This year’s Sweet 16 is stacked with talent. All four No. 1 seeds, all four No. 2 seeds, all four No. 3 seeds, two No. 4 seeds, one No. 5 seed and one No. 12 seed are in the mix. And even the No. 12 Oregon Ducks are a conference tournament champion. This year’s field has the top three seeds from each region in the Sweet 16 for only the second time since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985 — 2009 is the other — and is tied with the 2009 tournament for the most top-four seeds to ever appear in the Sweet 16.
But even within this elite group, one region stands out as the toughest. And as such, history tells us this year’s champion is likely to come from the West.
As a group, the 16 teams alive in the tournament are nearly 27 net points per 100 possessions better than an average team this year, making this the strongest collection of Sweet 16 teams, per Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency rating, since 2002, the first year his data is available. The former leader was the Sweet 16 of 2015, which was 24.4 points per 100 possessions better than an average team that season. Last year’s teams boasted a net rating of plus-21.1.
Looked at another way, this year’s field of 16 has an average Pomeroy ranking of the 10th best in the nation, which is No. 2 Tennessee heading into Thursday’s games. Last year’s group had an average ranking of 20th, on par with No. 5 Mississippi State, a squad that was upset by No. 12 Liberty in the Round of 64. In 2009, the average ranking was similar to the 12th best team in the nation.
The cream of this year’s crop resides in the West region. No. 1 Gonzaga, No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Texas Tech and No. 4 Florida State all rank in the top 14 of Pomeroy’s 2019 ratings, giving this region an average net efficiency mark of plus-28.3, the highest of any region in any semifinals since 2002, displacing the West region of 2015 as the toughest quartet of Sweet 16 teams.
The West was stacked in 2015. No. 1 Wisconsin made the finals that year plus saw Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker get selected in the first round of the NBA draft that year. No. 2 Arizona also had two players, Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, jump to the NBA that year, too. No. 4 North Carolina and No. 6 Xavier didn’t have NBA talent but they did enter the tournament as the 11th and 24th best team, respectively, per Pomeroy’s ratings. The 2019 West region should also feature four future NBA picks in 2019: Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke from Gonzaga, Ignas Brazdeikis from Michigan and Jarret Culver from Texas Tech.
Participating in the toughest region at this point of the tournament is daunting but there is a silver lining: emerge and there is a good chance you will play for the national title. Over the past 17 years, the representative of the Sweet 16′s toughest region in the Final Four has made the finals 10 times, cutting down the nets in five of those. Over the past six years the eventual victor has always appeared in the national title game and boasts a 4-2 record.
|Year||Strongest region during Sweet 16 per Pomeroy ratings||Winner of region||NCAA tournament result|
|2002||South||Indiana||Lost in finals|
|2003||Midwest||Marquette||Lost in Final Four|
|2004||East Rutherford||Oklahoma State||Lost in Final Four|
|2005||Austin||Michigan State||Lost in Final Four|
|2006||Atlanta||LSU||Lost in Final Four|
|2007||South||Ohio State||Lost in finals|
|2008||South||Memphis||Lost in finals|
|2009||West||Connecticut||Lost in Final Four|
|2011||East||Kentucky||Lost in Final Four|
|2012||East||Ohio State||Lost in Final Four|
|2014||Midwest||Kentucky||Lost in finals|
|2015||West||Wisconsin||Lost in finals|
|2017||South||North Carolina||Won title|
No. 1 Gonzaga is the favorite to represent the West in this year’s national title game followed by, as you’d expect, No. 2 Michigan, then No. 3 Texas Tech and No. 4 Florida State. Of course, for one of these teams to make it to the finals, they have to face the winner of the East region, the third-strongest in the Sweet 16 since 2002, which includes No. 1 Duke, No. 2 Michigan State, No. 3 LSU and No. 4 Virginia Tech.
The Bulldogs sport the most efficient offense in the country, even after taking into account their West Coast Conference games, and play at a high tempo, averaging less than 15 seconds per possession, the sixth-fastest pace in the country. Rui Hachimura, a 6-foot-8 forward, has struggled in the tournament, scoring less than a point per possession (49th percentile) but Brandon Clarke has picked up the slack. In Gonzaga’s second-round victory against Baylor, Clarke matched a career-high with 36 points — 10 points off dunks — while also adding five rebounds and five blocked shots.
Also notable: Gonzaga is one of the few teams to beat Duke this season. And if the Bulldogs emerge from the West, we now know they’ll have a recent trend supporting their case to cut down the nets, making them a good value bet to win.