It’s that time of the year again, folks! The NCAA men’s college basketball tournament madness is here again. The annual sporting event that will lead to an incredible number of hours of lost work productivity starts up again this week. It was, once again, an exciting year in college basketball, and there are many basketball fans who believe that there isn’t a clear top team in college basketball. That is a recipe for bracket chaos. But fear not: we’ve got you covered with our hand-picked guide of teams to look out for in this year’s big dance.
99problems.org presents our third annual bracket challenge. It’s 100 percent free on Yahoo, and the winner will receive a march madness prize package! So CLICK HERE to sign up and have fun! The tournament kicks off Tuesday and Wednesday night with the “play-in” game, but the deadline to sign up and fill out your bracket isn’t until 1:00 AM on Thursday, March 20th.
This year’s tournament will wrap up in North Texas at AT&T Stadium, formally known as Cowboy’s stadium, site of this year’s Final Four. Here is your comprehensive guide to the teams to look out for during this tournament and to also help you while filling out your bracket.
Contenders: These 8 teams, in my opinion, are the ones that have what it takes to win a national championship, and I am predicting that the national champion comes out of this bunch:
Florida: At 31-2, the Gators are the #1 ranked team in the country for a good reason. They have one of the best chances to win the tourney this year. Center Patric Young, guard Scottie Wilbekin and forwards Will Yeguete and Casey Prather are the four scholarship seniors who are the heart and soul of this team. Patric Young is the best NBA prospect on the team and is a force down low. Prather leads the team in scoring, but it’s Wilbekin who is the floor general for the Gators. Wilbekin, who was previously punished for repeated violation of team rules, has matured immensely this season and the senior guard could lead his team to a national championship like Peyton Siva did last year for Louisville. Florida also has a top-10 defense. Coach Billy Donovan won back-to-back championships with the Gators in 2006-07, and while this year’s team won’t have 3 top-10 NBA draft picks as their earlier incarnation did, they could still very well bring Coach Donovan his 3rd title. They won the SEC tournament on Selection Sunday and are on a roll.
Arizona: The Wildcats have a top 5 defense that stifles opponents, but they’re also no slouches on offense either. Freshman sensation forward Aaron Gordon, the team’s leading rebounder and 2nd leading scorer, is a future top NBA draft pick. But it’s Junior combo guard Nick Johnson who is the team’s leading scorer and go-to option when the game is close. Johnson, Pac 12 conference player of the year, will likely follow in his uncle’s, the late Dennis Johnson’s, footsteps and play in the NBA as well. Sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski is 7ft tall and continues to improve his game while turning into a force down low. Freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has had a great first season as well for Arizona. Forward Brandon Ashley played 22 games before he was lost for the season due to injury. Arizona is a fairly young team but loaded with talent. Arizona’s last NCAA title came in 2002 under legendary coach Lute Olson, but coach Sean Miller could very well add his own this year.
Virginia: The Cavaliers might not be the most exciting team in the country, but they have the #1 ranked defense and coach Tony Bennett is one of the best (and most underrated) in all of college. Sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon is the team’s leading scorer and go-to guy when the Cavaliers need a basket. But it’s Senior guard Joe Harris who is the heart and soul of the team. Harris is the team’s 2nd leading scorer and he has done everything the team has asked of him in his 4 years at Virginia. Senior forward Akil Mitchell is the team’s leading rebounder and inside presence. As I’ve stated earlier in this article, great guard play and defense has been key to so many NCAA championships in the past and Virginia is outstanding in both. Virginia won the ACC regular season title and the ACC tournament and this program has improved little by little each of the past 5 seasons. While they may not be a household name yet, they should be considered a program good enough to win it all.
