Connecticut's Tristen Newton Brett Wilhelm/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Men's NCAA Tournament 2024: Power Ranking the Elite Eight Teams

Kerry Miller

Adios, Arizona.

Nice knowing you, North Carolina.

Hasta la vista, Houston.

Goodbye, Golden Eagles.

Sayonara, Cyclones.

After an unusually chalky opening weekend that resulted in every No. 1 and No. 2 seed reaching the Sweet 16, only three of those top squads survived to see the Elite Eight.

It's still nowhere near as bonkers as last year when not a single No. 1 seed reached a regional final. At least the clear pre-tournament favorite, Connecticut, is still dancing, as is fellow No. 1 seed Purdue. There's still a chance we get one heck of a heavyweight bout in the national championship.

But things did finally get a little March Madness-y in the process of whittling the field to single digits.

Now that only eight remain, how do they stack up?

One important thing to note: Difficulty of the path to the national championship has no bearing on this list. Rather, this could be considered a ranking of how we would reseed the remaining eight teams based on a combination of regular-season success and how great they looked through the first three rounds.

We'll examine how teams have played thus far, their Most Outstanding Player candidates and what they need to do to win it all.

8. Clemson Tigers

Clemson's Chase Hunter C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Previous Rankings: Pre-Tournament (34), Pre-Sweet 16 (15)

What We've Learned: There's still some early-season magic left in Clemson.

During the predominantly nonconference portion of the season, the Tigers looked like a legitimate title contender. They started out 9-0 with five wins over teams that eventually made the tournament. That doesn't even include the road win over Pittsburgh, which was good enough to dance if it had done anything in the nonconference. Clemson won at Alabama. It destroyed Boise State at home.

For a minute there at the 2023-to-2024 transition, the Tigers were in the mix for a No. 1 seed.

Then the wheels fell off. They got blown out by both Miami and Virginia Tech. They lost at home to Georgia Tech. And after losses to Notre Dame and Boston College in the first half of March, Clemson entered the dance as a hot mess with a .500 record over its previous 20 games.

All of a sudden, though, opponents lost the ability to shoot against the Tigers.

Georgia Tech made 15 triples in one game against this team, but New Mexico, Baylor and Arizona went a combined 14-of-75 (18.7 percent) from downtown against it.

The UNM part wasn't a big surprise. Perimeter shooting was a season-long issue for the Lobos. But Baylor had the best three-point percentage in the nation and Arizona had four solid three-point shooters. Didn't matter. While those teams couldn't buy a bucket, Ian Schieffelin was banking in threes from the top of the key.

Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.

Most Outstanding Player Candidate: Heading into the tournament, the pick here was clearly PJ Hall. But how about Chase Hunter's play thus far? The fifth-year senior combo guard is averaging just under 20 points and six assists per game in carrying this Tigers offense through the first three rounds. When he's playing at a high level, Clemson has quite the quartet leading the way.

X-Factor: Three-point D. So far, so very good in this department, but perimeter defense sure looked like Clemson's clearest weakness heading into the tournament. UCLA was in a similar boat when it made its surprise run to the Final Four in 2021, and the eventual return to normalcy in that department included Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs banking in that unforgettable game-winner in overtime. Maybe Clemson can avoid that type of regression, though.

Championship Blueprint: Ride the main four, keep Hall out of foul trouble and hope foes continue to struggle from distance.

7. Alabama Crimson Tide

Alabama's Mark Sears C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Previous Rankings: Pre-Tournament (18), Pre-Sweet 16 (16)

What We've Learned: By golly, they can beat quality opponents away from home.

Prior to Thursday night, Alabama's best win away from home was a game at Mississippi State more than two months ago. Beyond that, its second-best win was probably the second-round victory over No. 12 seed Grand Canyon.

It's not like Alabama was some runaway freight train at home, either. There was no feeling that the Crimson Tide were destined to finally get some big wins outside Tuscaloosa. They lost at home to Tennessee and Clemson, needed overtime to beat Florida and narrowly beat Auburn. (They also blew out both South Carolina and Texas A&M at home, but, man, there was no telling which versions of those teams you were going to get on any given night all season.)

They finally did it, though, toppling No. 1 seed North Carolina in a back-and-forth battle that was every bit the 40-minute thrill ride we dreamed it might be. And they should at least be favored in their Elite Eight matchup with Clemson, despite the aforementioned fact that the Tigers went on the road to beat Alabama earlier this season.

Most Outstanding Player Candidate: Grant Nelson was the undisputed star of the Sweet 16 game, but it's usually Mark Sears leading the way for Alabama. The veteran point guard had 30 in the opener against Charleston and was Mr. Everything for the Tide against Grand Canyon. In going for 18 points and two assists against UNC, it was the first time in 2024 that he failed to either record at least 20 points or six dimes.

