2014 NCAA tournament schedule: Analyzing the 68

The bracket for the 2014 NCAA tournament has officially been released. The full 68-team field is below, along with favorites, first-game upset alerts, dark horses and players to watch for each regional. Who’s your Final Four and champion? Add your picks to the comments.

SOUTH REGION — IN MEMPHIS

Thursday in Orlando
No. 1 Florida (32-2) vs. No. 16 Albany (18-14)/Mount St. Mary’s (16-16), 4:10 p.m. (TBS)
No. 8 Colorado (23-11) vs. No. 9 Pittsburgh (25-9), 1:40 p.m. (TBS)

Friday in San Diego
No. 5 VCU (26-8) vs. No. 12 Stephen F. Austin (31-2), 7:27 p.m. (truTV)
No. 4 UCLA (26-8) vs. No. 13 Tulsa (21-12), 9:57 p.m. (truTV)

Thursday in Buffalo
No. 6 Ohio State (25-9) vs. No. 11 Dayton (23-10), 12:15 p.m. (CBS)
No. 3 Syracuse (27-5) vs. No. 14 Western Michigan (23-9), 2:45 p.m. (CBS)

Friday in St. Louis
No. 7 New Mexico (27-6) vs. No. 10 Stanford (21.12), 1:40 p.m. (TBS)
No. 2 Kansas (24-9) vs. No. 15 Eastern Kentucky (24-9), 4:10 p.m. (TBS)

Favorite: Florida. Betting against the No. 1 overall seed is a dubious proposition, particularly because the Gators haven’t lost since Dec. 2. They just won the SEC tournament championship, squeaking past Kentucky in the title game, and rank among the nation’s top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Kansas and Syracuse were both ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press top 25 at various times this season, but both have tough pods to reach the Sweet 16.

Upset alert: Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks, like Florida, enter on a massive win streak, unbeaten since their fifth game of the season, and boast a plodding half-court style that contrasts nicely with Virginia Commonwealth’s frantic, full-court zone. Last season, Brad Underwood’s group reached the NCAA tournament but lost by one point to Stanford. This could be its year.

Dark horse: New Mexico. The Lobos got bounced early last season thanks to upstart Harvard, but under first-year Coach Craig Neal they could make some noise in the St. Louis pod. Of course, that might hinge on the fluctuating health of the following star …

Player to watch: Joel Embiid, Kansas. This is exclusively to monitor the freshman phenom’s stress fracture in his back, which has sidelined him for the past several games, though Coach Bill Self has expressed confidence Embiid could play in the NCAA tournament. But even if Embiid, a projected top-five pick in June’s NBA draft, returns for the second weekend, the Jayhawks might be on upset watch against a tough Eastern Kentucky team and whichever other team advances in that subregional.

 

WEST REGION — ANAHEIM, CALIF.

Friday in San Diego
No. 1 Arizona (30-4) vs. No. 16 Weber State (19-11), 2:10 p.m. (TNT)
No. 8 Gonzaga (28-6) vs. No. 9 Oklahoma State (21-12), 4:40 p.m. (TNT)

Thursday in Spokane, Wash.
No. 5 Oklahoma (23-9) vs. No. 12 North Dakota State (25-6), 7:27 p.m. (truTV)
No. 4 San Diego State (29-4) vs. No. 13 New Mexico State (26-9), 9:57 p.m. (truTV)

Friday in San Antonio
No. 6  Baylor (24-11) vs. No. 11 Nebraska (19-12), 12:40 p.m. (truTV)
No. 3 Creighton (26-7) vs. No. 14 Louisiana-Lafayette (23-11), 3:10 p.m. (truTV)

Thursday in Milwaukee
No. 7 Oregon (23-9) vs. No. 10 BYU (23-11), 3:10 p.m. (truTV)
No. 2 Wisconsin (26-7) vs. No. 15 American (20-12), 12:40 p.m. (truTV)

Favorite: Arizona. Though the Wildcats lost to UCLA in the Pacific-12 tournament championship game, they still boast the country’s most efficient defense, according to analyst Ken Pomeroy, but will have a tough road that could include a second-round matchup against Oklahoma State, which has shaken off its midseason rust to find its form at the right time.

