The 2014 NCAA tournament is being hailed as one of the toughest forecasts in recent memory. With few clear-cut top contenders, it seems reasonable we could see a dark-horse contender cut down the nets in Arlington, Texas.
The national championship odds, as relayed by Odds Shark, illustrate plenty of doubt among the top contenders:
|19||San Diego State||+5300|
While many can make the case for the likes of Florida and Arizona, which of those teams stand out as good values to bank on for a deep run? Here are a few teams who could defy the odds and capture a surprise national championship
Wisconsin Badgers (+2600)
Most people do not associate high-flying offenses with Bo Ryan's Wisconsin teams, but that is exactly what the Badgers have become this season. Wisconsin ranks fifth in offensive efficiency, with a whopping 119.5 points per 100 possessions.
The Badgers get things done with a committee approach with four players averaging double-digit scoring. Wisconsin is not quite as deep as in years past, but while it will lean heavily on its starting five, it remains experienced as ever with a sophomore, three juniors and a senior as starters.
The West Region could present some interesting challenges, but Wisconsin should be comfortable favorites against either seventh-seeded Oregon or third-seeded Creighton. At least one ESPN analyst believes the Badgers have a clean path to the Sweet Sixteen:
Bo Ryan should be really happy with this path to the second weekend.— Myron Medcalf (@MedcalfByESPN) March 16, 2014
Top-seeded Arizona would be a difficult Elite Eight matchup, but Wisconsin has the firepower to defeat anyone this year. While the formula may not be the same, expect the Badgers to make another deep tournament run.
Villanova Wildcats (+2600)
Villanova was the slight favorite for the fourth No. 1 seed before falling in the Big East quarterfinals against Seton Hall. However, though the Wildcats ended their regular season on a sour note, they remain one of the best bets to emerge from the East Region.
Villanova is among the nation's most balanced teams, with the 16th-ranked offensive rating and 14th-ranked defensive rating. As Zach Schonbrun of the New York Times notes, 'Nova has recaptured its identity as an undersized, yet well-rounded squad with an egalitarian scoring distribution:
Every game, the Wildcats seemed to win in different ways, with different margins and different players stepping forward. Villanova finished either first or second in the conference in scoring offense, scoring defense, scoring margin, rebounding defense, 3-point field goal percentage, assists and assist/turnover ratio, and it had five players land all-conference honors.
It is why some consider these Wildcats a quintessential Jay Wright team. There was no standout star, no five-star recruit, and only one player (Daniel Ochefu) taller than 6 feet 8 inches.
The Wildcats look to have a fairly clear path to the second weekend, but could run into trouble facing the likes of Iowa State, North Carolina, Virginia or Michigan State in later rounds. Still, Villanova looks to have its best squad since the 2009 Final Four team and could exceed that year's result.
VCU Rams (+6500)
VCU nearly defied even longer odds in 2011, when the 11th-seeded Rams crashed the Final Four. The Rams are again longshots to win the national title, but possess the ingredients necessary to make another deep run.
Everything starts with their "Havoc" defense, which propelled VCU to the second-ranked defensive efficiency in the country behind only Arizona. As USA Today notes, simulations indicate VCU has a better chance than nearly any of the non top-four seeds to reach Arlington:
South 5 seed VCU has a difficult round of 64 matchup with Stephen F. Austin, which is unbeaten since a November loss to Texas and is second only to VCU in turnovers created per game. But the Rams, which made the Final Four in 2011, has an 11.3% chance to make it to Cowboys Stadium in April.
The Rams have a difficult road and could face overall top seed Florida in the Sweet Sixteen. Still, VCU's penchant for causing turnovers and creating easy buckets for itself is an ideal David strategy, and one that could again propel the underdogs over higher-seeded foes.
*All stats via KenPom.com.