The most remarkable element of the NCAA tournament is its ability to spawn the Cinderella stories that we all love. Wichita State, VCU, Butler, George Mason. That's why so many watch. We await the upsets.
But the reality is that the blue-chippers have owned this tournament for decades. And it's likely that the 2014 installment of the Big Dance will follow the same script. We might see a few upsets, but there's a short list of teams that actually have the tools to win this thing.
Here they are, listed alphabetically:
When Brandon Ashley suffered a season-ending foot injury in a loss at Cal on Feb. 1, Arizona lost a player who stretches the floor in ways that few can. The Wildcats also lost a key defender. But they're still No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy, entering the Big Dance. The reconfigured Wildcats, who demand more significant roles for Gabe York and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, are still national-title good. They're backed by a pair of veteran guards, Nick Johnson and T.J. McConnell, in a tourney with a history of experienced backcourts that led their programs to the championship. Plus, Aaron Gordon is a problem for any opponent. Yes, the Wildcats can win it all.
What if we haven't seen the best Doug McDermott yet? Crazy but possible. This is the eventual Wooden Award winner's final moment at the collegiate level. In a few months, he'll be an NBA wing for a smart pro team. But right now, he's the best player in the college game. He's already achieved a variety of feats, including 3,000-plus career points. But he might not be done. On their best days, McDermott and Creighton beat Villanova, a 2-seed, by 49 points combined in two games. When the Bluejays get hot, the nets catch fire. It's not just McDermott. It's Ethan Wragge, Grant Gibbs and a bunch of glue guys who back the senior superstar like Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland backed Beyonce in Destiny's Child. Now, you won't find a team that won a national title ranked 127th in adjusted defensive efficiency (Ken Pomeroy). But you also won't find many teams that have had a better offensive performer and squad, either. Creighton has the weapons to win it all.
Veterans at every position? Yep. A coach who already has a pair of national championships? Sure. A squad that hasn't lost since Dec. 2? Check. It's easy to see why Florida is the favorite in Vegas to win the national championship. With Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, Casey Prather and a fleet of solid contributors next to them, the Gators are clearly contenders. With their scrappy defense, they force turnovers on 22 percent of their opponents' possessions, 14th nationally, per Ken Pomeroy. But their greatest asset has been their ability to maneuver through tough stretches that they'll certainly encounter during the postseason. They don't panic. They just play through it. The last team that had their level of late-game poise was Louisville. And we all know what the Cardinals did last year.
Fred Hoiberg's squad secured the Big 12 tournament title with wins over Kansas, Kansas State and Baylor. The Cyclones have won eight of their last 10 games and 11 of 14. They're hot at the right time. They're not the biggest team in the field, but they outplayed two of the biggest frontcourts in the country, Kansas' and Baylor's, on their way to the Big 12 tournament championship in Kansas City. The Cyclones can stretch the floor with five players who shoot 35 percent or better from the 3-point line. And Georges Niang, DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim rival any threesome in the field. Iowa State has certainly had its erratic moments, and things get ugly when shots aren't falling from the 3-point line. But when they're rolling, few teams can stop the Fighting Hoibergs. They proved that in Kansas City, and they could prove it again with a run to the national title.
The last team that entered the NCAA tournament with the top two picks in that year's NBA draft left with the championship. The year was 2012, and Kentucky, enhanced by Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, won the crown in New Orleans. Andrew Wiggins has evolved into the versatile offensive and defensive threat that he was expected to be prior to the season. The freshman could have an explosive NCAA tournament and do what Carmelo Anthony did for Syracuse 11 years ago. But the destiny of Bill Self's program centers on the health of big man Joel Embiid. If Kansas gets through the first weekend and Embiid rejoins the team after missing time with a back injury, the Jayhawks will be in position to win their first national title since 2008. Wiggins and Embiid can lead them to the national championship.
Ignore the seed. The Cardinals are playing like a 1-seed, not a 4-seed. They're not last year's Cardinals. But they boast a similar mojo right now. And their defense (sixth in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy) resembles the unit that won last year's national championship. They've also caught fire (one loss since Jan. 30) in recent weeks. You know who else did that? Last season's national champs. Russ Smith, once again, anchors a program that has to be considered a threat to win the national title. Smith doesn't have Peyton Siva, but this year's Louisville backcourt is still capable with Chris Jones, Luke Hancock and Terry Rozier. And Montrezl Harrell (14.2 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 1.3 BPG and 1.1 SPG) has been doing ridiculous things for months. Rick Pitino's crew might repeat.