Upset alert: North Dakota State. The Bison will be one of the bracket’s trendiest upset picks, and not only because of the history of No. 12 seeds beating No. 5 seeds. They attack the rim well with an experienced front court of three seasons. The Sooners have a solid profile though, with seven wins against the Ratings Percentage Index top 50.

Dark horse: Nebraska. Who doesn’t love a little Nebrasketball, with Coach Tim Miles frequently tweeting at halftime of games? The Cornhuskers may not make it out of their first game against Baylor, but a Nebraska-only matchup in San Antonio against Creighton is enough to give them space here. They also have beaten Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State this season.

Player to watch: Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State. The sophomore point guard has been solid since returning from his three-game suspension in mid-February, averaging 18.7 points per game with a 2.8-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. If the Cowboys want to challenge  for a Sweet 16 bid, getting through Gonzaga and Arizona along the way, he’s the player who needs to carry them.

EAST REGION — NEW YORK CITY

Friday in Raleigh, N.C.
No. 1 Virginia (28-6) vs. No. 16 Coastal Carolina (21-12), 9:25 p.m. (TBS)
No. 8 Memphis (23-9) vs. No. 9 George Washington (24-8), 6:55 p.m. (TBS)

Thursday in Spokane, Wash.
No. 5 Cincinnati (27-6) vs. No. 12 Harvard (26-4), 2:10 p.m. (TNT)
No. 4 Michigan State (26-8) vs. No. 13 Delaware (25-9), 4:40 p.m. (TNT)

Friday in San Antonio
No. 6 North Carolina (23-9) vs. No. 11 Providence (23-11), 7:20 p.m. (TNT)
No. 3 Iowa State (26-7) vs. No. 14 North Carolina Central (28-5), 9:50 p.m. (TNT)

Thursday in Buffalo, N.Y.
No. 7 Connecticut (26-8) vs. No. 10 Saint Joseph’s (24-9), 6:55 p.m. (TBS)
No. 2 Villanova (28-4) vs. No. 15 Milwaukee (21-13), 9:25 p.m. (TBS)

Favorite: Virginia. Iowa State and Michigan State also got consideration here, given how both teams have played as of late, but the Cavaliers are playing as well as anybody right now. They swept the ACC regular season and tournament titles, feature one of the country’s best defenses in Coach Tony Bennett’s pack-line scheme and host a roster replete with few stars but smart, self-aware players who operate well together. Also, they are unbeaten in five neutral-site games this season, including four against the RPI top 100.

Upset alert: Harvard. Tommy Amaker’s Crimson return again as a possible upset pick, one year after toppling New Mexico as a No. 14 seed, but haven’t played a top 50 RPI teams this season. Still, they have a solid defense and a balanced offense led by junior Wesley Saunders.

Dark horse: Michigan State. The Spartans rolled to the Big Ten championship over Michigan and suddenly they are looking like a classic Tom Izzo team, capable of making noise in March. They are also 5-1 this season on neutral floors, three of those coming against teams in the RPI top 30.

Player to watch: Shabazz Napier, Connecticut. The AAC player of the year has proven himself to be one of the biggest late-game performers in the country. Everyone loves a buzzer-beating darling in March Madness. Napier could be the one.

MIDWEST REGION — INDIANAPOLIS

Friday in St. Louis
No. 1 Wichita State (34-0) vs. No. 16 Cal Poly (13-19)/Texas Southern (19-14), 7:10 p.m. (CBS)
No. 8 Kentucky (24-10) vs. No. 9 Kansas State (20-12), 9:40 p.m. (CBS)

Thursday in Orlando
No. 5 St. Louis (26-6) vs. No. 12 North Carolina State (21-13)/Xavier (21-12), 7:20 p.m. (TNT)
No. 4 Louisville (29-5) vs. No. 13 Manhattan (25-7), 9:50 p.m. (TNT)

Friday in Raleigh
No. 6 Massachusetts (24-8)  vs. No. 11 Iowa (20-12)/Tennessee (21-12), 2:45 p.m. (CBS)
No. 3 Duke (26-8) vs. No. 14 Mercer (26-8), 12:15 p.m. (CBS)

