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Nothing in sports compares to the excitement between Selection Sunday and the first full day of games the following Thursday. The entire field is full of optimism about what the coming weeks may hold. Sure, the tournament seeding stacks the odds in favor of some schools while leaving others with only a glimmer of hope, but until the final buzzers begin to sound, every team has a chance.
Likewise, the millions of fans researching and agonizing over their brackets have reason to believe that this could be the year they win their office pool…until mid-afternoon on Thursday when the same carefully crafted brackets are littered with red lines or tossed in the garbage.
But it’s not Thursday yet and your thirst for bracket analysis remains unquenched. Below are breakdowns and previews of each NCAA region, highlighting the tournament’s top contenders. Enjoy and good luck.
The No. 1 overall seed goes to the SEC-champion Florida Gators. Billy Donovan's bunch survived a scare from Kentucky in the SEC championship game when the Wildcats failed to get a shot off in the final seconds. Even if the Gators fell to the Wildcats, the strength of their record would have secured top-seed status. Early losses to Wisconsin and UConn are the Gators only blemishes. They ended the year on a 26-game winning streak and were rewarded with a favorable region.
The No. 2 seed in the South is the Kansas Jayhawks. Recently, rock-chalk has fallen on hard times. Not only did they lose to Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament, but they've lost three of their last five contests. A major reason for their decline is due to the injury of their freshman center Joel Embiid. However, coach Bill Self said that Embid should be cleared to play if Kansas advances to the Sweet 16. The question remains, can Andrew Wiggins and Perry Ellis carry the load until Embiid returns?
Another team to watch is new ACC member, Syracuse. Similar to Kansas’ hardcourt woes, the Orange have more losses than wins recently. They found themselves on the losing end in three of the past four games and five of the last seven. However, this team was ranked as one of the best in the country earlier in the season. A big part of their success is linked to senior C.J. Fair (16.7 ppg) and freshman Tyler Ennis (12.7 ppg). If one those two don't match or exceed their quota, Syracuse doesn't have the supporting cast to pick up the slack for a deep tournament run.
Other teams to watch: UCLA (#4) and New Mexico (#7).
The East Region is as up-for-grabs as any in the field, with the top four seeds all capable of claiming a Final Four berth.
Virginia captured the final No. 1 seed on the strength of its ACC regular season and tournament championships. The Cavaliers have dropped just two games in the calendar year and boast a stellar defense that compensates for an offense averaging only 65.8 points per game.
A possible Sweet 16 matchup pits the Cavaliers against Big 10 tournament winner Michigan State. With Tom Izzo at the helm and a roster that’s finally healthy, the Spartans will be penciled in as a Final Four team on many brackets, despite their status as a No. 4 seed. They’ll have plenty of obstacles along the way though. Should the Spartans beat Delaware as expected, they’ll face either a gritty Cincinnati team or the 26-4 Harvard Crimson.
Like Michigan State, the Iowa State Cyclones will be a popular choice to outplay their seeding. They’re an experienced squad led by Big 12 player of the year Melvin Ejim, who averages 18.1 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. The No. 3 seed in the East Region, Iowa State will meet No. 6 North Carolina in the third round if the seeds hold.
Villanova was in line for a No. 1 seed but an upset to Seton Hall in the Big East quarterfinals dropped the 28-4 Wildcats to a No. 2 seed. Should Villanova advance past Milwaukee, former Big East rival Connecticut or local Philadelphia rival St. Joseph’s will await. The Wildcats beat St. Joe’s by 30 points in early December.
If both Iowa State and Villanova survive the first weekend, their Sweet 16 matchup could be one of the more evenly matched and entertaining games of the tournament.
Arizona, the West Region’s No. 1 seed, boasts a 30-4 record that included a 21-0 start to the season. The Wildcats looked vulnerable after losing sophomore forward Brandon Ashley on February 1st, but settled into their new rotation. Leading scorer Nick Johnson averages 16.2 points per game and is joined in the backcourt by distributor T.J. McConnell (5.8 assists per game). Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski are both double-digit scorers on the interior. The Wildcats will be a tough out and are one of the favorites to cut down the nets in Dallas.
