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2014 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Kentucky v Florida
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The 2014 NCAA men’s basketball tournament field of 68 has been set. March Madness will start with “First Four” play-in games on Tuesday and Wednesday, then a full slate of action through the weekend. Here’s a preview of what to expect in each region:

EAST REGION

Syracuse v Virginia
Getty Images

Top Seeds:
No. 1 Virginia (28-6)
No. 2 Villanova (28-4)
No. 3 Iowa State (26-7)
No. 4 Michigan State (26-8)

Favorite: Virginia — The Cavaliers have played as well as any team in the country over the past few weeks. Head coach Tony Bennett always has his charges well prepared for the opposition. He’ll be ready for the quick turnarounds of the NCAAs.

Dark Horse: Iowa State — As the Big 12 champs and a No. 3 seed, the Cyclones aren’t entirely unknown in the college basketball world. DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim are entirely capable of carrying Iowa State to the Final Four.

Likely to Be Upset: Villanova — Jay Wright’s Wildcats dominated a depleted Big East this year, but they lost to Seton Hall in the conference tournament. James Bell, JayVaughn Pinkston and company might get by Milwaukee in the first round, but the UConn-St. Joe’s winner could end ‘Nova’s season.

Player to Watch: Shabazz Napier, Connecticut — The do-it-all Napier reminds many fans of Kemba Walker, the UConn guard who led the school to the 2011 national title. Napier would love to get the Huskies to the Final Four.

SOUTH REGION

Oklahoma State v Kansas
Getty Images

Top Seeds:
No. 1 Florida (32-2)
No. 2 Kansas (24-9)
No. 3 Syracuse (27-5)
No. 4 UCLA (26-8)

Favorite: Florida — The nation’s top-ranked team is riding a school-record 26-game winning streak after barely surviving Kentucky in the SEC title game on Sunday. The Gators are the top overall seed and seem like a lock to make it to Arlington for the Final Four.

Dark Horse: Ohio State — The Buckeyes (25-9) took a beating in the Big Ten, but Florida is the only team in the South Region that seems clearly better than Thad Matta’s squad. Senior guard Aaron Craft is a veteran who’s played very well in previous tournaments.

Likely to Be Upset: Syracuse — Since Jim Boeheim’s meltdown at Duke in February, the Orange have rapidly unwound on the court. Any team with C.J. Fair and Tyler Ennis could just as easily make a Final Four run, but Syracuse hasn’t shown signs of turning things around, losing five of seven games and limping into the NCAA Tournament.

Player to Watch: Joel Embiid, Kansas — The Jayhawks’ big man stole the spotlight from heralded freshman Andrew Wiggins by adding a dominant presence in the paint. If Embiid can return from a stress fracture in his back, he could give Kansas a boost to the Final Four.

MIDWEST REGION

Kentucky v Florida
Getty Images

Top Seeds:
No. 1 Wichita State (34-0)
No. 2 Michigan (25-8)
No. 3 Duke (26-8)
No. 4 Louisville (29-5)

Favorite: Louisville — The defending national champions are peaking at the right time. The fifth-ranked Cardinals tore through the American Athletic Conference tournament and are the fourth seed in a stacked Midwest Region. Their first big test could come in the second round against fifth-seeded Saint Louis (26-6).

Dark Horse: Kentucky — After nearly knocking off No. 1 Florida in the SEC title game, the young Wildcats may be ready to show the nation that they have matured enough to beat all comers. First-round opponent Kansas State won’t be an easy win, but it could get U.K. rolling.

Likely to Be Upset: Duke — Despite the play of Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, this year’s Duke team doesn’t seem as intimidating as past squads. The Blue Devils should get past Mercer in the first round, but they could be in trouble soon after that.

Player to Watch: Ron Baker, Wichita State — The sophomore is one of the undefeated Shockers’ best players, averaging 13.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game. If teams try to double-team forward Cleanthony Early, Baker can bury them.

WEST REGION

Doug McDermott
Getty Images

Top Seeds:
No. 1 Arizona (30-4)
No. 2 Wisconsin (26-7)
No. 3 Creighton (26-7)
No. 4 San Diego State (29-4)

Favorite: Arizona — The Wildcats have been one of the best teams in the nation all year long. Despite losing the Pac-12 title game to UCLA, Arizona is capable of dominating most teams. With Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon leading the way, the UofA should make it to Arlington for the Final Four in April.

Dark Horse: Nebraska — The 11th-seeded Cornhuskers already have wins over Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State this season. Coach Tim Miles’ inspiring approach has made it trendy to root for basketball in Lincoln, Nebraska, for the first time ever.

Likely to Be Upset: Oklahoma — The Sooners beat only one ranked team on the road this season, and they flamed out against Baylor early in the Big 12 tourney. Twelfth-seeded North Dakota State (25-6) could certainly send O.U. fans home sad on Thursday.

Player to Watch: Doug McDermott, Creighton — The nation’s leading scorer averaged 26.9 points a game while taking the Bluejays to the Big East title game. Opposing defenses know McDermott can win a game by himself, so he’ll have to work harder to carry his team deep into the tournament.

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