Unless you’re gifted with clairvoyance, the first weekend of the NCAA tournament no doubt busted your bracket in near-unprecedented fashion—the average remaining seed is 5.3, which is the fourth-highest in history and the highest since 2000 (when it was also 5.3).
The good news? There are plenty of Cinderellas to root for in this Sweet Sixteen. But which ones should you put your weight behind? We rank the contenders below.
Former NBA coach Eric Musselman’s seventh-seeded Wolfpack got here by coming back from 14 down and grinding out an overtime win against Texas, and then staging an epic 22-point comeback to defeated No. 2-seeded Cincinnati. In other words, no lead is safe for Loyola-Chicago—or whoever the Wolfpack might face (Kentucky?) if they win that game.
2. Texas A&M
Sure, maybe you had Billy Kennedy’s seventh-seeded Aggies defeating Providence in the first round. But if you had them pummeling No. 2 seed (and defending national champion) North Carolina by 21 points—well, go ahead and take a bow. The Aggies peaked at No. 5 in the national rankings earlier in the season before injuries and suspensions slowed them down, and the 538 numbers say they’re pretty much even money to beat No. 3 seed Michigan and keep it going.
It feels a little weird to put Jim Boeheim’s Orangemen in this category, given their history. But of all the Sweet Sixteen teams, No. 11 seed Syracuse is the only one that’s already survived three tournament games—a grinding play-in victory over Arizona State, a defeat of TCU, and then an upset of popular bracket pick Michigan State. Boeheim’s zone defense can shake up even hyper-talented teams like the Spartans, so there’s no reason to believe it can’t work against Sweet Sixteen foe Duke—and maybe beyond.
4. Florida State
Beware of the team that takes down the No. 1 seed—if that’s the case, the ninth-seeded Seminoles, who dispatched Missouri in the first round before coming back from 12 down to defeat top seed Xavier, are poised to give Gonzaga, last year’s national runner-up, a real fight. FSU’s Leonard Hamilton is a veteran coach who’s been here before.
The 11th-seeded Ramblers, under coach Porter Moser, were a trendy upset pick heading into the tournament, and they’ve already proven their worth–and the star power of Sister Jean—in staging last-second comebacks to upset a pair of major-conference teams. But they may not be finished: The stats gurus at 538 give the Ramblers pretty much an even shot of defeating Nevada in the Sweet Sixteen, in which case they could potentially face Kentucky in another David v. Goliath showdown. If you’re into small-conference Cinderellas with a real shot, this is the one for you.
6. Kansas State
The eighth-seeded Wildcats flew under the Big 12 radar much of the season, but a win over Creighton and a grinding victory over uber-Cinderella UMBC lands Bruce Weber’s team a date with Kentucky. Given that John Calipari’s team found itself late in the season—and parlayed an SEC tournament championship into a pair of strong tourney victories over Davidson and Buffalo—it won’t be easy.