After a riveting regular season and conference tournaments that saw several teams rise to the occasion and others crumble under the pressure, the most exciting three weeks in college athletics is officially underway.
The NCAA tournament is already whittled down to 64 teams and has featured several exciting games in Dayton that saw two potential contenders in No. 12 N.C. State and No. 11 Tennessee emerge from Ohio. With Day 1 tipping off at noon, every team has hope of making it to the Final Four and winning a championship.
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Every fan of the game still has hopes of retaining a perfect bracket and possibly even winning $1 billion from multibillionaire Warren Buffett. Buffett spoke about the contest with ESPN's Rick Reilly:
I don't really care if somebody wins or not. All I'm concerned with is charging the right price. This has been my life. I knew as a young man that if I kept writing one deal after another deal, and charged the right price, in the end, I was going to make money.
While some fans might mull over their bracket trying to nail down perfection—though it will never happen—others simply want to do it for fun with hopes of winning the office pool.
Whatever the reason, filling out a bracket is a must for every college basketball fan. Before the field of 64 tips off on Thursday afternoon, below is a look at predictions for how the tournament will take shape. Here is a look at the full schedule for the NCAA tournament from the openers in Dayton to the final in Arlington.
Gators a Final Four Lock out of the South
Coming in as the No. 1 overall seed in the field, Florida clearly has the biggest target on their back. But as the No. 1 team in the country for the last several weeks, the Gators haven't allowed that to slow them down yet.
Upon finding out that the Gators had secured a No. 1 seed after winning both the SEC regular season and tournament title, Scottie Wilbekin spoke about the team's mindset going in, according to Jesse Simonton of The Miami Herald:
It doesn’t matter what your ranking is or how much hype you have or who picked who to win. It’s going to be determined by the players and the coaches on the floor.
It technically makes it easier. But as anyone knows, anything can happen in the tournament. Everything goes out the window when you start playing. That’s where stars are born. It can be a nobody comes in and scores 30 points on us … you just have to focus and keep the focus we’ve had all year.
While being a No. 1 seed hasn't always been a predictor of future success, the Gators have proven throughout the season that they are up to any task.
With great guard play out of Wilbekin and overpowering big men in the paint like Casey Prather and Patric Young, Florida looks every bit the part of a No. 1 seed. Teams don't just go 18-0 in the SEC and win 26 straight games, and the Gators hope to get to 32 straight to close the season.
Virginia Will Claim the East
Let's start out by saying this simply: Virginia is not the weakest No. 1 seed in the tournament.
After running through the gauntlet of the ACC nearly unscathed, the Cavaliers made quick work of every team en route to winning the conference tournament. If this team had the tag of Duke, UNC or Syracuse on the front of its jerseys, there would be no question why the Hoos earned a No. 1 seed.
It was that track record that catapulted UVA to the No. 1 seed for NCAA tournament selection committee chairman Ron Wellman, who spoke on CBS after Selection Sunday about the decision, per
Virginia’s total résumé was very impressive to us. They won the ACC regular season championship and followed it up with a tournament championship. They just continued to impress us throughout the year.
They were always in that vicinity in February when we met, was right there knocking on the door and continued to play well down the stretch. We were very impressed with them, obviously, to put them on the No. 1 line.
Even with the stunning record that Tony Bennett's Hoos put up during the regular season and ACC tournament, Pablo Torre of ESPN's Around the Horn predicts they will be the first No. 1 seed ever to fall to a No. 16 seed:
With an offense that includes leading scorer Malcolm Brogdon (12.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg) along with seniors Akil Mitchell (7.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg) and Joe Harris (11.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.3 apg), the Hoos have the firepower to down any team in the tournament.
And thanks to a defense that shut down several potent offenses in the ACC throughout the season, UVA will baffle even the best scoring teams like Michigan State and Iowa State in the East region.
Wisconsin Wins the West
After being ousted early in the Big Ten tournament by Michigan State, President Barack Obama's favorite to win the tournament, Wisconsin has fallen off of the radar for those filling out brackets.
But as the No. 2 seed in the West bracket, the Badgers clearly still have a pulse.
And with stout scoring threats like Frank Kaminsky and Ben Brust, the Badgers will rebound from the heartbreak in the conference tournament to reach their third Final Four in program history. Brust spoke about the team's mentality heading into the Big Dance, per Benjamin Worgull of Badger Nation:
Ben Brust: "Teams didn't get here by luck of the draw ... It's not going to be given to you. We've got to take it." #Badgers— Benjamin Worgull (@TheBadgerNation) March 16, 2014
As for a few of his notable teammates like Zach Bohannon, the senior transfer from Air Force is clearly keeping pretty loose ahead of his final chance to make the Final Four:
With both confidence and the talent to back it up, the Badgers have a chance to become just the second team since 1941 to reach the Final Four in program history.
Though the odds may be stacked against them in a bracket with the likes of Arizona and Creighton, Wisconsin will arrive in Arlington thanks to its experience and ability on both sides of the court.
Louisville Gets the Three-Peat
Which No. 4 seed is the strongest?
No, Louisville didn't win the national championship back in 2012, but it did make it to the Final Four the season prior to winning the whole thing in 2013.
With the Cardinals hitting their stride at the right time heading into the tournament, the committee didn't do them any favors by putting them as the No. 4 seed.
Despite the fact that they are pitted in the same division as undefeated Wichita State, Michigan and Duke, three teams ranked inside the Top 10 in the AP Poll at the close of conference tournaments, the Cards will once again rise to the top in the Midwest Region.
An offense that includes Russ Smith and Luke Hancock led by Rick Pitino—all three a part of last year's national championship run—will be up to any challenge. After another memorable close to the regular season, the Cardinals will finish it all in AT&T Stadium.
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