2014 NCAA Bracket Predictions: Picks for Every Matchup
My editors told me this year that they wanted me to make the official picks for Bleacher Report. I thought they should have gone with that one lady in the office who makes her picks based on which coach has the best hair, but I appreciated the honor.
This bracket, as expected, is wide open. So many possible Final Fours. So many upset possibilities, especially in the second round...err...Round of 32.
Before we get to my picks, know that last year I was dumb enough to go chalk with my Final Four. I'm still picking off the scars from the constant ribbing I got from radio hosts that week.
So this year I didn't even come close to going chalk. In fact, I have one coach in the Final Four who basketball fans love to make fun of. And he doesn't have great hair either.
Here are my picks, motivated by logic and that voice in the back of my head that said "don't go chalk, you sissy."
Top of the South Region
Standout Player to Watch: Kyle Anderson, UCLA
If UCLA makes it to the Sweet 16 against Florida, Anderson could mess up a lot of brackets with a strong performance against Florida. The 6'9" guard would be able to see over Florida's press.
The Bruins just beat Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament final, so don't underestimate their ability to knock off an elite team.
Biggest Upset: Stephen F. Austin over VCU
The Lumberjacks are used to defensive pressure—they see it in practice every day—and they've won 28 straight games. VCU will likely be playing without third-leading scorer Melvin Johnson, who injured his left knee and was on crutches after the A-10 semifinals.
Why Florida Will Make the Elite Eight:
Florida thrives on turnovers and UCLA rarely turns it over. Only problem is the Bruins will have a tough time slowing down the Gators on the other end.
Bottom of the South Region
Standout Player to Watch: Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico
C.J. Fair, Tyler Ennis and Andrew Wiggins are great. Bairstow is the best college player in this part of the bracket.
Biggest Upset: New Mexico over Kansas
The Jayhawks rolled over the Lobos by 17 in mid-December. That was with a healthy Joel Embiid, who did the Dream Shake and dominated the matchup with Alex Kirk, outscoring the fellow 7-footer 18-5. Without Embiid, the Lobos will take advantage of KU's interior defense similar to what Iowa State did with Georges Niang in the Big 12 tournament.
Why New Mexico Will Make the Elite Eight:
The Lobos have two chips on their shoulder—last year's loss to Harvard and getting underseeded this year at No. 7.
Elite Eight Matchup in the South: Florida vs. New Mexico
Florida's Key to Victory: Making perimeter shots.
The Lobos do a good job of protecting the paint.
New Mexico's Key to Victory: Handling Florida's pressure.
San Diego State's press gave New Mexico problems on Saturday. The Lobos turned it over 15 times. The Gators' press is another kind of beast.
The Biggest X-Factor: Michael Frazier
For the Gators to get to the Final Four, he needs to keep making shots.
And Your Final Four Team Is... Florida
Thanks to New Mexico knocking out a Joel Embiid-less Kansas, the Gators have a much easier road than if they were to get KU for a second time at full strength.
Top of the East Region
Standout Player to Watch: Keith Appling, Michigan State
Appling needs to play with confidence for the Spartans to get to the Final Four. He started to look like his old self again in the Big Ten tournament.
Biggest Upset: Michigan State over Virginia
The Cavaliers haven't seen a team with as much athleticism and beef inside since Tennessee. The Vols beat them by 35 on Dec. 30. This one will be closer, but the Spartans are the best team in this region despite the seed.
Why Michigan State Will Make the Elite Eight:
Sparty is back. It's a shame Virginia's prize as the last No. 1 seed was one of the nation's best teams when healthy as a No. 4 seed.
Bottom of the East Region
Standout Player to Watch: DeAndre Kane, Iowa State
This part of the bracket is loaded with great point guards: UNC's Marcus Paige, UConn's Shabazz Napier, Providence's Bryce Cotton and Iowa State's Kane.
Kane's physicality will be tough for Paige to handle. The winner of that matchup will end up in the Elite Eight.
Biggest Upset: St. Joseph's over Villanova
The Hawks are playing their best basketball and the Wildcats just lost to Seton Hall. This should move this game to the Palestra if it happens.
Why Iowa State Will Make the Elite Eight:
You could argue the Cyclones are the most talented, most complete team in this part of the region. And Fred Hoiberg is the best in-game coach. If the Cyclones can make their threes against the Tar Heels, they'll end up in the Elite Eight.
Elite 8 Matchup in the East: Michigan State vs. Iowa State
Michigan State's Key to Victory: Adreian Payne's ability to guard Georges Niang.
Payne is quick enough to defend on the perimeter, but Niang's throw-back game is like no one he's ever gone up against.
Iowa State's Key to Victory: The Cyclones need to be able to score at the bucket.
That's the one issue they had in the first two games against KU and Joel Embiid.
The Biggest X-Factor: Keith Appling
If Monte Morris is guarding Appling, the Michigan State guard should be able to overpower him and get in the paint.
And Your Final Four Team Is... Michigan State
Few teams have the athletes to prevent Fred Hoiberg from taking advantage of mismatches. The Spartans do.
Top of the West Region
Standout Player to Watch: Nick Johnson, Arizona
The Wildcats struggle to score when Johnson isn't making shots.
Biggest Upset: Oklahoma State over Gonzaga
I almost went chalk. Pretty weak; I know. There's some upset potential in that Round of 32 with whoever ends up playing Arizona. The Wildcats are really hard to score against, but both the Cowboy and the Zags have the weapons to get it done.
Why Arizona Will Make the Elite Eight:
Arizona-San Diego State will be a rematch from mid-November. Both teams are excellent on the defensive end. Just like that game, the 'Cats simply have a little more offensively.
