Let the Madness begin.
Now that the field is set, fans around the globe can begin scribbling on brackets in the hopes of becoming a legend in the minds of anyone who will listen.
Like every year, the field is littered with potential sleepers, massive disappointments and four teams with the wherewithal to make it all the way to the grandest stage of them all. A proper prediction in all of the biggest categories is a shot in the dark, albeit a fun one that requires a close examination of stats and trends.
Sleepers That Can Go Deep
Gonzaga (28-6, No. 8, West)
Gonzaga is in a strange place as a Cinderella.
The Bulldogs have failed to make significant noise in the tournament for quite some time, and while being crowned WCC champs is nice thanks to a 75-64 win over BYU, not many are circling Gonzaga on their brackets as a team to watch.
Will Gonzaga get past Arizona?
Mark Few's team ranks No. 5 in the nation in field-goal percentage at a resounding .498. Led by senior Sam Dower (15 points per game) and junior Kevin Pangos (14.1 points per game), the Bulldogs are efficient enough to play with any team they encounter.
A matchup with Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State is a brutal way to start the tournament, but Dower and Co. can jump out early and set the pace. A potential bout with Arizona in the round of 32 hurts, but the Wildcats have been exposed as human lately.
When a team is as efficient from the field as Gonzaga, it is easy to see why plenty of brave souls who fill out a bracket will pick them as an upset special.
Tennessee (21-12, No. 11 Midwest)
The Tennessee Volunteers can be forgiven for dropping out of the SEC tournament in the semifinal against No. 1 Florida, but the 56-49 differential is quite the encouraging sign.
Before that loss, the Volunteers had won five in a row, although they were admittedly inconsistent all season.
But the beauty of Tennessee's roster is its experience, led by junior Jarnell Stokes, who averages a double-double with 14.7 points and 10.3 rebounds per game.
The Volunteers were snubbed and must win a play-in game against Iowa, but the momentum gained there will translate well to a win over Massachusetts in the round of 64. That presumably sets up a matchup with Duke, which is winnable, considering the Volunteers have played a team like Florida close the last two times they have met.
After that, none of the remaining seeds are a threat until the Elite Eight. It's easy to scoff at the odds, but at least one team each year makes a miraculous run, and Tennessee has enough on both ends of the court to make it happen.
Giants That Will Fall Early
Michigan (25-8, No. 2 Midwest)
The Michigan Wolverines play with fire via their offensive approach.
When Nik Stauskas (17.5 points per game) and Co. are on from downtown, it is hard to imagine any team that can best them in a do-or-die scenario.
But when the Wolverines are off, as they were in the Big Ten final against Michigan State, the Wolverines are very much a beatable team. In that contest, Michigan managed just a 6-of-23 mark from behind the arc and wound up losing in ugly fashion, 69-55.
The Wolverines get No. 15 Wofford to kick things off in the Midwest but then have to encounter either No. 7 Texas or No. 10 Arizona State shortly thereafter. Wofford itself is no pushover, and the round of 32 is about as far as many should expect out of the streaky Wolverines.
Syracuse (27-5, No. 3 South)
Jim Boeheim's Syracuse Orange are having a rough go of it as of late.
Not only did the Orange lose four of their last five, they completely laid an egg in the closing moments of the ACC tournament quarterfinal against North Carolina State:
Similar to Michigan, Syracuse has made a habit of living on the edge and sooner or later will get burnt.
Senior C.J. Fair is the name every household knows, primarily thanks to his 16.7 points per game, but even he cannot carry the team to wins against a tough bracket—which was put on display in the ACC tournament.
Now the Orange are cornered into a matchup with trigger-happy No. 14 Western Michigan. If that doesn't do Syracuse in, No. 6 Ohio State or No. 11 Dayton surely will.
The Final Four: Michigan State (East), Arizona (West), Florida (South), Kentucky (Midwest)
Most of this is pretty straightforward. Most.
In the East, Michigan State is only No. 4, but it has a clear advantage over the rest of the field. The Spartans are on fire as of late, coming off a victory in the Big Ten tournament, and they now have star forward Branden Dawson back.
Even better, the team bucks traditional stat lines and expectations, as it did in the Big Ten final against Michigan, as David Wilkinson of 10TV points out:
Michigan State was 2-17 from 3PT land and still won by 14. Sparty is ready.— David Wilkinson (@David10TV) March 16, 2014
Arizona, as if already not one of the most dominant teams in the sport, has a ridiculously easy path through the West, with the only real competition being Gonzaga and a Wisconsin squad that may not even make it far enough to sniff the Wildcats.
In the South, Florida also has a pretty simple path, barring an unpredictable run from Kansas or Ohio State (don't count on it).
But now about that Midwest, which the committee for some reason absolutely loaded (conspiracy theorists will point to them wanting to ensure No. 1 Wichita State does not make it far).
The field is packed, with Kentucky, Louisville, Duke and even Michigan standing a strong chance to emerge. Louisville head coach Rick Pitino is not too thrilled with his team being slapped with a No. 4 seed, as captured by Rick Bozich of WDRB:
Rick Pitino said that he'd better not comment when I asked him to comment on Louisville's #4 seed in Midwest Regional. Don't blame him.— rickbozich (@rickbozich) March 16, 2014
As Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel points out, the field is so littered with elite teams because of geography:
Wichita's region is loaded in part b/c so many of those teams are in/near Midwest. That's the committee's first priority.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) March 16, 2014
Regardless, does anyone want to truly bet against Kentucky at this stage? The Wildcats are finally getting back to playing elite basketball at the right time and can play with the best teams in the nation on any given day.
The National Championship: Michigan State vs. Arizona
Two juggernauts close the Madness, with one finally having an injured player back, and another without one of its best playing and holding on for dear life.
Arizona is without Brandon Ashley but has still looked the part of a formidable team since he went down. As Matt Norlander of CBS Sports points out, the Wildcats' defense is what makes them such a great shot to win it all:
This team is a joy to watch -- but I don't even want to think about what they must be like to score against. Nick Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Aaron Gordon are athletic wunderkinds. Adjusted for strength of opponent, Arizona gives up 86.9 points per 100 possessions. That's a great rate, No. 1 in the nation (the No. 1 per-possession defense team in the country has won the title in nine of the past 11 seasons).
Those are some very convincing numbers, but the aforementioned Dawson is key here. The Spartans are 20-3 this year when Dawson is in the lineup, and he's healthy just in time for the tournament.
Michigan State is simply too efficient from the floor and actually has the bodies to bang with Arizona down low. Tom Izzo's team is built for tournaments like this.