Now that the field is set for the 2014 NCAA tournament's round of 64, it's a little easier to make projections for when the true chaos of March Madness is unleashed on Thursday.
Anything can happen in this win-or-go-home format, with underdogs playing as if there's no tomorrow while the top favorites are gearing up for the long haul to the Final Four. Even strong candidates for the national semifinals are capable of laying an egg and being knocked out of the Big Dance far earlier than anticipated.
With so many games going on over the next two days and so little time remaining to make last-minute bracket adjustments, getting a feel for what to expect is key. Below is an overview of the bracket, along with predictions for some of the key contests that will unfold in Round 2.
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Top Seeds Will Cruise to Easy Victories
Until a No. 16 seed beats a No. 1, let's just move on and presume that it won't happen. It never has, and given the quality of the teams at the top this season, don't even think about it.
There won't be a Florida Gulf Coast this season that rises up and gets to the Sweet 16. All the two seeds—Kansas, Wisconsin, Michigan and Villanova—will advance with ease. Most of their opponents play methodical, slow styles of basketball. Against far superior competition, that's not a recipe for success.
The Badgers play with a slow pace but can suffocate even the most prolific of offenses and force a battle of half-court execution. Bet the house on a Bo Ryan-coached squad in that situation.
Eastern Kentucky is a great three-point shooting team (39 percent), but should only be able to hang with the Jayhawks for a half or so. From there freshman star Andrew Wiggins will take over and continue to guide the team in lieu of fellow first-year phenom Joel Embiid.
No 3 seed should be in danger, either. Creighton's Doug McDermott-led offense will overwhelm Louisiana-Lafayette, Iowa State's explosive scoring will outgun North Carolina Central, Duke won't have a problem despite Mercer's balanced rotation and Syracuse will shut down Western Michigan, which doesn't have enough threats from the perimeter to make the Orange's vaunted zone pay.
Although college basketball has a fair amount of parity at the moment, that theme won't reveal itself early on in what is a rather top-heavy bracket.
Favorites That Will Fight to Advance
A trendy Final Four team—the future NCAA champion, according to Commander in Chief Barack Obama (h/t USA Today's David Jackson)—in Michigan State may encounter more difficulty in the second round than expected.
The Delaware Blue Hens are a mighty 13th seed who play four to score and have a formidable post presence in Carl Baptiste, whose size at 260 pounds matches up well with the likes of Spartans standout Adreian Payne.
Coach Monte Ross spoke of how similar his current Delaware team is to the outfit from Saint Joseph's that went to the Elite Eight in 2004, per the Detroit Free Press' Joe Rexrode:
Our ’04 team that went to the Elite Eight, we played four guards the majority of the game, and when I look at our team this year, I knew the best way for us to win, our most firepower was when we have four guards on the court. And that’s what we do. And a lot of it, if not all of it, is derived from my time at St. Joe’s because we had such success with it. Being able to spread the court and dribble drive.
Payne will win the matchup down low with Baptiste, though, and the Spartans have enough quickness on the defensive perimeter to disrupt the Blue Hens. Michigan State will advance by pulling away late to a single-digit victory.
One of the mid-major darlings in recent years has been VCU, coached by the ever-demanding Shaka Smart who is adamant about full-court pressure defense and uptempo, relentless attacking for 40 minutes.
But the fifth-seeded Rams are facing Stephen F. Austin in the opener, a 31-2 adversary that is oozing with confidence as the Southland champions—and hasn't lost since Nov. 23. The Lumberjacks rank eighth in the nation with an average of 16.6 assists per game, with plenty of capable ball-handlers to beat VCU's press.
Plus, Smart's squad shoots just 42 percent from the floor as a team, which could be a big problem. Ultimately, experience will win out and the Rams will advance— it just won't be easy.
Any other of the higher seeds could have a scare, and the 8-9 and even 7-10 games are tossups. The aforementioned two just stand out as teams that should struggle in getting to Round 3.
Which is the likeliest upset special?
Considering much of the Crimson nucleus that beat New Mexico as a No. 14 seed in 2013 is back, there's plenty of reason to believe coach Tommy Amaker's Ivy League winners can take down the Bearcats.
Another club to watch for is New Mexico State, who faces off against No. 4 San Diego State in Round 2. The Aggies have 7'5" sophomore Sim Bhullar roaming the paint and averaging 3.4 blocks per game. Tshilidzi Nephawe is 6'10" and 265 pounds, giving this mid-major some rarely seen teeth on the inside.
The Aztecs have a veteran coach in Steve Fisher but are inefficient offensively, and those problems will be exacerbated by New Mexico State's size enough to allow the WAC tournament winners to pull the upset.
Finally, look for No. 11 Providence to come out on top against North Carolina. The Friars don't shoot well from the field but are a splendid 78.1 percent from the free-throw line. That should help win what will be a tightly contested matchup. CBS Sports' Seth Davis believes that it will indeed come to fruition:
Another 1st re upset: Providence over UNC. Either one probably loses to Iowa St so that's a good spot to take a chance.— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) March 18, 2014
There is a history of excellence on the Tar Heels' side, but they can't be trusted based on precedent alone. If point guard Marcus Paige has an off game, UNC is in serious trouble. Providence's Bryce Cotton (21.4 ppg, 5.8 apg) has the production to offset what Paige does, too.
It's all about personnel, styles of play and, really, foul trouble makes picking any game involving two rather even teams a tricky proposition. Some underdogs are fearless on the NCAA tournament stage, while others shrink from the spotlight and don't muster enough muscle to make their games competitive.
What can't be measured by box scores, stat lines or other numerical analyses is heart and determination, which any and all of these teams could have enough of on a given day to pull off the extraordinary. These predictions are mere inferences as to how the bracket will play out in the early going; nailing picks isn't exactly akin to shooting fish in a bucket.
Beyond the top two or three seeds, no team is safe in the round of 64. That should create some of the most exciting opening action in recent NCAA tournament history.