The 2014 NCAA tournament is rapidly approaching, and that means it’s time to get familiar with the top teams participating before the selection committee sets the field and brackets begin getting printed on Sunday night.
There are plenty of quality squads primed to make a run in the Big Dance, but only a few have the chops to outlast the 68-team field and win a national title after three weekends of incredible college hoops action.
Let’s take a look at some of these premier programs and highlight what you need to know about them before filling out your bracket.
The Gators are the top team in the country right now, having just capped off a 29-2 regular season that also saw them complete the first 18-0 run in SEC history.
It has resulted in the No. 1 ranking and should help the Gators parlay their No. 1 seed in the conference tournament into an SEC championship.
Even if Florida falls flat in the conference tourney, this team is still likely going to be a No. 1 seed and one of the toughest outs in the entire field. It has all the markings of a program primed to go deep and might not lose during March Madness.
UF is the only team that can be found inside the top 10 of Ken Pomeroy’s offensive and defensive efficiency rankings, meaning this is a complete unit that is capable of dominating on both ends of the floor.
It has four players averaging more than 10 points a game and employs four seniors in the starting lineup, meaning there is plenty of experience and potential for any one of these studs to go off and have a huge night statistically.
They are hungry too, as senior center Patric Young told Tom Spousta of The New York Times after the regular season finale against Kentucky:
This is not mission accomplished. We are obviously headed in the right direction now because the ultimate goal is to be national champions. It feels good to sit back right now and say that we have accomplished something, but we still have to get back to work.
Head coach Billy Donovan is the perfect skipper for this team, as he has won two national titles and knows exactly what it takes to keep his squad motivated during the tournament.
While some may knock the Gators' lack of star power and believe it could be their downfall this March, it hasn’t been an issue during the regular season and shouldn’t be the case now.
The main flaw that should concern backers is their inability to hit free throws at a high level. The team collectively shot 67.3 percent from the line, a number that doesn’t scream reliability and could haunt them at the end of a close contest.
Opponents had better get a strong lead in the first if they want any chance of ousting this squad, as Eugene Frenette of the Florida Times-Union noted. Florida is a rock-solid second half team:
If ur gonna beat Florida, it's almost imperative to be leading at halftime. #Gators 21-0 when up at half, usually better in 2nd half— Eugene Frenette (@GeneFrenette) March 14, 2014
Assuming UF doesn’t have any major struggles from the line and starts every game like the national title is on the line, it should be able to make a Final Four run. This team has all the tools to make it that far and could very well be cutting down the nets after winning a national championship.
The Shockers have not lost since last year’s Final Four and are going to be a stubborn team to remove from the 2014 NCAA tournament. The undefeated program is going to be back and better than ever, this time playing the role of Goliath instead of David.
It will be interesting, however, to see if the selection committee deems Wichita State worthy of a top seed. It has become major debate amongst college basketball enthusiasts, despite the team’s unblemished record.
Detractors will point towards the Shockers’ lack of quality wins and weak strength of schedule, which could cause them to drop down to a No. 2 or No. 3 seed.
Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports is one of those that doesn’t believe Wichita State deserves a coveted No. 1 seed, but did compliment the team’s improvement in 2013-14:
Wichita State deserves congrats on an undefeated season. Shockers are clearly better than last year. But that doesn't mean they're a 1 seed.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) March 1, 2014
CBS Sports’ Doug Gottlieb backed up his co-worker, pointing out that the Shockers played zero opponents worthy of a No. 5 seed or higher during the regular season:
Wichita State has 31 wins- 0 losses , zero games versus a top 5 seed— Doug Gottlieb (@GottliebShow) March 2, 2014
Assistant head coach Chris Jans revealed that these detractors help fuel his squad’s collective fire, as per Eric Prisbell of USA Today Sports:
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.
The players on this Missouri Valley Conference championship squad do not seem too concerned about where they wind up in terms of seeding and are just looking forward to making another deep foray into March Madness.
How far will Wichita State go in the tournament?
The primary contributors on this team—namely Fred VanVleet, Cleanthony Early, Tekele Cotton and Ron Baker—are battle-tested from last year’s miraculous run and clearly remained focused throughout a special regular season.
Head coach Gregg Marshall has this group disciplined and ready to take it one game at a time, as per Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Eisenberg: "Right now, we're not thinking about eating the entire elephant. We're thinking about our next meal."
It’s a smart strategy, considering this team has a chance to make history and become the eighth unbeaten team to win a national title. The stakes are immensely high, but the Shockers have the right personnel and attitude to get it done.