After weeks of prognostication and speculation, the field is finally set for the 2014 NCAA tournament, and it promises to make for an exciting run toward the championship.
March Madness always leads to some great moments, but the potential for such is even greater this year than it is in most others. There aren't necessarily any clear-cut, dominant teams who are guaranteed to make a run, so this could be one of the wildest tournaments in recent memory.
Now that the bracket has been released, college basketball fans can begin to make their picks and look ahead to the latter stages of the tourney—but there is no doubt that there are going to be some big surprises along the way.
With that said, here is a closer look at some of the top teams in the NCAA tournament along with a breakdown of how their chances to win it all stack up with the rest of the field.
Few teams have contended as consistently as the Florida Gators have over the past several years, so it certainly doesn't come as a shock to see them atop the college basketball world heading into the NCAA tournament. Say what you will about the SEC being down this season, but the Gators' dominance within the conference was impressive, and it obviously bodes well for their chances in the tourney.
There are several factors that make Florida a title favorite, and experience is right near the top of the list. Seniors Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin and Patric Young are all key players who know what it's like to play in high-pressure games. The NCAA tournament stage tends to rattle some teams, but that shouldn't be an issue for Florida.
Perhaps even more important than that, though, is the presence of head coach Billy Donovan. In addition to leading the Gators to two national championships, Donovan has taken Florida on deep runs through the tourney on multiple occasions. According to Ryan Fagan of Sporting News, he has a tournament record that few coaches can replicate:
Billy Donovan is 21-4 in his last six trips to the NCAA Tournament. Not a new stat, I know, but that's just incredible.— Ryan Fagan (@ryanfagan) March 5, 2014
For as much parity as there is in college basketball right now, Florida is definitely the one team that stands out above the crowd, to a certain extent. The Gators aren't bulletproof, by any means, as they have lost games to fellow tournament teams such as Wisconsin and Connecticut. Still, those who are filling out their brackets shouldn't hesitate to advance Florida deep into the tournament.
Which team is most likely to win the national title this year?
The Louisville Cardinals have been far from perfect this season. They don't enter the NCAA tournament as a prohibitive favorite, unlike last year, and plenty of things have changed since they won the 2013 national title. Big men Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan are no longer in the picture, which changes the team's makeup significantly, but there is still reason to believe in the Cardinals this year.
For starters, head coach Rick Pitino knows how to motivate his team and have success amid the chaos of March Madness. He has done so many times over the years, and his team is the reigning champion after all. The Cardinals aren't simply about coaching, though; they also happen to have the horses necessary to win big games and excel in pressure situations.
Louisville is spearheaded on the court by guards Russ Smith and Chris Jones. Not only are they capable offensive players, but the two also form the most dynamic backcourt duo in the nation in terms of defense. Smith and Jones both average better than two steals per game, and ESPN's Jay Bilas is blown away by their ability:
Louisville's guards are GOOD. Smith and Jones may not sound exotic , but those two can really play.— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) March 8, 2014
In addition to Smith and Jones, reigning NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player Luke Hancock is still in the fold as well. Add in the huge improvement of forward Montrezl Harrell from last year to this year, and there is no question that Louisville is a legitimate contender to repeat as champion.
The NCAA tournament is generally stacked with wild-card teams that present a great deal of unpredictability, and there is no question that Wichita State is leading the way this year. After reaching the Final Four last year, the Shockers have followed that up with a perfect 34-0 record this season, securing them a No. 1 seed in the 2014 NCAA tournament.
As great as that looks on the surface, Wichita State still has its doubters. The Missouri Valley Conference didn't provide much competition this season, and the Shockers were never really tested. Wichita State associate head coach Chris Jans believes that the national skepticism is actually good for the team, though, via Eric Prisbell of USA Today:
Thanks for all those who have helped us along the way. But a special thanks to the haters because you have motivated us even more ... Our kids were either overlooked, weren't rated very high, had to go to junior college, transferred. Long roads. And we love it. It works well with our personalities. They have a little chip on their shoulder. They are hungry. Hungry.
Wichita State took everyone by surprise last year, but it will be the "hunted" rather than the "hunter" in 2014. That doesn't mean that the Shockers can't repeat what they did in 2013, as the trio of Cleanthony Early, Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet can compete with essentially any team in the nation from an offensive standpoint.
With that said, however, expect the lack of competition from the regular season to come back to bite the Shockers in the tourney when they come across a team that can match them from a talent perspective.
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