The Sweet 16 of the 2014 NCAA bracket is beginning to take shape, and while the majority of the tournament has been unpredictable, it is rather easy to see which teams have the easiest path to the Final Four.
As fun as it would be to see an unexpected crop of names in the Final Four, careful analysis of the tournament thus far, paired with a look ahead at potential matchups, makes it pretty clear that the usual suspects will make an appearance on the biggest stage of all.
Then again, the likes of Dayton and Mercer have proven to buck traditional conventions this year. But as it stands, three teams stick out as surefire finalists.
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Maybe. There is certainly a major letdown potential for Bill Donovan's team after things looked a bit iffy through the first 30 minutes or so against No. 16 Albany. Florida won 67-55, but was the close contest until the closing minutes a wake-up call or a sign of things to come?
Let's chalk it up as the former. In Round 3, the Gators faced a tough test against Pittsburgh, a team that had simply bullied the opposition down low thanks to the likes of Talib Zanna. More than halfway through the game, it was quite apparent which team had flexed its muscle down low:
Florida: 16 of 22 2nd half points in the paint. Gators are 8-14 FG in the paint; 1-10 outside the paint (all 3-pointers)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 22, 2014
After the 61-45 rout in a game many had circled in red ink as an upset special, Donovan spoke about players such as Will Yeguete, who are willing to do the dirty work down low to beat physical teams like Pittsburgh, according to Jesse Simonton of The Miami Herald:
He’s the epitome of a guy that when you look down at the stat sheet it’s hard to have a level of appreciation for him.
It’s hard to find guys that really kind of hang their hat on being kind of a dirty-work guy, and it’s hard sometimes because certainly it doesn’t really give them a lot of headlines. Will’s not a headline guy. But he really does a lot for our team.
Florida has passed its test, and Dayton's miraculous run to the Sweet 16 only helps the Gators. While the Flyers are a sound team, they don't stack up well against the Gators. After presumably moving past Stephen F. Austin or UCLA, one of Dayton and the winner of Stanford or Kansas makes for a pretty simple trip to the Final Four.
Albeit quietly, the Michigan Wolverines have been the most dominant team in the tournament thus far.
John Beilein's team waxed No. 15 Wofford 57-40 in the round of 64, which wound up being an historic mark to boot:
The 40 points allowed by Michigan is the fewest the Wolverines have ever allowed in a tournament game— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 21, 2014
While impressive defensively, the Wolverines then put on an offensive clinic in the next round as they shot a 14-of-28 mark from long distance to rout Texas, 79-65. Jeff Seidel of the Detroit Free Press had strong words in favor of Beilein after the contest:
This was a coaching clinic by Beilein. He was like a puppeteer on the sideline, making moves and adjustments, and everything he did seemed to work, as this team became a model of efficiency and rhythm and flow and spacing.
Simply put, when Beilein is coaching that effectively and the shots are falling with some semblance of consistency, there may not be a team in the land that can take down the Wolverines.
Best of all, Michigan gets a Sweet 16 showdown with either No. 11 Tennessee or No. 14 Mercer. Things get trickier after that with a matchup against one of Louisville, Wichita State or Kentucky, but given the Wolverines' momentum, their odds to emerge from the chaotic Midwest Region are much, much better than originally thought.
Which teams has best shot at Final Four?
It seems risky to peg two Big Ten teams as great Final Four candidates, but Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans are on quite the roll as well and have what looks to be a rather simplistic schedule the rest of the way.
Izzo and Co. survived a slight scare in the round of 32 against a pesky Harvard squad, but the clutch 80-73 victory does much to prove the Spartans are the team to beat in the East Region despite being a No. 4 seed.
Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press put it best:
This was 25 minutes of dominant basketball from the Spartans, followed by eight minutes of disaster (eight of MSU’s 11 turnovers, 3-for-9 shooting, defensive gaffes galore), followed by seven minutes of character testing and passing.
Michigan State gets No. 8 Memphis or No. 1 Virginia next, but the dominant play of Branden Dawson and Co. beneath the rim gives the Spartans an advantage over both. The same can be said against either UConn, Iowa State or North Carolina.
When push comes to shove in terms of bracket analysis, a ride with the best coaches of all typically results in success. With Izzo still the captain, the Spartans' ship is one to ride to the Final Four.