USA TODAY Sports provides your March Madness therapy.
AT THE WATER COOLER: Now that most brackets are busted and office pool championship aspirations are blown to smithereens, we can finally stop being surprised in this NCAA tournament.
There are 16 teams remaining, with eight games Thursday and Friday to decide the Elite Eight. But it'd be unwise to expect the shock factor to discontinue.
BRACKET HUB: Everything March Madness
RE-SEEDING: Ranking the Sweet 16 teams
There are some folks with their brackets still in good shape — meaning they likely had Florida, Arizona, Louisville and Michigan State in their Final Four. Because that's gutsy. Hardly. Here's a look at eight bold predictions that will continue to make March flat-out maddening.
1. Florida won't win it all: The favorite (Louisville) won it last year, and the Gators have looked the part of an overall No. 1 seed in their first two tournament snoozers. But that doesn't mean Florida isn't vulnerable. Yes, the SEC has three teams in the Sweet 16, and the ACC has one. Does that mean the SEC is better than the ACC top to bottom? No. It means that there are three strong teams in Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee, some of whom had favorable matchups to reach the Sweet 16. And advancing in the NCAA tournament is often about matchups. Which brings us back to the Gators, riding a 28-game winning streak. UCLA will be a tough matchup for Billy Donovan's veteran team.
Steve Alford's offense has been highly efficient, and the Bruins have been flourishing since knocking off an equally talented Arizona squad in the Pac-12 tournament title game. Florida's defense is incredibly frustrating for opponents because of how it stifles the opponent's flow. The Bruins' potent offense, spearheaded by 6-9 point guard Kyle Anderson and explosive scorer Jordan Adams, has the ability to counter that. And if Florida's one-point win against Kentucky in the SEC tournament final was any indication of how the Gators will fare against a high-octane offense, it spells trouble. Additionally, Florida has looked uncomfortable late in some games.
2. Louisville will crumble: The Cardinals cruised through the American Athletic Conference tournament, beating a team by 61 points, and suddenly emerged as a sleeper Final Four pick heading into the NCAA tournament. Yet after two sloppy games, a tough second-round matchup vs. Manhattan and a low-scoring defensive war vs. Saint Louis, it is rather difficult to be confident. The defending champs aren't nearly as good as they were last year. Last year top catalyst Russ Smith's job was to score, but Peyton Siva got him his shots as an elite, unselfish point guard.
This year there are much bigger demands on Louisville's best player, who went a combined 6-for-19 in two games in Orlando. If teams read the scouting report accurately, it goes something like this: Limit Smith, make others beat you. Montrezl Harrell has been a nice replacement for Gorgui Dieng and Luke Hancock has improved since last season, but there isn't the same depth and point guard Chris Jones doesn't give Smith the same type of luxury in relieving pressure.
3. Kentucky will be the best-finishing SEC team: The Wildcats' upset victory vs. Wichita State can seriously be misunderstood. Forget that the Shockers came from a mid-major conference: Kentucky beat a team that was likely to reach the Final Four, with potential to win it all. It appears the Wildcats are coming together. All season, Calipari has been frustrated with the lack of hustle and cohesion. Could those issues be in the past? That seems to be the case.
Julius Randle is still playing with a tenaciousness that injects life into the team, Andrew and Aaron Harrison are playing smarter and shooting well and the group's maturity progression is night and day compared to the product we saw in November. There's never been any question of whether the pieces were there for a championship. It's always been about how and when those pieces come together.
4. Virginia will beat Michigan State: Here are two words to consider when trying to figure out No. 1 seed Virginia: Unselfish and patient. That's coach Tony Bennett's strict offense in a nutshell. Michigan State and Virginia run sagging man-to-man defenses that fluster opponents. And coach Tom Izzo is quick to credit UVa as "one of the best defensive teams in the country" based on the team yielding a nation-low 55.5 points per game. But it's on offense where the Cavaliers have an edge. That's not to say Virginia has any player with the same capability as an Adreian Payne or Gary Harris. But there are no me guys wearing navy and orange, and that goes a long way when most offenses have a tendency to get rushed during key spurts of the game. There's no arguing Michigan State isn't playing good basketball. But overlooking this Virginia team would be a mistake.
