For my money, there is no sporting event in the world greater than the NCAA Tournament. With nearly 70 games packed into just 12 days, teams from around the country can have months of hard work fall short in the blink of an eye. And for the Cinderella teams that emerge from the mid-major rankings to become household names – how many of you had heard of Florida Gulf Coast before last year? – the joy these players, coaches and fan bases see is unparalleled.
The Florida Gators were named the No. 1 overall seed, and they could have a favorable draw depending on how a few things shape up.
Kansas may be the best team in the country when healthy, but the loss of Joel Embiid for an unknown amount of time is an absolute killer. Even with the efforts of Andrew Wiggins, it's tough to see the Jayhawks being able to handle New Mexico's three-headed monster of Cameron Bairstow, Alex Kirk and Kendall Williams without Embiid protecting the rim. Look for the Lobos to pull the stunner and advance to the Sweet 16, and eventually move on to the Elite Eight.
Syracuse and Ohio State were once top-five teams, but recent months have not been kind. Even with their inconsistent play, there is something to be said for having the best players on the floor. In what should be a terrific third-round game, the Orange narrowly edge the Buckeyes as Tyler Ennis and C.J. Fair end Aaron Craft's college career.
The biggest threat to Florida could be UCLA. The Bruins looked terrific at the Pac-12 Tournament last week, and their backcourt duo of Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams is the most dynamic in the country. Steve Alford has a history of choking in March, but this team is a legitimate Final Four contender. In the end, Florida's defense and experience will prove to be too much as it marches on towards Dallas.
Defense wins championships, and no team in the country plays better defense than Arizona. Assuming the Wildcats can get past a potential third-round matchup with Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State, they have a favorable draw to the Final Four. For as well as Wisconsin and Creighton can score, the Wildcats have the ability to shut teams down with their length and athleticism at every position. Just ask Duke (averaged 79.1 points per game, scored 66 against Arizona) and Michigan (averaged 75, scored 70 at home) about the 'Cats on the defensive end.
Look for UA to advance to the Final Four here with a win over the Bluejays in the Elite Eight.
The West was a wacky region last year, and it looks to be littered with upsets this time around. Look for North Dakota State to knock off Oklahoma in a "first team to score 85 wins" barnburner, as well as Nebrasketball upsetting Baylor in the second round.
From the beginning of the year, I felt Michigan State, when healthy, was the best team in the country. As we all saw during the Big Ten Tournament, this team, which is now healthy, is very, very good.
Virginia locked up the final No. 1 seed and should have no trouble getting to the Sweet 16, but that is where the Cavaliers' magical season will come to an end as they fall to Tom Izzo's Spartans. The bottom half of the region is highly competitive with Villanova, Iowa State, North Carolina and UConn all having the horses to reach the Final Four. It's hard to not love the Cyclones, though, especially with Big 12 Player of the Year Melvin Ejim, DeAndre Kane and Georges Niang firing away from all over the floor.
For as deep as this region is, Michigan State still has the look of the champion. The Spartans emerge victorious from the East.
Wichita State went about its business all year long and went 34-0 after reaching the Final Four just a season ago. How did the selection committee reward the Shockers? With an absolutely brutal path to the Final Four.
The first challenge for the Shockers will be Kentucky, which, despite all of its shortcomings, still has more talent than just about anyone. Then comes a potential rematch of last year's national semifinal with white-hot Louisville in the Sweet 16. And if the Shockers are still somehow alive after defeating the pride and joy of Kentucky, a showdown with Michigan or Duke seems likely in the Elite Eight.
Photo: Scott Kane-USA TODAY Sports
I like the Shockers to do all of this and reach the Final Four. It's tough to see UK remaining disciplined for 40 minutes against WSU. Louisville is playing awfully well, but it still hasn't beaten anyone worth a darn -- it's not that hard to look great against Houston, Rutgers, South Florida and Temple. Duke and Michigan can both shoot the hell out of the basketball, but neither plays good defense or protects the glass. It will be a brutal stretch, but Gregg Marshall's boys can do it.
Final Four and the national title
In one national semifinal, we get the two best teams in the country in Florida and Michigan State. This game could have the makings of an all-time classic, seeing as they are about as evenly matched as they come. Somehow, the Spartans win this one by a point or two. The other semifinal will take on a different feel as Arizona and Wichita State likely grind one out to the bitter end. The Wildcats' size proves to be the difference as Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski have their way with the Shockers' frontline.
This sets up a showdown between Arizona and Michigan State. The Wildcats have the size and talent to beat the Spartans, but Tom Izzo gets the best of Sean Miller as he wins his second national championship.