Bottom of the West Region
Standout Player to Watch: Isaiah Austin, Baylor
Austin's length and athleticism is the key to Baylor's defense. For the Bears to get past Creighton, he'll need to be at his best.
Biggest Upset: Baylor over Wisconsin
Both Creighton and Wisconsin have a tough time matching up with teams that have post scorers and great length. The Bears have one of the most talented frontlines in the country with Austin, Cory Jefferson and Rico Gathers off the bench.
Why Baylor Will Make the Elite Eight:
Scott Drew made Elite Eights in 2010 and 2012. The every-other-year trend continues.
Elite 8 Matchup in the West: Arizona vs. Baylor
Arizona's Key to Victory: Perimeter shooting.
The Bears will likely go zone so that they can get Brady Heslip on the floor. If Arizona gets hot from deep and forces them to go man, Scott Drew may have to take Heslip off the court because there's no way he can guard Nick Johnson.
Baylor's Key to Victory: Playing inside-out.
Arizona's interior defense is intimidating, but the Bears are at their best when Jefferson and Austin are getting touches in the post.
The Biggest X-Factor: Brady Heslip.
Both teams are hard to score against at the rim. Heslip will be the best shooter on the floor. If he can get open looks, Baylor wins.
And Your Final Four Team Is... Baylor
The Wildcats just don't score as consistently as they did before Brandon Ashley's injury. They'll be playing a team in Baylor that can match their size and athleticism. And Arizona will not be able to match the Bears' shooting.
Top of the Midwest Region
Standout Player to Watch: Russ Smith, Louisville
Smith scored 21 points last year against Wichita State, but he needed 17 shots to get there and also had five turnovers. He's a wiser Russdiculous this year, and he'll need to be to knock off the Shockers.
Biggest Upset: Louisville over Wichita State
Congrats on the No. 1 seed, Shockers. Here's reward: A Sweet 16 game against the nation's hottest team.
It's a joke that the Cardinals are a No. 4 seed. If this is how it plays out, do not discount what the Shockers accomplished this year. They're a great team regardless of whether they get to the Final Four or not.
Why Louisville Will Make the Elite Eight:
Wichita State and Louisville are a fairly even matchup until you get to Montrezl Harrell. He'll be the difference against the Shockers.
Bottom of the Midwest Region
Standout Player to Watch: Nik Stauskas, Michigan
When Stauskas shoots the ball well, Michigan is really tough to beat. When he doesn't, the Wolverines are vulnerable. Just look at their last two losses for proof. He went 8-of-25 in those two games.
Biggest Upset: Tennessee over Duke
Duke has a tough time defending true big men. The Vols have two beasts in Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon.
Why Michigan Will Make the Elite Eight:
Michigan, like Duke, also struggles against legit bigs. The difference between Michigan and Duke is that John Beilein has better perimeter scorers. Unless the Vols can really muck it up, they're not going to be able to keep up with the Wolverines.
Elite 8 Matchup in the Midwest: Louisville vs. Michigan
Louisville's Key to Victory: Getting Montrezl Harrell touches in the paint.
Harrell is best when set up by penetration. Russ Smith will need to make that his No. 1 priority.
Michigan's Key to Victory: Handling Louisville's press.
Nik Stauskas will be a key here, as it's doubtful John Beilein will give freshman Derrick Walton to the wolves like that. Simply having to bring the ball up, however, could wear down Stauskas.
The Biggest X-Factor: Luke Hancock.
Louisville is at its best when last year's Final Four MOP is making shots.
And Your Final Four Team Is...Louisville
This would be a more even matchup if the injured Mitch McGary was still around, but Michigan has no match for Harrell.
Final Four: Baylor vs. Louisville
Baylor's Key to Victory: Handling Louisville's pressure.
The Bears have not faced anything like that press in the Big 12.
Louisville's Key to Victory: Making outside shots.
Scott Drew would once again go to his zone. Rick Pitino's teams typically run great zone offense, but it's tough to do so if a few outside shots aren't falling.
The Biggest X-Factor: Isaiah Austin.
Stephan Van Treese could have a hard time checking Austin, who Drew likes to move around the court and use in the pick-and-pop game.
And Your National Finalist Is... Louisville
Too much experience, both on the floor and in the coaching box.
Final Four: Florida vs. Michigan State
Florida's Key to Victory: Limiting easy buckets.
The Spartans like to push the ball. For the Gators to win, they need to force Michigan State to score against their half-court D.
Michigan State's Key to Victory: Keeping Florida's guards out of the paint.
Keith Appling and Gary Harris are terrific defenders. They'll need to bring their A-games against Scottie Wilbekin.
The Biggest X-Factor: Wilbekin's defense.
If Wilbekin can get in Appling's head, the Gators will win.
And Your National Finalist Is...Michigan State
Both teams are extremely well-coached and have great experience. The Spartans are just slightly more talented, and that will be the difference.
National Championship: Michigan State vs. Louisville
Michigan State's Key to Victory: Getting the ball to the post.
It's easy to get stuck playing a helter-skelter game against Louisville, and the Spartans do like to play fast. But when they don't get a good shot initially, they'll need to make sure to get Adreian Payne his touches.
Louisville's Key to Victory: Russ Smith.
Gary Harris is a terrific defender and will try to take Smith out of the game. The Cards cannot win if Smith isn't producing.
The Biggest X-Factor: Denzel Valentine vs. Luke Hancock.
We saw last year how valuable Hancock was to Louisville. Valentine, like Hancock for that team, often gets overlooked. He's a terrific passer and will be a key extra ball-handler against Louisville's press.
And Your National Champion Is...Michigan State
Once again, this is a matchup of teams with great experience and legendary coaches. In the end, talent wins. And the Spartans have the best talent.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.
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