One of the many wonderful aspects of March Madness is the capacity for Cinderella teams to capture the nation's attention with an unexpected deep run. Some of recent history's most beloved Final Four teams include George Mason, Wichita State and Butler, all of which stole the show from the sport's biggest powerhouses.
With this year's elite looking slightly more diluted than usual, the 2014 NCAA tournament has many salivating over the drama that could ensue from such parity. If the Goliaths are not nearly as intimidating, perhaps the Davids and their slingshots stand a greater chance at hitting their target.
With that in mind, here are a few of the best dark-horse candidates to bust everyone's bracket and reach the Final Four in Arlington, Texas.
North Carolina Tar Heels
It feels strange calling the Tar Heels a sleeper, but as a No. 6 seed, that is exactly what they are this tournament.
Indeed, with losses to the likes of UAB and Belmont, North Carolina has shown the capacity to lose to anyone. Nevertheless, that version of UNC has not shown up in months, as the Tar Heels had won 12 consecutive games before back-to-back losses to Duke and Pitt to end their season.
Those losses may have fans cooling off on the Heels, but in reality, they still possess the same ingredients that made them trendy championship picks two weeks ago. As SI.com's Pete Thamel notes, Carolina is a roster built upon defensive excellence and Marcus Paige's brilliance:
The Tar Heels put together a 12-game winning streak in conference play but enter the tournament having lost consecutive games, to Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium and against Pittsburgh in the ACC tournament. This is a different style UNC team, as Carolina ranks No. 22 in the KenPom.com defensive rankings but just No. 58 offensively.
On offense, the key for North Carolina will be point guard Marcus Paige not waiting until the second half to take over games. He needs to be selfish for UNC to look more like the team that ran through the ACC in February. And that could mean a deep run in March.
A star point guard is a great equalizer during the tournament, and Paige is one of the nation's biggest game changers. Moreover, his reputation as a second-half star could make for some high drama:
Roy Williams should start off each game by telling Marcus Paige it's the second half.— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) March 14, 2014
The Tar Heels face a series of difficult tests, and their first game against Bryce Cotton and Providence should not be overlooked. Nevertheless, UNC is one of the more dangerous No. 6 seeds in recent memory, making them a prime candidate to come out of the West Region.
VCU has already captured America's attention with its Final Four run from three seasons ago. Shaka Smart's crew has proven to have staying power, reaching the round of 32 twice since then.
However, the Rams could do more than provide early-round fodder this time, perhaps once again replicating their unexpected run from 2011. While it might be tempting to pencil them in for a Sweet 16 showdown against Florida, VCU also has a tougher opening game than many perceive:
VCU is the No. 5 seed, and they have the unfortunate first-round matchup of Stephen F. Austin, which is on a huge winning streak— SI College Hoops (@si_ncaabb) March 16, 2014
With their famous "Havoc" full-court press, the Rams are certainly a high-variance squad. Nevertheless, KenPom.com has them rated as the second-best defense in the country on a per-possession basis, behind only Arizona.
The 2014 rendition could make the likes of Treveon Graham, Juvonte Reddic and Briante Weber household names within two weeks. VCU has a tough enough draw that it could conceivably lose in the round of 64, and it will certainly not be favorites if it gets to play the Gators next week.
Still, with one of the nation's best coaches and a press built to create maximum chaos, the Rams possess the formula to make another deep run.
Iowa State Cyclones
A potential second-round matchup between the Cyclones and the Tar Heels looms as one of the round's best games, and the winner of that contest could very well come out of the region.
The Big 12 tournament champions come in hot, having won four straight over NCAA tourney teams. The tandem of Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane stands as one of the tournament's best one-two punches, and at least one ESPN expert believes they are capable of a national title run:
Unlike the other teams on this list, Iowa State is built upon one of league's top offenses. The Cyclones finished 15th in KenPom's final offensive efficiency rankings. As ESPN.com's John Gasaway illustrates (subscription required), their low turnover rate is the key that should keep them in any game:
No major-conference team outside of Wisconsin has a lower turnover percentage than the Cyclones, and the Melvin Ejim-Georges Niang duo is exemplary at scoring inside the arc, whether from the field or at the line.
Iowa State has been overshadowed during conference play by Kansas' spectacular freshmen and Oklahoma State's wild roller-coaster season. The Cyclones took the first step in distinguishing themselves with the Big 12 crown, and they can further cement that separation with their first Final Four since 1944.