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College Basketball

Florida, Syracuse among key teams in intriguing NCAA bracket

NEW YORK -- The way that college basketball has evolved the past decade, focus on teams on the bubble of the NCAA tournament begins roughly in late July. That drumbeat came to a merciful end on Sunday with the unveiling of the bracket for the NCAA tournament.

And now the fun begins. Everyone buckles down to focus on the real heart of the NCAA tournament -- gambling disguised as the office pool. (Let's just hope the country's best hoops data site, KenPom.com, can revive itself after a Selection Sunday crash.)

There are few more humbling things than filling out an NCAA tournament bracket, an exercise that can fluctuate from elation to frustration, often within a matter of minutes.

The key to filling out a bracket is avoiding picking teams that flop early, costing you points round after round. The worst feeling in an office pool is crossing out a team on the Tournament's first Thursday that you had playing for a few more weeks.

Here are the five teams that will be the key to your bracket. They are teams talented enough to reach the Final Four. Yet they are flawed enough that they should be viewed with skepticism, like a half-price oyster. Figure out these five, and you will rule the water cooler and collect some tax-free winnings from your office pool.

Florida

Deep, versatile and athletic, Florida has a Final Four caliber roster. It crushed Wisconsin and Marquette in the non-conference and won the SEC regular season by two games. The Gators are No. 1 in KenPom rankings, ahead of Louisville, Indiana and Gonzaga. But the eye test hasn't been as kind as the computers, as they've had downright bizarre struggles in close games. Florida hasn't won a game by single digits all year, a testament to both its ability to crush opponents and inability to finish games. Florida has advanced to the Elite 8 the past two years, squandering late leads to Butler and Louisville. Close games are inevitable in this parity era in college basketball. Do you trust the Gators to finally win one?

No. 3 Florida's draw can be considered favorable, as No. 14 Northwestern State isn't scary. Nor are No. 6 UCLA or No. 11 Minnesota particularly daunting in the next game. But can Florida blow either of those schools out? That's where it's too close to call.

Syracuse

The Big East final provided a convenient microcosm of Syracuse's schizophrenic season. The Orange led Louisville by as many as 16 points before getting enveloped by Louisville's 2-2-1 zone press and turned a game they controlled into a blowout loss.

As for its regular season, Syracuse began the year 19-1, rocketed into the Top 5 and looked like a Final Four contender. By the end of the year, the wheels came off as the Orange lost four of five and didn't beat an NCAA tournament-caliber team during the season's last five weeks.

Will the Syracuse team that shows up next week be the one that looked like a juggernaut in the pre-conference season, or the one later in the year that looked completely inept against zone defenses?

James Southerland shot 19-for-33 from three-point range in the Big East tournament and appears to be in sync after his suspension. Can he sustain that? No. 4 Syracuse's stingy 2-3 zone defense should help it get past No. 13 Montana. After that, buyer beware.

New Mexico

Four Mountain West teams lost their first game in the NCAA tournament last year, including No. 6 seeds UNLV and San Diego State, who were both upset by No. 11 seeds. The No. 5 Lobos were the only team to advance to the Round of 32, where they lost to No. 4 Louisville.

This New Mexico team is sound, as it is an elite defensive team. The Lobos are in the Top 10 in Ken Pom's defensive efficiency ratings and field-goal percentage defense. They're a middling offensive team, however, and this is the scariest part about them. New Mexico gets an astounding 25 percent of its points from free throws. (That ranks No. 6 nationally.) Can you rely on the officials in the NCAA Tournament -- who often have never worked with one another and aren't familiar with a team's style -- to get you one-fourth of your scoring? The tendency for the NCAA Tournament is for officials to not want to settle the game. New Mexico practically needs them to.

Outside its conference, New Mexico had a host of solid wins -- UConn, Cincinnati, Valpo -- but no great ones. The Lobos also have no horrible losses; a road game at Air Force is their only loss to a team not in the NCAA tournament.

The Lobos have No. 14 Harvard in the first round, which shouldn't be much trouble. If they play No. 6 Arizona in the next round, that's when things could get dicey.

Michigan State

There's no coach more difficult to knock out of an NCAA tournament bracket than Tom Izzo. He's proven to be this generation's consummate March maestro, with a 17-3 record with a one-day turnaround in the NCAA Tournament. All those losses came to No. 1 seeds. Izzo has advanced to the Final Four with favorites and darkhorses. His Spartans sputtered toward the end of this regular season, losing three games in a row as February grinded into March. (Those games were a home date with Indiana and road games at Ohio State and Michigan.)

As usual, Izzo has squeezed every ounce out of this team. He even has a home-court advantage when the No. 3 Spartans face No. 14 Valparaiso in their opening game. Memphis looming as the No. 6 seed on the other side isn't scary either, as Izzo can run circles around Memphis coach Josh Pastner if the Tigers advance.

What makes the Spartans scary for a deep pick is their inconsistent recent play combined with their brutal Midwest bracket. No. 1 Louisville is the best team in the field -- as it was when Izzo beat the Cardinals in 2009 -- and No. 2 Duke has been dynamic when Ryan Kelly is in the lineup. No. 4 Saint Louis has Final Four potential, according to Butler's Brad Stevens.

Where do you dare knock them out this year?

UNLV

The No. 5 seed Rebels have an embarrassment of riches in talent. Anthony Bennett will be a Top 5 NBA pick this year. Pitt transfer Khem Birch was among the elite players in his high school recruiting class. Katin Reinhardt originally committed to USC before UNLV.

But the Rebels' parts have been better than their whole this year. They've lost nine games, including a pair of baffling defeats to Fresno State, which won just five conference games.

Talented teams that don't play up to the level of their personnel are always the scariest. Bennett could be the tournament's breakout player, but he's also a freshman who could get lost in the moment. (He scored just five points in UNLV's last loss to Fresno.)

UNLV got upset by Colorado in the NCAA Tournament last year. The Rebels have No. 12 California, with veteran Mike Montgomery on the sideline. Lose this game and it would give second-year coach Dave Rice a reputation as a talent collector more than a developer.

If UNLV does advance, it could play No. 4 Syracuse in the third round. Good luck figuring out that one.

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