NCAA Tournament 2014: Ranking the Toughest Regions
Not all regions are created equal.
Try as it might, the NCAA men's basketball selection committee faces an impossible task of balancing out all four regions of the tournament field into equal quadrants. Some teams might get overseeded or underseeded for whatever reason, while the potential matchups facing one top seed might appear to be a cakewalk next to the death sentence given to another.
There will never be a perfect parsing of the powers in college hoops—it's just a fact we have to live with. The coaches of the teams in the field each year find a way to deal, and so should we.
But that doesn't mean we can't debate which region is the toughest and which most closely resembles a stroll through the park.
4. South Region
No. 1 Florida (32-2), No. 2 Kansas (24-9), No. 3 Syracuse (27-5), No. 4 UCLA (26-8)
New Mexico (27-6) won its third straight Mountain West Conference tournament title, knocking off San Diego State in Saturday's final. The Lobos are chock-full of athletes and play some darn good defense, yet somehow only warranted a No. 7 seed.
Past NCAA tourney performance isn't supposed to get factored into seedings or placement, but it's hard not to think that New Mexico's lackluster showing in an upset loss to Harvard in last year's second round was a contributing factor to this seed.
Sleeper to Watch
Pittsburgh (25-9) looked like it was trying to back into the NCAA tournament as the regular season ended, losing six of 11 games after an 18-2 start. But then the Panthers kicked it up a notch in the ACC tournament, blowing out Wake Forest and blowing past North Carolina before taking Virginia to the wire in the semifinals.
Seniors Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna still have nightmares of last year's early exit to Wichita State and want to finish their careers on a high note.
Why It's the Weakest Region
Florida is the top overall seed in the tournament, and in a perfect world, that would mean the Gators should have the easiest route to the Final Four. It seems the selection committee took that idea to heart, filling the bracket with a No. 2 seed (Kansas) with injury concerns and a No. 3 seed (Syracuse) that's looking like a shell of its earlier self.
UCLA is the weakest of the No. 4 seeds, apparently getting that spot solely because of its Pac-12 tournament title (and ignoring its loss at Washington State a week before), while none of the lower-seeded teams really seem to strike fear into the hearts of bracketologists.
All in all, this doesn't look like it's going to be that rough of a course for Florida to navigate. If you only pick one No. 1 seed to reach the Final Four, it will come from this region.
3. West Region
No. 1 Arizona (30-4), No. 2 Wisconsin (26-7), No. 3 Creighton (26-7), No. 4 San Diego State (29-4)
Oklahoma State (21-12) was ranked in the Top 10 in early January before a major skid—compounded by Marcus Smart's suspension—sent the Cowboys into a tailspin. Nobody ever said the Cowboys weren't a good team, they just hit a wall in the middle of the season, leading to an eighth-place finish in the Big 12 and a No. 9 seed.
Make no mistake, OSU is the most dangerous team in an No. 8 vs. No. 9 game and could be Arizona's biggest hurdle to a Final Four appearance.
Sleeper to Watch
Oregon (23-9) lost five straight games after a 13-0 start, and everyone pretty much wrote off the Ducks. But then they rattled off seven in a row to end the regular season, including knocking off Arizona, showing off their flash-and-dash style that's high on energy, though it's low on defensive effort.
The Ducks are a poor-man's version of Iowa State, using the same style of play and featuring just as many impact transfers. The Ducks have the talent to make the Sweet 16 and shouldn't be ignored.
Why It's the Second-Weakest Region
If regions had a nickname, this would be the Chalk Region. That's because the top four seeds should all make the Sweet 16, and it has the best chance of drawing a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in the regional final in Anaheim.
The one hiccup to that could be Creighton, which could ride the scoring stylings of Doug McDermott into the Elite Eight or beyond, much the way teams like Indiana State and Michigan State drafted behind superstars Larry Bird and Magic Johnson to the 1979 NCAA final.
Arizona has a relatively soft road to the Final Four, with its toughest matchup coming potentially in the third round. Distance can also play a factor in this region, with the Wildcats getting the chance to play the second weekend in one of its alumni hotbeds.
There's more potential for upsets here than in the East, but still not many. North Dakota State could be a trendy pick over Oklahoma, but after that it's a crapshoot.
2. East Region
No. 1 Virginia (28-6), No. 2 Villanova (28-4), No. 3 Iowa State (26-7), No. 4 Michigan State (26-8)
Cincinnati (27-6) was 22-2 at one point, but some soft play down the stretch caused the Bearcats to slide and essentially become an underdog as a No. 5 seed. And that also means getting stuck with the dreaded No. 5 vs. No. 12 matchup, facing Harvard on Thursday.
But this is a team that's good enough to be a No. 3 or 4 seed, and if Mick Cronin has anything to say, it's going to play like one.
Sleeper to Watch
Providence (23-11) needed to make a strong impression this past week in order to ensure its first NCAA tournament berth since 2004, so it did the best thing possible: earned an automatic bid. The Friars played some of their best ball of the season in the Big East tournament, knocking off Creighton to win the title and get a No. 11 seed.
Bryce Cotton is playing like a guy who doesn't want his storied career to end, and that's a dangerous thing to face in March.
Why It's the Second-Toughest Region
While Virginia earned its No. 1 seed, it didn't get the kind of path that would make it a good bet to book those tickets to Arlington for the Final Four. The Cavaliers might have to go through two of the hotter teams in the country in Michigan State and then Iowa State, which means Villanova's path to the Elite Eight isn't easy, either.
This region also features the most conference tournament champions with 10, and half of them were the regular-season champs as well, belying this year's trend of top conference tourney seeds getting knocked out early.
Packed with talented rosters like Connecticut, Memphis and North Carolina, this quadrant doesn't have any serious weak spots.
1. Midwest Region
No. 1 Wichita State (34-0), No. 2 Michigan (25-8), No. 3 Duke (26-8), No. 4 Louisville (29-5)
Kentucky (24-10) fell far short of those 40-0 dreams, as the Wildcats will enter the tournament with plenty of doubts because of the number of losses on their record. But this team has talent coming out its ears, far more than you'd expect from a No. 8 seed.
Youth has played a significant role in how Kentucky has fared this season, but as could be seen during (just-short) comebacks in its last two games against Florida, the ability is there.
Sleeper to Watch
North Carolina State (21-13) didn't appear to have a shot at a berth after losing to Duke in the ACC semifinals, but then the committee took a stand and put the Wolfpack into the First Four. Whether they're deserving or not, they're in and now they have a chance to prove themselves.
Kind of sounds like the VCU team from 2011 that slipped into the field and ended up rolling to the Final Four. T.J. Warren is one of the most dynamic players in the country, and March is when superstars rise to the occasion.
Why It's the Toughest Region
Hey, Wichita State, congrats on that perfect record! You're completely deserving of a No. 1 seed, despite what everyone says...but it comes with a price.
The Shockers are going to have to earn another trip to the Final Four, getting by far the toughest draw of any top seed. How bad is this "region of death"? Along with WSU, it features two other members of last year's Final Four (defending champion Louisville and runner-up Michigan), both of which won or shared their leagues' regular-season titles.
And let's not forget Duke, which, whenever the Devils aren't knocked out early, seems to end up playing on the last weekend of the tournament, as well as potential Cinderellas like Arizona State or Iowa.
Beyond just the best chance of not sending its No. 1 seed into the Final Four, the Midwest also is the most likely to move a team outside of the top two or three seeds on to Arlington.
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