John Beilein lost Trey Burke, last season's Wooden Award winner, and Mitch McGary, a potential lottery pick who missed most of the season following back surgery, from last year's Final Four team. But this season's Michigan squad has similar potential. The Wolverines are different. Last year's squad revolved around Burke. But Beilein relies on a trio of athletic wings -- Caris LeVert, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas, the Big Ten player of the year -- to operate this season. There aren't many teams in America that can handle a collection of 6-foot-6 wings who can all shoot and drive. The Wolverines are also 16th nationally with a 39.4 percent clip from the 3-point line. Their defense should be a concern (104th in adjusted efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy). But they overcame similar defensive challenges last season. Michigan can win the crown.
We probably didn't see the real Michigan State until the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis. The months prior to that were full of challenges for the Spartans. They couldn't get healthy. Adreian Payne, Branden Dawson, Gary Harris and Keith Appling have all dealt with injuries this season. So we didn't have a chance to really see a complete Michigan State team throughout the year. But the Spartans beat Wisconsin and Michigan -- with minimal difficulty -- on their way to winning the Big Ten tourney. They're one of the most balanced teams in America. And they have a coach who has never allowed a four-year player to leave the program without a trip to the Final Four. Payne and Appling would be his first. Michigan State is heating up at an ideal juncture. Its season could end with a national championship.
Jay Wright's program lost to Seton Hall in the Big East tourney. But that doesn't define its season. Those two lopsided losses to Creighton don't, either. Villanova should be judged according to its 28-4 record, which includes victories over tourney teams Kansas, Iowa, Saint Joseph's and Xavier. James Bell (14.5 points per game) is one of four players averaging double figures for Villanova. The Wildcats are top-20 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. The East Region won't be a breeze, but it's far from insurmountable on paper. Villanova can contend with any team in its potential path to Dallas. The Big East wasn't as strong as some of the other power leagues this season. But the Wildcats won the championship with few blemishes. They'll have a shot at the national title, too.
Virginia is a 1-seed. But the Cavaliers aren't exactly being touted as a national-title contender or even Final Four-worthy program by the masses. And that's probably a result of the ACC's overall decline. The collective struggles of Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Duke and North Carolina took some of the shine off Virginia's rise to the top of that conference. And a 35-point loss to Tennessee and three-point loss at Green Bay didn't help. But check the schedule. Virginia didn't just win the ACC, it owned it. It won 12 of its 16 conference games by double digits. The league's regular-season and tourney champs enter this game ranked 25th in adjusted offensive efficiency and third in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. Those numbers are comparable to Florida's (17th, fifth), and the Gators are the favorites. Virginia has a chance, too.
Close your eyes for a moment. Think back to last April. Seems like eons ago, right? Well, it's also the last time that Wichita State tasted defeat. You can question the schedule, but Gregg Marshall's undefeated program has more mojo than any other team in the field. And he's going into this tourney with some of the key pieces from the same Shockers team that nearly upset Louisville in last year's Final Four. This isn't some Cinderella story. Wichita State is elite. Fred VanVleet is as reliable as any guard in America. Ron Baker and Cleanthony Early would be starters for most high-major programs. With experience, talent and confidence, Wichita State certainly has a shot to win this whole thing.
Bo Ryan still hasn't finished below fourth in the Big Ten (tied for second this season), and he hasn't missed the NCAA tournament during his time in Madison, either. But he's also searching for his first Final Four appearance. The West Region is arguably the weakest of the four regions. The Badgers will probably have to go through Arizona to reach Arlington, but they'll have a manageable slate prior to that potential Elite Eight matchup. The Badgers have one of the most impressive and diverse collections of quality wins in the country (Florida, Virginia, Saint Louis, Michigan and Michigan State). They lead the nation with just 8.1 turnovers per game. Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky are a headache for any foe. So a run certainly seems possible.