It’s the question burning on everyone’s mind as they rush to fill out their 2014 NCAA tournament brackets: Who will emerge as true Final-Four contenders?
One likely participant will be looking to push its remarkable winning streak to 30 game games. Meanwhile, another will be hoping a Big Ten tournament win could spark a deep March run. And of course, what bracket wouldn’t be complete without last year’s champion doing its best to defend its crown?
They don’t call it March Madness for nothing.
But before we get into these contenders, let’s consider the bracket.
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Midwest: No. 4 Louisville (29-5)
What more do the defending champion Cardinals have to prove?
The team has won 12 of its last 13 games, including securing the AAC tournament crown. Louisville has tallied three straight victories over Top 25 opponents and is currently ranked in the top five in both the AP and Coaches Poll.
Still, the team was somehow dropped to a baffling No. 4 seed in the tournament.
If anything, look for that disrespect to fuel the Cardinals. More specifically, look for guard Russ Smith (18.3 PPG, 4.7 APG, 2.1 SPG) to only raise his game.
In fact, over the last seven games, the senior has averaged 21.3 points, 5.3 assists and 2.7 steals.
But don’t expect Russ to be alone. Louisville has four scorers in double digits that have helped the team average 82.1 points per game—No. 8 in the nation.
Throw in a defense that ranks No. 15 in points allowed (61.0 PPG) and No. 2 in steals (10.1 SPG), and the Cardinals should have no trouble maneuvering through a bracket that includes No. 1 Wichita State, No. 2 Michigan and No. 3 Duke.
East: No. 4 Michigan State (26-8)
After stumbling down the stretch, the Spartans seem to have finally righted the ship.
Heading into the Big Ten tournament, the team had lost seven of its last 12 games. Still, Michigan State managed to get it together to capture the tournament title, beating Wisconsin and Michigan in the process.
Following the triumph, head coach Tom Izzo seemed to be confident in his team’s chances.
“You don’t get many teams that are talented, have inside and outside, show toughness, are together, have great chemistry,” he said, per The Associated Press (h/t ESPN). “I’ve said three times in my career that I thought we were good enough to get to a Final Four. I thought this team was next in line.”
The odds seem to be in the Spartans’ favor. At 10-1, they have better odds of winning the tournament than seven of the 12 teams seeded higher than them.
It’s not hard to see why.
Over the season, Michigan State went 5-0 against teams ranked in the Top 15. Throw in solid ball movement—No. 6 in assists per game (17.1)—along with four scorers in double digits and the Spartans should be a tough out for any opponent.
The team is also fortunate to be in a favorable bracket, with the weakest No. 1 seed (Virginia) and beatable No. 2 and 3 seeds in Villanova and Iowa State.
South: No. 1 Florida (32-2)
The Gators have been downright nasty for quite some time.
Since a Dec. 2 loss to Connecticut, the team has reeled off 26 straight wins. That includes an unblemished 18-0 SEC mark as well as victories over four Top-25 opponents.
Not surprisingly, Florida earned the NCAA tournament’s top overall seed.
As Sportscenter noted, that can only mean good things for the team:
Florida is top overall seed and 1-seed in South. Last time Gators were #1 overall, in 2007, they won National Championship.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) March 16, 2014
Defense has been the name of the game for the Gators. In 34 games this season, the team has only conceded 57.9 points per game—ranked No. 3 in the nation.
In fact, only one opponent has topped 70 points in the last 19 games and only three all season long.
With No. 5 VCU and No. 4 UCLA as its biggest obstacles to earn a trip into the Elite 8, Florida should be fine. But it’s the looming matchup with Kansas—arguably the toughest No. 2 seed in the tournament—that could pose a threat.
Still, look for the Gators to feel right at home, playing their games at Orlando, Fla., and Memphis, Tenn.