VCU remains a strong threat for a deep run.
Expect at least one mid-major school to reach the Sweet 16 when March Madness tips off.
Not only is this virtually a foregone conclusion each year, but 2013 has even more intrigue from this standpoint. Even notable college coaches from the power conferences weighed in on the field.
Four national title-winning coaches – Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Kentucky's John Calipari and Florida's Billy Donovan – told USA TODAY Sports that they believe at least 30 teams in this year's field, nearly half the teams competing, have a legitimate chance to reach the Final Four, a higher number than ever before.
"This year," [Roy] Williams said, "there are probably 12 to 14 teams that have a legitimate chance to win the national title … The word upset is so overused it is ridiculous."
The depth of this year's tournament is obviously courtesy of the stellar resumes from the mid-major level. The following schools from that range are the best and safest to predict in a bracket filled with chaos.
Saint Louis, Midwest Region
Saint Louis was straight dominant this season by collecting victories over Texas A&M, New Mexico and going 5-0 versus Butler and VCU.
Earning the No. 4 seed after winning the Atlantic 10 regular season and conference tournament, the Billikens face New Mexico St. in the round of 64. Expect the Billikens to move onward, as their defense is far superior than the Aggies' offense.
The next round is either 12-seeded Oregon or 5-seeded Oklahoma State. The Ducks have the offense to outlast Saint Louis, but Oregon has been too inconsistent by comparison. The Billiken's defense will simply take advantage by creating turnovers for additional possessions.
Oklahoma State, like Oregon, presents an offense capable of scoring on anyone. But the Big 12 doesn't court defenses like Saint Louis, and the Billiken's are just as solid regarding offensive efficiency.
New Mexico, West Region
Winners of the Mountain West regular season and conference tournament, New Mexico has every reason to believe it will reach the Sweet 16. With impressive victories coming against Davidson, Connecticut, Cincinnati, UNLV (twice) and Colorado State (twice), the Lobos are well established.
Tipping off their 2013 tournament is No. 14 Harvard out of the Ivy League. Now, just because it's the Ivy League doesn't mean the Crimson should be written off. After all, we saw Cornell reach the Sweet 16 in 2010.
This year won't be the case, however. New Mexico does a much better job of sharing the rock and crashing the boards for the sound mix of finesse and physical play. Moving forward and the Lobos will square off against Arizona or Belmont.
The Wildcats are the sixth seed and they definitely present the offense to push the tempo. On the contrary, New Mexico possesses the offense to equal Arizona and pairs that with a better defense. As for Belmont, the Bruins are quite the challenge with their offense and ability to rely on multiple players.
Still, the Lobos defense ranks No. 19 in opposing shooting percentage (38.8). Belmont will have trouble creating and finding open looks at a consistent rate.
VCU, South Region
How far do you have VCU lasting?
There's no shame in taking runner-up to Saint Louis in the Atlantic 10, because VCU managed to earn the No. 5 seed in the South Region. Positioned nicely for a strong run, the Rams possess one of college basketball's best and most effective offenses.
And their first opponent, the Akron Zips, will have trouble keeping up. The Zips don't have the offense by comparison, average almost six points fewer per game, and VCU nearly matches Akron defensively.
Factor in the strength of the Atlantic 10 over the MAC and VCU won't have difficulty here. Next is either Michigan or South Dakota State. The Wolverines present a challenge coming from the Big 10, a conference deep and known for defense.
Unfortunately for Michigan, the Rams are incredibly well-versed at generating turnovers and the Wolverines rank No. 262 in this category. With the offense to keep scoring, VCU has law of averages on its side over Michigan.
Should VCU meet South Dakota State, the Jackrabbits' offensive strength doesn't equal that of the Rams. In addition, VCU ranks No. 41 in defensive efficiency compared to No. 224 for the Jackrabbits.
Butler, East Region
Lining up versus Bucknell in the round of 64, the Butler Bulldogs get a Bison team that does not appear to be at a disadvantage. Bucknell played more consistent defense this season in allowing only 57.7 points per game.
It is, however, important to compare and contrast the strength of schedules. Butler logged wins over Marquette, North Carolina, Indiana and Gonzaga outside its conference. Bucknell's best victories came over La Salle, Purdue and New Mexico State.
In short, expect the Bulldogs to isolate the Bison offense and as Butler is tougher defensively than at first glance. Looking ahead to the round of 32 and a rematch with Marquette or getting Davidson is the potential contest.
The Bulldogs outlasted the Golden Eagles by one point in the regular season, so challenging the mid-range jumpers will be key. Marquette has more of an efficient defense, but the Bulldogs' ability to knock from anywhere on the floor is to their favor.
Davidson on the other hand, is a stronger test to Butler's defense as the Wildcats can score. The major edge, though, comes from the schedule as the Wildcats saw inflated numbers due to a much weaker conference. Butler proved to shutdown high-powered attacks, and Davidson is not on Gonzaga's or North Carolina's level.
*Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of TeamRankings.com
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