Top Seeds with the Toughest Road to the 2014 Final Four
A poker player is only as good as the cards on the table. It's much the same for the nation's top college basketball teams around this time of the year.
That's especially true in 2014, when so many observers see plenty of parity in the field. The gap between an Arizona and, say, a Kansas is not terribly wide. A team's bracket draw can be a powerful equalizer—or unequalizer, if that's a real word.
These six squads, all of which landed one of their region's top four seeds, face particularly bruising gauntlets on the way to the promised land. Each one is staring down the barrel of a tough cadre of opponents, some difficult away crowds (which are always notoriously underdog-friendly in the Big Dance) or both.
Other teams in region: (1) Virginia, (3) Iowa State, (4) Michigan State, (5) Cincinnati
If it takes care of business against Milwaukee, Villanova would face the winner between Connecticut and cross-city rival St. Joseph's in the second round. Either matchup would be a big game for the Wildcats, far bigger than a No. 2 seed's typical proposition.
And it wouldn't get much easier from there. Virginia is a well-oiled machine. Iowa State can score on anybody. And Michigan State, well, it's Michigan State.
It's not looking good for Villanova.
Other teams in region: Florida, New Mexico, Stanford, Syracuse, Ohio State
Did Kansas deserve a No. 1 seed? Opinions vary. Either way, this is a tough draw for the Jayhawks, especially given the continued uncertainty over the status of big man Joel Embiid.
Regional top seed Florida is on a 26-game win streak, and they're the tournament's No. 1 overall team for a reason. But Kansas, which has lost three of its last five, would have to get through a tough New Mexico or Stanford team in the second round and then (assuming chalk) Syracuse or Ohio State before they even get a glimpse of the juggernaut Gators.
Other teams in region: Oklahoma State, Creighton, Wisconsin, Gonzaga, Oregon, Baylor
The Wildcats don't have to wait until the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight to face big roadblocks. They'll have something nasty waiting for them as early as the second round.
That's where Arizona would meet the winner between Gonzaga and Oklahoma State. Both those teams are wicked, especially the rugged and athletic Cowboys.
Plus, Arizona's early games are in San Diego. That's relatively close to their campus in Tuscon, I suppose, but at 400 miles away, it's not that close. The selection committee didn't do Arizona many favors here. Can they get through? Yes. But the road is rocky.
Other teams in region: Florida, Ohio State, Kansas, UCLA, New Mexico
Any draw might look daunting when, like Syracuse, you've lost five of your last seven.
It doesn't help anything that the Orange are in the scary half of the 2014 South division. Before they look ahead to a possible second-round clash with a veteran Ohio State club or a Sweet 16 matchup with Kansas or underrated New Mexico, they will need to focus squarely on round number one.
Why? Because Western Michigan is tough, plain and simple. They've won 12 of their last 13 behind the MAC's leading scorer, point guard David Brown. The team is not deep, but if Brown gets hot he could help the Broncos weaken that vaunted Syracuse zone.
Barring a big upset, Syracuse will have no easy steps if it wants to advance deep in the dance.
Other teams in region: Kentucky, Louisville, Duke, Michigan
Wichita State critics questioned the Shockers' strength of schedule. That question will be answered, one way or the other, in this tournament.
If all goes according to chalk, the undefeated Missouri Valley Conference champs will meet Kentucky in the second round and Louisville in the Sweet 16. Duke and Michigan also lurk. Yeesh.
All in all, though, this is a good thing for the Shockers. They made the Final Four last year; if they make their way back, they surely don't want to do so under a cloud of doubt about their bona fides.
This is an extremely tough draw, but the selection committee did the right thing. If Wichita State cuts down the nets again, they will have earned it. I don't think anyone would want it any other way.
Other teams in region: Wichita State, Michigan, Kentucky, Duke
It's not hard to argue that Louisville deserved a higher seed. But what's done is done, and they are the No. 4 seed in what amounts to this year's Group of Death.
The Cardinals' troubles begin in the very first game, where they will need to overcome a frisky Manhattan team that just won its conference tourney and appears to be peaking at the right time. The Jaspers play very strong defense and make their opponents work for everything. Sound familiar, like, perhaps, a certain team from Louisville? That's no coincidence. Manhattan's head coach, Steve Masiello, is a Rick Pitino protege, so his group certainly won't be rattled or surprised by anything the Cardinals throw at them.
And that's just the beginning. St. Louis (which, as a No. 5 seed, also is quite arguably underrated here) looms in the second round. Then they'd have Kentucky or Wichita State in the Sweet 16 if favorites prevail. Blue bloods Duke and Michigan anchor the bottom half of the regional draw, and either would be a very difficult out for anyone.
Throw in the fact that they'll be trekking down to Orlando to open the tournament, and you have to wonder what sorts of bad things befell the selection committee at last year's Kentucky Derby.