2014 NCAA Tournament Preview: Analysis of Each Region

Arizona and Michigan State may be playing for final four bids during the tournament's first weekend. Wichita State's bracket is not the "group of death." And Syracuse and UCLA are underrated in South, which is the toughest region. Here is my analysis of each region and my picks in addition to the TV schedule and start times for each game. 

WEST REGION

If Arizona gets through to the Sweet 16, the Wildcats will have a clear path to the Final Four. But that is a big "if." Oklahoma State, a team that can lose to anyone or beat anyone, is one of the teams that nobody wants in their bracket. Unfortunately for Arizona, they have the Cowboys potentially in the second round. Like UCLA, Oklahoma State's guard-centered, up-tempo offense styled around an NBA-ready playmaker is the type that can give Arizona fits, especially with Brandon Ashley injured for Arizona, as was evident against a revitalized UCLA during the Pac-12 title game. And Marcus Smart, one of the best players in the nation who would have been the top pick had he gone to the Draft last year, can win games by himself. But Oklahoma State, though, will have to first get past Gonzaga, a disciplined team that moves the ball around and will give the Cowboys fits. Arizona fans will be rooting for Oklahoma State to not "upset" Gonzaga in the Round of 64.  Wisconsin, Creighton, and San Diego State are weak 2, 3, and 4 seeds, respectively. And No.5  Oklahoma may be upset by North Dakota State. Arizona's Nick Johnson, who is always clutch, is a prime candidate for a "one shining moment" highlight. I would not be surprised if he hits a game-winning three pointer or makes a game-saving block during the tournament. Creighton's Doug McDermott can also take over a game and is must-see TV, and Creighton may well face Arizona or Oklahoma State for a trip to the final four. Oregon is a pesky team that is peaking and may catch Wisconsin flat-footed during the first weekend. I'm taking Arizona out of this region, especially since they have two rounds in Southern California with their rabid fan base ready and willing to travel and make noise.

1  Arizona v. 16 Weber State 
8  Gonzaga v. 9 Oklahoma State 

5 Oklahoma v. 12 North Dakota State
4 San Diego State v. 13 New Mexico State

3 Creighton v. 14 Louisiana 
6  Baylor v. 11 Nebraska

2 Wisconsin v. 15 American 
7 Oregon v. 10 BYU 

Upset Watch: Oklahoma, Wisconsin

Team that could surprise: Creighton

PICK: ARIZONA

MIDWEST REGION

This region is not as tough as it looks on paper with all of the blue-blood basketball programs, which Wichita State is most certainly not. The Shockers will potentially play Kentucky in the Round of 32 if Kentucky can get past Kansas State. Wichita State, undefeated in the MVC and with most of its players returning from a team that was a possession arrow away from possibly knocking off Louisville in last year's Final Four, is more seasoned and better than they were last year. Kentucky and Louisville are not as good as the teams that won titles, and both schools have been inconsistent in conferences that are not ranked as highly as the other "power" conferences. I like Wichita State, "playing angry" with Cleanthony Early, Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker, to make it to the Elite Eight and back to the Final Four. The Shockers are a gritty team with a knack for winning ugly in addition to playing angry, and they proved they belong by taking Louisville to the wire last year. I thought St. Louis could beat Louisville last season, but that battle never happened when No. 12 Oregon defeated No. 4 St. Louis. St. Louis, which has struggled as much as Louisville has gained momentum, is not the team that it was last year or even at the beginning of this  year. But should they get by NC State or Xavier, which is far from guaranteed, a potential matchup with Louisville is intriguing. Duke and Michigan are seeded higher than they should be and are vulnerable. It would not surprise me if Tennessee made it to the Elite Eight and neither of those teams did. I'm taking Wichita State, a team that is No. 3 in ESPN's BPI, an index that has been accurate the last two tournaments.

