after winning close games against Stephen F. Austin and Florida. Neither win was convincing, and both spoke to notable flaws in the Red Raiders’ game. But frankly, none of that matters; the Red Raiders have a freshman guard who can defy the laws of physics.
Texas Tech has a tough task ahead of them against its next opponent, Purdue. Cutting down the nets will be difficult. But if a Tech run means that Zhaire Smith will be on every television set in the country, disrespecting gravity, then sign me up. So what’s at stake for the Red Raiders? A nation’s morale. The most fun player remaining in the tournament plays for Texas Tech. If we’re lucky, we’ll see much more of him.
No team with two forwards as talented as DJ Hogg and Robert Williams should have been as inconsistent as Texas A&M has been this season. But since sneaking into the tournament with a 20-12 record, the Aggies have been unstoppable, trouncing Providence and North Carolina to reach their second Sweet 16 in three years. Though A&M has never made it past this stage, its second-round drubbing of the Tar Heels indicates that the future should be bright for the Aggies.
Texas A&M’s athletic department is one of the wealthiest in the world, and it likes to remind fans of that fact. Recently, it signed Jimbo Fisher to a 10-year, $75 million contract to be its next head football coach and gave outgoing coach Kevin Sumlin a $12.4 million buyout. Billy Kennedy has been a solid leader for Aggies basketball, but with the talent on this team, making the Sweet 16 was expected. A national title will do wonders for his wallet, but an early loss could put him in the hot seat next season.
Get Over the Hump
Oh, Gonzaga. You came so close last year. The Bulldogs, led by Zach Collins and Przemek Karnowski, raced through their bracket, toppling West Virginia, Xavier, and last season’s Cinderella, South Carolina, en route to the national championship game. There, Gonzaga held a 65-63 lead against North Carolina with fewer than two minutes remaining. The Tar Heels would get a few more buckets. The Zags wouldn’t score again.
Overcoming a loss of that magnitude is difficult. But here the Bulldogs are, 12 months later, looking to climb the same hill. Gone are Collins and Karnowski, replaced by emerging stars like Killian Tillie and Josh Perkins.
Gonzaga might be the best program never to have won a national championship. For decades, they’ve run out top-quality teams with NBA talents like John Stockton, Adam Morrison, and Domantas Sabonis. A title this season would validate what most already know: Gonzaga is the closest a non-power-conference team can ever come to being a blue-blood.
John Beilein deserves more respect. In 2007, when he inherited the Michigan Wolverines from Tommy Amaker, they’d come off of their second consecutive season in which a late-year collapse kept them out of the NCAA tournament. Since then, Michigan has made eight trips to the Big Dance. Beilein’s Wolverines have made a handful of runs: They’ve notched two Sweet 16 finishes, one Elite Eight run, and a national championship appearance.
Beilein has had one of the most successful coaching careers in college basketball history, winning more than 500 games, and leading two major conference teams (West Virginia and Michigan) to deep tournament runs. A national title this spring would be the icing on his Hall of Fame cake. And it would give the Wolverines bragging rights over their Big Ten rivals. Ohio State hasn’t won a national title since 1960. Michigan State hasn’t since 2000. All three schools have been national runners-up since 2007, but a win would make Michigan the conference’s freshest champion. Michigan Men don’t need more reason to brag about their esteemed university, but they’re not going to turn down the chance to validate their praise.
The last 10 years have been strange for Purdue basketball. The Boilermakers have made four Sweet 16s in the last decade, and the previous three trips resulted in double-digit losses to top-seeded teams like Kansas and Duke. This year, however, Purdue enters its matchup as the favorite. Despite (possibly?) losing Isaac Haas to a broken elbow in their opening game, the Boilermakers are favored against Sweet 16 opponent Texas Tech. Purdue has replaced its vowel-loving behemoth with a discount version named Matt Haarms and should be able to ride its cabal of deep-shooting dynamos to the tournament’s second weekend.
