Parity rules in today’s college basketball world. Obviously, there are still good teams and those who are not so good, but the depth of talent between the top programs and the middling ones has seldom been closer. Never has that reality been more apparent than in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Of the 68 teams in the field this year, there are at least eight-to-ten (and maybe more) that have a legitimate shot at running the table and winning the National Championship. That is far more than in most years and should make for an incredibly entertaining tournament (although, really, every March Madness tournament is entertaining).
Without further ado, here are the teams that I believe will come close but fall short of winning the 2014 championship, ranked from bottom to top (and don’t worry, I did pick a winner at the end, so you won’t be in suspense).
7. Kansas Jayhawks
Bill Self has put together his usual outstanding squad this year, utilizing far more underclassmen in his rotation than he usually does. The team was good enough to win another Big 12 regular season title (their eye-popping 10th in a row) and pile up a slew of top 25 wins, but it doesn’t strike me as a team capable of winning six in a row against quality competition.
The Jayhawks rank 189th in the Division I in points allowed per game this season and it seemed like every few games their defensive effort would be non-existent. After all, national title contenders don’t give up 92 points to this year’s West Virginia team -- and that’s before we factor in the absence of rim-protector Joel Embiid, who appears to be out at least until the Sweet 16 (if they get there). Andrew Wiggins, Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden are great, but this isn’t their year.
6. Wichita State Shockers
This is a tough one for me. I’ve made it a point to watch Gregg Marshall’s club as much as possible this season to try to get a read on them and from what I’ve seen it passes even the most scrutinizing eye test. The Shockers have won their games by an average of over 15 points and, most importantly, they won each and every one of those 34 games, a feat that is close to superhuman no matter what level the competition is.
But -- and this is a huge but -- the quality of competition cannot be overlooked. They boast zero (as in nada, none, zip, zilch) top 25 wins this season and only beat four teams that are going dancing this year, none of them in the last three months. I find it equally as likely that they’ll lose to Kentucky in the third round, as they will win it all. I can’t in good conscience tell you to hang your office pride on a relatively untested team.
5. Duke Blue Devils
Duke is a team, like Kansas, that has had an uncharacteristically bad year on the defensive end. The Blue Devils rank 97th in points allowed per game and they don’t have a dominant rim-protecting big man (sorry Marshall Plumlee, you’re not your brothers). Furthermore, their ACC title game loss to Virginia exposed their other main flaw, namely, their reliance on three-point shooting and their struggles when their shots aren’t falling from long range.
At some point in this tournament, Duke will go cold, and when it does I don’t think they can get the stops to stay with a good offensive team, which they could face as early as the Sweet 16 against Michigan. Jabari Parker has a tendency to force shots and try to do too much and it could be the Dukies’ downfall in a loaded Midwest region.
4. Arizona Wildcats
Arizona has actually flown under the radar a little bit since they dropped from the No. 1 ranking they held for nearly two months. I still like them a lot, however, and so do the computers -- they’re No. 1 in RPI and BPI and I think they should breeze through the West Region into Dallas (their toughest game might be a third-rounder against Oklahoma State).
However, the Wildcats rank 113th in the nation in scoring per game and have struggled mightily to find offense at times this season. The loss of floor-spacing forward Brandon Ashley forced a midseason adjustment, and although Sean Miller should be commended for keeping the team humming along, the loss could be a key one in the tournament for a team that already lacks depth.
3. Virginia Cavaliers
I was glued to my TV during the Cavs’ defeat of Duke in the ACC title game Sunday. Virginia absolutely dismantled a Blue Devils team I had planned on picking to make a Final Four run. They undeniably earned the No. 1 seed they received. This is a team that led the nation in scoring defense and won 13 games in a row during the ACC season. Winning both the ACC regular season and tournament titles is no joke any year.
On the other hand, I’m not a huge fan of Virginia’s offensive game plan. It likes to slow the ball down and look for the best shots, and that strategy has worked for the most part. However, I worry about what might happen if they fall behind by 10 or 15 points. I don’t think they have the firepower to get back into a game if that happens. Also, their early-season 35-point loss to Tennessee worries me. Great teams don’t get blown out by mediocre ones. I see an Elite Eight exit for the Cavs.
2. Louisville Cardinals
Everyone is talking about Rick Pitino’s team getting hosed with the 4 seed in the ultra-competitive Midwest, but Louisville certainly has the talent to play with anybody and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see the defending champs make a run to Dallas. No one has been playing as well as the Cardinals of late (they’ve won five in a row, three against top 25 teams) and I have them in the National Championship game in my final bracket.
However, there are flaws here, primarily their reliance on Russ Smith when things get rough. Smith has a tendency, even now as a senior, to make very poor decisions and force extremely ambitious shots. Sometimes they go in, but he can shoot the Cardinals out of a game easily. All it takes is for one team to take care of the ball and force Pitino to call off their suffocating press and Louisville could be in trouble.
1. Michigan State Spartans
Before the season began, I thought that the Spartans would win the National Championship and I came very close to sticking with that prediction as the tournament started. Although MSU struggled a little in the middle of the season, losing seven of 12 in one stretch from January to March, much of that can be explained away by factoring in injuries to star Adreian Payne and leading rebounder Branden Dawson.
State’s head coach Tom Izzo has earned a reputation as a tournament guru with six Final Four runs under his belt. The Spartans put themselves back on everyone’s radar with a dominant run to the Big Ten Tournament title, including wins over 2 seeds Wisconsin and Michigan. In the end, MSU will make it seven Final Fours for Izzo, but I can’t see anyone beating my champion pick…
Champion: Florida Gators
The Gators haven’t lost since Dec. 2, ripping off 26 straight wins in the interim, including three over Kentucky and another over Kansas. This team is deep, well-coached, experienced, and having lost in the Elite Eight three years in a row, hungry.
Guard Scottie Wilbekin, sat out for both of the Gators’ losses and all he did was win SEC POY, so he has just of little importance to the team.
The primary reason the Gators will win, however, is their coach, Billy Donovan. Donovan is one of the best in the business, with two titles already on his résumé. I refuse to pick against a team with that much talent headed by a coach that's great at molding talent. Plus, I’m afraid Patric Young’s muscles might get me if I picked anyone else.
Mark it down; Florida will win the 2014 National Championship.
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