The early forecast for the 2014 NCAA tournament suggests more parity than we have seen in years. Thus, while the oddsmakers have identified clear favorites, as we can see by the teams with the top 10 championship odds, there are few sure bets in this year's field:
Odds to win championship
The top favorites are seemingly based on reputation and recent success as much as the full season's body of work. Hot teams like Michigan State and Louisville have seen their stock rise, while teams that lost early in conference tournaments, like Villanova and North Carolina, are further down the ranks.
Taking a quick glimpse, a couple teams stand out in particular. Setting aside current perception and evaluating the entire body of work, let's pick the team from each region most likely to reach the Final Four.
South Region: Florida Gators
At 4-1 odds, the Gators enter the tournament as the consensus top seed and favorites. However, the South Region is no cakewalk if the other top-seeded teams can recapture their midseason form:
Florida, Kansas and Syracuse all in the South bracket. Wow. Three No. 1 ranked teams this season.— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) March 16, 2014
While Kansas and Syracuse loom as potential Elite Eight showdowns, the Gators must also worry about the top of the bracket. VCU and its "Havoc" defense makes the Rams prime candidates to create easy buckets off turnovers, the only real method of cracking Florida's nearly impenetrable half-court defense.
If the Gators have a weakness, it is on the boards. Florida ranked just 131st in rebounds per game this season, and a team like Kansas (37th in the country) could exploit that advantage.
Nevertheless, Florida is one of the nation's most well-rounded teams. The Gators have not lost since Dec. 2 to UConn and are the clear-cut favorites to win their third national championship since 2006.
East Region: Michigan State Spartans
Fourth-seeded Michigan State has emerged as a trendy Final Four pick, so much so that the Spartans are actually the second favorites behind Florida. Tom Izzo's crew holds 9-2 odds, a reflection of how strong Michigan State can be when fully healthy.
Indeed, a healthy Spartans team rolled through the Big Ten tournament, disposing two No. 2 seeds in Michigan and Wisconsin. As Bud Poliquin of The Post Standard reveals, even Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim pinpointed Michigan State as one of the tournament's top threats:
'It looks like the way Michigan State has everybody back together now, they looked very dominant in a very good conference over the weekend,' announced Boeheim, who watches college basketball games the way the rest of America watches Seinfeld reruns. 'Obviously, Louisville looked very dominant as well. I think you really have to look at those teams with a lot of respect for the way they finished. And Florida, the way they played all year, certainly.'
The Spartans might have to take down Cincinnati, Virginia and whoever emerges out of the bracket's bottom half (Villanova, Iowa State and North Carolina look like the best candidates). It is not the most imposing region, and a healthy Michigan State team that was once the top-ranked team in the country could end the year on top.
West Region: Arizona Wildcats
If defense wins championships, then we can skip the charade and hand Arizona the crown. Per KenPom.com, the Wildcats were the No. 1 team in defensive efficiency this season, holding teams to an eye-popping 86.7 points per 100 possessions.
Led by Pac-12 Player of the Year Nick Johnson and future lottery pick Aaron Gordon, Arizona was seen as the selection committee's clear second team behind Florida. As Evan Hilbert of CBSSports.com opines, the Wildcats are talented enough to survive a couple tough breaks in the bracket:
The champion of the West Region will be … No. 1 Arizona. OK, playtime's over. Arizona is just too strong for anyone in this region. The Wildcats could struggle some in the round of 32 and forward, but it's tough to see any team toppling Sean Miller's squad who has looked poised for a Final Four run since the season began.
A round of 32 showdown with either Oklahoma State or Gonzaga could be tricky, as could mid-majors like San Diego State and Creighton. Nonetheless, Arizona's defense makes it a prime candidate to win its second national championship.
Midwest Region: Louisville Cardinals
The AAC champion Cardinals received just a fourth seed despite being ranked fifth in the final regular-season polls. While some Louisville fans are feeling jilted by the committee, at least one USA Today analyst believes the Cardinals caught a good break:
Overlooked in all the furor over Louisville’s seed is this: They have a free pass to the Sweet 16 and I’d rather play WSU than UF or Ariz— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) March 17, 2014
Rick Pitino's squad is peaking at the moment, having lost just once since Feb. 1. KenPom shows that the defending champs are one of just two teams to have a top-10 offensive and defensive efficiency rating, the other being Wichita State.
Which of these teams is most likely to win the national championship?
The Cardinals play in arguably the tournament's toughest region. Just to reach Arlington, Louisville may have to defeat Saint Louis, Wichita State and either Duke or Michigan. Those are all championship-caliber teams, and if senior catalyst Russ Smith slumps at all, the Cards do not have as much depth to compensate as last year's squad.
Nevertheless, the defending champs look like prime candidates to repeat, even if they are not the consensus favorites they were in 2013. Look for Louisville to emerge out of the brutal Midwest Region and reach its third consecutive Final Four.