Over the years, I've tried many different approaches to filling out a bracket for the NCAA tournament.
I've filled them out starting at the championship game working backward and from the first game moving forward. I've filled them out on the first day of the release and on the last day before the tournament. I've filled them out after studying each close matchup and then by going on first impression.
None of it has made a difference. There are too many upsets, too many close matchups and just too much madness for this tournament to be successfully predicted. That's all part of what makes this one of the most enjoyable tournaments on the calendar.
None of it has deterred me from filling out a bracket each year. I'll get into my championship predictions, but first have a look at the bracket.
Predictions: Regional Winners
Florida is talented and experienced. The Gators have been flashing their potential all year and are certain to be the majority decision to emerge out of this bracket.
No. 2 seed Kansas has the talent to give the Gators a run for their money should the two meet, but injury concerns for Kansas center Joel Embiid have tempered the expectations on the Jayhawks.
Rustin Dodd of The Kansas City Star passed along this update on Embiid:
Spoke briefly with Joel Embiid's father, Thomas. On Joel's back: "It's improving. Hopefully he can be back soon."— Rustin Dodd (@rustindodd) March 13, 2014
The Gators have shown the consistency needed to excel in a tournament like this, and that is exactly what they'll do.
Prior to the selection committee setting up the bracket, I had convinced myself I wasn't picking Arizona to make the Final Four. The Wildcats have the talent to make a title run, but they weren't at their best during the stretch run.
Arizona lost four of its last 13 games and two of its last four.
Then the bracket came out, and I had to change my tune. The Seattle Times' Jerry Brewer highlights the reasoning for my change of heart:
Arizona's toughest matchup might be against Oklahoma State in the round of 32. West Region not that strong.— Jerry Brewer (@JerryBrewer) March 16, 2014
Arizona will push through its relatively weak competition and make the Final Four.
No matter, the defending national champions can run this bracket. Wichita State went undefeated this season, but it did so against a weak schedule. The Shockers will not be able to handle the consistently tough competition.
Michigan has struggled with consistency this year and has four losses since February. All have been by double digits.
No. 3 seed Duke figures to be a major problem. The Blue Devils also struggled with consistency, and like Michigan, Duke likes to win with a powerful offense. That is a rough way to survive in the tournament.
Iowa State, the third seed in this region, will be a popular selection here. CBSSports.com's Jon Rothstein named it as one of three popular selections following an impressive run in the conference tournament:
Three teams that will be awfully trendy Final Four picks after championship week? Louisville, Michigan State, and Iowa State.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) March 16, 2014
I just couldn't do it, though. Virginia has impressed me too much. The Cavaliers have a wonderful defense and an approach to the game that provides consistency.
The Cavaliers do not have the most efficient offense, but they can and have overcome this with their excellent defense. Virginia enters this tournament off of a nine-point victory over Duke to win the ACC tournament, and it won't be denied a trip to the Final Four.
Championship Game: Florida vs. Louisville
What a fun championship game this would be. We'd get two excellent and experienced teams battling out for the top prize, and Louisville would be trying to do so to become a rare back-to-back champion.
The Gators will have to get past Virginia to reach the championship game. That also sets up to be a strong game. Virginia will look to keep the score down, but this won't bother Florida in the slightest.
The Gators are right at home playing that style of basketball, and they will prevail due to better offensive efficiency.
Meanwhile, as I mentioned above, Arizona has not been all that impressive down the stretch. Louisville will overwhelm the Wildcats with its pressure defense and emerge with a relatively easy victory.
The Gators have been supremely impressive, and they have everything needed to win this tournament. Florida features four players who averaged double digits in scoring. This team is experienced and balanced scoring.
Florida is far from a lock to take this title, but there is no safer prediction in this field than the Gators.