Louisville: The defending national champions are now the inaugural American Athletic Conference champions, and are looking to make it 2 NCAA titles in a row. Senior guard Russ Smith, who returned instead of going to the NBA, has improved his all-around game and leadership and is as explosive of a guard there is in this tournament. When Russ Smith is hot, Louisville can beat anyone in the country. Sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell is the team’s leading rebounder and second leading scorer. Senior guard/forward Luke Hancock won last year’s Final Four Most Outstanding Player award and Junior guard/forward Wayne Blackshear is also back from last year’s national championship team. Louisville is also the only team in the country that is ranked in the top 15 in both offense and defense this season. Yes, it is very hard to repeat as national champions, but coach Rick Pitino has an experienced team who’s getting hot at just the right time, and Louisville has a great shot to win back-to-back national championships. Louisville dominated the AAC tournament.
Duke: The Blue Devils are led by future top NBA draft pick Freshman forward Jabari Parker. Parker’s all-around game, as the team’s leading scorer and rebounder this season, should shine in this tournament. Sophomore forward Rodney Hood combines with Parker to make one of the country’s best scoring duos. Sophomore F Amile Jefferson is the team’s best option down low and a solid rebounder. When Duke is hot they’re almost unbeatable and they have a variety of offensive weapons. However, and uncharacteristically of a Coach K team, Duke’s defense is at times a glaring weakness and allows a lot of lesser talented teams to stay close in games this season. Duke’s offense, however, has looked good enough at times this year to carry them to a national championship season and it will have to this tourney if Duke is going to win it all this year. Duke lost to Virginia in the ACC tournament championship on Selection Sunday.
Michigan St: When Michigan St is healthy they are one of if not the best teams in the country. The problem for MSU is they really haven’t been healthy all year-long. Sophomore guard Gary Harris is the team’s leading scorer and one of the best in all of college basketball. Harris chose to return for another year instead of jumping to the NBA. Senior F Adreian Payne is a talented and experienced big man, the type you can lean and count on in the tournament. Senior guard Keith Appling is also experienced and one of the team’s top options. Junior G/F Branden Dawson has played really well since returning from a broken hand. This team is both talented and as experienced as any in the tournament. Coach Tom Izzo is one of the best come tourney time and it would be wise not to bet against Sparty, especially if they are healthy (there’s a reason most had them as one of the top 3 teams going into this season). Michigan St won the Big Ten tournament on Selection Sunday and looked good doing so.
Creighton: The Bluejays are led by college basketball’s player of the year and the country’s leading scorer, Senior F Doug McDermott. McDermott has had one of the best careers in college basketball history (he’s currently the 7th top scorer in NCAA history). McDermott is also the team’s leading rebounder and he’s an efficient and clutch player that will keep Creighton close in games, no matter what. Senior forward Ethan Wragge is the team’s second leading scorer and the team’s best outside shooter. The Blue Jays can distribute the ball well on offense which is key in the NCAA tournament. They were 2nd in the country in assists and junior guard Austin Chatman led the team in assists. You can’t stop Creighton’s efficient offense, you can only hope to contain it. McDermott’s father Greg is the team’s head coach and Doug said it was his dream as a kid to take his father to a Final Four. Well, dreams may come true this year, as Creighton should definitely be considered national championship contenders. Creighton was beaten by a surprising Providence team in the Big East tournament championship.
Kansas: The country’s other freshman sensation, forward Andrew Wiggins, led the Jayhawks in scoring this year. Wiggins had a great year and really came on at the end of the season. However, he fatigued in the Big 12 tournament when he had to shoulder more of a load. He had to do so because fellow freshman C Joel Embiid, the team’s leading rebounder and shot blocker, fractured his back and missed the conference tournament. Embiid’s back will keep him out of the first weekend of the tournament but it is not known if he will be back after that. Sophomore F Perry Ellis is the team’s second leading scorer and played really well in the conference tournament. Freshman guard Wayne Selden may not be as big of a name as Wiggins and Embiid but he’s almost as important and has played better than expected in his first year. Wiggins is good enough to lead this team far in the tournament on his own but the key for Kansas winning a national title is getting Embiid back, even if he’s not at 100%. Kansas lost in the Big 12 tournament to eventual champions Iowa St.
Almost contenders: These teams could do well in the tournament, and even make it as far as the Final Four. However, each I feel is lacking something that will prevent them from winning it all.