The Boilermakers have never won an NCAA tournament, and though they claim a Helms title (who can’t at this point), a win this year would mark the greatest sporting achievement in school history. Purdue’s last appearance in the national title game came in 1969! Since then, the Indiana Hoosiers have made six Final Fours and won three titles. Even Butler, the state’s preeminent mid-major, has made two title games in that span. In a state like Indiana where basketball is the main export, the joy around a successful team doesn’t just last a year. It resonates for decades. A Boilermaker title would finally put them on par with their statewide contemporaries.
Since Bob Huggins took over in Morgantown in 2007, his teams have consistently challenged the country’s best, reaching three Sweet 16s and one Final Four. But that’s as far as the Mountaineers have gotten. West Virginia’s basketball history is rich, but they’ve long been a few steps below the sport’s elite. A national title, of course, will change that.
The closest analog West Virginia has is the 2000 Michigan State team that cut down the nets. Before that title, Michigan State’s history was similar to WVU’s current position. They’d made a deep run decades prior (MSU won the 1979 title, WVU lost in the 1959 championship game), but had only sporadic success since. After the 2000 title win, Michigan State joined the ranks of the blue-bloods. Since the turn of the millennium, the Spartans have reached five Final Fours, a national title game, and two more Elite Eights.
More than that, though, it confirmed that the coach at the program’s helm was a basketball visionary. Tom Izzo’s teams are always expected to succeed in March, not because of their talent, but because it’s assumed that the head ball coach will get them to the promised land. A win for West Virginia would help Huggins—an accomplished coach in his own right—garner the same reputation.
With Jevon Carter running the show and Daxter Miles and Sagaba Konate in support, topping the Wildcats will be a tough ask. Their press may be weaker against teams with dominant point guards, but if West Virginia can get past Villanova in the Sweet 16, there might not be anyone who can stop them from winning it all.
Legacy Defining (a.k.a. Championship or Bust)
What more can Jim Boeheim do to add to his résumé? He’s won a national championship, made five Final Fours, been named coach of the year, and challenged for league supremacy in two dominant conferences. Better yet, his last two Final Four runs came unexpectedly, as his fourth-seeded Orange ran through no. 1 seed Indiana and no. 3 seed Marquette en route to the 2013 national semifinal, and his 2016 team reached the same heights despite being seeded 10th. Now, in his 42nd season at the helm, the upstate New York lifer has a chance to add a second national title to his trophy case.
Eleventh-seeded Syracuse did what it does best in the tournament’s opening weekend. After dispatching Arizona State in the First Four, it used its vaunted 2-3 zone defense to suffocate no. 6 seeded TCU and no. 3 seeded Michigan State. Another run to the Final Four would remind us all of what we already know—that Boeheim, though nationally underappreciated, should be spoken about with Krzyzewski, Knight, and Wooden as one of the best college basketball coaches of all time. And while his time leading the Orange may soon be coming to an end (he was originally supposed to retire at the end of this season, but signed a contract extension last spring), his teams are still doing what they’ve done for decades. There might not be a more frustrating occurrence for an opposing fan than watching their stars flounder when facing the Orange zone. Luckily for Syracuse fans, history suggests they’ll get to see it a few more times before the Dance ends.
Bill Self is well on his way to retiring as one of the most accomplished coaches in NCAA history. The 55-year-old has won 14 consecutive Big 12 regular season titles, has been named AP coach of the year twice, has reached two Final Fours, and is the only coach in the country with a chance of chasing down Mike Krzyzewski’s all-time wins record. The only thing standing in his way is his lone national championship. That can all change with a banner this spring.
In 15 seasons with the Jayhawks, Self’s teams have won an average of about 30 games per year. If he keeps that pace up, he’ll break Krzyzewski’s win record. He’s sent dozens of players to the league, and his Jayhawk squads are consistently among the country’s best. All that remains for Self is the pursuit of another title. For it to come with this Kansas team would be doubly impressive. Recent Kansas teams have all been able to shoot from deep, but none have relied on the 3-ball as heavily as this iteration. After losing recruit Billy Preston first to NCAA investigation, and then to a European club, Kansas reinvented itself as college basketball’s Houston Rockets. 41.1 percent of all Jayhawk field-goals come from beyond the arc—a full 5 percentage points more than last season, and nearly 13 percentage points more than in 2015. If Self leads this team to a national championship, he’ll make a defining statement to the rest of the sport: It doesn’t matter if his teams have the right personnel to dominate a calendar. He can still take them the distance.