Providing Oklahoma State can survive a matchup with Gonzaga, they’ll represent a considerable third-round challenge for Arizona. The Cowboys finished just 8-10 in Big 12 play, but have won five of their last seven contests. Though Marcus Smart receives the majority of the plaudits, Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash form an imposing trio capable of pulling the upset.
Wisconsin earned the second seed in the West Region and will enjoy a considerable home-court advantage through the first weekend, traveling just 80 miles east to Milwaukee. Potential third-round opponent Oregon, on the other hand, will log 1,750 miles in their flight from Eugene.
The region’s best player suits up for No. 3 seed Creighton. Doug McDermott contributes 26.9 points per game for the Bluejays with an incredibly efficient .525/.866/.454 line. Fellow sharpshooter Ethan Wragge connects on 47.3 percent of his three-point tries and his range seemingly extends to half court. Defense isn’t the Bluejays’ strong suit though, and they’ll have trouble against athletic forwards.
Creighton fans are licking their chops at the possibility of a third-round matchup with in-state rival Nebraska. Creighton beat the Cornhuskers 82-67 in their December meeting. However, Nebraska would first have to upset a Baylor squad playing its best basketball of the season.
Rounding out the region’s top four are the Aztecs of San Diego State. Senior Xavier Thames leads an experienced squad that is making its fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. Second-round foe New Mexico State represents a sizable challenge. Starting Aggies big men Sim Bhullar and Tshilidzi Nephawe are 7’5” and 6’10” respectively, weighing in at a combined 620 pounds.
"Congratulations on a perfect season Wichita State! Welcome to the group of death."
The Shockers cruised through the Missouri Valley Conference schedule and even handled non-conference foes Alabama, Tennessee, BYU and St. Louis. Apparently, that wasn't enough for the committee as the Shockers were saddled with the toughest region in the bracket. As the season came to a conclusion, more and more college basketball fans were introduced to players like Fred VanVleet, Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker. After their first game of the dance, Wichita State's path will be littered with hurdles from exceptional competition.
If not for a loss in the B1G title game to Michigan State, the Wolverines could have been slated with a one seed. Last year's run to the NCAA championship spurred confidence in this Michigan squad and presented a drive to finish the job. John Beilein's boys are fun to watch and put up good fights against Arizona (72-70) and region-mate Duke (79-69), both in losing efforts. B1G Player of the Year, Nik Stauskas (17.5 ppg) may lead this team in scoring, but the distribution of points includes Caris LeVert (13.3 ppg) and Glenn Robinson III (13 ppg). Also, Spike Albrecht, who filled in for Trey Burke, lit Twitter on fire with his 17 first half points in the 2013 championship against Louisville. This team has title game potential.
Duke was also in the running for a No. 1 seed until they lost to Virginia in the ACC championship game on Sunday. Other than the annually-grueling ACC lineup, the Blue Devils defeated UCLA (80-63) and Michigan. Led by freshman phenom Jabari Parker (19.3 ppg), this is your typical Duke team that lives and dies by the three-point shooting. This season, they've attempted 764 shots beyond the arc and connect nearly 40 percent of the time. Rodney Hood (16.4 ppg), Quinn Cook (11.3 ppg) and Rasheed Sulaimon (9.6 ppg) are other contributors.
Finally, the defending champion Louisville Cardinals round out the top four seeds in the Midwest. Many were surprised to see the AAC champions seeded so low, but the dismantling of the Big East basketball power-conference left Louisville in the new conference with little competition. They could very well be the second-best team in the entire tournament, but like Wichita State, will need to prove themselves in the Midwest. Rick Pitino earned new ink, in the form of a tattoo, following last year's title run and may need to add a sleeve if this team continues to dominate. Seniors Russ Smith (18.3 ppg) and Luke Hancock (11.7 ppg) want another ring (they get rings, right?) for their collection. Sophomore Montrezl Harrell (14.2 ppg) is another name to make headlines if this team has the horse power to make another final game appearance.
Other teams to watch: Normally, I always advise that people filling out their brackets avoid penciling in the top four seeds from the region into the Sweet 16. However, even with teams like Kentucky, UMass, and St. Louis hungry for an upset, I would roll with the boring chalk choices.
Adam Meyer is a Contributor for WhatIfSports.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FOXSportsMeyer.
Jake Westrich is the Digital Content Coordinator for WhatIfSports.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.