Selection Sunday's announcement of the 68 teams competing in the 2014 NCAA Tournament offered no big surprises at the top, as Virginia, Florida, Wichita State and Arizona secured top seeds. However, not all of the four are being hailed as favorites to win by oddsmakers.
Michigan and Wichita State both made it to the Final Four in 2013, and both schools are in excellent position to do so again this year. Florida and Arizona are both national powerhouses that feature top-flight talent and excellent veteran coaching staffs, and they'll be tough to beat as well.
As they happen every year, upsets are sure to be a big part of the tournament in 2014. All it takes is one off game by a top-seeded team to vault an underdog into the role of Cinderella.
That said, on paper, these four top teams appear to have what it takes to reach the Final Four, where anything can happen. Here's a look at the updated odds, via Vegas Insider, for all four to win, along with predictions for how they'll fare.
Florida (32-2): 11-2 Odds
The Gators enter the tourney as one of the hottest teams in the nation, having rattled off 26 wins in a row. Billy Donovan's team went undefeated in SEC play (18-0) as well, becoming the first team in history to accomplish the feat after beating Kentucky in the SEC final.
Led by seniors Casey Prather and Scottie Wilbiken, Florida features an extremely balanced scoring attack, with four players averaging double-digits in points and five players averaging 9.1 points or better.
This even distribution of points highlights Florida's excellent "team" approach, as pointed out by ESPN's Jeff Goodman, who compares the Gators to Wichita State in this regard:
One thing Florida and Wichita State have in common other than being ranked at top of polls: They both play "team" basketball. No egos.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) March 14, 2014
Even better, Donovan has been able to get his team to make necessary adjustments at halftime all year long. This was highlighted when the Gators outscored Missouri 43-20 in the second half of their SEC quarterfinal game, as noted by Edward Aschoff of ESPN.com:
When a team outscores an opponent 43-20 in the second half, it has made a pretty strong statement about making a second-half adjustment.
The Gators have done that all season. It’s why they’re the No. 1 team in the country and will likely leave Atlanta with the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. This team has had ugly first halves before but has the maturity to forgive and forget.
With no obvious weaknesses, this is a team primed to go far in the tournament—if not win it outright.
Prediction: Florida will make it into the Final Four.
Arizona (30-4): 15-2 Odds
To nobody's surprise, Arizona secured the top seed in the West Region even after being ousted by UCLA in the Pac-12 final. The Wildcats were clearly the top team on the West Coast all year long, losing just four contests throughout the season.
Defense and rebounding is the name of the game for Sean Miller's team, which finished the season as the No. 4-ranked team in terms of scoring defense (58.1 points allowed per game) and No. 18 in terms of rebounds (38.9 per game).
Junior guard Nick Johnson leads the team's well-balanced offensive attack, and six players average 8.5 points per game or better.
Anthony Gimino sees a mostly clear path for the Wildcats to cruise through the region, barring one "scary" potential second contest against Oklahoma State:
Given the way Arizona has been so solid all year long, it will be surprising if the Wildcats don't advance deep into the tournament.
Prediction: Arizona will reach the Final Four.
Wichita State (34-0): 8-1 Odds
Scary second game for Arizona with potential for Oklahoma State, but otherwise, lots to like (on paper) with UA's path.— Anthony Gimino (@AGWildcatReport) March 16, 2014
After shockingly (pun intended) making it into the Final Four last season, the Shockers are back at it again, having completed an undefeated season heading into this year's tourney.
Wichita State's "soft" schedule has been criticized by many, but the players aren't letting it get to them. If anything, all the doubters only fuel this team's fire, as described by Eric Prisbell of USA Today:
By remaining undefeated, the Shockers remain polarizing, attracting criticism because of a conference schedule perceived by some as soft. And they use that criticism to remain edgy and angry rather than tight. They're trying to remain the hunters, rather than the hunted, despite likely earning a No. 1 seed this Sunday.
"Thanks for all those who have helped us along the way," associate head coach Chris Jans said, via Prisbell. "But a special thanks to the haters because you have motivated us even more."
Senior forward Cleanthony Early, who was so pivotal in the team's deep run last year, leads a rock-solid and balanced offensive attack, and the Shockers are also dominant on the glass. Despite the fact that Wichita State didn't see the same level of competition throughout the season as the other top seeds, this is a unit with plenty of big-game experience and the talent to go deep again.
That said, it will be surprising if the Shockers match last season's accomplishments.
Prediction: Wichita State will make it to the Elite Eight.
Virginia (28-6): 20-1 Odds
The Cavaliers didn't appear to be a championship-caliber team back in the middle of January, having posted a 12-5 record midway through the season. However, after this squad rattled off 16 wins in its last 17 contests and won the ACC title over Duke, it's clear that Virginia is a force to be reckoned with heading into the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
As with all things March Madness, though, Virginia's hot finish doesn't make it any easier to predict how it will fare in the tourney. As pointed out by Vic Lombardi, Tennessee, which needs to win its play-in game, beat the Cavaliers by 35 points earlier this season:
Like Wichita State, Virginia has its fair share of doubters, likely for this very reason. The lack of faith is something guard Malcolm Brogdon believes is a positive for his team, as relayed by C.L. Brown of ESPN.com:
Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon added it didn’t matter how much they’ve won, they play better when they find an angle.
"I think so, that’s what we pride ourselves on and that’s how we try to play every game regardless of how far we go in whatever tournament or in the ACC. We try to pride ourselves in having a chip and being hungry every game."
Picking this tournament will be impossible. Virginia's a 1-seed. Tennessee is in the play-in game. Tenn beat Virginia by 35.— Vic Lombardi (@VicLombardi) March 16, 2014
The biggest concern facing the Cavaliers is the team's lack of scoring. Only Brogdon and Joe Harris average double-digit points per game, and the team finished the regular season as the nation's No. 294-ranked team in terms of scoring offense (65.8 points per game).
Because of this, Virginia could be the first top seed to lose.
Prediction: Virginia will reach the Sweet 16.
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