Florida has made the Elite Eight in three consecutive seasons, but this year’s version is vastly different than those teams. Those teams revolved heavily around Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker, ball-dominant guards with poor decision making. Those teams reflected the volatility of those players, rising at some occasions and baffling at others. The ’14 version of the Gators has a strong veteran core led by Scottie Wilbekin, whose decision making and clutch play has taken Florida to another level. Florida’s beauty is that they can score from all five positions (more so if Dorian Finney-Smith is playing instead of Will Yeguete), they can score from anywhere on the floor, and they defend as well as any team in the country. Their slight Achilles Heel is foul shooting, but they’ve played and won plenty of close games this season. Some teams are just good at winning close games and it’s mostly from coaching and execution. There was a moment earlier this season where I saw Florida play and it clicked for me that I thought they’d win the national championship. I may not feel as good about them as I did Louisville last year, but I’m backing them to cut down the nets.
Kansas will probably be the biggest road block to Florida’s success, but their fate depends heavily on the health of Joel Embiid. While they do have plenty of talent between Tarik Black, Jamari Traylor, and Landen Lucas, none of them are as naturally gifted as Embiid. The good thing about the Wiggins’ injury is that it’s flipped the switch on Andrew Wiggins to be more aggressive. My biggest issue with Kansas is their point guard play. I don’t have complete faith in either Naadir Tharpe or Frank Mason based on their inconsistent play this season and you need faith in a PG to pick that team to advance.
Elsewhere, Syracuse has really taken a nose dive since starting the season off red hot. Their potential relies heavily on the health of Jeremi Grant and the return to form of Tyler Ennis. Syracuse does have some luck in facing two teams early that won’t attack their zone well and both games will take place in Buffalo. Kansas should be able to eat through Syarcuse’s zone via Perry Ellis on the high postif we get that far. Ohio State struggles too much offensively to make moves in the tournament, especially against a team like Syracuse which will make them work hard for open shots. New Mexico is getting some love as an upset possibility of Kansas given their size up front, but their guard play outside of Kendall Williams just isn’t good enough.
UCLA and VCU both face intriguing first round opponents, but should move on to a fun first weekend game. UCLA is red hot right now and has as much scoring as any team in the country. VCU just isn’t good enough in half-court offensive sets to win many tournament games, plus they don’t shoot the three as well as years past.
First round upset that will happen: Pittsburgh over Colorado
This is an upset in seed alone since Pittsburgh is a 5.5-point favorite against the Buffaloes. There just isn’t a first round upset I like in this region, so this slight seeding malfunction is where I’ll pick my battle. Colorado has done well to overcome the injury of Spencer Dinwiddie, but they’re not nearly as potent offensively as they’ll need to be to win this close affair. Pittsburgh’s defense has improved mightily in recent weeks, finally leading them to a true quality win against North Carolina in the conference tournament.
First round upset that won’t happen: Stephen F. Austin over VCU
VCU may not have the half-court offense or three-point shooting to be as prolific as years’ past, but they certainly continue to have “havoc” and that’s nothing Stephen F. Austin has seen all season. The Lumberjacks from Nacogdoches, Texas have put together an impressive 31-2 record, but none of those wins are against anyone of note. SFA has diverse scoring with five players averaging 9.6 or more points, but VCU’s defense will completely disrupt their ability to score. VCU also won’t have any problem getting a bucket against the 95th best defensive efficiency team in the country.
Best Non-Bracket Bets:
New Mexico -3 over Stanford – The Lobos are as good as they were last year, but are getting much less recognition.
Dayton +6 over Ohio State – Poor foul shooting and lack of explosiveness will keep the Buckeyes from running away.
Tulsa +8.5 over UCLA – Tulsa is top 30 in defensive efficiency, so they should be able to keep this game within reach. A young UCLA group will also be looking ahead to a second round showdown with VCU.
UCLA to win the National Championship (+4500) – This might seem weird given what I wrote above, but UCLA is peaking at the right time. They’re an explosive scoring team that has the ability to break through against weaker offense teams. They’re a little light on the boards, but could get to the Final Four if the Gators miss free throws and Kansas falls before the Regional Final.
[Image via Paul Abell/USA Today Sports]