The 2014 NCAA tournament has the potential to become one of the most memorable in a long time. That's because there are a high number of very good teams but no real dominant, unbeatable squads guaranteed to cruise through the Big Dance.
All Your Bracket Essentials:
Even the top contenders are going to face numerous tough hurdles if they want to emerge with the national title. The lack of a supreme group also opens the door for Cinderella teams to make deep runs toward the Final Four.
Put it all together and it should add up to an extremely interesting edition of March Madness. Now let's examine some teams to watch in the coming weeks.
The Gators got off to a pretty mundane start. They lost their first two games against ranked opponents and had zero notable wins in early December. Then they proceeded to score back-to-back victories over Kansas and Memphis and never looked back, winning every remaining regular-season contest.
Florida leans heavily on its defense, which ranks in the top 10 in points allowed, but the team's experience will be just as important in the tournament. Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel passed along comments from Billy Donovan, who praised his seniors after completing an unbeaten league run:
When you invest four years in a place like these guys have, it means something to them. They're going to carry this with them for the rest of their lives and they're going to be remembered for what they've done. They've done something that has never before happened here and never before happened in our league.
Casey Prather, Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin and Will Yeguete are battle-tested. After three straight runs to the Elite Eight, they know what it takes to make a deep run. This could be the year they get over the hump and potentially win it all.
Arizona is another defensive-minded team. In fact, it ranks first in KenPom.com's defensive efficiency rankings thanks in large part to the contributions of star freshman Aaron Gordon. He joined the likes of Nick Johnson and T.J. McConnell to create a very formidable group on that end of the floor.
What makes the team a top contender is the scoring depth that goes along with that defensive ability. The Wildcats feature five different players averaging at least eight points per contest. That takes a lot of pressure off Gordon and Johnson, who aren't forced to completely carry the offense.
The absence of Brandon Ashley due to a season-ending foot injury hurts, but it's not impossible for Arizona to overcome. Gabe York could become the X-factor in replacing that offensive production with increased usage as a good outside shooter.
Shaka Smart knows how to get his team ready for the tournament, as he illustrated in recent years. The Rams play an up-tempo, frantic style that's always going to have ups and downs over the course of the season but is very hard to deal with in a tournament setting.
They played well down the stretch of the regular season, highlighted by a win over Saint Louis, and are seemingly rounding into form at the right time. Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports noted in early March that he thought VCU would be underrated heading into the Big Dance:
With that swarming defense, Treveon Graham playing well as the leader of the offense and five different outside-shooting threats, the Rams are once again capable of getting hot and making a run. A convincing win out of the gate would go a long way in building their confidence.
The Ducks are one of the most entertaining teams in the country. They like to push the pace, which allows their talented scoring trio of Joseph Young, Mike Moser and Jason Calliste to shine. Five times during the regular season their games had a team score at least 100 points, and they won four of those.
Furthermore, Oregon really seemed to find its stride down the stretch. It went on an extended winning streak to close out the regular season, including a win over the aforementioned Wildcats of Arizona. That showed what the Ducks are capable of when they are clicking on all cylinders.
Since they are a middle seed, the road to a Cinderella run is obviously a bit more difficult. But they have all the pieces, and if they can carry over some of those positive vibes from down the stretch, they could bust a lot of brackets.