The second week of the NCAA tournament is when true championship contenders separate themselves from the pack. Yes, there are still Cinderella teams alive, but Final Four runs are rare for them, and those squads often fizzle out by this time.
That's not to say teams like Dayton and Tennessee are irrelevant, just that the odds are stacked against them. Speaking of which, these are the updated championship odds ahead of this week's Sweet 16 action. You can also check out Bleacher Report's updated bracket in the essential bracket links above:
|Michigan State Spartans||9/2|
|Iowa State Cyclones||18/1|
|San Diego State Aztecs||33/1|
March Madness' one-and-done nature makes prognostication a difficult exercise. With the knowledge that none of the top teams are locks this season, here's a look at some of the most intriguing championship odds.
Florida Gators: 7/2
The favorite at the beginning of the tournament is still the No. 1 choice of oddsmakers. The Florida Gators have been ruthlessly efficient in cruising to two tournament wins, and with the chaos at the bottom of their region, the top seed is now an overwhelming favorite to reach the Final Four:
Florida's path to the Final Four looks wide-open now. Gators senior class has been to three straight Elite 8s. No Final Fours.— Nicole Auerbach (@NicoleAuerbach) March 23, 2014
The top choice rarely offers good odds, but considering that no other team seems more likely to reach Arlington, Texas, in two weeks, the Gators deserve to be at the top of the table. Their shutdown perimeter defense, led by senior guard Scottie Wilbekin, figures to have little trouble containing offensively oriented squads like UCLA and Dayton.
Stanford could potentially present some issues with their size, as forwards Stefan Nastic and Dwight Powell propelled the Cardinal over a Joel Embiid-less Kansas squad. Still, with no true primary ball-handler, it is difficult to imagine slowpoke Stanford cracking Florida's defense in a halfcourt contest.
The Final Four matchups would obviously present a different animal, but for now, the Gators look like the best team in the country.
Arizona Wildcats: 6/1
Arizona is fourth on the list, which feels a bit low. The Wildcats have been just as dominant as Florida, blowing out Weber State and Gonzaga in the first two rounds. Behind Pac-12 Player of the Year Nick Johnson and freshman sensation Aaron Gordon, Arizona has as much firepower as any team in the field.
However, what really makes the Wildcats dangerous is their top-ranked defense, according to KenPom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency metrics. Their length and athleticism makes them a nightmare for opposing team's spacing and led Gonzaga coach Mark Few to hand out high praise after his team's loss:
Mark Few said he told Sean Miller after the game 'that's the best team we've played that I can remember.' #ArizonaWildcats— Anthony Gimino (@AGWildcatReport) March 24, 2014
Arizona's athleticism could particularly come in handy in a potential Elite Eight matchup against a Wisconsin team predicated on creating spacing and mismatches off ball screens. The problem against the Wildcats is there are few weak spots to prod at, and stellar rebounding ensures that opposing teams do not receive easy second-chance looks at the rim.
The Wildcats face a similarly defensively oriented team in San Diego State next round, and the Aztecs are perhaps a better matchup than the Badgers would be. Still, if defense wins championships, then Arizona holds surprisingly favorable odds.
Michigan Wolverines: 16/1
The 2013 national runners-up are starting to take on a familiar look. Though Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are now toiling away in the NBA, Michigan might somehow have a deeper backcourt than last year's squad.
Sophomore Nik Stauskas has taken over Burke's alpha dog role, and the Big Ten Player of the Year winner has been one of the tournament's most dominant players. Stauskas is more than just a pure shooter, as his distribution skills have made him a capable primary ball-handler as well:
Nik Stauskas scored or assisted on 48% of the Wolverines’ points vs Texas.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 22, 2014
Stauskas is far from a one-man show, as Caris LeVert, Glenn Robinson III and Spike Albrecht give the Wolverines arguably the best cavalcade of shooters of any team remaining. While Michigan does not have the same post presence as last year's squad after Mitch McGary's season-ending back surgery, this remains a team capable of firing its way to a championship.
Michigan faces a sneaky tough Sweet 16 matchup against under-seeded Tennessee, and would then need to beat either Kentucky or Louisville in the Elite Eight. But with a deep backcourt that powers one of the nation's best offenses, the Wolverines are capable of going one step further than they did last season.
Connecticut Huskies: 33/1
Good guard play typically holds one of the strongest correlations with tournament success. The 2014 rendition has again reinforced that theory, as seventh-seeded Connecticut suddenly looks like one of the tournament's most dangerous teams behind the backcourt tandem of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright.
Napier, in particular, has been deadly, and is the early front-runner for Most Outstanding Player of the entire tournament. With 49 points in two games, including an overtime win over St. Joseph's, Napier's game-changing explosiveness and timely daggers have drawn comparisons to another recent UConn hero:
Shabazz Napier taught Kemba a few things, and Kemba apparently taught him as well. Big moment player— Ryan Wolstat (@WolstatSun) March 23, 2014
By the odds, UConn is one of five longest shots remaining in the field. Admittedly, the Huskies are likely underdogs against Iowa State in the Sweet 16, and would not be favored over either Virginia or Michigan State in the Elite Eight.
Still, having the best player on the court goes a long ways, and Napier figures to keep the Huskies in every game the rest of this tournament.