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NCAA Tournament 2014: Best Bets to Make Deep March Madness Run

TUCSON, AZ - FEBRUARY 26:  (L-R) Nick Johnson #13, Aaron Gordon #11 and Kaleb Tarczewski #35 of the Arizona Wildcats react after scoring against the California Golden Bears during the second half of the college basketball game at McKale Center on February 26, 2014 in Tucson, Arizona. The Wildcats defeated the Golden Bears 87-59.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Andrew GouldFeatured ColumnistMarch 14, 2014

Picking NCAA tournament upsets provides the most fun, but investing in the true juggernauts offers a safer path to March Madness glory.

There's no greater killer than a team entrenched in your Final Four suffering a second-round exit. That one loss trickles down to muddle your entire bracket. 

So while it's fun to pick the Cinderella teams, a winning bracket will consist of safe, dependable squads who meet expectations with rich tournament runs. There's no shame in riding a top seed, as long as you pick the right one.

Once the official bracket is unveiled, participants can begin to research the matchups to pinpoint that special No. 12-over-No. 5 upset. For now, be prepared to write these schools deep down your card.

 

Arizona Wildcats

EUGENE, OR - MARCH 8: Nick Johnson #13 of the Arizona Wildcats goes after a loose ball with Waverly Austin #20 of the Oregon Ducks during the second half of the game at Matthew Knight Arena on March 8, 2014 in Eugene, Oregon. Oregon won the game 64-57. (P
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Just ask the Utah Utes about Arizona, but maybe wait a few days for the trauma to wane.

A rested Wildcats squad decimated Utah in the second round of the Pac-12 tournament, winning a 71-39 laugher that displayed Arizona's formidable defense.

Utah made 12 field goals while turning the ball over 11 times. It scored 13 points in the first half, which ESPN Stats & Info declared a record-low tally in Pac-12 play.

But before discussing the perils of becoming a prisoner of the moment, consider the positive signs that existed before this massacre. According to KenPow.com, Arizona rates first in the nation with a .9567 Pythagorean winning percentage and 86.4 adjusted defense rating.

Only two other squads (Ohio State and VCU) exhibit a defensive rating under 90.0, but neither of the other two ranks inside the top 100 offenses. Arizona, however, rates 34th with a 113.1 adjusted offensive mark.

Arizona features a deep, balanced squad that won't rely on one marquee name. Aaron Gordon can take over one night, but Nick Johnson is often the club's most important player on both sides of the court. Nobody is going to want to face the Wildcats in the upcoming weeks.

 

Florida Gators

GAINESVILLE, FL - MARCH 08: Patric Young #4 of the Florida Gators shoots around the defense of Willie Cauley-Stein #15 of the Kentucky Wildcats during the first half of the game at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center on March 8, 2014 in Gainesville, Florida.
Rob Foldy/Getty Images

If the bracket allows it, Arizona and Florida are on a collision course for a Final Four clash.

Wichita State is the only other team to rank in KenPow.com's top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. When evaluating the top contenders, it's always a good sign to identify as little weakness as possible to avoid a slip-up. 

The Gators have only lost twice this season by a combined seven points. Each loss came on the road against ranked opponents, so if they're going to get knocked out, it'll happen late against a legit adversary.

Casey Prather is one of the game's most efficient scorers. He averages a team-high 14.6 points per game through 27.9 minutes. According to SportsReference.com, he ranks seventh in college basketball with a .629 effective field-goal percentage. 

He's no Doug McDermott on the offensive end, but Prather is part of an efficient offensive nucleus that operates smoothly without a true superstar. With Billy Donovan leading the way, the Gators don't need a premier scorer to make a championship run.

 

Louisville Cardinals

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 08:  Rick Pitino the head coach of the Louisville Cardinals gives instructions to his team during the game against the Connecticut Huskies at KFC YUM! Center on March 8, 2014 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Imag
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Rutgers can join Utah in group therapy after getting demolished in the second round of the American Athletic Conference tournament.

Louisville notched an even greater victory than Arizona on Thursday, defeating the Scarlet Knights by 61 points in a 92-31 stomping. 

After Villanova lost a stunner to Seton Hall, Louisville is in contention for a No. 1 seed along with Virginia, Kansas and Duke. At 27-5 and sporting KenPom's second-highest rank, it should be the Cardinals' spot to lose.

Wichita State will rightfully feel slighted by its seclusion as one of the three surest bets, but the undefeated Shockers are still too much of an unknown commodity to label a safe option. While they're good enough to make a Final Four push, they carry a greater risk of suffering a short run.

A year after winning it all, the Cardinals have experience on their side with Russ Smith, Luke Hancock and legendary head coach Rick Pitino. Per SportsReference.com, they rank third with 118.3 points scored and fourth with 89.4 points allowed per 100 possessions. 

Louisville may not win it all, but the Cardinals should stick around for a while before meeting their maker.

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