Thursday in Milwaukee
No. 7 Texas (23-13) vs. No. 10 Arizona State (21-11), 9:40 p.m. (CBS)
No. 2 Michigan (25-8) vs. No. 15 Wofford (20-12), 7:10 p.m. (CBS)

Favorite: Louisville. Granted, the possibility of a Sweet 16 matchup between unbeaten Wichita State and Louisville, two teams that made the Final Four last season, is pretty awesome, but in the interest of not picking No. 1 seeds as the favorites everywhere, let’s give the edge to the Cardinals here. Rick Pitino’s team, ranked second nationally by Pomeroy, battered its way through the American Athletic Conference tournament and looks to be peaking at the right time. At the very least, Wichita State-Louisville could provide a drool-worthy narrative for the second weekend in Indianapolis where, if chalk holds, we could see the Shockers, Cardinals, Duke and Michigan. This region is loaded.

Upset alert: Iowa/Tennessee. It’s always dicey at this stage to project an upset from a play-in team, simply because we won’t know who emerges until Tuesday, but either team could challenge Massachusetts and shifty guard Chaz Williams. The Volunteers have a top 30 offense and defense, have beaten No. 1 seed Virginia and crash the offensive boards like madmen, recovering nearly two-fifths of all misses. Xavier, meanwhile, has already beaten Tennessee this season at home, in addition to wins over tournament teams Cincinnati, Providence and Creighton.

Dark horse: Kentucky. Not to denigrate the SEC runner-ups, but the Wildcats have to be feeling good about themselves after coming within one point of Florida on Sunday. The most hyped recruiting class in college basketball history hasn’t quite panned out as advertised, what with double-digit losses this season and all, but if Kentucky can get past Kansas State in the first round, it will provide a tough challenge for Wichita State.

Player to watch: T.J. Warren, North Carolina State. The Wolfpack sneaked into the NCAA tournament after reaching the ACC tournament semifinals, beating Syracuse along the way, and the conference’s leading scorer might be able to carry them further. He takes a higher percentage of shots than all but three players in the country and, in the regular season’s final two games and hasn’t scored fewer than 20 points since Jan. 11. As a team, N.C. State can be as volatile and unpredictable as any in the field. But Warren will be a fun watch for the play-in games in Dayton.

FOUR TEAMS THAT MISSED OUT

1. Southern Methodist (23-9). With a nonconference strength of schedule ranked 296th, it would have been difficult to reward SMU with a tournament bid, even if the story line of Coach Larry Brown would have played well on television. Even though the Mustangs had four top 40 wins, history suggests that teams like them who schedule that poorly and are on the bubble do not get in. This year is no exception.

2. Green Bay (24-6). Green Bay’s profile was solid, with a 75-72 win at home over No. 1 seed Virginia, but the Phoenix also lost at home in the Horizon League tournament semifinals and that, in the selection committee’s mind, appears to have been unforgivable.

3. California (19-3). Four wins over NCAA tournament teams made the Golden Bears an appealing candidate, but they just weren’t good enough to break through the bubble. Sub-100 RPI losses to UC Santa Barbara and Southern California, both on the road, didn’t help either.

4. Minnesota (20-13). The Golden Gophers will have to wait for an NCAA tournament bid under new coach Richard Pitino, as losses to Northwestern (RPI 124) and Purdue (144) hurt. Their strength of schedule ranks eighth nationally and their non-conference strength of schedule is in the top 50, but with only so many at-large bids available, they fell out one season after upsetting UCLA in the No. 6-No. 11 match-up.

More NCAA Tournament news

John Feinstein’s analysis: East | West | South | Midwest

NCAA Tournament bracket and historical database

A guide to Tournament upsets | Photos: The top 16 seeds

GW basketball’s at-large bid leads to ‘rewarding feeling’

Wise: NCAA tournament terminology is running amok in U.S. culture

American draws Wisconsin in West Region first round

NCAA tournament can make or break a player’s NBA prospects

Virginia wins ACC tournament for first time since 1976

Play the Bracket Challenge | Play round-by-round

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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