Each of the 16 teams left standing in the 2014 NCAA tournament are just four wins away from a national championship. Even more intriguing is the fact that three rounds have been played and there still isn't a clear favorite to capture the coveted title.
It's an outlook coaches have probably been preaching to their teams ever since they survived the opening weekend: hit your peak now and there's a good chance to reach the Final Four and potentially even cut down the nets, regardless of seed or outside hype.
First, let's check out all of the updated bracket information for the big dance. We will then follow with a complete viewing schedule and predictions for the Sweet 16 as well as a ranking of the top contenders heading into the fourth round of tournament action.
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Sweet 16 TV Schedule and Predictions
|3/27||Dayton vs. Stanford||7:15 p.m.||CBS||STAN|
|3/27||Baylor vs. Wisconsin||7:47 p.m.||TBS||WIS|
|3/27||UCLA vs. Florida||9:45 p.m.||CBS||FLA|
|3/27||San Diego St. vs. Arizona||10:17 p.m.||TBS||ARZ|
|3/28||Tennessee vs. Michigan||7:15 p.m.||CBS||TENN|
|3/28||Connecticut vs. Iowa State||7:27 p.m.||TBS||ISU|
|3/28||Kentucky vs. Louisville||9:45 p.m.||CBS||LOU|
|3/28||Michigan St. vs. Virginia||9:57 p.m.||TBS||MSU|
Ranking Top Contenders
If Florida had slipped from the No. 1 contender spot after a lackluster showing against Albany in the second round, the top overall seed reestablished itself by completely neutralizing Pittsburgh. The Panthers were are a far better team than their No. 9 seed would suggest, and the Gators were in still control throughout Saturday's contest.
Next up is a meeting with UCLA. The Bruins are a lot like Kentucky—which knocked out Wichita State in the last round—as they feature a lot of NBA talent with good size. Myron Medcalf of ESPN thinks that such length could present a serious test for the Gators:
Not many teams in America can match UCLA's overall size, top to bottom. Could be a problem for Florida.— Myron Medcalf (@MedcalfByESPN) March 24, 2014
The one area where Florida has a distinct advantage is on defense. The Gators should be able to slow down the up-tempo Bruins. That makes each possession more important, and it bodes well for an experienced, battle-tested squad of veterans who excel on the defensive end.
Looking ahead—should the Gators get past UCLA—Florida has the best path to the title of any top contender, with a guaranteed double-digit seed opponent in the Elite Eight before potentially taking on whichever team survives the toss-up East Region.
Things are setting up well for Florida.
The reigning champions were clearly under-seeded by the selection committee. The Cardinals were always a much bigger repeat threat than their No 4 seed indicates, and their performance in a 15-point win over Saint Louis was enough to rank them as the top remaining Midwest Region team on this list.
In order to capture a title, however, head coach Rick Pitino knows that improved offensive efficiency is crucial. Pitino noted that most teams play strong defense at the business end of the tournament, so offense is key, via Jeff Greer of the Courier-Journal:
You know, the NCAA, the one thing I've known throughout the years, being in this business, is people get very conservative, and they talk about—I've always felt—you hear the expression defense wins championships. A lack of offense keeps you from winning a championship. All these teams can guard. And it's really, really important—we beat Michigan and Wichita State and the teams before that, and we were a very good defense because of our offense. We didn't win because of our defense. Every team can play defense at this stage. So you've got to have great offense to win, and you've got to really execute and make free throws, do smart things.
The good news for Louisville in that respect is how many options it has on that end of the floor. The Cardinals have four different players averaging in double figures, and any one of them can step up to lead the offense in any given contest, from Russ Smith to Chris Jones.
A high-profile matchup with Kentucky awaits. The Wildcats have been inconsistent, which isn't a surprise for a young team, and makes it tough to predict whether they can back up their win over the Shockers. Regardless, the more reliable Cardinals squad should be able to keep pushing toward another Final Four.
There was some concern about Arizona after a tournament opener which saw the Wildcats fail to pull away from Weber State. They bounced back strong against Gonzaga, though, as their 23-point victory over the Bulldogs was enough to put them back in the central title focus.
Which team will win the national title?
While most of the focus is on Arizona's elite defense, it's a team that becomes nearly impossible to beat when Aaron Gordon, Nick Johnson and T.J. McConnell are clicking on offense. At that point, the Wildcats become the most well-rounded team in the nation.
The reason they check in third is the tougher road ahead as compared to Florida and Louisville. Just to reach the Final Four, they would have to beat a fellow defensive-minded team in San Diego State before facing either Wisconsin or Baylor, two teams that are playing some of their best basketball of the season.
That's why having perhaps the best defense in the nation is such an advantage. Arizona can lean on it and hope the team's hot shooting continues to carry it toward the title. It's a tricky path, but the Wildcats are still one of the best remaining tournament picks.