Before setting pen to paper and filling out a bracket for the NCAA tournament, it is important to come to a decision on a few certainties.
I like to start big, so pinpointing the championship game and its winner is key. After all, nailing the two teams in the championship game is a strong way to take any bracket pool.
After that, it's onto the sleepers. These are the teams that knock off higher seeds and destroy brackets in one fell swoop.
If I'm feeling confident about my championship predictions and have a strong sleeper, I'm feeling confident about my bracket. Well, I'm feeling great about my bracket this year, and the following predictions are the foundation of that confidence.
First, have a look at the wonderful ways to view the bracket.
New Mexico's Sleeper Run
It is easy to overlook New Mexico. The Lobos entered the tournament as a No. 3 seed last year and promptly lost to Harvard in the first round. They are ready to atone for that showing.
New Mexico enters this tournament after winning the Mountain West's tournament. The Lobos beat San Diego State (No. 4 seed in the West) for the title.
With Cameron Bairstow at forward and Kendall Williams at guard, the Lobos have a strong inside/outside presence that is the foundation for success.
New Mexico is good on offense and defense, rebounding and taking care of the ball. All of these are big tournament keys. Also, I like the Lobos' bracket setup.
The following video highlights their first matchup.
The Lobos are in the loaded South region, but they are on the bottom half, which is away from No. 1 Florida.
This still leaves them with No. 2 Kansas and No. 3 Syracuse in their half of the region. Each of those teams has the talent to win the title, but both are vulnerable.
Kansas is dealing with health issues on center Joel Embiid, and Syracuse slumped to the end of its season.
Kansas Basketball tweets this update on Embiid:
The Lobos have the talent and experience to make a run to the Elite Eight.
Championship Game: Florida vs. Louisville
The Florida Gators are the No. 1 overall seed in this tournament and I'm sure are a popular selections to win the championship. CBS Sports helps highlight this:
Vegas tabs Florida as the national title favorite: http://t.co/xXXI8fgKLU— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) March 17, 2014
The Gators deserve this kind of hype. Florida is deep, talented and experienced. It also plays a fierce brand of defense. The Gators have a press that will rattle even the best ball-handlers.
They also have four seniors in the starting lineup to help guide the team to glory.
Then there is the defending national champion Louisville Cardinals.
The Cardinals are the No. 4 seed in the Midwest, which is regarded by many to be the most skewed seeding in the tournament. Just ask For the Win:
Louisville's surprisingly low 4 seed is the 'absolute shock' of the NCAA Tournament bracket http://t.co/l5TGj7c0ar— For The Win (@forthewin) March 17, 2014
Louisville won 14 of its last 16 games and won the AAC regular-season and conference tournament titles. It is No. 2 in Pomeroy rankings.
Which school will advance further?
No matter, head coach Rick Pitino can use the low seeding as motivation in case his team appears ready to rest on the laurels of last year's championship.
Louisville didn't play the toughest schedule this year, but this team is peaking at the right time, has quality experience and plays menacing defense. That will be enough to lead it back to the championship game, but not enough to win it.
The tournament is wildly unpredictable. With just one game to determine who advances, anything can happen. The Gators, however, have several key factors that will help them battle the trappings of this kind of setting.
On top of what I just mentioned about Florida, what I like about this team is the diversified scoring. The Gators will not be undone if one player is struggling from the field. They have four players who averaged double digits in scoring this year and seven who averaged at least 4.9 points per game.
The Gators are not the most dynamic or dominant team, but they are the best and their foundation for consistency makes them the strongest play to win the title.