If the second round of the 2014 NCAA tournament proved anything, it was that this year's edition of March Madness would indeed be a time to expect the unexpected—and perhaps even more than usual.
Multiple overtime games, massive upsets and impassioned play throughout have shaken the college basketball landscape and busted plenty of brackets in the process. So with regard to tips as the round of 32 gets underway on Saturday, it's safe to say anything is possible.
Three double-digit seeds capable of keeping their Big Dance dreams alive and advancing to the Sweet 16 will take the hardwood, along with other top seeds who figure to have their hands full. The defending national champion Louisville Cardinals will square off with Saint Louis, while this year's favorites in the Florida Gators are slated to do battle with a confident Pittsburgh Panthers squad.
Let's take a look ahead at bracket predictions and odds, with the analysis focusing on potential Cinderella stories that could emerge from Saturday's action.
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|South||No. 1 Florida vs. No. 9 Pittsburgh||Florida -5.5||Florida -250, Pittsburgh +220||12:15 p.m.||CBS||Florida|
|Midwest||No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 5 Saint Louis||Louisville -9||Louisville -500, Saint Louis +400||2:45 p.m.||CBS||Louisville|
|Midwest||No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 7 Texas||Michigan -5||Michigan -220, Texas +180||5:15 p.m.||CBS||Michigan|
|West||No. 4 San Diego State vs. No. 12 North Dakota State||San Diego State -3||San Diego State -160, North Dakota State +140||6:10 p.m.||TNT||North Dakota State|
|South||No. 3 Syracuse vs. No. 11 Dayton||Syracuse -7||Syracuse -260, Dayon +320||7:10 p.m.||TBS||Syracuse|
|West||No. 2 Wisconsin vs. No. 7 Oregon||Wisconsin -5||Wisconsin -220, Oregon +180||7:45 p.m.||CBS||Wisconsin|
|East||No. 3 Michigan State vs. No. 12 Harvard||Michigan State -7.5||Michigan State -350, Harvard +290||8:40 p.m.||TNT||Michigan State|
|East||No. 2 Villanova vs. No. 7 Connecticut||Villanova -3.5||Villanova -175, Connecticut +155||9:40 p.m.||TBS||Villanova|
Predictions for Cinderellas
No. 4 San Diego State vs. No. 12 North Dakota State
The most impressive part of the Bison's 80-75 upset overtime win over Oklahoma was that senior sharpshooting guard Taylor Braun played poorly, scoring 11 points on just 3-of-11 shooting.
Other players on North Dakota State had to step up, but the clear standout was Lawrence Alexander, who torched the Sooners for 28 points. ESPN Stats & Info outlined Alexander's proficiency:
North Dakota State's Lawrence Alexander introduces himself to hoops fans with one of the better games of the day pic.twitter.com/LnxB0dsCGH— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 21, 2014
Advancing past the second round was a challenge for the Aztecs, as they blew an early lead to New Mexico State before holding on for a victory in extra time. It showed that San Diego State is susceptible to falling to a mid-major squad, and the Bison are a dangerous opponent in the round of 32.
North Dakota State led the nation this season in shooting percentage—51 percent—and eclipsed that mark versus Oklahoma, proving it wasn't afraid of the NCAA tournament stage. There is a substantial disparity in seeding for this game, but as long as Braun plays to his ability it's more of a tossup than meets the eye.
What helps the Bison as the Summit League champions is that they've essentially been playing in a do-or-die scenario since the conference tournament. Coach Saul Phillips elaborated on that after their second-round win, per NewsOK.com's Berry Tramel:
For us, in a lot of ways — and this is going to sound silly to people in this room — but when you’re a mid-major and you’re in a one-bid league, in a lot of ways that conference tournament presents more pressure than the next step. I know we were a lot looser when we played in Minneapolis (the NCAA Tournament) with the 2009 group than we were prior in Sioux Falls (S.D., for the conference tournament). We tried to stay loose both times, we did.
So even if North Dakota State isn't exactly the underdog, it still seems that way based on its rise from relative obscurity.
One clear advantage the Aztecs have is on the inside; the Bison average just 32.8 rebounds per contest. Then again, Oklahoma had a similar edge and didn't really capitalize on it. Four San Diego State starters stand 6'7" or taller, though, so that's quite a different situation to deal with.