Wichita St: Yes, they went 34-0 this season with a team that returned most of its key pieces from last year’s final four team. However, I am not a believer in the Shockers ability to win a national title. Why? Their schedule. They only have 3 good wins this season and their conference was extremely weak this year. They look a lot like previous small schools (Gonzaga, St Joe’s, Memphis) who do amazingly well in the regular season without facing major challenges, which costs them in the NCAA tournament. They are a well-coached team that could make another final four appearance with sophomore guard Ron Baker and senior forward Cleanthony Early leading the way, but I think they will get tripped up earlier than that because they are not battle tested.
Villanova: Another team that, record-wise, looks great at 28-4, but another team I can’t bet on regarding their chances at a national title. Two of their losses came at the hands of Creighton and were blowouts. Losing in the first round of the Big East tourney to Seton Hall exposed them again, but will also see them well-rested for the tournament. Senior guard Jay Bell, junior guard Darrun Hilliard, and junior forward JayVaughn Pinkston all average 14 points a game. But the Wildcats are usually much too dependent on the 3 point shot and don’t have a lot of depth or talent down low. If they go cold in a game, it’s all over. A final four isn’t out of the equation for the balanced Wildcats, but I just don’t trust them (plus early exits have been a regular thing under Nova Coach Jay Wright).
Michigan: The Wolverines’ offense is dynamic at times. Sophomore guards Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert are the team’s two leading scorers and are elite shotmakers; Sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III has great versatility and athleticism; but I’m not sold on the Wolverines. Why? Well, Sophomore forward Mitch McGary was shut down after only playing 8 games due to a back injury. He says he could be back for the final four, but I doubt they’ll make it that far. John Beilein’s coached teams can score, but Michigan relies too much on its outside shooting and they don’t adjust well to teams with good defenses. Michigan would have been title contenders if their players from last year returned, but this team isn’t anywhere near as good as that one.
Syracuse: The Orange won its first 25 games of the season, but was still overrated in doing so. They finished the season losing 5 of their last 7 games and are trending down quickly. Senior forward C.J. Fair is the team’s leading scorer and best player. Freshman guard Tyler Ennis has shown real maturity, but also has disappeared at times. Sophomore forward Jerami Grant is back from injury and they should be better than they were during the end of the season. But how much better? They’re ranked 253rd in the country in scoring and while their zone-defense can cause issues for teams in the tournament, they absolutely do not have enough offensive firepower to win a national championship this year.
Iowa St: The Big 12 tournament champions were a great story this year. The Cyclones’ offense is dynamic (they’re 6th in the country in scoring and 1st in assists). The trio of senior Forward Melvin Ejim, senior guard DeAndre Kane and sophomore forward Georges Niang is as good as any in the country. But when the ISU offense goes cold, it goes cold, and they don’t usually have the defense to win a game when they aren’t scoring. I love ISU head coach “the mayor” Fred Hoiberg and the job he’s done there has been nothing short of brilliant. And while I can definitely see ISU having a nice tournament showing, they’re not yet national title contenders. Still, this is a program quickly on the rise.
Wisconsin: There’s no nice way of saying it: the Badgers play some of the ugliest and at times most boring basketball you’ll ever see. But their system works even if they are one of the country’s worst rebounding teams. Junior forward Frank Kaminsky is the team’s leading scorer and once had 43 points in a game this season. Sophomore forward Sam Dekker and senior guard Ben Brust help to make an efficient if unspectacular Badgers offense. Wisconsin’s defense is extremely inconsistent and a dynamic offense that can spread the floor against them or shoot over them will be their downfall. Wisconsin’s style of play will never truly make them a national title contender.
New Mexico: The Lobos are coming in hot, winning the Mountain West conference tournament. Senior forward Cameron Bairstow is the team’s leading scorer and one of the most improved players in college basketball this year. Junior 7 FT center Alex Kirk is a force at times down low and senior guard Kendall Williams is the team’s 2nd leading scorer. New Mexico may have one of the country’s best frontcourts, but this program has a recent history of underperforming in the NCAA tournament. Remember, New Mexico looked good last year too, and were upset by Harvard in the first round. Maybe this team has a chip on its shoulder and wants to prove how good they are. An elite 8 isn’t out of the question, but neither is a quick exit.
