As much of an honor as it is just to make the NCAA tournament, we sometimes forget that there's a whole point to this thing—yes, one beyond making boatloads of money for television networks, coaches and university executives.
I speak of winning the national championship. In some ways, we've glorified the first week of the Big Dance to such a degree that it often makes the Final Four and later rounds seem like the dud ending to our wild and exhilarating movie.
In some respects that makes sense. The great thing about the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament every year—along with the fact that it gives you an opportunity to miss work—is its inherent unpredictability. Even if only five double-digit seeds advance past the Round of 64, it's those individual moments that hover over the entire weekend.
National champions, by rule, work in the opposite fashion. For all of the unconventionality of the first couple rounds, the tournament turns decidedly "boring" as it goes along. The last title winner seeded worse than No. 3 was Arizona in 1997. Since the NCAA expanded the Big Dance to 64 teams in 1985, only three times has a team seeded No. 4 or lower won the championship.
By contrast, No. 1 seeds have won 18 national titles in that same time period. With many fans crying foul over Louisville and Michigan State surprisingly landing No. 4 seeds this year, it's important to remember that the committee typically does a good job of tiering squads. Even if the logic behind the committee's reasoning is lacking, odds are that neither of those teams will even make the Final Four if history is any indication.
Keep that in mind when filling out your brackets. Also, for bettors looking to get in early on a national title selection, you'd probably be better off just drawing a Sharpie line through those names. As for which teams you should actually consider, here's a look at the odds and breakdown for a few worthy squads.
|4||San Diego St.||40-1|
|12||North Carolina St.||N/A|
|12||North Dakota St.||N/A|
|12||Stephen F. Austin||N/A|
|13||New Mexico St.||N/A|
|16||Mt. St. Mary’s||100-1|
|N/A||Field (Any Other Team)||30/1|
Source: Vegas Insider
The Favorite: Florida
The top overall seed in the entire tournament, Florida's journey to the Dance has been far more complex than we've given them credit for.
The Gators were so limited by eligibility and injury issues early in the season that Billy Donovan essentially used a six-man rotation in their loss to Connecticut in December. At 6-2, they were foundering and seemingly on the precipice of losing their Top 25 standing.
Twenty-six straight wins later, and you're looking at perhaps the nation's best all-around team. While Virginia receives national recognition for its decidedly old-school, grind-it-out style, Florida isn't winning with aesthetics, either. The Gators average roughly two more possessions per game than the Cavaliers, a mark that ranks 316th in the nation.
"We're not an overly talented team," Donovan said, per Jerry Tipton of Kentucky.com. "I think sometimes when you see a team with a high ranking, you're thinking they're dominant. You think they blow everybody out. That's not what we are or who we are."
What they lack in what the kids like to call "fun," they more than make up for with suffocating efficiency. Florida has the 17th-best offense in the country and the fifth-best defense on a per-possession basis. Though not a gunning team from deep, the Gators' overall 36.8 percent shooting rate from deep is still above average, and the players are highly intelligent about which shots to take.
Michael Frazier II, Scottie Wilbekin and Dorian Finney-Smith are the only three players who are going to shoot from long range. And, of those guys, opposing teams would love it if Finney-Smith shot more. (Donovan, on the other hand, would not.)
On defense, the Gators lock down with length and intelligence. While it's admittedly biased based on their style of play, it's noteworthy that opposing teams hit the 70-point mark just twice all season—and one of those teams (Arkansas) needed overtime in order to do so. There is no hope nor happiness anywhere when playing against this defense.
The Gators also have to feel fine with their East Region draw. Kansas and Syracuse are top-notch teams when at their peak, but one will have to eliminate the other to meet the Gators in the Elite Eight, and both are also dealing with major issues. In fact, the Jayhawks's star feshman Joel Embiid might sit out through the first weekend with back trouble, and the Orange are 2-5 since starting 25-0.
Those in Gainesville also had to be high-fiving when they didn't see Oklahoma State or Kentucky in their region. The Wildcats played Florida within one point during the SEC tournament, while Oklahoma State may be the best all-around No. 9 seed in recent memory. Instead, the Gators drew very beatable Pittsburgh and Colorado teams for their potential Round of 32 matchup.
