It’s no secret that I believe Arizona has the best chance of winning the 2014 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship, but a lot of people have been asking me how confident I am in my prediction. Even though I’ve correctly predicted the NCAA Men’s Basketball Champion for the past 5 out of 6 years (I had Memphis over Kansas, would be 6 for 6 if Mario Chalmers didn’t exist) before the season even started, I’m never 100% confident. Here’s my level of confidence per team who legitimately has a shot at winning it all, and why:
My criteria for predicting NCAA Men’s Basketball Champions is based on a few things: strong guard play, solid front court, experience, coaching, and x-factor players. An x-factor player can be a highly-touted freshman (Derrick Rose on Memphis, Anthony Davis on Kentucky), critical role player (Brian Zoubek on Duke, Alex Oriakhi on UConn), or even a sharp-shooter (Luke Hancock on Louisville). If I see teams that have most of or all of these characteristics, I usually predict they’ll be playing in April.
This year’s Arizona team has all of the pieces I look for in a Championship squad. Even if you don’t think Sean Miller is an elite coach, he’s an incredible recruiter and knows how to put a solid team together. My love for this year’s Wildcats is well documented. I’ll be shocked if this squad doesn’t march all the way to the Final Four.
The Spartans have an elite back court, front court, and coach. Their team has the experience, but the injury bug seems to be spreading in East Lansing. One of their critical role players (x-factor) Branden Dawson just broke his hand after slamming it on a desk while watching film, and stretch 4 Adreian Payne has been nursing a foot injury. If the Spartans were at full strength, I’d have about 5% more confidence in them this season. They have the 3rd best coach in all of college basketball, though, so they should still see the Final Four regardless of their current injuries.
The Jayhawks have so many x-factors on this year’s squad and have been playing so well lately that Vegas has bumped them up to the #1 overall team odds-wise at 4 to 1, but as you can see I’m not drinking the same kool-aid. Yes, Embiid has emerged as a superstar freshman. Yes, ultra-hyped (and somewhat under-performing) Andrew Wiggins is on this squad. I have a feeling Vegas’ confidence in KU is bolstered by the assumption that Wiggins will blossom on the big stage and march all the way to the Championship game. Not so fast. Kansas has a history of getting to Elite 8s and Final Fours, but they’ve come up short recently more often than not. Bill Self chokes. That’s what he does. It’s going to take some lesser teams knocking off giants for this year’s Jayhawks squad to take it all, but there’s a good chance they do.
This year’s Gator squad is a solid group of guys with the chance to be special if Chris Walker ever makes it out of limbo. Check out the mixtape of the 6’10” freshman dunking on poor little white kids in high school:
If this kid is added to Billy Donovan’s disposal, they’re going to be a real problem come March. Maybe even April.
I regard Jim Boeheim as the 2nd best coach in NCAA Basketball due to his ability to teach a group of kids how to play a zone defense that no one can seem to figure out until the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament every year. Seriously, game-planning for the Orange is ridiculously simple on the offensive end, yet college level players can’t seem to grasp the concept of exploiting holes in zones. The fact that Boeheim’s teams have been running the same seemingly indecipherable defense for the past 4 decades baffles me. This team has a good shot at winning it all because they have very strong guard play in addition to that zone, and a couple of x-factors in CJ Fair and Trevor Cooney. As long as they can avoid hot shooting teams like Creighton in their bracket, they should make it all the way to the Final Four no problem.
While the Wildcats have been underwhelming thus far, you can’t ignore the fact that Coach Cal has the best recruiting class since the Fab Five on his roster, and a team that includes at least 7 future NBA players. While it looks like these guys are more focused on getting to the league than NCAA glory, and this team doesn’t hold a candle to the 2012 squad, there’s always a chance that a young group like this clicks at the right moment and puts it together in the tournament. Guys like Julius Randle were born for the spotlight, and the Wildcats still have an outside shot at shining in April.
Oklahoma St 3%
This team will go as far as Marcus Smart takes them. LeBryan Nash and Markel Brown are also extremely underrated. This is a team that lost by 2 points to the recently Vegas crowned kings of college basketball Kansas (at Allen Fieldhouse, mind you) with a chance to tie/win at the buzzer. If I’m a #1 seed I do not want to see OK State on my side of the bracket at all.
They have the best coach in NCAA Basketball and Jabari Parker is a special player. Rodney Hood is pretty good, too. The Blue Devils lack any resemblance of a front court presence, but they’ve been experimenting playing Parker as an undersized 4 (sometimes 5) to give them some added depth. This is a team that needs to be in a bracket where one of the bigger squads gets knocked off in the Sweet 16 for them to have a shot at the title. If they run into an MSU, Kansas, Arizona, or Florida at any point in the tournament, they’re toast.
Wichita St 1%
The Shockers will likely make it to the NCAA Tournament undefeated due to their weak remaining schedule, but don’t overlook them. They made it to the Final Four last year due to some favorable matchups in their bracket, and could potentially get there again if they’re lined up against some weaker competition. It would take a miracle for them to win it all, but there’s a chance.
Iowa St 1%
The Cyclones are a very intriguing team this season. DeAndre Kane has been revered as a matchup nightmare, and his running mate Melvin Ejim is no slouch, either. While this team strikes me as an Elite 8 squad at best, stranger things have happened (see: Butler, 2 consecutive National Championship appearances).
Ohio St 1%
This team is chock-full of experience, has gifted athletes, and the best defensive PG in the collegiate ranks, but has lost 4 out of their last 5 games after reeling off 14 straight wins to start the season. I’m not big on Thad Matta, or The Ohio State for that matter, but you can’t count that pesky Aaron Craft out completely.
The Hawkeyes go 10 deep and are one of those teams giving the rest of the B1G headaches every night. They must be annoying as hell to prepare for, as after Roy Devyn Marble and Aaron White, you really can’t scout the myriad of players that will be rotated into the game. Their biggest caveat is their head coach’s ego, but there’s something I like about this squad. Again, this is a team that needs a lucky draw to go all the way.
When I say field, I’m really talking about Louisville, Wisconsin, Creighton, Villanova, Michigan, and Memphis. Based on their rank you’d assume these guys have a shot, but in reality they don’t. I’m sorry if you’re a fan of one of these squads, but there are just too many good teams out there for these guys to really compete. If/when 1 of these teams make it to the Final Four, I’m sure people out there will be telling me to eat my words, but when one of the other teams listed above cuts down the nets I’ll be here to say I told you so.