5. Archie Miller will finish as good or better than Sean Miller: Whoa. We said bold, right? It's a sweet time for Archie and Sean Miller as the brothers are both coaching in the Sweet 16. Needless to say, it wasn't expected that Archie Miller's Dayton Flyers would be joining the Arizona Wildcats in the second weekend of the tournament. In order for Archie to finish even or better than Sean, Dayton has to beat Stanford. That's a winnable game against another double-digit seed. That scenario would also mean Arizona falls to San Diego State in the Sweet 16 or Wisconsin/Baylor in the Elite Eight. Both are possibilities. The Aztecs played Arizona solidly in November when they hosted the Wildcats in San Diego, but doing so on a neutral court might be a little tougher ... even though that neutral court will be in nearby Anaheim. And if Arizona advances, Wisconsin is a team that has the offensive weaponry and defensive wherewithal to knock the Wildcats out of the NCAAs.
6. Wisconsin will reach the Final Four: Bo Ryan has one of his most potent, gifted offensive teams that he's ever coached — led by forwards Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky and guards Ben Brust and Traevon Jackson. That won't be the key in Wisconsin reaching the Final Four, though. The key is on the defensive end, where the Badgers are always sound. The best offensive teams in this tournament — Creighton and Duke, for instance — are at home watching. The best defensive teams are still playing. If Wisconsin's Big Ten record says anything, it's that this offensively gifted squad can win when shots aren't falling.
7. Shabazz Napier will outduel DeAndre Kane: All right, this one isn't so bold. The best part about this matchup Thursday is that it will feature the players with the two best individual performances through the first two games. Outside of Doug McDermott, Napier has been playing like the national player of the year. The do-everything guard has 49 points in leading UConn past Saint Joseph's and Villanova. Meanwhile, Kane has been equally as important to his team's advancement, shown mostly in his 24-point, 10-rebound performance to lift Iowa State by North Carolina in a come-from-behind victory.
8. A non-All-American will win Most Outstanding Player again: Last year, Luke Hancock won the Most Outstanding Player in the Final Four. He was the definition of a role player but stepped up in key situations. Here's a rundown of each team's X-Factor player who could follow in Hancock's footsteps should they win the title.
- Florida: Patric Young
- UCLA: Norman Powell
- Dayton: Vee Sanford
- Stanford: Anthony Brown
- Arizona: T.J. McConnell
- San Diego State: Winston Shepard
- Baylor: Brady Heslip
- Wisconsin: Traevon Jackson
- Kentucky: Willie Cauley-Stein
- Tennessee: Jeronne Maymon
- Michigan: Jordan Morgan
- Virginia: Akil Mitchell
- Michigan State: Branden Dawson
- Iowa State: Dustin Hogue
- UConn: Ryan Boatright
TWEET THAT SPEAKS VOLUMES: Gearing up for more madness.
WORDS OF THE DAY: "We've played against the Dukes and certainly Carolina, the storied programs ... but ... this is a team that is playing its best basketball and is perhaps the best team we've faced this year. That should excite you, it should be a caution to you, a warning to how good you've got to be. And you just step into that game with as much as boldness as you can and as much soundness in your mind as you can and get ready to play." — Virginia coach Tony Bennett on his team's Friday matchup against Michigan State.
BRACKET SIMULATION: Prediction Machine provided USA TODAY Sports with the odds for teams most likely to reach the Elite Eight, Final Four and national title game. As it turns out, Florida and Louisville are most likely to play in the national championship.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS: The 25 most valuable players were sized up based on importance to their team and potential to spearhead a title run.
SILENCING THE DOUBTERS: Cuonzo Martin and the 11th-seeded Volunteers weren't supposed to get this far. Nicole Auerbach writes on how this group defied odds.
THE SECRET WEAPON: Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky gives the Badgers an X-Factor player that other teams in the tournament don't have, writes Gerry Ahern.
BEATING ADVERSITY: Even with key losses to its roster, Iowa State gains resolve and is poised for a trip to the Elite Eight, Eric Prisbell writes.
CAUCUS: Writers from USA TODAY Sports college hoops network debate the biggest surprise of the NCAA tournament thus far.
Scott Gleeson, a national college basketball writer/digital producer for USA TODAY Sports, is on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.
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