In a region that features a shaky No. 4 seed in UCLA and an inconsistent No. 5 in VCU, the Gators seem primed for a deep run. Kansas could present problems if Embiid is back at full strength and the Jayhawks make it that far; otherwise, it should be a pretty clear path for the Gators.
You'd probably be better off avoiding Florida altogether—whose odds to win it all stand at 4-1—but it is the best bet among No. 1 seeds to make the Final Four.
Run Far, Far Away: The Entire Midwest Region
Good luck picking the Midwest in your five-dollar office pool—let alone betting real money on a national champion to come out of the region. Odds are, the Midwest champion will be the best or, at the very least, hottest team going into the Final Four. You can't get out of a gauntlet featuring Wichita State, Louisville, Duke and Michigan without playing some darned good basketball.
Figuring out which of those teams will actually advance, though, will be a nightmare. Wichita State may be the biggest Kansas State fan on the planet come Friday. There's no way the Shockers have any interest in playing preseason No. 1 Kentucky in the Round of 32—even if the Wildcats have imploded for the second straight season.
The remaining top seeds should be able to advance to the Sweet 16 without much trouble. Michigan may have a scare if Texas is able to advance past its first game, but the Longhorns haven't looked great down the stretch after an ascendant middle of the season. Louisville had zero business being a No. 4 seed to begin with, and it should have little issue getting past Saint Louis.
This is the so-called Region of Death once you hit the third game. A potential Louisville-Wichita State matchup is hell on wheels. The Cardinals and Shockers play attacking styles that send opposing teams into fits. Duke would probably be favored in a potential matchup with Michigan, even though it's the lower seed. But both sides in that contest are so efficient offensively that anything could happen.
From a bettor's perspective, there is just nothing to be gained from taking a wild guess at this region. It features four of Ken Pomeroy's 14 best teams nationally, including three of the top seven. The Midwest region will put hair on your chest, so to speak.
Just don't throw any money on it.
Don't Sleep On: Creighton
The numbers say Creighton is a long-shot title winner; only four No. 3 seeds have won a national title in history, and only nine have even made it to the tournament final. Connecticut won as a No. 3 seed a few years ago, but that is not a significant enough sample size from a historical standpoint.
That said, the Bluejays are arguably the best long-shot champion at this point. Duke is the better No. 3 team, and Louisville is certainly overqualified as a No. 4, but both of them being present in the Midwest makes betting on either one a risky proposition—especially with both of them having 15-1 odds.
At 25-1, Creighton has longer odds and a far clearer path to at least the Final Four. Led by overwhelming National Player of the Year favorite Doug McDermott, Creighton has a huge potential test in top-seeded Arizona, but it matches up well against No. 2 Wisconsin. Because they play a slow-down style that rests comfortably in the 60s, the Badgers have a reputation as one of the nation's best defensive teams—which they just aren't.
Wisconsin was prone to strange defensive lapses during the regular season—especially during its midseason swoon period—and looked downright bad in losses to Michigan and Nebraska this month. The Badgers rank just 59th in defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy.
Creighton is no defensive juggernaut—far from it. The Bluejays are among a handful of the worst defensive teams that made the tournament. Where they thrive and where they could be dangerous against Wisconsin is on the offensive end.
In fact, no offense in the country was more efficient this season. Creighton's 125.7 points per 100 possessions was more than a point better than any other team, and the Bluejays were one of four squads that even topped the 120-point mark; Duke, Michigan and Iowa were the others.
More than anything, though, faith in Creighton means faith in Doug McDermott—and I have a ton. McDermott is one of the smartest, most competitive kids in the nation. He's also someone unconsciously confident in his game. He is an efficient scorer and the best player in college basketball this season, bar none. I'm not in love with McDermott from an NBA lottery-pick standpoint (though I do think he'll contribute), but he's someone who can single-handedly carry a team in this tournament.
For all of the superstar hype that went on in the preseason, McDermott may be the only player you can say that about comfortably. It won't be the easiest job on the planet, but there's real room here for Creighton to have a significant run.
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