X-Factor: Pace of play. On offense, Alabama plays at one of the fastest tempos in the country. And where that becomes an X-factor is when the opposition tries to do the same and starts going too fast for its own good. Because generally speaking, Alabama's defense is not good, allowing at least 85 points in more than half of its games played. But both Grand Canyon and North Carolina let themselves get out of control, repeatedly missing shots right at the rim while while trying to operate at a breakneck pace.

Championship Blueprint: Try to bury the opposition in an avalanche of points, because Alabama is 18-1 when scoring at least 89 compared to just 6-10 when falling short of that mark.

6. North Carolina State Wolfpack

NC State's DJ Horne Andy Hancock/NCAA Photos/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Previous Rankings: Pre-Tournament (47), Pre-Sweet 16 (14)

What We've Learned: Winning five games in five days is quite the magic elixir.

Thirteen years ago, Kemba Walker's unforgettable national championship run began with five wins in five days in the Big East tournament. It had never been done before. And until about three weeks ago, it hadn't been done since.

NC State pulled it off, though, and needed it so much more than that 2011 UConn team did. Those Huskies were maybe on the bubble heading into that loaded Big East tourney, but after losing 10 of its final 14 regular-season games, this NC State team had no case for an at-large spot in the field. It had to win five in five to secure the ACC's auto bid.

And now it is looking to follow in UConn's footsteps by turning that improbable conference tournament run into an even more improbable championship run.

Can the Wolfpack pull it off?

At this point, why not?

Mohamed Diarra has blossomed into a double-double machine. DJ Horne always seems to come through in the clutch. DJ Burns Jr. has become a fan favorite on par with Cameron Krutwig of Loyola-Chicago fame of years past. And whether it's Ben Middlebrooks, Casey Morsell or Michael O'Connell, someone else always rises to the occasion in a big way.

They're not supposed to be here, but it sure does look like they belong.

Most Outstanding Player Candidate: DJ Horne. Honorable mention to Diarra, averaging 13.0 points and 13.3 rebounds thus far in the Dance. However, Horne is the emotional leader of this team, the Wolf with swagger who has shown he can go off for 30 points (and maybe a couple of middle fingers) when the situation calls for it.

X-Factor: Three-point defense. In each tournament game thus far, NC State's opponent has attempted at least as many threes as it did twos. But a whole lot of those open jumpers haven't been finding their mark. Oakland's Jack Gohlke made six, but it took him 17 attempts. Everyone else has gone a combined 17-of-80 against the Wolfpack. That includes Texas Tech's Pop Isaacs going 1-of-10 and Marquette's David Joplin missing all seven of his attempts. Will that shot variance remain on their side? Or will the team that allowed opponents to shoot 39.0 percent from distance from February 3 through March 12 rear its ugly head?

Championship Blueprint: Lean into the "Team of Destiny" narrative and keep turning house money into more money.

5. Duke Blue Devils

Duke's Kyle Filipowski Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Previous Rankings: Pre-Tournament (13), Pre-Sweet 16 (11)

What We've Learned: They've got some toughness after all.

For most of the season, Duke looked like a team that could be pushed around. The Blue Devils got destroyed on the glass in the early home loss to Arizona, got bullied in the paint in the consecutive bad losses to Arkansas and Georgia Tech, couldn't hang with North Carolina in either of those rivalry games and never seemed fully invested in winning its ACC tournament game against NC State.

Running into Houston in the Sweet 16 sounded like a death sentence. And as Houston punched the Blue Devils right in the mouth out of the gate in jumping out to an 8-0 lead, it looked like it was going to be a death sentence, too.

The Blue Devils responded, though.

Kyle Filipowski got tougher than we've seen him all season, playing most of the game with a cut/shiner under his left eye. Tyrese Proctor started scrapping, coming up with several massive steals in the second half. And veteran leader Jeremy Roach came through in the clutch, scoring all 14 of his points after the intermission.

Without question, Houston losing Jamal Shead to an ankle injury with about seven minutes remaining in the first half was a game-changer. From that point forward, the Cougars didn't know where to turn for offense and had to try to soldier on without their first line of defense.

Houston didn't just roll over and die without Shead, though. Duke still had to fight and claw to get that 54-51 win, and that may have been a gigantic confidence builder for the rest of the way.

Through three games, this defense is allowing just 51.0 points.

