2023 NCAA Tournament: How every Sweet 16 underdog can pull off the upset, reach Elite Eight (2024)

By the Sweet 16, the margin between the best and worst teams still vying for a national championship has shrunk considerably. That, of course, doesn't mean there is no margin -- there's a clear difference between, say, 1-seed Alabama and 15-seed Princeton -- but at this point, any team winning any game would not be as shocking as some of the upsets we saw in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament (Fairleigh Dickinson, we're looking at you).

The second weekend is often where Cinderella runs end, though. Since 2010, teams seeded 9th or worse are just 12-23 in the Sweet 16. That makes sense; things are supposed to get harder as the tournament goes on. Of those 12 teams that won their Sweet 16 matchup, only five then went on to win in the Elite Eight as well.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, we have eight underdogs looking to continue what's already been a very mad March Madness. Here's why each one could win on Thursday or Friday.

All lines courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook.

(3)Kansas Statevs. (7) Michigan State

Line: Michigan State -2
Keys for K-State: Finish at the rim, don't turn the ball over

Michigan State is allowing just 44.7% at the rim in the NCAA Tournament, but Kansas State has two adept interior scorers in Nae'Qwan TomlinandKeyontae Johnson, who have 25 points and 18 points at the rim through the first two tournament games, respectively. The Wildcats as a whole are averaging a tourney-best 45 points per game at the rim. Kansas State will present a serious challenge both at the rim and beyond the arc for the Spartans.

So much of Kansas State's scoring at the rim comes from the playmaking of Markquis Nowell, and he'll have to play at a high level again. The Spartans forced 11 turnovers against USC and 16 more against Marquette. Nowell will have to balance his fearlessness and creativity with ball security: He has 44 points and 23 assists so far this tournament, but also nine turnovers.

(8)Arkansasvs. (4)UConn

Line: UConn -3.5
Key for Arkansas: Take advantage of pick-and-roll

Arkansas was one of the most fun and/or infuriating teams to watch this season. At times, it looked terrific with four potential future first-round NBA picks, all of whom can run the offense. At other times, the sum was nowhere near as great as its parts and things were disjointed. In the NCAA Tournament, things are coming together quite nicely, and the Razorbacks' most experienced guard is the reason why. Devo Davis has been awesome. He and his fellow guards can continue to be awesome by taking advantage of UConn with pick-and-rolls and attacking either Adama Sanogo or Donovan Clingan in space.

Sanogo and Clingan present more size than any front line Arkansas has faced in the NCAA Tournament, but UConn has been a bit susceptible in these areas recently: Iona's pick-and-roll ball handlers scored 15 points against the Huskies in their NCAA Tournament opener, and Marquette's had 19 in their Big East Tournament matchup.

(9)Florida Atlanticvs. (4)Tennessee

Line: Tennessee -5.5
Key for FAU: Don't get dragged into the mud

Tennessee takes pride in it. The Volunteers want to drag you into the mud. They will play slow and physical, crash the glass and hope to grind you down. Florida Atlantic has to avoid that, which starts with playing at a decent tempo. The Owls don't play particularly fast in general, but they have shown they can do so when needed. They scored 78 points on 72 possessions in the C-USA championship game against UAB and 78 more on 73 possessions in the second-round win over Fairleigh Dickinson. Getting into transition and attacking early could help against a great defense.

If there's one area Tennessee isn't great defensively, it's post-ups (45th percentile nationally). FAU excelled in these scenarios (92nd percentile) with a bevy of different post-up options, including wings Johnell Davis and Giancarlo Rosado.

(3)Gonzagavs. (2)UCLA

Line: UCLA -2
Key for Zags: It has to be Timme time all the time

Sometimes, basketball is a simple game. If Gonzaga is going to upset UCLA, it has to be on the shoulders of Drew Timme. The senior big man, whose nine career 20-point NCAA Tournament games are tied for most ever, will have ample opportunity against a somewhat thin UCLA front line. Adem Bona is just a freshman and Kenneth Nwuba was only pushed into major action due to injuries. UCLA is outstanding defensively in just about every aspect, but it's impenetrable. Timme, who had 25 points on just 15 shots in the classic 2021 Final Four matchup between these two teams, will have to be similarly efficient again.