The Aztecs should be able to contest better on the perimeter, but no matter the opponent, North Dakota State has found a way to continue pouring in points at a staggering rate.
As long as Braun can run the offense smoothly and the Bison can cut down on the 15 turnovers they had in Round 2, look for the Cinderella run to continue and push coach Saul Phillips' bunch into the Sweet 16.
Prediction: North Dakota State 75, San Diego State 71
No. 3 Syracuse vs. No. 11 Dayton
There was no sort of suspense regarding the Orange's dominant, 77-53 win over Western Michigan, but the same can't be said for how the Flyers knocked off sixth-seeded Ohio State, 61-60.
Although Dayton has the tenacity on defense to stick with its favored opponents in the third round, it may not have enough offensive firepower or size in the paint to keep up. The good news is that the Flyers shoot 37.5 percent from three-point range as a team, which gives them at least a chance at beating Syracuse's zone defense with jumpers from distance.
All that can really be drawn on from Syracuse's second-round performance is that coach Jim Boeheim has his bunch focused, which makes the Orange as dangerous as anyone. Boeheim also knows better than to underestimate the Flyers, per Syracuse basketball's Twitter account:
Boeheim on Dayton: They've got a well-balanced team. A lot of guys who can put ball in basket. Watched them in Maui. Terrific.— Syracuse Basketball (@syrbasketball) March 20, 2014
The Orange played like the best team in the country for the majority of 2013-14 before stumbling down the stretch, so they must remain focused and not be guilty of looking ahead in the South region.
The difference in this one will come on second-chance opportunities, which Dayton can't afford to give but won't have the personnel to prevent. Between C.J. Fair, Rakeem Christmas, Jerami Grant and even Baye-Moussa Keita, the Orange are too deep in the frontcourt, and they grabbed 13 offensive boards against the Broncos in the tourney opener.
A big reason the Flyers advanced over the Buckeyes was because OSU didn't have any consistent inside threats and it turned into a battle of perimeter players. This is just a bad matchup for Dayton and one that won't translate to a Sweet 16 berth.
Syracuse will cover this spread handily by pulling away in the second half and sending the Flyers on an extended scoring drought.
Prediction: Syracuse 68, Dayton 55
No. 3 Michigan State vs. No. 12 Harvard
The Big Ten tournament champion Spartans didn't suffer a letdown versus Delaware in the second round, mainly because of a virtuoso performance from Adreian Payne. The senior forward poured in a whopping 41 points in Michigan State's 93-78 triumph.
For a team often built on defense, Payne's effort was all the more extraordinary. ESPN expert Chad Ford felt similar form could see Payne boost his NBA draft stock into the lottery:
Adreian Payne with a huge 41 pt game today. One of the few stretch fours in Draft. More big games could make him a lock for the lottery.— Chad Ford (@chadfordinsider) March 20, 2014
Which Cinderella team is likeliest to advance?
The Crimson have guards who can fill it up, but no one to match up with Payne on the low block. That could be problematic, and it will force Harvard to emulate its 38.7 shooting percentage from beyond the arc on the season to even have a chance.
This nucleus headlined by Ivy League Player of the Year Wesley Saunders has every right to be confident. After beating New Mexico as a No. 14 seed last year, coach Tommy Amaker has positioned the Crimson for a potential spot in the Sweet 16 following a 61-57 victory over Cincinnati.
Since the Bearcats had one of the best defenses in the country, Harvard did well to grind out a tough game that placed a premium on half-court execution. Something similar should be in store against Sparty, which will make this round of 32 showdown closer than many expect given Michigan State's run through the conference tourney.
The favorites will come out on top in the end, but not by enough to cover the spread.
Prediction: Michigan State 65, Harvard 60
The clock will likely strike midnight on two of Saturday's three Cinderellas, but that doesn't mean any of the games will be short on entertainment. Since all three squads are proficient from the perimeter, the possibility looms that they could get hot and enhance their chances of advancing.
Living by the three can be dangerous, as evidenced by Duke's 78-71 loss to No. 14 seed Mercer in the second round. It goes both ways, and with the quality of defense that will be on display in this trio of potential upsets, truly anything can happen. Embrace the madness of March, because this marks the beginning of the end for most of the NCAA tournament's underdog sensations.