Most Outstanding Player Candidate: Kyle Filipowski. Duke's primary big man took just one shot in the opener against Vermont, but he led all players in both points (16) and rebounds (nine) in the Sweet 16 victory over Houston. He's good enough to impact the game even when he's not scoring, but it was clear he recognized he needed to be the leader for the Blue Devils to survive the Cougars.

X-Factor: Mark Mitchell. Duke's starting power forward might go for 20 points and 10 rebounds or he might be a complete ghost. He might tee up a few ill-advised three-pointers or he might be a pivotal glue guy on both ends of the floor. As far as individual players go, there's not a bigger X-Factor left in this tournament.

Championship Blueprint: Keep grinding it out on defense and make sure to get at least four of the five starters going on offense.

4. Illinois Fighting Illini

Illinois' Terrence Shannon Jr. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Previous Rankings: Pre-Tournament (10), Pre-Sweet 16 (10)

What We've Learned: Illinois can play some defense.

Well, maybe.

Morehead State scored almost at will for the first 20-plus minutes against the Illini, opening a 45-43 lead early in the second half before going ice cold. Duquesne was not good on offense all season and was already down by 20 by the time it started scoring with any sort of regularity. And while Iowa State can score in bunches when creating fast-break opportunities with steals, its half-court offense wasn't anything special for most of the year.

All the same, it's remarkable that the Illini just held three consecutive opponents below 70 points, considering 20 of their previous 27 opponents eclipsed that threshold.

On average, the Illini allowed 81.6 points over their final 13 games before the dance, including 87 in each of their final two games of the Big Ten tournament—after which they ranked 93rd in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency.

They were far more engaged than usual on that end of the floor against Iowa State, certainly in the first half, which was quite the physical slog. If they can bring that sort of defensive intensity for 40 minutes against Connecticut, they just might be able to pull off the upset.

Most Outstanding Player Candidate: Terrence Shannon Jr. has been playing great lately, averaging 31.2 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.0 steals since the beginning of the Big Ten tournament. Even stretching further back to mid-February, Shannon is averaging 27.2 points over his last 15 games. Over his first 4.5 seasons of college ball, there were individual games or maybe the occasional back-to-back outing where he was dominant. Never like this for this long, though. He's operating on a Kemba Walker level right now.

X-Factor: Perimeter defense. Whereas Clemson has gotten pretty lucky in this department with opponents throwing up bricks left and right, Illinois is advancing in spite of its season-long perimeter defense woes, with opponents shooting a combined 22-of-60 (36.7 percent) in the dance. The Illini also have yet to force 10 turnovers in a tournament game, though at least most of the ones that they do force are of the live-ball variety, often leading to transition buckets. Can they do enough on defense to let their offense win the day?

Championship Blueprint: Dig in heels on defense and dig in teeth on offense, letting Shannon, Marcus Domask and Coleman Hawkins cook.

3. Tennessee Volunteers

Tennessee's Dalton Knecht Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Previous Rankings: Pre-Tournament (4), Pre-Sweet 16 (6)

What We've Learned: Tennessee's defense is still very, very good.

The Volunteers have been top 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency all season, but they weren't quite as impenetrable or "turnover-force-y" as they had been over the previous three years—when we all tried to convince ourselves that the defense was good enough to make a Final Four in spite of the offensive shortcomings.

Naturally, the addition of Dalton Knecht to lead the offense was the year-long narrative, as he filled the lack of a go-to scorer that the Vols had been struggling to deal with since losing Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams in 2019.

But while the offense became more high-octane and more reliable, the defense continued to do its thing, anchoring a team that would have been viewed as more of a legitimate title threat heading into the tournament were it not for the whole "Rick Barnes doesn't win in March" factor.

Defense was the star of the show through the first three rounds. Tennessee completely shut down Saint Peter's in the opener, forced 17 turnovers to survive a brutal shooting performance in the second round against Texas and played some incredible D during an 18-0 second-half spurt from which Creighton was unable to fully recover.

Most Outstanding Player Candidate: Dalton Knecht. Can't possibly be an argument here. Knecht was named a first-team All-American and was arguably the top challenger to Purdue's Zach Edey for NPOY. And he has continued to thrive thus far in the tournament. He couldn't find his shot in the second round against Texas, but he still gutted out an 18-point, nine-rebound effort in a low-scoring win. He had 23 points against Saint Peter's and was all over the box score against Creighton with 24 points, six rebounds, five dimes, two steals and a block. When he's in a groove and getting even a little bit of help from the likes of Zakai Zeigler and Jonas Aidoo, good luck.

X-Factor: Inconsistency. This team gave up 100 points in a loss to North Carolina and scored 59 in a loss to South Carolina. It's liable to have an offensive dud once every few weeks and had more off nights on defense than you would expect from a team that rates so highly in adjusted defensive efficiency. Every team has a bit of Jekyll & Hyde in them, but the Volunteers more than most.

