Where to Take Your Biggest Gambles in Picking Your 2014 NCAA Bracket

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 17, 2014

Where to Take Your Biggest Gambles in Picking Your 2014 NCAA Bracket

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    Winning your bracket pool is all about taking calculated risks, and we've got eight suggestions on where you should take your biggest gambles.

    Picking a bracket is like weightlifting. If you don't use any chalk, you run the risk of hurting yourself. But if you use too much chalk, everyone else in the gym assumes you have no idea what you're doing.

    If you pick nothing but No. 1 seeds in the Final Four, you probably won't finish in last place, but it's unlikely that you'll win any pools. If you don't pick any No. 1 seeds to the Final Four, though, you're basically saying that the selection committee has no grasp whatsoever on what the best teams are.

    Both would be foolish. Take a few risks, but don't go crazy.

    These are the spots where we think the reward more than outweighs the risk.

(3) Syracuse to the Final Four

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    Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    The Midwest is being widely regarded as the region of death, but if you had shown me the South Region seven weeks ago, I would have smacked you right in the mouth.

    On Jan. 30, we were projecting Florida, Kansas and Syracuse to receive No. 1 seeds. Heck, less than three weeks ago, Florida was a lock for the top line and Kansas and Syracuse were battling for the fourth No. 1 seed.

    Between being placed in a region with Florida and Kansas and struggling mightily over the past few weeks, Syracuse might be the most underrated team in the entire tournament.

    But as I wrote near the end of January, you have to pick both Arizona and Syracuse to the Final Four. Only three other times in the past 20 years have two teams occupied the top two spots in the AP poll (in the same order) for eight or more consecutive weeks, and all six of those teams made it to the national semifinals.

    Granted, they all received No. 1 seeds and never even remotely experienced the type of meltdown that the Orange has gone through as of late. But Syracuse backed into the tournament last year, losing four of its final five regular-season games and getting destroyed by Louisville in the Big East championship game.

    The Orange got a No. 4 seed and advanced to the Final Four.

    Not only is there a precedent for Syracuse winning at least four games, but unless you live in New York, you'll be one of the only people in your pool picking the Orange that far.

(9) Pittsburgh over (1) Florida

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    I'm going to end up coming across as an ACC homer with a few of these picks, but if you're with me on Syracuse coming out of the South Region, why not have Florida losing early?

    The Gators are the favorite to win the tournament, so you can count on virtually everyone in your pool picking them at least into the Sweet 16. This would be a good spot to try to steal some points. In addition to the insane amount of possible value added if you're right with this pick, it's not a complete shot in the dark.

    The Panthers have played much better than their ranking or seeding would have you believe. Let's take a walk down "What If?" Avenue, shall we?

    What if Pittsburgh hadn't missed five of its final seven free-throw attempts in a one-point loss to Cincinnati that ended on a putback layup in the final seconds?

    What if Tyler Ennis hadn't made that half-court buzzer-beater which turned a one-point season-defining win for Pittsburgh into a heartbreaking two-point loss?

    What if the Panthers hadn't gone 0-of-6 from the field and 1-of-4 from the free-throw line over the final 6:53 in a game against the Cavaliers in which Virginia's Malcolm Brogdon drained a last-second three-pointer to win the game?

    How vastly different would our collective evaluation of Pittsburgh be?

    Despite some of those late-game struggles, the Panthers have a very efficient offense and were already one of the best rebounding teams in the country before Talib Zanna's insane 19-point, 21-rebound effort against North Carolina in the ACC tournament.

    This one could come down to whether Zanna or Florida's Patric Young gets into foul trouble first.

    I certainly wouldn't call this game a coin flip, but it's close enough to condone taking a gamble.

(12) North Dakota State to the Sweet 16

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    Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Spor

    You've no doubt heard for the past decade that you need to have at least one No. 5 seed losing to a No. 12 seed in the second round. But have you heard that there has been at least one No. 12 or No. 13 seed in the Sweet 16 in 11 of the past 13 tournaments?

    Well, you have now.

    Even if you like Harvard over Cincinnati or Saint Louis losing to either North Carolina State or Xavier, it would take a lot of courage to pick those No. 12 seeds to upset Michigan State or Louisville in the subsequent round of 32.

    That leaves two regions where we haven't pretty much unanimously agreed to Sharpie the No. 4 seed to win at least two games.

    In the South Region, we've got Stephen F. Austin playing against a potentially depleted VCU before possibly drawing UCLA. VCU's Melvin Johnson missed the A-10 title game with a knee injury and is thus considered questionable for Friday's game against the Lumberjacks.