1 Wichita State v. 16 Cal Poly SLO/Texas Southern
8 Kentucky v. 9 Kansas State

4 Louisville v. 13 Manhattan 
5 St. Louis v. 12 North Carolina State/Xavier

3 Duke v. 14 Mercer 
6 U Mass v. 11 Iowa/Tennessee

2 Michigan v. 15 Wofford 
7 Texas v. 10 Arizona State

Upset Watch: Texas, UMass, St. Louis, Kentucky

Team that could surprise: Tennessee

PICK: WICHITA STATE

SOUTH REGION 

The South--not the Midwest--is the toughest region, with UCLA, Florida, a healthy Syracuse, an always-tough Ohio State, Kansas, and even New Mexico all  having potential to make it to the Final Four. Though both UCLA and VCU can be upset, a potential meeting between those two teams is compelling, to say the least. UCLA courted VCU coach Shaka Smart before settling on Alford, and Smart's "havoc" versus Alford's wide-open style of play will be a delicious Round of 32 battle if both can avoid the upset bug in the Round of 64. NCAA legends Danny Manning, who coaches Tulsa, and Alford, the UCLA coach, will square off and remind everyone of the 1980s in the Round of 64. If UCLA makes it to the second weekend, the Bruins, with Jordan Adams and Ryan Anderson, have the talent to give Florida a run for its money, and perhaps even some payback for Florida's crushing defeats of UCLA during consecutive Final Fours last decade. On the bottom half of the bracket, Syracuse has Jerami Grant back in the mix, which makes them stronger than their 3 seed may indicate. Stanford's Dwight Powell will give New Mexico fits, but if New Mexico can avoid being upset by the Cardinal, the Lobos, a team some thought should be a 4 or a 5 seed, can knock off Kansas without Joel Embiid, who will miss the first weekend with a bad back. Embiid and Andrew Wiggins may never get the chance to wow on this stage, as New Mexico will present Kansas with as tough a matchup as San Diego State, a team that defeated Kansas in January. And if UCLA were to somehow beat Florida and New Mexico were to knock off Syracuse, a potential UCLA-New Mexico battle pitting Steve Alford against the school he abandoned to go to Westwood would be more than compelling, to say the least. It's not an accident New Mexico and UCLA are in this region together. I'm taking Syracuse, though. Florida will potentially be worn out after potentially playing either UCLA or VCU, and Syracuse's patented 2-3 match-up zone defense is always tougher to adjust to when a team only has one day to prepare for it, which would be the case if Florida and Syracuse end up meeting in the Elite Eight. 

1 Florida v. 16 Albany/Mt. St. Marys 
8 Colorado v. 9 Pittsburgh 

5 VCU v. 12 Stephen F. Austin 
4 UCLA v. 13 Tulsa

3 Syracuse v. 14 Western Michigan 
6 Ohio State v. 11 Dayton

2 Kansas v. 15 Eastern Kentucky 
7 New Mexico v. 10 Stanford 

Upset Watch: New Mexico, UCLA, VCU, Colorado

Team that could Surprise: New Mexico

PICK: SYRACUSE

EAST REGION

The consensus seems to be that Michigan State will walk through this regional. Not so fast, even though I am taking the Spartans. I'm not sure Michigan State will get by a tough Cincinnati team, if the Bearcats can get by Harvard, which is not a shoo-in in the least. The winner of the potential Iowa State-North Carolina battle may end up going to the elite eight and potentially the Final Four depending on what happens in top half the draw, but Iowa State first has to be on upset alert against NC Central in the Round of 64. A Michigan State-North Carolina rematch is another possibility in this region. And though hardly anyone is picking UVA to beat Michigan State, including myself, that potential battle will not be as easy for Michigan State as the experts are predicting it will be. Virginia plays hard-nosed defense like Michigan State and will give the Spartans fits if they meet. But Michigan State is healthy, and Tom Izzo always shines in March. Michigan State, a team that thrashed Wisconsin and Michigan en route to a Big Ten title, should have been a 2 or a 3 seed, and I have them ultimately emerging from this region. They are built for the tournament and peaking at just the right time. 

