With Selection Sunday out of the way and the field of 68 set, it’s time for college basketball’s national rite of passage: ignoring your work, family and relationships for the next 24-96 hours while scouring over hours of NCAA tournament content.
Finding the latest bracket buster will take precedent over just about anything, as folks read over countless scouting reports looking to get an edge.
When all is said and done, though, filling out your bracket comes down to one thing: Which teams will be headed to Atlanta for the Final Four? Finding the one No. 12 seed to take down a No. 5 seed is great, but it won’t matter one bit if the squad you choose to make the championship game falters in the second or third round.
With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of our latest picks to make the Final Four in each region.
Midwest Region: No. 1 Louisville Cardinals
Though they come in as the top overall seed in the entire tournament, there won’t be a soul alive shocked if Louisville doesn’t make it to the Final Four. The selection committee put the Cardinals in the dreaded “Region of Death,” where they will be met with a threat as early as the third round.
The Rams are possibly the nation’s most underrated team. A rebounding juggernaut that bullies teams down low, Larry Eustachy has developed an outlier in today’s guard-heavy style. If Colorado State gets past Missouri, Louisville will have their hands full.
While the Cardinals will almost certainly out-talent their way to the Elite Eight, either Duke or Michigan State likely waits in the regional final. It’s easily the most untenable bracket in the entire 2013 NCAA tournament, one that will take a team with depth, individual star power and elite coaching to navigate through.
Louisville has all three things in spades. The Cardinals are arguably the nation’s deepest squad, boasting a rotation that goes nine deep with players getting 11 or more minutes per game. That allows Rick Pitino the freedom to utilize his ferocious full-court pressure for almost the entire 40 minutes without ever truly having to worry about a massive talent descent.
The results have been sterling. Louisville is the nation’s most efficient defense by leaps and bounds, and they force the second-highest turnover rate to boot, per Ken Pomeroy. What’s even more impressive is that the Cardinals don’t miss a beat offensively. Led by Russ Smith’s 18.1 points per game and right around 10 per night from the trio of Peyton Siva, Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan, the Cardinals also rank 15th in offensive efficiency.
There’s no doubting the selection committee put Louisville behind the eight-ball. But there is also no doubting that the Cardinals are the most equipped team in the nation to handle the gauntlet that stands before them.
West Region: No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes
While Gonzaga is supposedly the “worst” of all No. 1 seeds, its bracket has a far clearer path to the Final Four than Louisville’s. The Bulldogs’ side of the region is filled with massive question marks like Wisconsin (offense) and Kansas State (defense, rebounding, experience), which has to sit just fine with Mark Few.
The problem for Gonzaga is with the buzz saw known as Ohio State. Once a team flailing around in relative mediocrity at the season’s midpoint, the Buckeyes caught fire down the stretch. They have won eight straight games heading into the Big Dance, three of which came against RPI Top 10 teams—an amazing mini-streak to end the season.
Led by coach Thad Matta, Ohio State’s strengths remain the same as they have been all season. Deshaun Thomas is a National Player of the Year candidate whose individual excellence allows the Buckeyes to tick. Thomas is averaging 19.6 points and 6.2 rebounds per game and has continued his development as a defender and outside shooter.
Aaron Craft continues to be one of the best on-ball defenders in college hoops. The junior guard averages over two steals per game and is the floor-slapping, uber-quick leader of a Buckeyes defense that ranks sixth in defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy.
The Buckeyes have their questions—most notably, their over-reliance on Thomas offensively—but they also have the most answers in the West. Kelly Olynyk and the ‘Zags will pose a difficult threat down low in the Elite Eight, but look for Ohio State to stretch its win streak up to 12 en route to the Final Four.
South Region: No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks
Speaking of teams currently rampaging through college basketball, it’s hard to imagine that Kansas was once on a vicious downward spiral. Once the No. 2 team in the nation, the Jayhawks lost three straight games to ranked opponents in early February and fell as far back as No. 14. They were in such a tailspin that coach Bill Self called them the “worst team Kansas has ever put on the floor.”
Miraculously, Kansas righted its ship with a drubbing over rival Kansas State on Feb. 11, and the team started looking better than it did when starting 19-1. The Jayhawks reeled off seven straight wins before losing at Baylor, with Ben McLemore and Jeff Withey re-emerging to lead a runaway train down the stretch.
Though that loss to Baylor was a minor blip on the radar, Kansas’ dominance continued in the Big 12 tournament. They won three three straight games by 15 or more points, giving themselves nine double-digit wins in their last 11 pre-tournament games. The Jayhawks weren't beating teams—they were bludgeoning them.
It’s possible that the wretched midseason version of Self’s squad returns at some point in the NCAA tournament. McLemore is a freshman on the big stage for the first time, and Elijah Johnson still unfortunately insists on shooting the ball at every opportunity.
Nevertheless, the Jayhawks are the most complete and consistent team overall in the South Region. They rank first in the nation in effective field-goal percentage against and fifth in the nation in defensive efficiency—all while holding a top-25 offense, per Ken Pomeroy.
McLemore is the type of ascendant star who could falter, but could ascend to unforeseen heights with NBA scouts watching. Withey is also a marvelous defensive center in the middle, an asset that only a select few teams in the nation have.
Florida, if it gets hot, is Kansas’ biggest threat. The Gators rank first overall in Pomeroy’s team-wide measurement and have looked unstoppable at certain points this season. But they have plenty of strange, close losses that seem to denote a lack of confidence down the stretch.
A Kansas vs. Florida matchup has all the potential in the world, but I’ll take the Jayhawks to win that game more often than not.
East: No. 1 Indiana Hoosiers
Losing to Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament cost the Hoosiers the top overall seed in the entire tournament, but it looks like they lucked out with a pretty nice setup regardless. Miami arguably has the highest variance of any No. 2 seed, meaning it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Hurricanes make the Final Four or lose to the Illinois vs. Colorado winner in the third round.
Meanwhile, Indiana also gets pretty nice pickings for its No. 4 and No. 5 seeds as well. Syracuse is an offensive landmine, always one step away from blowing itself up and scoring 39 points like it did versus Georgetown to end the regular season. No. 5 seed UNLV is a fantastic defensive squad and Anthony Bennett is a lottery pick in waiting, but the Rebels are also a wretched shooting team prone to prolonged stretches without scoring.
All things considered, heading to the Final Four should be a relative breeze for the Hoosiers. They have two of the 10 best players in the nation in Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, who along with three-point gunners Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls, combine for the most efficient offense in college basketball by a country mile.
Oladipo is also one of the nation’s best on-ball defenders. He can hound players at any wing position on the outside and is strong enough to take switches against power forwards down low. Oladipo’s versatility makes Indiana’s defense tick by allowing them to rotate without ever having to worry about massive disadvantages.
We rushed to anoint Indiana as the next 2011-12 Kentucky during the preseason. That said, the Hoosiers are by far the favorite to win this year’s Big Dance from a talent and versatility perspective.
Make your picks for the 2013 NCAA tournament here with the Bracket Challenge Game.