UCLA: The Bruins also come in hot beating Arizona in the Pac-12 championship. UCLA obviously has the offense to beat anyone, since they’re one of the few teams to really score on Arizona. Leading scorers Sophomores Jordan Adams (guard) and Kyle Anderson (guard/forward) are exciting to watch and both could be playing in the NBA after this season. Their defense is also ranked in the top 50. So what’s the big question mark? For me, it’s Coach Steve Alford. Alford had a 3-6 Tournament record at Iowa and New Mexico, which included some pretty talented teams, and he has never made it to a sweet 16. The offense is there for the Bruins but they’re not national title contenders this year.
Oklahoma State: OKST is a lot better than their 21-12 record. They lost games while sophomore guard Marcus Smart was suspended, but they also lost while he was playing and playing well. Smart, the team’s leading scorer, will be headed to the NBA next year. This is one of the better offenses in the tournament and it’s not just Smart: senior guard Markel Brown and junior guard/forward Le’Bryan Nash are very talented as well. If OKST can avoid getting into foul trouble, they can compete with anyone. This really is one of the best and most talented #9 seeds I can ever remember, but because of such a poor seeding it’s going to be a really tough fight and uphill battle for the Cowboys to reach the final four.
Best of the rest: Best of the rest of lower-seeded teams that could win a few games but aren’t likely to make an appearance in the Final Four.
San Diego St: The Aztecs have the 2nd best defense in the country. But their offense is terrible at times and they’re ranked one of the worst teams in college basketball in terms of assists per game. Coach Steve Fischer did win an NCAA championship at Michigan, but senior guard Xavier Thames really is their only weapon on offense.
Saint Louis: The Billikens were the #1 team in the Atlantic 10 during the regular season. But losing to St Bonaventure during the A-10 tourney exposed their weaknesses. Jim Crews has done a great job taking over for the legend Rick Majerus and seniors Dwayne Evans and Jordair Jett are talented to lead this team to a few victories during the tournament if SLU can avoid what plagued them in their losses this season.
Kentucky: Kentucky had a disappointing year considering they brought in one of the best freshman classes of all-time and were the pre-season #1 ranked team. Only Julius Randle has met expectations and Coach Calipari’s team needs to show they can put it all together (something they haven’t been able to do for an extended period of time this season) if they are going to make a nice tournament run. The talent is there to be a final four team, but they can also realistically disappoint & lose in the first round
Baylor: The Bears lost in the Big 12 tournament championship but that run help them get into the NCAA tournament. Senior guard Brady Heslip is one of the best 3 point shooters in the country, senior forward Cory Jefferson is the team’s leading scorer, and sophomore C Isaiah Austin has the look of a future NBA center. Baylor has exceed their seeding tournament ranking before in the pat and while the talent is there for Coach Drew, I just don’t think they’ll win more than a few games.
Oregon: The Ducks get to face BYU (a team they beat this season) and then if they win they will likely face Wisconsin a team they match up well against. A sweet 16 isn’t out of the question for Oregon. Oregon has been a roller coaster of a team this season, so it all depends on which Ducks team shows up. They are led by junior guard Joseph Young and 5th year senior transfer Mike Moser (who previously played at UCLA & UNLV)
Cincinnati: Cincy has the #5 defense in college basketball and a very talented senior guard in leading scorer Sean Kilpatrick. While their defense is elite, on offense they are as close to a one-man show as a major program gets. Cincy, being a #5 seed in a tough part of a region could either surprise some people or wind up exiting the tournament early.
UConn: Coach Kevin Ollie is making his first tournament appearance with the Huskies who are again in the post-season after a one year ban. Senior guard Shabazz Napier leads the team and he was an important piece of the Huskies 2011 national championship. Juniors forward DeAndre Daniels and guard Ryan Boatright round out a talented trio for the Huskies who were ranked 10th in the country at one point this season but have been inconsistent.