1 UVA v. 16 Coastal Carolina 
8 Memphis v. 9 George Washington 

4 Michigan State v. 13 Delaware 
5 Cincinnati v. 12 Harvard

3 Iowa State v. 14 North Carolina Central
6 UNC v. 11 Providence

2 Villanova v. 15 Milwaukee 
7 UConn v. 10 St. Joe's 

Upset Watch: UConn, Iowa State, Cincinnati, Memphis 

Team that could surprise: St. Joe's

PICK: MICHIGAN STATE

At the beginning of the season, I thought the two most talented teams were Michigan State and Arizona. When Arizona had some trouble with some physical teams early on in the year, I said they would have to toughen up if they do not want to get run out of the gym by Michigan State. And they have. Even though they lost Brandon Ashley to injury at Cal, Arizona is the top team in ESPN's BPI (see below), and the team that finished on top in that index before the tournament has won the title the last two years. The Wildcats have a pass-first floor general in T.J. McConnell, a clutch Nick Johnson, and an all-world freshman Aaron Gordon who is savvy beyond his years and acts like a coach on the floor along with McConnell and Johnson. If Gabe York can knock down three and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson can be the disrupter that he is on the floor (watch out if he hits the mid-range jumper), Arizona, despite its history of flameouts and the lack of depth without Ashley, has the perfect balance of offense, veteran leaders, intangibles, and gritty defense to win it all.

FINAL FOUR: ARIZONA over Wichita State; Michigan State over Syracuse

NATIONAL TITLE GAME: ARIZONA over MICHIGAN STATE 

2013-14 BPI
BPI RK TEAM CONF BPI PVA CONF RK W-L RAW RAW RK SOS SOS RK VAR VAR RK
1 Arizona Pac-12 91.2 19.0 1 30-4 76.7 5 64.6 47 6.7 350
2 Florida SEC 90.6 18.4 1 32-2 77.0 4 63.6 57 6.4 351
3 Wichita State MVC 88.4 16.5 1 34-0 84.4 1 54.0 119 7.1 349
4 Louisville AAC 88.2 16.3 1 29-5 81.9 2 56.3 108 9.3 347
5 Kansas Big 12 87.5 15.8 1 24-9 67.9 32 69.6 2 10.9 344
6 Virginia ACC 86.8 15.3 1 28-6 73.8 10 63.0 69 12.1 334
7 Villanova Big East 86.4 15.0 1 28-4 73.8 9 62.6 71 11.8 338
8 Duke ACC 85.3 14.2 2 26-8 70.3 16 65.0 41 13.3 315
9 Michigan State Big Ten 84.9 14.0 1 26-8 69.8 20 65.1 39 13.2 320
10 Kentucky SEC 84.9 14.0 2 24-10 67.4 36 67.5 7 11.5 342

TELEVISION SCHEDULE

FIRST FOUR GAMES

TUESDAY, MARCH 18

6:40, truTV, Dayton: Albany vs. Mount St. Mary's (Brian Anderson/Dan Bonner//Kristine Leahy)
9:10, truTV, Dayton: North Carolina State vs. Xavier (Brian Anderson/Dan Bonner//Kristine Leahy)

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 19

6:40, truTV, Dayton: Cal Poly vs. Texas Southern (Kevin Harlan/Len Elmore/Reggie Miller//Rachel Nichols )
9:10, truTV, Dayton: Iowa vs. Tennessee (Kevin Harlan/Len Elmore/Reggie Miller//Rachel Nichols)

****

ROUND OF 64 GAMES

THURSDAY AFTERNOON, MARCH 20

12:15, CBS, Buffalo: Ohio State vs. Dayton (Verne Lundquist/Bill Raftery/Allie LaForce)
12:40, truTV, Milwaukee: Wisconsin vs. American (Ian Eagle/Jim Spanarkel/Lewis Johnson)
1:40, TBS, Orlando: Colorado vs. Pittsburgh (Anderson/Bonner/Leahy)
2:10, TNT, Spokane: Cincinnati vs. Harvard (Spero Dedes/Doug Gottlieb//Jaime Maggio)

