College Basketball

March Madness 2014 Picks: Top Contenders and Teams to Avoid in Your Bracket

GAINESVILLE, FL - MARCH 08: Will Yeguete #15 and Patric Young #4 of the Florida Gators lead the crowd in singing 'happy birthday' to Michael Frazier II (not pictured) after the game against the Kentucky Wildcats at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center on March 8, 2014 in Gainesville, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
Rob Foldy/Getty Images
Patrick ClarkeCorrespondent IMarch 16, 2014

March Madness has arrived and with it another puzzling tournament bracket. Now, all that's left to do is predict how the madness will unfold this spring.

There will be upsets. There will be incredible individual performances. But among the long list of contenders, there will only be one champion crowned. 

Below I'll highlight my picks for the top title contenders and also break down a few teams to avoid as you fill out your bracket. 

Bleacher Report

 

Top Contenders

Florida Gators

GAINESVILLE, FL - MARCH 08: Scottie Wilbekin #5 of the Florida Gators holds up a piece of the net after the game against the Kentucky Wildcats at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center on March 8, 2014 in Gainesville, Florida. The Gators were 18-0 in the SEC Con
Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Narrow defeats on the road at Wisconsin and Connecticut are the only blemishes on No. 1 Florida's 2013-14 resume and mean the Gators enter the Big Dance on an incredible winning streak. 

Although parity has ruled throughout the regular season, Billy Donovan's Gators have been remarkably consistent and are everything you want in a national championship contender.

Florida boasts tremendous experience (having reached the Elite Eight in each of the past three years), can generate offense from anywhere and plays stellar defense, holding teams to just 40 percent shooting from the field on average. 

With a core featuring four seniors, there isn't a team out there that the Gators can't beat.

 

Arizona Wildcats

Feb 9, 2014; Tucson, AZ, USA; Arizona Wildcats center Kaleb Tarczewski (35) guard Nick Johnson (13) and forward Aaron Gordon (11) walk on the court during the first half against the Oregon State Beavers at McKale Center. Arizona won 76-54. Mandatory Credi
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona hasn't made a deep NCAA tournament run in quite some time, but wins over Duke and Michigan out of conference highlight the Wildcats' strengths and ability to beat the nation's best.

Anchored by junior guard Nick Johnson and freshman force Aaron Gordon, Arizona is an excellent defensive and rebounding team. The Wildcats rank among the top teams in the country with 39 rebounds per game and also pull down nearly 13 offensive rebounds per game.

It goes without saying that that's a recipe for success come mid-March.

 

Louisville Cardinals

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 08:  Stephan Van Treese #44 , Tim Henderson #15, Russ Smith #2, Rick Pitino and Luke Hancock #11 of the Louisville Cardinals after the game against the Connecticut Huskies at KFC YUM! Center on March 8, 2014 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Never underestimate the heart of a champion.

Louisville may be flying under the radar this March, but the Cardinals are no strangers to tournament time and have a real shot to retain their title in Arlington, Texas, next month. 

Led by senior point guard Russ Smith, Louisville closed out the regular season with dominant performances against ranked foes in SMU and Connecticut, picking up momentum at the ideal time. 

With Louisville continuing to play stifling defense (39.7 percent shooting allowed) and a two-time national champion head coach in Rick Pitino pulling the strings, the Cardinals are a threat to return to the Final Four for the third straight year and win their second consecutive national crown. 

 

Teams to Avoid

Wichita State Shockers

WICHITA, KS - MARCH 01:  The Wichita State Shockers celebrate after beating the Missouri State Bears on March 1, 2014 at Charles Koch Arena in Wichita, Kansas.  Wichita State won 68-45.  (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)
Peter Aiken/Getty Images

Wichita State is without a doubt one of the top teams in the country. However, at 34-0, the Shockers are destined to slip up this spring.

Only seven teams have ever won it all with a perfect record and no team has done so since the the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Indiana was the last to accomplish the feat back in 1976. In 1991, UNLV ran the table during the regular season and eventually lost in the Final Four, finishing the year 34-1. 

Wichita State is a talented team with legitimate national title aspirations, but expect the pressure of staying unbeaten to catch up to them in the tournament's late stages when they face off against a quality opponent.  

 

Creighton Bluejays

OMAHA, NE - FEBRUARY 16: Doug McDermott #3 of the Creighton Bluejays prepares to shoot the ball over Kris Jenkins #2 of the Villanova Wildcats during their game at CenturyLink Center on February 16, 2014 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Im
Eric Francis/Getty Images

Despite Creighton's consistent success during the Doug McDermott era, don't expect the Bluejays to make a deep run this year. 

Not only do they rely far too heavily on McDermott, who averages nearly 16 more points per game than Creighton's second-leading scorer, but they've also bowed out in the round of 32 in each of the past two NCAA tournaments. 

Keep in mind that in those two round of 32 losses to North Carolina and Duke, McDermott averaged just 20.5 points on a combined 12-of-35 shooting from the floor. 

 

Virginia Cavaliers

DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 13:  Justin Anderson #1 of the Virginia Cavaliers reacts during  game against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 13, 2014 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 69-65.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Virginia deserves plenty of praise for an incredible regular season that concluded with a top finish in the ACC, but don't let the Cavaliers' impressive conference run fool you. This is a team with the potential to go home early this March.

Tony Bennett's squad isn't a great shooting team and relies on locking down opponents on the defensive end and forcing turnovers. Virgina's overtime loss to Maryland on March 9 showed how vulnerable it is when the opposition doesn't turn the ball over and gets hot from the field. The Terrapins shot 48 percent from the field and only turned the ball over a dozen times en route to a six-point overtime win. 

One anonymous coach whose team played Virginia this season provided CBS Sports' Jeff Borzello with a few reasons why the Cavs aren't ready to win it all:

They can have some lapses scoring the ball, but their defense will always give them a chance. A second round or Sweet 16 game when they're not making shots, and teams are forcing them to make jump shots, could give them trouble...If they play a team that makes shots, get rolling offensively, knocking down some 3s, you can beat them. They'll make you take contested shots, so a team that gets hot on a given night. A Michigan team, a Duke team. Teams can beat them knocking in jump shots.

The Cavaliers are only shooting 45.3 percent from the field as a team this season and could easily fall victim to a hot three-point shooting team in the early rounds. 

Virginia's last tournament appearance in 2012 saw them bounced in the round of 64 by Florida. The Gators shot 53 percent from the field and only turned the ball over 12 times in a 26-point rout. 

 

Follow Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Patrick Clarke on Twitter. 

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