    Still, I don't believe Stephen F. Austin can handle VCU's speed and pressure. Both teams rank top three in the nation in percentage of defensive possessions ending in turnovers, according to KenPom.com (subscription required).

    I think we can all agree, though, that there's a fine line between forcing turnovers against teams like Saint Louis and Massachusetts as opposed to teams like Lamar and Central Arkansas. Plus, VCU is No. 1 in steal percentage while Stephen F. Austin ranks 40th, according to KenPom.com. It would appear that a large number of the Lumberjacks' turnovers on defense are of the unforced variety.

    The Lumberjacks haven't faced a team like VCU, and it won't end well.

    So, the smart move is to jump on the Bison bandwagon.

    Oklahoma is definitely underrated, but the Sooners are beatable. North Dakota State's three-pronged attack of Taylor Braun, Marshall Bjorklund and TrayVonn Wright could be more than Oklahoma's Ryan Spangler can handle in the paint. And San Diego State isn't exactly built to hang with the 20th-most efficient offense in the country, either.

(14) North Carolina Central over (3) Iowa State

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    Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

    Based on the cover photo, you probably thought we'd be promoting Iowa State as a dark horse to win it all.

    Quite the opposite.

    The MEAC has some tournament history in its veins, and it's mostly thanks to the Big 12.

    In the 2001 NCAA tournament, Hampton shocked the world by knocking off No. 2 seed Iowa State in the opening round. Two years agowhen Missouri was still in the Big 12Norfolk State did the same thing to the Tigers.

    Of course, that has nothing whatsoever to do with this year's North Carolina Central team, but I thought you might need to be eased into the idea of picking a team from the lowly MEAC to win a game.

    As the kids are saying these days, the Eagles are legit.

    They have won 20 consecutive games. Jeremy Ingram has averaged 25.2 points per game since Feb. 15 and is one of the best in the entire country at getting to the free-throw line. He ranks ninth in the nation in free-throw attempts.

    As CBS Sports' Jeff Borzello notes: "Ingram also hit the 30-point plateau five times this season, finishing the season averaging 20.3 points. He scored 37 points against Wichita State, 29 points against NC State and 27 points against Cincinnati."

    On defense, they rank fifth in the country both in effective field-goal percentage and in turnover percentage, according to KenPom.com (subscription required).

    Go ahead and discount their success because of the conference they are in, but the Eagles sure did hold their own against quality teams early in the season. In true road games against Cincinnati, North Carolina State and Wichita State, the Eagles held their opponents to an effective field-goal percentage of 47.5 and a three-point percentage of 26.6.

    They beat North Carolina State in overtime and were within seven points of beating Wichita State in the final two minutes before losing by 11. 

    It's a bold predictionespecially considering Iowa State ranks top 10 in the nation in avoiding turnovers and in two-point field-goal percentage on offense. But if you want to pick any No. 14 or No. 15 seed to pull off an upset this year, you could do much worse than North Carolina Central.

    I'm not the type to blindly follow Ken Pomeroy into a black hole, but it's worth noting that his formulas give N.C. Central a 27 percent chance of beating Iowa State, while no other No. 14 or No. 15 seed has a better than 18 percent chance of winning.

(1) Virginia over (4) Michigan State

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    John David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor

    If it seems weird to suggest that picking a No. 1 seed to beat a No. 4 seed is a gamble, then you clearly haven't been reading and hearing everyone's opinion on the Spartans.

    It's been said for months that Michigan State will be the best team in the nation if it ever gets healthy, and it seems like everyone is putting their money where their mouths have been for months. According to Vegas Insider, Michigan State is receiving 11-2 odds of winning the tournamentsecond only to Florida.

    Virginia, however, is listed at 18-1, which effectively means the Cavaliers are being given a one-in-four shot at beating the Spartans.

    I don't mean to be a contrarian, but are we really that certain that Michigan State is back and better than ever?

    In the Spartans' last four games, they lost to Ohio State, beat up on Northwestern (what self-respecting tournament team hasn't beaten up on Northwestern?), struggled to put away Wisconsin after jumping out to a 21-point first-half lead and then beat a very good Michigan team that had just played one-possession games on back-to-back days.

    Yes, Michigan State is good. No, you shouldn't ever doubt Tom Izzo in the tournament. But is it really that crazy to think that Virginia can beat Michigan State?

