The road to the Final Four is not a brisk walk through the park. It's filled with potential upsets, buzzer-beaters and controversial calls that make it more like a climb up Mount Everest.
The 2014 NCAA Tournament is made up of a field of competitive teams that are all on a quest for the same thing. Naturally, that will create some great moments for fans to look back on after the Big Dance is over.
Multiple teams this year are worthy of making it to the Final Four—too many to count, even. The disparity of the 2013-14 college basketball season has left no guarantees and made no promises. The saying "that's why they play the games" holds especially true this year.
Here's my take on what the Final Four will look like after the craziness of the first several rounds of the NCAA tournament subsides.
South Region: Florida (1)
The Florida Gators don't have an easy road to the Final Four, but as a No. 1 seed, they do have a luxury of playing a virtual bye in the round of 64. A No. 1 seed has never lost to a No. 16 seed, and the Albany Great Danes shouldn't be much of a problem for the Gators.
Then the Gators will take on the winner of Colorado and Pittsburgh. I think Pittsburgh will take that game, but either way, the Gators won't have a problem dismantling either squad. They are too deep and too consistent in nearly all facets of the game to drop a game in the round of 32.
The Sweet 16 will probably even be an easy game for Florida. The Gators are a significantly stronger team than UCLA, Tulsa, VCU and Stephen F. Austin State University. It's in the Elite Eight where things will get interesting.
Syracuse, Ohio State or Kansas will be Florida's likely opponent. Either of those three potential matchups would be a fantastic game, but I still think Florida pulls it out in the end. Lorenzo Reyes of USA Today agrees:
Meanwhile, the easiest path [to the Final Four] falls to the Florida Gators, the No. 1-ranked team in the USA TODAY Coaches Poll. In the South region, there’s only one other Top-10 team, the Kansas Jayhawks, who come with a question mark.
Florida may not make it to the title game (not in my bracket, anyway), but they are a near lock for the Final Four.
East Region: Michigan State (4)
Michigan State is finally healthy, and as a result, the Spartans are a legitimate threat to win it all. President Barack Obama picked the Spartans to win it all in his annual bracket. Here's what he told ESPN's Andy Katz about the team, via Rebecca Kaplan of CBSNews.com: "I think Michigan State is playing in as tough a conference as there is. Bring it home for me - it's been a while since I've won my pool."
The Spartans have a wealth of talent now that all of their top players are back—something that the team could not have said throughout most of the season. Had they had their core group on the court for the entire season, the Spartans easily could have been a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.
I predict that the Spartans will take down No. 1 Virginia en route to the Final Four, but that won't be their toughest test. Villanova, the No. 2 team in the East, will give Michigan State problems. The Wildcats are a stellar offensive team that distributes the ball well and finds open shooters. This will spell problems for the Michigan State defense.
Longest Active Appearance Streaks: Kansas - 25 Duke - 19 Michigan State - 17 Gonzaga - 16 Wisconsin - 16— ESPN College BBall (@ESPNCBB) March 19, 2014
Head coach Tom Izzo is one of the best minds in college basketball, however, and I tend to lean towards choosing the team with the best coach in close situations. Michigan State should make the Final Four, and don't be surprised if they make President Obama's bracket come true.
West Region: Oklahoma State (9)
Surprised to see a No. 9 seed in the Final Four? Well, you shouldn't be—not after you take another look over the West region.
Assuming the Oklahoma State Cowboys win against Gonzaga in the round of 64, the only team really standing in their way of the Final Four is Arizona. As the No. 1 seed in the region, that certainly won't be an easy contest.
Arizona is one of the top defensive teams in the country, and they shoot the ball at an excellent rate when everything's going well. The best way to beat Arizona is to match their shooters with shooters. One of the only teams in the region that can do that is Oklahoma State.
Marcus Smart, Markel Brown, Le'Bryan Nash and Phil Forte III are very good offensive talents that won't let Arizona build a big lead on jump shots. The two teams will match shot-for-shot, but in the end, it will come down to the exploits of the best player on the court.
Look for Smart to take over and lead his Cowboys past Arizona. From there, it should be smooth sailing to the Final Four.
Midwest Region: Louisville (4)
Louisville was snubbed from a higher seed, and head coach Rick Pitino knows it:
Rick Pitino says the #4 seed for his Cardinals is a byproduct of conference affiliation "but we"re going to win this thing."— Terry Meiners (@terrymeiners) March 16, 2014
The Cardinals have been on a roll of late. They defeated UConn by 33 in the regular-season finale, Rutgers by 61 in the first game of the conference tournament and Houston by 29 in the semifinals. Yeah, they're rolling.
Wichita State stands in Louisville's way of the Final Four, and Eric Prisbell of USA Today points out that the Shockers won't have an easy go of things:
They talk all the time about balancing the regions. The Midwest is absurdly treacherous for WSU. Unfair to UofL and Shockers.— Eric Prisbell (@EricPrisbell) March 16, 2014
The Midwest is certainly tough in that regard, but in my opinion, there aren't any teams better right now than Louisville. Don't sleep on this team, because they'll make you pay.
The Cardinals are Final Four bound, and I also have them in the title game against Michigan State.