UNC: The Tar Heels were one of the most confusing teams this season. They won some really good games (MSU, Louisville, Kentucky) but lost some really awful games (UAB, Belmont, Wake Forrest). They are a great rebounding team led by junior forward James Michael McAdoo. Sophomore guard Marcus Paige is their leading scorer. The Tar Heels struggle with their perimeter shooting and while they have the talent to make a run to the elite 8 they could also lose their first tournament game.
Ohio St: The Buckeyes started the season 15-0 but then played about .500 basketball the rest of the way out. Junior forward LaQuinton Ross is their leading scorer and senior guard Aaaron Craft is experienced and one of the best defenders in all of college basketball. OSU hasn’t played anywhere near as well as they did in their first two months, but if they can regain some of that early season confidence, they could win a few games.
VCU: The Rams lost in the A-10 tournament championship game but they’ve got one of the best young coaches in the game in Shakka Smart and an intimidating defense. Their “havoc” style defense can cause trouble for teams who haven’t played against it before. Junior guard Briante Weber is one of the top steals man in the game and junior guard Treveon Graham is their leading scorer. Being the #5 seed could mean VCU wins a game or two, or they could be the 5/12 first-round upset.
Cinderella Sleepers: Lesser known teams who are better than you think and could make a run to the sweet 16.
Gonzaga: This Gonzaga is flying under the radar, which may be a good thing for Coach Few as better Bulldogs never lived up to their tournament expectations. Junior guard Kevin Pangos and senior forward/center Sam Dower lead the way. This team has talent & potential to surprise and is one of Few’s best defensive teams.
UMass: 5ft 9 (if we’re being generous) senior guard Chaz Williams is one of the most exciting players in all of college basketball to watch. He’s the Minutemen’s leading scorer and if UMass makes some noise during this tournament it’ll be because of him.
St Josephs: The A-10′s hottest team right now, the Hawks won the A-10 tournament. This is an offense-first team led by senior guard Langston Galloway (the team’s leading scorer), and senior forward Halil Kanacevic who has been steadily improving his post game. The Hawks could be primed to take flight.
Arizona St: The Sun Devils are led by sophomore guard Jahii Carson, one of the most underrated players in college basketball. Carson will likely be playing in the NBA some day soon and he could put the Devils on his back this tournament and make people aware of just how good he is.
Nebraska: Winning 11 games in the Big Ten is no easy feat, and that’s what the Cornhuskers did to get an at-large bid. Their offense isn’t spectacular but sophomore guard Terran Petteway, the team’s leading scorer, is. Nebraska earned this bid, but their inexperience in big games could be what holds this promising team back.
Iowa/Tennessee Winner: The Hawkeyes of Iowa lost 6 of their last 7 games but looked good earlier in the season. They’re the 10th best scoring and 11th best assist team led by senior guard Roy Devyn Marble. Their offense is one of the most efficient in the tournament…. The Volunteers of Tennessee have been up and down all season, but they did beat Virginia by 35 this season and took Wichita St down the wire. They are led by a talented duo of senior guard Jordan McRae and junior forward Jarnell Stokes.
Bracket Busters/Giant Killers: Teams seed 12 and higher who have what it takes by taking out one of the big boys in the first round and possibly making it to the sweet 16
(Remember that no 16-seed has ever beaten a 1-seed, but there have been seven 15 seeds that have shocked and beat two seeds since the field expanded in 1985. Most recently, last year, Florida Gulf Coast beat Georgetown (and don’t forget i said Florida Gulf Coast was a giant killer to look out for)
Stephen F. Austin: (12 seed) The Lumberjacks currently own the country’s second-longest wining streak at 28 straight games. They’ve also had the same starting five all season long. SFA has four players who average 12 points or more and are led by senior guard Desmond Haymon and junior forward Jacob Parker. A 12 seed over a 5 seed upset happens so much it’s basically an unofficial rule to know while picking your bracket and the Lumberjacks look the part.
