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Ranking the Sweet 16 matchups

Julian Catalfo / theScore

The season started with 363 teams eyeing March glory, but only 16 remain as the NCAA Tournament shifts to the regional semifinals.

The top eight seeds in the tournament are all left standing - which has created some blockbuster matchups when play resumes on Thursday and Friday.

Here's how we ranked them:

8. (6) Clemson vs. (2) Arizona

A Clemson team that only finished sixth in the ACC in defensive efficiency is part of the Sweet 16 largely because of its ability to shut down opponents on that end. Neither New Mexico nor Baylor topped one point per possession in their respective matchups against the Tigers. They've been far from spectacular on the other side of the court, though, as star forward PJ Hall is averaging just 12.5 points per game in the tourney.

All this to say, Arizona's dominance may make this one non-competitive. Unlike the Tigers' previous opponents, the Wildcats don't have a size or physicality issue. Arizona makes a living on the glass and at the free throw line and will force its opponent to become outside shooters, which has been one of Clemson's major flaws in the Big Dance. With so many outstanding matchups on the slate, this one falls to the bottom.

7. (11) NC State vs. (2) Marquette

No. 11 NC State is the lowest-ranked remaining team in the field by a wide margin, so this matchup against 2-seed Marquette was never going to be placed high on our list. However, there's definitely some intrigue in the Wolfpack. Half-Cinderella, half-getting on a heater at the right time, NC State has won seven straight elimination contests to get to this point.

This game also features burly big man DJ Burns Jr. and his prowess in the post against Tyler Kolek, Marquette's maestro point guard. While the two play opposite styles, they both excite crowds with their deliberate pace and excellent basketball IQ. The Wolfpack haven't gotten hot from beyond the arc during their wild streak, but if they can hit double-digit threes against Marquette's funky, shifting defense, the magical run could continue.

6. (5) San Diego State vs. (1) UConn

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The good news? This is a rematch of last year's national title game, in which a super scrappy San Diego State squad scratched and clawed its way to the finals to take on a juggernaut UConn squad that had run through the tournament.

The bad news? Last year's tilt ended with a 17-point UConn victory, and the Huskies have kept their dominant form this season, while the Aztecs are without five rotation players from their national runner-up surge. San Diego State superstar Jaedon LeDee has bullied opponents in the post all season, but squaring off against 7-foot-2 giant Donovan Clingan down low may be too tall a task for him. Optimists would say that the Aztecs can put up a better fight in this matchup than last year's, but the rematch factor is the only reason it doesn't come last in our rankings.

5. (4) Duke vs. (1) Houston

Houston basketball games aren't always pretty and, given the Cougars' dominance in recent years, often come with a predetermined winner. But a Duke team that's been largely untested this tournament could provide a roadblock. Though the Blue Devils have only needed to beat a 13- and 12-seed, they demonstrated excellent defense and the ability to put up balanced scoring with superstar Kyle Filipowski receiving the bulk of opposing defenses' attention.

The Cougars' over-aggressive scrambling defense tends to give up open 3-point looks, and if freshman sharpshooter Jared McCain drills eight treys like he did against James Madison on Sunday, things could get interesting. But with Kelvin Sampson roaming the sidelines, Jamal Shead running the show on the floor, and Emanuel Sharp turning into an efficient three-level scorer, this one could get one-sided if the Blue Devils can't get Filipowski going.

4. (3) Creighton vs. (2) Tennessee

The final game of the Sweet 16 features a longtime coach trying to change his reputation when Rick Barnes and Tennessee take on Creighton. Barnes has established himself as a very successful bench boss over a 37-year career, with 28 NCAA Tournament bids to his name. However, his success in March Madness has left a lot to be desired: His team has only made the Elite Eight three times.

One thing's for sure: the Volunteers will need to shoot significantly better than they did in their Round of 32 game versus Texas if they're going to take down the Bluejays. Tennessee made a paltry 3-of-25 shots from beyond the arc against the Longhorns but squeezed by thanks to a dominant defensive showing. That'll be much tougher to replicate against one of the nation's most balanced scoring attacks, with three Bluejays averaging at least 17 points per game.

Creighton played one of the games of the tournament in the Round of 32, prevailing in double overtime over Oregon. Both Trey Alexander and Baylor Scheierman played all 50 minutes of action, while Ryan Kalkbrenner only sat for one minute. That trio's ability to replicate that effort against Tennessee's intense defense will likely decide Friday night's matchup.

3. (1) North Carolina vs. (4) Alabama

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The West Region semifinal between No. 4 Alabama and No. 1 North Carolina features a heavyweight tilt at the guard position. Mark Sears has led the Crimson Tide through the opening two rounds, averaging an explosive 28 points per contest while making 8-of-17 triples. RJ Davis entered the tournament ranked 11th in the country in scoring and supplied the Tar Heels with 21 points per game in the opening two rounds. The duo's back-and-forth will be must-see television on Thursday night.

If Sears versus Davis is the main event, consider the undercard to be Armando Bacot versus anybody the Crimson Tide throw at him. Alabama likes to run with three or four guards on the court at once, which should allow the nation's 13th-leading rebounder to thrive in the paint. Nate Oats will likely send several players at the senior center, hoping to limit his impact.

2. (3) Illinois vs. (2) Iowa State

If you like the idea that styles make fights, the matchup between No. 3 Illinois and No. 2 Iowa State is a dream scenario. These two outfits couldn't be more different in terms of their approach to the game. The Fighting Illini enter play with KenPom's top offensive unit in the country, scoring a whopping 126.8 points per 100 possessions. However, they rank outside the top 90 nationally on the defensive side of the ball. They want to make the scoreboard operator earn their pay and have no interest in a slow-paced, low-scoring affair that's won with defense and rebounds.

Iowa State, meanwhile, would likely play in a 10x10 box given the choice. The Cyclones are KenPom's top defensive team in the nation, allowing just 87.5 points per 100 possessions. The offense barely cracks the top 50 at No. 49, and ranks 260th in possessions per contest.

Will the Iowa State defense lock down Terrence Shannon Jr. and the explosive Illini, or will Illinois' offense overwhelm its opponent en route to a victory?

1. (1) Purdue vs. (5) Gonzaga

The best Sweet 16 game is also a rematch of a thriller from earlier in the season as No. 1 Purdue takes on No. 5 Gonzaga. The two teams met in the Maui Invitational in November, and the Boilermakers erased a five-point halftime deficit to win by ten. Like virtually every team in the country the past few seasons, the Bulldogs had no answer for Zach Edey inside. The national player of the year went for 25 points and 14 rebounds in the victory as Purdue outscored Gonzaga 44-30 in points in the paint.

The Bulldogs don't have an impact player who stands taller than 6-foot-10, which is a significant issue when their opponent's top player is 7-foot-4. But Mark Few has established himself as one of the elite coaches in college basketball over the last two decades, so it'll be highly intriguing to see what plan he schemes up to try and slow Edey.

Expect fireworks in this one. Both teams rank inside the top 15 nationally in points per game and are elite from deep. Purdue leads the country in 3-point shooting, while Gonzaga has connected on an absurd 18-of-36 triples in the tournament thus far.

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