Cinderella is sure to steal the show during the first weekend of the 2014 NCAA tournament. But once the madness subsides, it'll be the heavy hitters left standing in the journey for the national title.
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Here are my bracket predictions for the top tournament favorites this March.
*2014 NCAA tournament odds according to VegasInsider.com.
Michigan State Spartans, 11-2 Odds, East Region
Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans are no strangers to the Final Four, having been there six times under his watch. However, winning the East Region will be a tall task with No. 1 Virginia, No. 2 Villanova and No. 3 Iowa State each lurking in the draw.
But it's hard to pick against the Big Ten tournament champions, who have won three straight games coming into the Big Dance and boast all the necessary parts to make a deep run, per Bleacher Report's Eric Ball:
Can't remember ever seeing this much love for a No. 4 seed. Even Vegas has Michigan State at 11/2 to cut down the nets— Eric Ball (@BigLeagueEball) March 17, 2014
Look for seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne to provide leadership and a calming influence throughout the Spartans' run while sophomore guard Gary Harris continues to give defenses fits with his range and overall scoring prowess.
Unfortunately, Michigan State is sure to fall short in an eventual 2000 national championship game rematch with Florida in the Final Four.
Prediction: Final Four
Arizona Wildcats, 8-1 Odds, West Region
Although No. 9 Oklahoma State shouldn't be overlooked, it's fair to say that the Arizona Wildcats landed in the easiest bracket of all.
If Sean Miller's squad can get through a potential third-round clash with Marcus Smart and the Cowboys, it should be smooth sailing to the Final Four. No. 2 Wisconsin and No. 3 Creighton are the Wildcats' biggest threats at the bottom of the West Region bracket, and only one can reach the Elite Eight.
If Arizona can knock down free throws and continue to crash the boards, they'll live up to their odds and find a way to North Texas for the Final Four next month.
But the Wildcats' magical run should end in a showdown with battle-tested Louisville.
Prediction: Final Four
Louisville Cardinals, 8-1 Odds, Midwest Region
The defending national champions were no doubt disrespected by the selection committee, who handed Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals a No. 4 seed in the loaded Midwest Region.
After claiming the American Athletic Conference title on Saturday, Pitino made his case for five-loss Louisville being the fourth No. 1 seed, per Courier-Journal's Jeff Greer:
I judge it from the eye test. Understand something: Every analyst has an agenda, every coach has an agenda...Do I think we should be? Yes. Do I think we will be? No.
That being said, if you ask me who is the best college basketball player in America, I would say Russ Smith. If you ask me who is the best power forward, I would say Montrezl Harrell...I’m impressed with our guys and what they have done to win a regular-season and conference tournament (title). The way we have done it, in the fashion we have done it, fits the eye test.
Despite being dealt a tough hand, the Cardinals are a popular pick to survive and advance all the way to Arlington, Texas, and why not?
After all, Louisville has been to two straight Final Fours and possesses unrivaled coaching and tremendous senior leadership. Watch for veteran point guard Russ Smith and seasoned sharpshooter Luke Hancock will set the tone for the Cardinals as they look to prove a point after being slighted on Selection Sunday.
Despite the motivation to repeat in 2014, Pitino and company are destined to run into a juggernaut in Billy Donovan's Florida Gators, who will be out to avenge their 2012 Elite Eight loss to the Cardinals.
Florida Gators, 5-1 Odds, South Region
Winners of 26 straight games, the overall No. 1 seed Florida Gators are the odds-on favorites to win it all this spring. Led by four seniors and coached by a two-time national champion in Donovan, the SEC champions have all the ingredients to go the distance in 2014.
AL.com's Kevin Scarbinsky is one of many who can make a strong case for the Gators:
After losing in the Elite Eight for three straight years, Scotty Wilbekin and company have all the motivation they need to go along with all those weapons and all that experience. They probably don't have a single first-round draft pick on the roster, but Donovan and the Gators are headed toward history.
It's not SEC bias to pick them to win it all. It's just common sense.
Having reached three consecutive Elite Eights, Florida is about as experienced as you get. Not to mention the Gators swarm the ball on defense and are capable of extending a two-point lead to double digits in a hurry.
No. 2 Kansas, with a healthy Joel Embiid, looks to be their biggest threat en route to the Final Four, but the Gators have all of their key pieces intact and are favorites to secure the title for good reason.
Prediction: National Champions
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