As the 2014 NCAA tournament bracket was revealed on Selection Sunday, it was clear chaos was likely to reign supreme in the early rounds, as expected. The level of parity across college basketball leaves very little margin for error, even for elite squads.
The focal point becomes figuring out whether one top team from each region will survive the numerous challenges to make for a pretty chalk Final Four or if a Cinderella team is going to reach the business end of the tournament. The answer is the key to a successful bracket.
Above all else, the relative closeness of the teams should lead to a highly entertaining Big Dance. So let's check out all of the key pieces of information for the tournament, followed by a breakdown, odds and selection for each region.
All Your Bracket Essentials:
|Top Odds to Win South Region|
The South Region is the only one without the top four seeds occupying the first four spots by the oddsmakers, and that's only to include No. 5 VCU. As a whole, it shows the top seeds are still the ones expected to make deep runs despite an elevated number of contenders.
Florida is a clear favorite in the region, in part because it caught some breaks in the draw. The other main teams in the region, Kansas and Syracuse, have major question marks.
The Jayhawks are still without a definitive timetable for star freshman Joel Embiid due to a back injury, and the Orange have faded down the stretch after a terrific start. Early exits by those two squads would remove a couple hurdles for Florida.
That could also open the door for Ohio State to make a surprise run. The sixth-seeded Buckeyes have endured an up-and-down campaign, but they have a go-to scorer in LaQuinton Ross, a strong perimeter defender in Aaron Craft and Amir Williams to protect the paint. It makes them a tough out.
Pittsburgh should get past Colorado and will provide a tricky test for Florida in the round of 32. The Panthers could change the outlook of the entire tournament with a win, which further illustrates how early the top seeds will get challenged.
The Gators are still the team to beat, though.
|Top Odds to Win East Region|
|Michigan State||No. 4||9-4|
|Iowa State||No. 3||6-1|
The East is likely the region most bracket prognosticators will have the toughest time forecasting. Since it doesn't feature a clear dominant team, it's also the section where a double-digit seed could emerge as the aforementioned Cinderella in the Final Four.
Harvard, Providence and Saint Joseph's all have a realistic chance of advancing from their opening games. Even 14th-seeded North Carolina Central, which hasn't lost in more than two months, should be able to put up a fight against Iowa State.
Michigan State is the oddsmakers' choice to reach the Final Four. The school's official athletics site passed along comments from head coach Tom Izzo, who said in his weekly press conference that the team certainly has that potential, but there's work to do in order to make a deep run:
I would say this. I mean, we're not back yet. We just made some giant steps. There's still so many inconsistencies when you look at the film, why are we doing this. Our substitution pattern has to get better. We have to get more out of our bigs. To be a championship level team, we still have a lot of work to do.
The Spartans are likely on a collision course with Virginia. The Cavaliers haven't been generating nearly as much hype as a typical No. 1 seed. They have just one loss in their last 17 games, though, a stretch that includes three wins over ranked opponents.
While those teams battle atop the region, don't lose focus on Villanova. The trio of James Bell, JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard II are capable of matching up with anybody in the tournament, and the Wildcats have valuable role players in Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu.
Ultimately, the East Region is probably the most wide open of them all. Villanova has the easiest path of the top teams, which makes it a wise choice.
|Top Odds to Win West Region|
|San Diego State||No. 4||9-1|
Arizona will go as far as its defense can carry it. When clicking on all cylinders, the Wildcats are suffocating on that end of the floor. They illustrated that against a solid Utah team in the conference tournament by holding it to just 39 points.
That doesn't mean they will be on cruise control until the Final Four, though. There are several high-scoring teams in the region, and they could meet one of them in their second game if Oklahoma State gets past Gonzaga. Jerry Brewer of The Seattle Times thinks it could be their toughest game:
Doug McDermott enters the tournament as the leading scorer in the nation at a shade under 27 points per game. He obviously carries a major burden for Creighton, which is a very average defensive team. If he isn't at his best in any round, the Bluejays will be ripe for an upset.
Wisconsin is a streaky team that showed how dangerous it could be with three wins over ranked opponents in a four-game span in February. The Badgers weren't playing as well ahead of the tournament, however, losing two of their final three games.
Then there are secondary contenders like Baylor, Oregon and San Diego State, but each of those teams will need to elevate its level of play in the coming weeks to become a Final Four threat. They aren't at that level quite yet.
Arizona will take advantage of that lack of a second marquee squad to survive the region.
|Top Odds to Win Midwest Region|
|Wichita State||No. 1||4-1|
Louisville probably deserved higher than a No. 4 seed, but it's a moot point now. The Cardinals were placed in a region with Wichita State, which has plenty of questions to answer after cruising through a regular season where it was rarely challenged.
Because of that unknown factor when it comes to the Shockers, it's no surprise the oddsmakers decided to make the reigning champions the region favorites. The Cardinals are more of a known commodity and went 12-1 over their last 13 games.
Louisville is a serious threat to repeat because once again it has an outstanding combination of top-end talent and good depth. Russ Smith and Montrezl Harrell are the headliners, but Wayne Blackshear and Terry Rozier are among the role players who can make a major impact.
Then there's Michigan. The second-seeded Wolverines are certainly battle-tested after winning the Big Ten title for the regular season. There's no doubt they can score efficiently, but getting key stops in crunch time has been an issue at times, making that the key to their success.
As for Wichita State, going 34-0 is worthy of praise regardless of the conference where most of the games were played. The Shockers are certainly capable of making a second straight run to the Final Four, but a potential rematch from last year's semifinal with Louisville looms.
If that matchup does become reality, the Cardinals have more firepower. That makes them the favorite in the potential Sweet 16 battle as well as the region.