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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Sweet 16 power ratings: Alabama’s the team to beat, but San Diego State’s timing is impeccable

By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

After years of gut-punch losses, stumbles against lower seeds or missing March Madness altogether, San Diego State has broken through to the second weekend.

The Aztecs might be steep underdogs against top-seeded Alabama, but they’re No. 1 in tournament timing.

SDSU could not have picked a better year to advance to the Sweet 16, with the Pac-12 in the final stages of negotiating a media rights contract and determining whether the Aztecs are a suitable expansion option.

While a single weekend of results won’t make or break SDSU’s case for membership, it certainly doesn’t hurt. Optics matter, and the Aztecs look like a program that can solidify what will be a depleted basketball product once UCLA departs for the Big Ten in the summer of 2024.

In the past 15 years, SDSU has qualified for the NCAA Tournament 10 times, averaged a No. 7 seed on those occasions and advanced to the Sweet 16 three times (2011, 2014 and 2023).

Other than Arizona and Oregon, none of the remaining Pac-12 schools have more than five appearances over that span.

The Aztecs, who have averaged 24 wins per year for the past decade, would enter the conference as the third-best basketball program.

They would be middle-of-the-pack in football and provide a vital anchor in fertile recruiting grounds. And their improving academic profile, fueled by a change in California education law that allows the campus to award doctorate degrees in public health, surely appeals to Pac-12 presidents.

The conference’s existential crisis is nearing resolution. Expansion is an essential piece of the overall calculation, and the competitive backdrop cannot be dismissed.

SDSU would strengthen Pac-12 basketball. That seemed clear before the NCAAs began, but the Aztecs provided important evidence this weekend.

To the power ratings …

1. Alabama: The tournament’s top overall seed has looked the part, producing two dominant performances despite sub-standard games by star forward Brandon Miller. If Miller cranks it up, the Crimson Tide should roll into the championship game. Next up: San Diego State (Friday)

2. Houston: The Cougars proved their worth in picking apart Auburn in Birmingham and are two wins from playing the Final Four in their hometown. The starting five is stellar, but we wonder: Is the bench up to the challenge in the second weekend? Next up: Miami (Friday)

3. UCLA: No team plays better halfcourt defense or possesses a savvier duo than Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez Jr. But the Bruins will go as far as their offense takes them, and rookie wing Amari Bailey is a vital piece of that equation. Next up: Gonzaga (Thursday)

4. Texas: The Big 12 tournament champs have an interim coach, a six-game winning streak, high-level perimeter play and are efficient at both ends of the court. We foresee an Elite Eight showdown with Houston in Kansas City — for a trip to Houston. Next up: Xavier (Friday)

5. Arkansas: The Hotline considered picking the Hogs for the Final Four but instead slotted them into the Elite Eight. They’re impossibly long and possess NBA-level talent at multiple positions. And Eric Musselman navigates March as well as any coach in the land. Next up: UConn (Thursday)

6. Gonzaga: UCLA’s opponent is the anti-UCLA in many ways. Gonzaga’s problem isn’t offense — it’s never offense. But are the Zags capable of playing lockdown defense against a well-drilled foe with multiple scoring options? We aren’t convinced. Next up: UCLA (Thursday)

7. Tennessee: Admittedly, the Hotline was skeptical of the Vols’ prospects without injured point guard Zakai Zeigler, and they struggled to escape Louisiana in the opening round. But the performance against Duke, particularly on defense, forced us to reconsider. Next up: FAU (Thursday)

8. UConn: The Huskies were impressive in dispatching Iona and Saint Mary’s (both by double digits) but face a major jump in competition in the Sweet 16. They won’t have an advantage athletically against the Hogs. Next up: Arkansas (Thursday)

9. Michigan State: This is hardly an elite Tom Izzo team, but the East is wide open without No. 1 Purdue and No. 2 Marquette, and the Spartans have just the guard to take advantage in Tyson Walker. Next up: Kansas State (Thursday)

10. Xavier: Sean Miller is back in the Sweet 16, not with Arizona but Xavier — the program he led before moving to Tucson 14 years ago. The first year of his second stint with the Musketeers has been tremendous, but it ends two steps from the Final Four. Next up: Texas (Friday)

11. Kansas State: The Wildcats stumbled down the stretch and were an easy team to overlook once the NCAA field was unveiled. But after eliminating Kentucky, they are a clear threat to win the wide-open East. Next up: Michigan State. (Thursday)

12. Creighton: Don’t sleep on the Bluejays, a preseason top-10 team that plays elite defense and handled Baylor with relative ease in the second round. If they don’t get cocky against the No. 15 seed, a date in the Elite Eight awaits. Next up: Princeton (Friday)

13. San Diego State: SDSU has the size and depth necessary to match Alabama, but the skill piece is murky — specifically, their ability to score efficiently against the tournament favorite. The Aztecs were 10-of-36 from 3-point range on the opening weekend. That percentage won’t cut it this week. Next up: Alabama (Friday)

14. Miami: The Hurricanes have quietly become an upper-echelon program in the ACC and stand one victory from their second consecutive appearance in the Elite Eight. To reach the next round, they need superb games from guards Jordan Miller and Isaiah Wong. Next up: Houston (Friday)

15. Princeton: We’re hesitant to doubt the Tigers after their stunning rally against Arizona and surgical beatdown of Missouri. But even if they survive the Sweet 16, the run will end against Alabama in the Elite Eight. Next up: Creighton (Friday)

16. FAU: The NCAAs have been a roaring success for the Owls, who defeated Memphis in the first round and Fairleigh Dickinson in the second. And that’s a good thing, because they now face the most physically dominant defense in the country. Next up: Tennessee (Thursday)