Read more at http://www.rantsports.com/ncaa-basketball/2014/03/16/stephen-f-austin-will-be-this-years-cinderella-team/#Cck1axHIfwIoJHHu.99
Harvard: (12 seed) Last year’s Harvard squad upset #3 seed New Mexico as a #14 seed in the NCAA tournament and this year’s team has two of its key players back from last y ear and this year’s Crimson also added two key players who were suspended from the team all of last season. Junior guard/forward Wesley Saunders is the team’s leading scorer and could play in the NBA some day. Coach Tommy Amaker’s Crimson are as dangerous of a 12 seed as there is, they are a deep & balanced team.
North Dakota St: (12 seed) The Bison this year return nearly everyone from a team that went 24-10 last season and are one of the country’s most efficient offenses. NDST are led by senior guard Taylor Braun who’s had an amazing senior season. Senior forward Marshall Bjorklund was the 2nd best player in their conference with Braun being the first. The Bison were building towards this year and they could be in for a special tournament appearance.
New Mexico St: (13 seed) The Aggies are solid offensive team with a balanced and varied offensive attack. Junior guard Daniel Mullings is the team’s leading scorer and go-to option on offense. But all eyes will be on their sophomore center Sim Bhullar. Bhullar is 7ft5 and 350 lbs and has improved his game immensely since last year. The
Western Michigan: (14 seed) The Broncos are a balanced team that has a great inside outside combination. Senior C Shayne Whittington is a skilled big man with professional basketball talent who is match-up problem for most teams. Senior guard David Brown is the team’s leading scorer and an aggressive shooter who can light it up when he gets hot. MAC schools have had a number of teams surprise and do well in the tournament while busting some brackets along the way, and Western Michigan could very well be the next one to do so.
North Carolina Central: (14 seed) The Eagles of NCC have won 20 games in a row and dominated the MEAC this year, and a big part of that was because of their defense. The Eagles hold opposing teams one of the lowest field goal percentages in the country and they also create a bunch of turnovers. On offense they are led by senior guard Jeremy Ingram who average over 20 points a game. MEAC schools also have a history of first round shockers (most recently Norfolk St in 2012) so Iowa St better not take them lightly.
American: (15 seed) The Eagles are one of the lowest scoring team’s in the country but they have a very good defense. On offense they are led by sophomore guard Jesse Reed and senior center Tony Wroblicky. American University has the 8th ranked defense in the country which will be key in their first round match up vs the Wisconsin Badgers. There have been some big 15 seed upsets in the tournament, and American could be the team that does it again this year.
Eastern Kentucky: (15 seed) Eastern Kentucky has the 26th best offense in the country (in comparison Kansas has the 20th). Senior guard Glenn Cosey is the team’s leading scorer. The Colonels don’t rebound well but with Kansas missing their center Embiid, this won’t be as big of an issue. Andrew Wiggins will likely have a huge game for Kansas in this one but EKU could throw a few punches. I’m not guaranteeing a win but with Kansas missing Embiid and team’s from the Ohio Valley Conference having a history of upsets in the NCAA tournament, it’s not entirely out of the question that EKU could make Kansas sweat for a little bit in this game.
Texas Southern: (16 seed) A 16 seed has never beaten a #1 seed, but it’s bound to happen sometime right? Now I’m not saying it’s going to happen this year, but the Texas Southern Lions are an interesting team. First they would have to win their play-in game versus Cal-Poly, but if they do they’ll get a weak #1 seed in Wichita State. So who is Texas Southern? Well they are coached by former Indiana and UAB head coach Mike Davis. Davis coached Indiana to the national championship game in 2002. And on the court Texas Southern has an NBA talent in senior center Aaric Murray. Murray is a transfer who played previously at LaSalle and West Virginia. He dealt with a few issues but seems to have settled in and matured at Texas Southern. Murray put up 48 points this season and could be out to show scouts he does belong in the NBA.Texas Southern has a huge uphill battle on it’s hands, but if a 16 seed beats a 1 seed (it’s going to happen one year), this will be it.
I hope this bracket guide has helped you with some insight on the tournament teams this year. When in doubt, always go with your gut feeling. Have fun and enjoy the tournament!
As you noticed, I didn’t write about all of the 64 teams, however if you have any questions regarding any of the other teams in the tourney or just the bracket in general this year, leave a comment or ask me on twitter: @justinburkhardt.
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