by Peter Walsh
Favorite: No. 1 Florida
Undefeated in SEC play and ranked No. 1 overall, the Gators are a definite favorite to win another National Championship under Billy Donovan. Led by four seniors, Florida is one of the deepest, most experienced teams in the field of 68. The Gators don’t score at a particularly high rate, averaging 70.7 points per game, but have been dominating on times on defense, giving up just 57.9 points and holding teams to under 40 percent shooting per game. Billy Donovan is one of the best head coaches in NCAA basketball and got his guys to buy into his philosophy making them a force to be reckoned with.
No. 4 UCLA
UCLA can score with the best of them and are riding high after defeating Arizona to win the Pac-12 championship. Versatile guard Kyle Anderson and high scoring guard Jordan Adams lead a potent offense that scored 81.8 points (12th in the nation), dished out 17.2 assists (fifth) and shot 49 percent (10th) per game. UCLA does have some suspect losses on the season, including an 18-point loss to Washington State, but when the Bruins’ offense is clicking on all cylinders, Steve Alford’s team is tough to stop.
No. 7 New Mexico
The Lobos upset San Diego State to win the Mountain West and are entering the Tournament a little underseeded. New Mexico finished 27-6 on the season, defeated San Diego State twice, beat Cincinnati and played a tough non-conference schedule that included Kansas, Marquette, New Mexico State and UMass. Led by a talented duo in big man Cameron Bairstow and last year’s Mountain West Player of the Year Kendall Williams, New Mexico is poised to make a run.
Upset Watch: No. 11 Dayton over No. 6 Ohio State
Rumors of Ohio State’s head coach Thad Matta ducking playing Dayton have been circulating for years. Whether those rumors are true or not, Ohio State will have no chance but to play Dayton in the second round. Dayton finished tied for fifth in the A-10 but played a gauntlet of a non-conference schedule that included Gonzaga (who they beat) and Baylor (who they lost to) that likely earned respect amongst the selection committee. Dayton lost four straight in late January but finished the season 10-2 in the last 12 games.
The Buckeyes started off the season 15-0 then went on to lose four straight Big Ten games and have also lost to Penn State (twice) and Indiana. Dayton would love nothing more than to beat the Buckeyes for bragging rights in Ohio so count on this one to be a tough, close game throughout.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Kyle Anderson, G, UCLA
Known as “Slo-Mo,” Anderson has one of the most unique skill sets in college basketball. A do-it-all player, Anderson is most comfortable and effective with the ball in his hands. At 6-9, he has the ability to pass over the top of smaller defenders and has proven to be a willing rebounder. Anderson was a First-Team All-Pac-12 selection and with a strong Tournament, he may be tempted to bolt from UCLA to the League.
Scottie Wilbekin, G, Florida
The Gators stormed through the SEC this season, finishing with a perfect conference record, and Wilbekin steered the team through traffic all season. Suspended twice by head coach Billy Donovan in a year’s time, Wilbekin came back focused this season and emerged as a leader—no small feat considering the Gators are a deep, senior-laden team.
Cameron Bairstow, F, New Mexico
The Australian-bred Bairstow has made a huge leap from his junior year to his senior year. Averaging 20.3 points and 7.4 board a game, Bairstow has been on a tear as of late and is playing the best ball of his career at the right time.
CJ Fair, F, Syracuse
As Syracuse’s go-to scorer this past season, Fair played a huge role in the Orange’s perfect start to the year. Another versatile forward, the lefty has range and is crafty with the ball when attacking the rim. Fair and super freshman point guard Tyler Ennis are instrumental to Syracuse’s success. The Orange are trending downward into the Tournament but should not be counted out.
Andrew Wiggins, F, Kansas
Wiggins exploded for a 41-point, 8-rebound, 5-steal, 4-block performance in the regular-season finale against West Virginia and may have locked up the No. 1 spot in the 2014 NBA Draft. The super-hyped freshman may not have lived up to the outlandish expectations of some critics, but please believe that Wiggins had an outstanding freshman campaign. With Embiid’s back injury sidelining him, the spotlight is on Wiggins in the Big Dance. Even without Embiid, Kansas has a great chance at advancing in the Tournament thanks large in part to the recent play of Wiggins.
With the Orange skidding and Kansas hurt by injuries, Florida and UCLA are the two best teams in the region. The Gators and Bruins are playing in arguably the toughest top half of any region and are on a collision course to play each other in the Sweet 16 with the winner likely advancing to the Final Four. The Bruins are playing great ball and look primed to make it out of the South and earn a Final Four spot.