The 2014 NCAA tournament looks rife with upset potential.
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It feels like every year you hear that the pool of contenders isn't weaker than the year before. However, this year, it does ring true. Aside from Florida, admittedly not even that strong a favorite, there isn't a group of teams significantly distancing themselves from the pack.
As an offshoot of that, that perceived weakness rubs off on the other power-conference teams lower down on the totem pole. Parity has reigned in the 2013-14 season, due in part to the fact that smaller schools are closing the gap with their more renowned counterparts.
While that's bad news for the old guard, it's great news for people who love to see upsets.
Among the second-round action to come on Thursday and Friday, these four upsets are the most likely to happen.
No. 6 North Carolina vs. No. 11 Providence
Bryce Cotton is the kind of player who can take over the game for Providence. The senior guard scored 23 points in the Big East final win over Creighton. At the heart of almost every upset is a player like Cotton going off for a huge game.
North Carolina has been way too inconsistent this season. Although the Tar Heels had won 12 in a row before their loss to Duke, the victories over Virginia Tech and Notre Dame came by a combined seven points.
What could be UNC's undoing is its poor shooting, especially from three-point range and the charity stripe. The Heels are a paltry 62.5 percent at the free-throw line (338th in the country) and 33.6 percent from behind the arc.
Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis also believes that Providence owns the edge in speed and toughness:
This game will feature two of the most dynamic scoring guards in the country in UNC's Marcus Paige and PC's Bryce Cotton. These guys are practically mirror images of each other. The difference is that I think Providence has better overall team speed and toughness. The tougher question is how the Friars will respond to having won the Big East tournament. Will they be emotionally spent, or have they discovered a new confidence that will propel them? I'm guessing it's the latter.
If the Friars can negate North Carolina's superior post presence, they'll advance to the third round.
No. 5 Cincinnati vs. No. 12 Harvard
Relying on one player to carry the team doesn't always preclude an early exit in the tournament. However, it has resulted in many a team's demise in March.
Cincinnati has been so dependent on Sean Kilpatrick that you wonder if it will eventually catch up with the Bearcats. Especially when playing against a well-balanced team, you need more than one guy to step up and carry the load.
That's the biggest problem Davis sees ahead of the Bearcats matchup against Harvard:
Unlike Cincinnati, which relies heavily on Sean Kilpatrick to generate offense, Harvard has a speedy three-guard lineup in which every player is a threat. That means the Crimson should be able to handle Cincy's length and perimeter pressure. Unless the Bearcats suddenly find offense from players who haven't produced all season, I think they're going home early.
The Crimson are giving up an average of 60.5 points a night. In addition, this team has largely the same composition of last year's team that beat New Mexico in the second round. Guys like Laurent Rivard, Wesley Saunders and Steve Moundou-Missi are one year older and one year better.
No. 5 Oklahoma vs. No. 12 North Dakota State
Win or lose, North Dakota State head coach Saul Phillips is going to enjoy the NCAA tournament.
"This is absolute bliss," Phillips said, per Nathan Fenno of the Los Angeles Times. "The satisfaction of seeing a group of guys that you really love accomplish their wildest dreams is about as fulfilling as it gets as a basketball coach, no matter the level."
The Bison will be relying heavily on Taylor Braun. The senior guard leads the team in points (18.2), rebounds (5.5) and assists (3.9).
Not surprisingly, CBS Sports' Matt Norlander called Braun one of the most valuable players in the country:
I know this next sentence is going to feel like it could apply to about 30 guys, but judging this team off the game I watched Tuesday night -- and what little I've seen of Braun in online Synergy video -- he seems like arguably the most valuable player to his team in the country. Maybe Shabazz Napier or Russ Smith comes close. But the senior forward (18.3 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 3.9 APG) ranks in the top percentile in 14 KenPom.com categories.
He's an efficient scorer that takes smart shots, doesn't give away the ball often and makes opportunities for himself and his team often on defense -- both near and away from the rim.
Oklahoma comes into this game with the 302nd-best defense in the country in scoring average (75.9 points). That normally sends up warning signs, and it's a huge red flag for the Sooners against North Dakota State.
The Bison are first in shooting percentage (50.9 percent) and 44th in scoring average (76.4 points).
Oklahoma's strategy first and foremost will be shutting down Braun, but even if he's taken out of the game, the Sooners must also silence North Dakota State's stable of shooters.
No. 6 Massachusetts vs. No. 11 Tennessee
In a few hours, this prediction may already be invalid. In reality, though, you could easily put Iowa into Tennessee's place and just as easily see an upset happening. How Massachusetts earned a No. 6 seed while the Hawkeyes and Volunteers had to settle for a play-in game is anybody's guess.
The Vols have been underrated all season. Ken Pomeroy ranked them 11th in the country heading into the NCAA tournament.
Defensively, Tennessee has been downright scary. It held Xavier to 49 points and Virginia to 52 points earlier in the season, and before the SEC tournament loss to Florida, the Volunteers surrendered an average of 49.8 points over their previous five games.
That 11th seed should also serve to motivate Cuonzo Martin and his team ahead of the tournament.
All stats are courtesy of NCAA.com unless otherwise noted.
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