(5)San Diego Statevs. (1) Alabama

Line: Alabama -7
Key for SDSU: Play the game on your terms

San Diego State and Alabama are both terrific defensive teams with good length on the wings and in the post. The similarities pretty much end there. Alabama wants to run while San Diego State slows it down. Alabama is all about shooting the most efficient shots -- 3-pointers and at the rim -- while San Diego State takes a ton of midrange jump shots. The key for San Diego State may be as simple as not getting sucked into playing a fast-paced game. The Aztecs have the personnel and depth to defend well at the rim and on the perimeter. Plus they have a bevy of shot creators -- perhaps even more than Alabama has. If things stay close, look for Matt Bradley to be a factor: The 6-foot-4, 220-pound lefty has the strength and shot-making ability to cause problems for the Crimson Tide.

(5)Miamivs. (1)Houston

Line: Houston -7
Keys for Miami: Attack, attack, attack, survive on the boards

If you want high-level guard play, it doesn't get much better than this. In Isaiah Wong, Nijel Pack, Wooga Poplar and Bensley Joseph, Miami has the backcourt to go toe to toe against Marcus Sasser, Jamal Shead and Tramon Mark. The Hurricanes are one of the few teams that can say that. Houston's defense is outstanding across the board, but the Cougars have been susceptible to off-ball cuts, and this is where Miami's non-guards can be impactful. The Hurricanes rank in the 93rd percentile nationally in points per possession on cuts. So watch for the off-ball movement of Jordan Miller and Norchad Omier, especially if the Miami guards can penetrate.

Defensively, the Hurricanes must find a way to rebound, and Omier helps a ton here. Still, it must be a group effort. Houston rebounds more than 37% of its misses, fourth in Division I.

(15) Princeton vs. (6)Creighton

Line: Creighton -10
Keys for Princeton: Attack the glass, hold your own on the interior

In Princeton's first two NCAA Tournament games, it has outscored its opponents (Arizona and Missouri) 30-4 in second-chance points. No, that's not a typo. For a team that really hasn't shot the ball all that well, Princeton's second chances have been a saving grace. In Tosan Evbuomwan and Keeshawn Kellman, the Tigers have two frontcourt players who can challenge Ryan Kalkbrenner and force the Bluejays' four-guard lineups to adjust.

There's a reason this has the largest spread of any Sweet 16 game, however. Creighton has been fantastic and can get offense from anywhere. The Bluejays became the first team since 1997 to have a different player score 30-plus points in each of their first two games of an NCAA Tournament. Kalkbrenner had 31 in the opener against NC Stateand Ryan Nembhard had 30 against Baylor. But Princeton is here for a reason. If the Tigers can hold up in the frontcourt and get better shooting, they can make things interesting.

(3)Xaviervs. (2)Texas

Line: Texas -4
Keys for Xavier: Use the 3-pointer, hit Nunge in the pick-and-roll game

This is a really fascinating matchup because Xavier -- for all its issues with depth and defense -- can overwhelm teams with its offense. In order to do so against Texas, the Musketeers need to dominate from beyond the arc and in the pick-and-roll game.

Of Texas' eight losses this season, seven of them came when the opponent shot a higher percentage from 3, and Xavier is the fifth-best 3-point shooting team (38.9%) in Division I. The Musketeers just need to get enough of those shots off; they're 320th in 3-point rate this season. Compare that to a team like Penn State, which just gave Texas trouble in the second round. The Nittany Lions shot just 41.7% from the field to Texas' 50.8% but nearly made up for it by hitting eight 3-pointers compared to Texas' one.

Xavier can also take advantage of Texas' inconsistent defense covering the pick-and-roll roller. The Musketeers ranks in the 96th percentile offensively on those plays; Texas ranks in the 17th percentile defending them. Jack Nunge should be able to use that to his advantage against the smaller Dylan Disu.

2023 NCAA Tournament: How every Sweet 16 underdog can pull off the upset, reach Elite Eight (2024)
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