Championship Blueprint: Lean on the defensive intensity while getting more than just Knecht to show up on offense.

2. Purdue Boilermakers

Purdue's Zach Edey Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

Previous Rankings: Pre-Tournament (2), Pre-Sweet 16 (2)

What We've Learned: These ain't the "lost to Fairleigh Dickinson" Boilermakers anymore.

From following Purdue all season, we already knew this. Sophomore point guard Braden Smith is exponentially better than he was last year. Adding Lance Jones to the mix from Southern Illinois was massive. And blossoming from one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country into the singular best three-point shooting team is one hell of a beneficial 180.

Still, no matter how good Purdue looked from November-February, after three consecutive NCAA tournaments getting bounced by double-digit seeds, there was always going to be a little bit of "Can we actually trust this team?" fear in the back of our heads when filling out a bracket.

As it turns out, yes, this Purdue team is here for the long haul, demolishing both Grambling State and Utah State before a rather convincing win over a darn good Gonzaga squad.

Against the Aggies, the Boilermakers shot 60 percent inside the arc and 47.8 percent beyond it and dominated the rebounding battle. Against the Zags, more of the same at 63.9 and 45 percent, respectively, in another absurdly efficient offensive performance.

Last year, Purdue was Zach Edey or bust.

This year, Purdue is a very good all-around team that also happens to have a back-to-back National Player of the Year at its disposal.

Most Outstanding Player Candidate: Zach Edey. Smith has been exquisite with 30 points and 31 assists against just five turnovers. But how could the answer here be anyone but Edey, he of the 27 game MVPs this season? Through three games, Purdue's 7'4" center has gone for 80 points, 49 rebounds, six blocks and six assists, despite opponents doing everything they possibly can to shut him down.

X-Factor: Turnover margin. Purdue has shot it so well thus far that it hasn't mattered, but it is minus-eight in the turnover battle, slightly losing in that department in each tournament game. And that was a huge part of Purdue's four losses prior to the tournament, committing a combined 61 turnovers while forcing only 23. If that becomes a problem again and/or if Purdue gets an officiating crew that decides to call a couple early ticky-tack fouls on Edey, the Boilermakers become much more mortal.

Championship Blueprint: Value the ball, keep hitting triples and give Edey an all-you-can-eat buffet of entry passes.

1. Connecticut Huskies

Connecticut's Cam Spencer Elsa/Getty Images

Previous Rankings: Pre-Tournament (1), Pre-Sweet 16 (1)

What We've Learned: They are who we thought they were.

All season, it felt like "Healthy UConn" would be the likeliest candidate to win a national championship, because "Healthy UConn" can do everything at a high level.

Thus far, this team has been the wagon we all knew it could be.

Against poor Stetson, the Huskies opened up a 46-10 lead. At basically the same juncture against Northwestern, it was 36-14. And while San Diego State kept things a little bit interesting a little while longer, UConn was up by double digits less than 10 minutes into the game and went on to win by 30.

In winning last year's national championship, the Huskies' average scoring margin in the tournament was 20.0 points.

Halfway through that journey this year, it's 28.7 points.

Illinois has enough offensive firepower to theoretically keep pace with UConn, but can it possibly do enough on defense to shut down this juggernaut? And if the Huskies blow by the Illini to set up a Final Four matchup with Alabama, will it just be more of the same against another top-five offense and borderline top-100 defense?

Most Outstanding Player Candidate: Take your pick, really. Could be Cam Spencer if he continues to score with swagger. Might be Tristen Newton if he keeps playing as efficiently as he has thus far. Perhaps it's Donovan Clingan, who went for 14 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocks against Northwestern. Both Stephon Castle and Alex Karaban are viable candidates, too, if they get into/stay in the zone down the stretch. A big part of what has made Connecticut so consistently dominant is it doesn't have to rely on any one player to shoulder the load.

X-Factor: They call it March Madness for a reason. It feels almost inevitable at this point that UConn will win it all, but that was also true of undefeated Kentucky at this stage in the 2015 tourney. Those Wildcats had won 12 of their last 13 games by double digits, including a 78-39 pummeling of West Virginia in the Sweet 16. But they almost lost in the Elite Eight to a Notre Dame team that had a "elite offense, mediocre defense" profile on par with what Illinois is bringing to the table, and then it did lose in the Final Four to an incredible Wisconsin offense. Don't count those chickens before they hatch.

Championship Blueprint: Stay healthy and keep wearing the lucky dragon underwear.


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