March Madness 2014: Surefire Picks to Advance to Sweet 16

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March Madness 2014: Surefire Picks to Advance to Sweet 16
John Bazemore/Associated Press

Anything can happen once you get to March Madness, and this year's NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament will be in full swing come Thursday with 32 teams in action.

By the end of the last contest on Sunday, the field will be reduced to 16 teams. While it's a bit risky to call any school a sure-fire bet to reach the second week of the tourney, there are a few powerhouses who look poised to keep practicing next week before heading off to their respective regional semifinal matchup.

Here's a look at the entire bracket for the 2014 NCAA Tournament, and three safe bets to reach the Sweet 16.

 

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South No. 1: Florida (32-2)

Who Stands in the Way: No. 16 Albany; No. 8 Colorado/No. 9 Pittsburgh

Outlook: The Florida Gators enter the tournament as the No. 1 overall seed with a resume that features only two blemishes, early-season losses to Wisconsin and Connecticut.

The Gators will get underway on Thursday (4:10 p.m. ET, CBS) against No. 16 Albany; it's a game that should result in a blowout victory. From there, No. 8 Colorado and No. 9 Pittsburgh represent two teams that have been up-and-down all year, and don't figure to have enough talent to hang with Florida.

Coach Billy Donovan has assembled another deep and talented squad this season as he goes for his third career national championship. This is perhaps the strongest team he's had since the Joakim Noah-led Gators went back-to-back as champs in 2006 and '07.

The past three years have resulted in Elite Eight exits, but SEC Player of the year Scottie Wilbekin told Mark Long of the Associated Press that this year's team has its sights set higher.

What fuels us is just our last opportunity to win a championship. The previous years, we were thinking of just getting to the Elite Eight, just getting to the Final Four. We want a championship. If we fall short of it with the Sweet 16, the Final Four, it won't be what we wanted.

The star-studded starting five features leading scorer Casey Prather, a 6'6" senior forward who is averaging 14.2 points and five rebounds per game while shooting an impressive 61.2 percent from the floor. 

Other top players include guard Scottie Wilbekin (13 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 3.8 APG, 40% 3PFG), guard Michael Frazier II (12.9 PPG, 3.1 3PG, 45.5% 3PFG) and center Patric Young (11.1 PPG, 6.1 PPG, 55.1 FG%).

With a defense that ranks No. 3 overall at allowing 57.9 points per game, the Gators have a great chance to win it all this year, making a trip to the second week seem like an inevitability.

 

Midwest No. 2: Michigan (25-8)

Who Stands in the Way: No. 15 Wofford; No. 7 Texas/No. 10 Arizona State

After losing to their rival Michigan State, 69-55, in the Big Ten Tournament Championship on Sunday, Michigan will be eager to get back to the floor.

It doesn't look good to be No. 15 seed Wofford, who will be a major underdog against the Wolverines on Thursday (7:10 p.m ET, CBS). Michigan was on a seven-game winning streak before being derailed by the Spartans, but remain a dangerous team.

Last year's hero Trey Burke, who led the team to a runner-up finish against Louisville in the 2013 national championship game, is gone to the NBA. Still, Michigan's roster is littered with talented players like Nic Stauskas (17.5 PPG, 3.3 APG, 3.1 RPG), Caris LeVert (13.3 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.8 APG) and Glenn Robinson III (13 PPG, 4.3 RPG). 

A loss to the Spartans probably knocked Michigan out of the running for a No. 1 spot, but with a 10-5 mark against top 50 RPI teams, Michigan is battle tested outside of the Big 10.

Meanwhile, No. 7 Texas and No. 10 Arizona State both struggled down the stretch of their respective seasons and will have a tough time keeping up with Michigan.

 

East No. 1: Virginia (28-6)

Who Stands in the Way: No. 16 Coastal Carolina; No. 8 Memphis/No. 9 George Washington

Outlook: With the nation's top-ranked defense and the momentum of a victory in the ACC Tournament title game over Duke, the Virginia Cavaliers will be tough to top during the NCAA Tournament's opening weekend.

In 34 games, the Cavs have given up an average of 55.3 points per game. As such, No. 16 Coastal Carolina doesn't stand much of a chance when these two teams meet on Friday (9:25 p.m., TBS). Ditto for No. 8 Memphis and No. 9 George Washington, two middling squads that likely don't have enough firepower to overcome Virginia.

Mark Giannotto of the Washington Post noted the stark contrast from last year's UVa squad, which was left on the outside looking in as a bubble team in 2013.

The Cavaliers soon learned they would face No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina in an East Region round-of-64 matchup Friday in Raleigh, N.C. Coach Tony Bennett then reminded his team what this day felt like a year ago, when Virginia watched its bubble burst on Selection Sunday.

He called the message “a reality check” Monday, and it made his players appreciate the heights this program has reached of late even more.

Virginia only has a couple of scorers who average double-digits in Malcolm Brogdon (12.6 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 2.6 APG) and Joe Harris (11.7 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 2.3 APG), but the Cavs don't need much offense with the way the bring they defense every night.

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