****
2:45, CBS, Buffalo: Syracuse vs. Western Michigan (Verne Lundquist/Bill Raftery/Allie LaForce)
3:10, truTV, Milwaukee: Oregon vs. BYU (Ian Eagle/Jim Spanarkel/Lewis Johnson)
4:10, TBS, Orlando: Florida vs. Albany/Mount St. Mary's (Anderson/Bonner/Leahy)
4:40, TNT, Spokane: Michigan State vs. Delaware (Spero Dedes/Doug Gottlieb//Jaime Maggio)

THURSDAY EVENING, MARCH 20

6:55, tBS, Buffalo: UConn vs. Saint Joseph's (Verne Lundquist/Bill Raftery/Allie LaForce)
7:10, CBS, Milwaukee: Michigan vs. Wofford (Ian Eagle/Jim Spanarkel/Lewis Johnson)
7:20, TNT, Orlando: Saint Louis vs. N.C. State/Xavier (Anderson/Bonner/Leahy)
7:27, truTV, Spokane: Oklahoma vs. North Dakota State (Spero Dedes/Doug Gottlieb//Jaime Maggio)

****
9:25, TBS, Buffalo: Villanova vs. Milwaukee (Verne Lundquist/Bill Raftery/Allie LaForce)
9:40, CBS, Milwaukee: Texas vs. Arizona State (Ian Eagle/Jim Spanarkel/Lewis Johnson)
9:50, TNT, Orlando: Louisville vs. Manhattan (Anderson/Bonner/Leahy)
9:57, truTV, Spokane: San Diego State vs. New Mexico State (Spero Dedes/Doug Gottlieb//Jaime Maggio)

FRIDAY AFTERNOON, MARCH 21

12:15, CBS, Raleigh: Duke vs. Mercer (Kevin Harlan/Len Elmore/Rachel Nichols)
12:40, truTV, San Antonio: Baylor vs. Nebraska (Marv Albert/Steve Kerr/Craigh Sager)
1:40, TBS, St. Louis: New Mexico vs. Stanford (Jim Nantz/Greg Anthony/Tracy Wolfson)
2:10, TNT, San Diego: Arizona vs. Weber State (Andrew Catalon/Mike Gminski/Otis Livingston)

****
2:45, CBS, Raleigh: UMass vs. Iowa/Tennessee winner (Kevin Harlan/Len Elmore/Rachel Nichols)
3:10, truTV, San Antonio: Creighton vs. UL Lafayette (Marv Albert/Steve Kerr/Craigh Sager)
4:10, TBS, St. Louis: Kansas vs. Eastern Kentucky (Jim Nantz/Greg Anthony/Tracy Wolfson)
4:40, TNT, San Diego: Gonzaga vs. Oklahoma State (Andrew Catalon/Mike Gminski/Otis Livingston)

FRIDAY EVENING, MARCH 21

6:55, TBS, Raleigh: Memphis vs. George Washington (Kevin Harlan/Len Elmore/Rachel Nichols)
7:10, CBS, St. Louis: Wichita State vs. Cal Poly/Texas Southern winner (Jim Nantz/Greg Anthony/Tracy Wolfson)
7:20, TNT, San Antonio: North Carolina vs. Providence (Marv Albert/Steve Kerr/Craigh Sager)
7:27, truTV, San Diego: VCU vs. Stephen F. Austin (Andrew Catalon/Mike Gminski/Otis Livingston)

****
9:25, TBS, Raleigh: Virginia vs. Coastal Carolina (Kevin Harlan/Len Elmore/Rachel Nichols)
9:40, CBS, St. Louis: Kentucky vs. Kansas State (Jim Nantz/Greg Anthony/Tracy Wolfson)
9:50, TNT, San Antonio: Iowa State vs. North Carolina Central (Marv Albert/Steve Kerr/Craigh Sager)
9:57, truTV, San Diego: UCLA vs. Tulsa (Andrew Catalon/Mike Gminski/Otis Livingston)

Photos: Tuscon Citizen, USATSI, AP


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