Going into the NCAA Tournament, it is important to remember one thing. No matter how much you think you know, it is inevitable that the person who wins the overall Yahoo!, ESPN or CBSSports pool will be some 90-year-old grandmother who volunteers at a library and picked teams based off the color of underpants the mascot wears.
With that said, this is one of the most exciting fields there has been since I probably said the same thing at the same time last year. A couple of teams look to have the easiest paths to the title game, so let's break it down region by region.
Congratulations, Florida! For winning the top overall seed, you get a bracket designed to tear you down. Florida was seemingly understaffed and cutting it as close as possible all year. But at the end of every game (at least since Dec. 2), the senior leadership of the Gators pulled off a victory time and time again. It is tough to bet against them in this scenario.
Syracuse is definitely a good squad, but it will get bounced in the regional semis by a team that is playing better basketball at the moment. Remember, at one point this year Ohio State was one of the best teams in the country. Although the Buckeyes struggle to score at times, the inside/outside combination of LaQuinton Ross and Aaron Craft is a solid start to breaking down Syracuse's zone. The fact of the matter is that Syracuse has been flirting with fire since the beginning of February, and it wasn't until the middle of the month that the Orange finally started to lose.
The big what-if factor for the entire region is the health of Joel Embiid's back. If he is in, Kansas is the toughest No. 2 seed in the nation. There is a chance he won't be playing as well, depending on how his back heals. Either way, Kansas is a young team, and Florida is a team that has played under pressure for the entirety of the year. The Gators come out on top in this region.
Full disclosure, as a Gonzaga alum, I am obligated to senselessly hurtle my Zags through time and space to get them as far as possible into the bracket. No such luck this time around. One win for posterity's sake, but Gonzaga won't be pushing past Arizona this year. The Wildcats also won't be pushing past San Diego State this year. That game will be ugly; Arizona's adjusted defense is the best in the nation and SDSU's is No. 7. It is hard to bet against Xavier Thames, who is one of the best guards in the nation.
For upset watch, North Dakota State will triumph over Oklahoma. Both teams aren't aware of the point of playing defense, but the Bison were one of the best shooting teams in the nation. Oklahoma can score well, but North Dakota State does a better job of it. In the end, all of those teams will somehow fall along the way to Wisconsin. Assuming Arizona or San Diego State make it to the Elite Eight, Wisconsin should be able to handle either team. Nobody coaches a slow-paced game better than Bo Ryan, and although the Badgers had some baffling losses this year (ouch, Northwestern), they have the leadership to grind it out to the Final Four.
Woe is the team that runs into No. 4 Michigan State, because after another run through the Big Ten Tournament it looks like the Spartans are doing their standard "peaking at the right time" affair. Michigan State also has a semi-easy run into the Elite Eight, assuming Harvard does what everyone is guessing and upsets Cincinnati. Picking Michigan State also doesn't give any credit to No. 2 Villanova, who probably has the best balance between a strong offense and defense of all of the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the tournament. However, everyone has been saying all year that if Michigan State is healthy and clicking then the Spartans can win the whole thing. Sometimes you just have to irrationally stick to your gut and slot the Spartans into the Final Four.
The committee clearly didn't enjoy giving Wichita State a No. 1 seed. Once the Shockers defeat Cal Poly or Texas Southern, they have a lovely potential second-round matchup against the Kentucky Wildcats. Assuming Wichita State makes it through that game, the Sweet 16 is just another run of the mill game against No. 4 Louisville. That's right, just the Louisville team that is ranked No. 2 by Ken Pomeroy and ran through the AAC Tournament as if it was a series of intramural games. It doesn't matter who the Cardinals face in the Elite Eight -- Michigan, Duke, even UMass. Louisville is a better team that knows exactly what it takes to win in the NCAA Tournament.
Final Four and the national title
Now we are at the end of these slightly educated picks. I'm penciling in Florida and Louisville in the title game with the Gators squeaking out a close victory. As good as Louisville is, Florida isn't too far behind. To win the NCAA Tournament title, the non-scientific equation is equal parts skill, luck and then peaking at the right time. Florida has two losses this year, both on the road, by a combined total of seven points. Pretty much every time the Gators have been pushed to the brink, they've responded and rallied past their opponents. Florida has silenced every doubt thrown its way all season, and there is no reason to expect that to change now.