    The Cavaliers have one of the best defenses in the country and are among the best at limiting second-chance opportunitiesholding opponents to an offensive rebound on just over one out of every four misses, according to KenPom.com (subscription required).

    I can't quite understand why everyone is so eager to overlook Michigan State's recent losses to Illinois and Ohio State, but also dead set on doubting the Cavaliers because of the one loss that they have suffered in the past two months.

    There's a reason they're a No. 1 seed. Don't be afraid to pick them to win some games.

(7) Texas over (2) Michigan

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Pop quiz: Who is the best center in the B1G?

    Is it Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky? The Badgers big man went off for 25 points and 11 reboundshis only double-double of the seasonagainst Michigan on Feb. 16.

    Maybe it's Michigan State's Adreian Payne? Payne only played in two of the three games against the Wolverines, but he averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds.

    If Indiana's Noah Vonleh counts as a center, does he take the cake? Vonleh averaged 8.5 points, 10.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks against Michigan this season, even though one of those games came right after he had missed a pair of games with a foot injury.

    What about Purdue's A.J. Hammons? The 7'0" Boilermaker averaged 13.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in two close games against Michigan.

    The point here is that Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan aren't exactly the best paint protectors in the country, and Michigan hasn't really played against centers with the body of a traditional center.

    Enter Cameron Ridley. The Longhorns' 6'9", 285-pound monster is unlike anything Michigan has seen in some time. Over his last seven games, Ridley is shooting 61 percent from the fieldbecause it's hard to miss dunks when you're that bigand averaging 8.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game.

    You have to pick a couple of No. 1 and No. 2 seeds to lose in the first weekend of the tournament. You might as well play the matchups to figure out which ones those should be.

    Texas has stumbled considerably over the past five weeks, but it is still much better than your typical No. 7 seed.

(11) Iowa to the Elite Eight

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    Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

    If the Hawkeyes lose to Tennessee on Wednesday night, this one will look pretty stupid. But provided they can get through the First Four, they could be a very scary team.

    They have lost six of their last seven games, but there's only so much you can do when your opponents are hitting shots and you aren't.

    For most of the season, Iowa was considerably above average in both shooting and defending three-pointers. In the Hawkeyes' last six losses, though, they have made just 30.8 percent of their threes while their opponents have hit 45.3 percent of their three-point attempts.

    On the surface, their losing has been discouraging. The fact that they lost all six of those games by 10 or fewer points given that ridiculous disparity from behind the arc should be encouraging, though.

    They were also outrebounded in three of those six losses, despite being one of the better rebounding teams in the country.

    Long story short: The ball hasn't been bouncing their way. By Ken Pomeroy's estimations (subscription required), Iowa was the unluckiest team that actually made the tournament.

    Suppose that luck decides to balance out in the tournament?

    Even with that miserable luck, Iowa had one of the most efficient offenses in the nation and would almost certainly destroy a Massachusetts team that is prone to both turnovers and blocked shots on offense.

    After that, the only thing standing between Iowa and the Sweet 16 is a Duke team that hasn't looked very crisp over the past few weeks.

    At that point, just go with it and take Iowa to the Elite Eight. One of the eight subregions is inevitably going to be chaotic; why not the bottom half of the Midwest?

(13) Manhattan over (4) Louisville

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    Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

    This one is not for the weak at heart. I don't even have the guts to do it in my own bracket.

    Louisville is one of the favoritesif not the favoriteto win it all this year. But we are overdue for some chaos.

    Kentucky was the favorite to win in 2012, and the Wildcats did exactly that. Same goes for Louisville last year.

    Wherefore art thou, Ali Farokhmanesh?

    Here's the thing about the Manhattan Jaspers: They foul and get fouled more than anyone. They lead the nation in free-throw attempts per game and "lead" in fouls committed per game.

    If Louisville has an Achilles' heel, it's free-throw shooting. The Cardinals rank 301st in team free-throw percentage, with Montrezl Harrell leading the brick brigade with a 47.5 percent success rate from the charity stripe.

    Louisville's modus operandi is to push the pace to get you out of your comfort zone so you're taking ill-advised shots and making silly turnovers. But Manhattan is perfectly content with fouling to slow the game down. The Jaspers routinely run a 10-man rotation and have no fear of getting into foul trouble.

    A stop-and-go game with a lot of free-throw shooting (particularly for Harrell) could be the formula for beating Louisville. If it happens and you picked Manhattan, congratulations on immediately having a massive lead in projected points remaining.


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    Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.