The 2014 NCAA tournament field is very strong. The easiest way to recognize that is to take a quick glance at the likely matchups facing the No. 1 seeds in the Round of 32. None of them are going to have an easy trip through their respective regions.
On paper, that should mean at least one section of the bracket is blown open for a middle seed to make a deep run, potentially to the Final Four. A middle seed would qualify as any squad outside the top four seeds in a region. In other words, those not initially viewed as a top contender.
Going overboard with upset picks is not the path to success, even in a year where there could be some more unexpected results than usual. That said, the opportunity is definitely there if you feel strongly about a certain middle seed. Let's examine three that are capable of making serious noise.
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No. 6 Ohio State (South)
Ohio State started the season 15-0. At that point, it appeared the Buckeyes were well on their way to a top seed. Instead, they faltered during the second half of the campaign, losing five of six games at one point and dropping a pair of games to a mediocre Penn State team.
There were still moments where they looked like a contender. They won three games against ranked opponents during the second half and pushed Michigan to the limit in the Big Ten tournament. The key for Thad Matta is getting his team to play at that level every time out in the Big Dance.
Ohio State passed along comments from the head coach, who said being given a No. 6 seed by the committee serves as instant motivation:
"I think for this team, it's a great thing. There won't need to be a wake up call." - Thad Matta on being 6-seed vs Dayton #GoBucks— Ohio State Buckeyes (@OhioStAthletics) March 16, 2014
The good news for Ohio State is that it ended up in a promising part of the bracket. It's in a section with Kansas, which hasn't been as dangerous with Joel Embiid trying to overcome a back injury, and a struggling Syracuse squad.
In turn, the Buckeyes have LaQuinton Ross to lead the offensive charge, Aaron Craft as a defensive stopper on the perimeter and Amir Williams to protect the rim. So the talent is there. They just need to find a level on consistency that has been lacking since early in the season.
No. 6 Baylor (West)
One thing that should always be considered when filling out a bracket is how many offensive weapons a team possesses. It's very rare that one player can simply put a team on his back and carry it all the way to the Final Four. Somewhere along the line, there's going to be an off night and other players must step up.
That's key for Baylor for two reasons. First, the Bears feature four players averaging at least 11 points per game. Second, a Round of 32 game against Creighton looms. The Bluejays are led almost exclusively on offense by Doug McDermott, the nation's leading scorer.
If both teams survive their opening games, and they should, it would set up a matchup of depth against star power. Assuming Baylor's length is able to give McDermott some problems, it's a game the Bears can win and thus open the door to a deep run.
The West Region isn't particularly strong compared to the other three. Matt Mosley of Fox Sports Southwest believes it sets up well for Baylor, starting with its opener against Nebraska:
I love the way things set up for Baylor. Fans need to take over San Antonio. Nebraska folks don't travel for basketball (I assume).— Matt Mosley (@mattmosley) March 16, 2014
If the Bears can find their collective shooting stroke, there's no reason to believe they can't reach the Elite Eight. Beyond their efficiency from the floor, they have all the assets you look for in a contending team and finished the season strong.
No. 11 Tennessee or Iowa (Midwest)
Tennessee and Iowa will face off Wednesday for a spot in the 64-team bracket. What makes it such an intriguing matchup is the fact that both teams are capable of advancing well past the play-in game if they are able to win it.
The Volunteers are the dangerous team overall because they are such a well-rounded group. Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes are a tremendous one-two punch offensively. The defense is active in passing lanes and can protect the basket.
Which region will have the most upsets?
It also helps that they have two reliable big men, Stokes and Jeronne Maymon, who can completely dominate on the glass. Those second and third chances on the offensive end turn into valuable points in close tournament games.
Should Iowa sneak by Tennessee Wednesday, it's also primed to make a run. While the Hawkeyes struggled down the stretch, that isn't totally uncommon for a offensive-minded team. They went cold from the field and the results followed suit.
At the same time, they can get hot just as quick as they went cold. They are a top-10 team in terms of points per contest, thanks in large part to Roy Devyn Marble and Aaron White, but also a multitude of depth players. If the offense rediscovers its earlier mojo, Iowa can certainly make a run.
Whether it's Tennessee or Iowa, the No. 11 seed in the Midwest is a legitimate threat.