Let’s start with the obvious: John Calipari is the best recruiter in the country. The landscape of modern basketball in which top teams—be they Duke, Carolina, Kentucky, or Kansas—fight for signatures from a collection of 18-year-olds who won’t last more than a few months on campus exists, in large part, because of him. While other blue-blood programs (*cough* *cough* Duke *cough* *cough*) preached about the value of four-year players and then watched those same senior-led teams exit the NCAA tournament early, Calipari was building an empire—first at Memphis and now at Kentucky. But while he’s seen a billion dollars in earnings walk out the door, he’s still cut down the nets only once.
Fourteen coaches in NCAA history have hung at least two championship banners. For Calipari to be the 15th would be special, but to do it with this team would cement him as one of the great tactical minds of his generation.
Unlike in years past, there is no guaranteed top-five pick on the Wildcats’ roster. No De’Aaron Fox or Karl-Anthony Towns or Anthony Davis. Hamidou Diallo and Kevin Knox—Kentucky’s top-rated newcomers—were 247Sports’ 10th- and 11th-best recruits nationally, and while they’re joined by four other five-star freshmen, it’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a four-star, who will dictate what happens to Kentucky. As my Ringer colleague Jonathan Tjarks outlined last week, Calipari’s decision to refocus his team around Gilgeous-Alexander saved his season.
Gilgeous-Alexander started the year on the bench. Now, he’s the linchpin to Kentucky’s success. Calipari has never shied away from bold coaching decisions (remember the platoons?), but they normally tilted toward how can I get my blue chips more time at the expense of this four-star who might transfer. The choice to run a team around a 6-foot-6 freshman point guard more known for his defensive prowess and slashing ability than shooting or playmaking was risky, but it’s paying off. And it just might get Calipari a second ring.
Two years ago, Villanova won the national championship on a buzzer-beater. It came during its first Final Four appearance since 2009, and its second since the Wildcats won the title in 1985. After years of early exits and embarrassing tournament collapses, Villanova finally cut down the nets. But somehow, despite hanging a banner, the Wildcats still haven’t earned the respect that is supposed to come with a title. Villanova has been a top seed three times in the past five years, and a no. 2 seed twice more. It hasn’t won fewer than 29 games in that span, it has possibly the best offense in NCAA history, and it’s had a handful of talents who could soon light up the NBA.
At this point, anything less than a trip to the Final Four would make the jeers grow louder. The Wildcats have a top-10 talent in Mikal Bridges, and the player of the year front-runner in Jalen Brunson. As projected contenders have fallen left and right, they’ve looked dominant, winning their first two tournament games by a combined 49 points. Winning a national championship would finally rid Jay Wright’s squad of the pesky choker moniker that’s plagued it for years and should have vanished after the 2016 national title game. Last season, they followed up their win with a second-round exit. This year, they might be able to right the ship.
All but three one-and-done recruits to pass through the halls of Cameron Indoor Stadium since Kyrie Irving in 2011 have left campus without appearing in a Final Four. The exceptions of course—Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor, and Justise Winslow—carried the Devils to the 2015 title. The vitriol surrounding Duke’s two first-round exists (2012 and 2014) despite having NBA lottery picks Austin Rivers and Jabari Parker, respectively, were mollified when the 2015 team cut down the nets. But after a Sweet 16 exit with Brandon Ingram and a second-round loss last year with what might have been the most talented team in Duke history, it’s time again to wonder if there’s a better way to build a championship contender.
There’s no arguing that Coach K’s squads are always among the most skilled in the country. But defensive deficiencies in the past few years (a common struggle for teams built around freshmen) have left recent Duke teams open to upsets. These Blue Devils seem to have bucked the trend, and enter the Sweet 16 rated eighth defensively by KenPom. But their reliance on zone defense and irregular lineup (three guards and two centers) leaves openings. Krzyzewski has five championships and is the winningest coach in the history of the sport. Another banner—Duke’s second in four years and third in the decade—wouldn’t add much to his legacy. But it would validate Duke’s recruiting model and show that the 2015 championship wasn’t a fluke, but rather the result of a blueprint for continued success.