So often winning your bracket competition relies on identifying and riding a key team. Anybody can pick Louisville or Indiana, and they very well may win the National Title. However, if you pick the Cardinals or Hoosiers, even if they cut down the nets, you will have competition in your pool. It is unlikely that a double-digit seed will crash the party in Atlanta, but each region has a key team that is worth considering when you try one-upping your friends and colleagues.
During the middle of the season Michigan was ranked number one. Since then the maize and blue are just 6-6. The Big 10 was the best conference in the country this year and there is no shame in losing to regular season champion Indiana twice. Michigan also dropped two games to Big 10 Tournament runner up Wisconsin, and a single game on the road at Michigan State. Falling to Penn State is a bad loss, but it is their only true blemish all season. The Wolverines are among the best offensive teams in the country. They virtually never foul or turn the ball over, and the combination of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. may represent the best guard tandem in the NCAA.
Coach John Beilein has won at each of his seven stops along the way starting back at Erie Community College in the late 1970's. When Beilein has the talent to win, that is exactly what he has done, taking West Virginia to the Sweet 16 twice, winning a tournament game at Richmond, and never exiting during the first round in three trips to the dance with Michigan. This is Beilein's best team in Ann Arbor.
If you like pure talent, UNLV has as much of it as any team in the country. Freshman Anthony Bennett will be a lottery pick in the NBA, and could be taken among the top five overall. Senior point guard Anthony Marshall is a Vegas native, sets up his teammates, and loves to have his hands on the ball late in the game. Katin Reinhardt scored 21 points in the Rebels Mountain West semi-final win over Colorado State. The freshman who shot poorly during the early stages of the year became a hot hand in many games late for coach Dave Rice. While Mike Moser's numbers are down drastically from his 14 points per game and 10.5 rebounds a contest last year, when feeling healthy, can be another impact performer. UNLV won six games against the Top 50 this year.
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Arizona began the year 14-0 and will go as far as transfer point guard Mark Lyons will take them. The senior who spent three years at Xavier knows all about big games. He had 16 points last year when the Musketeers lost to Baylor in the Sweet 16. If Lyons is trying to set-up his teammates, Arizona can make a big run. The Wildcats were 5-0 this year in games where Lyons had five or more assists, and 10-2 when he tallied four or more helpers. The supporting cast of Solomon Hill, Nick Johnson, Kevin Parrom, Brandon Ashley, and Kaleb Tarczewski are good enough to go deep in the tournament if Lyons leads them there. Coach Sean Miller has been to the Elite 8 twice. Arizona's rabid fan base will have short trips to Salt Lake City and Los Angeles if the team advances to the second weekend.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after losing in the Big 10 tournament semi-finals that he thought so much about his league, and was so tired of playing his tough conference opponents, that he would rather play the Lakers than another Big 10 game. The Spartans faced the most difficult slate in the nation this year, and won nine times against the Top 50. MSU is the same team that they always are, incredibly physical, very tough on defense, battle tested, and superbly coached. It is hard to imagine the Spartans losing to Valparaiso, Memphis, St. Mary's or Middle Tennessee State. Izzo and Coach K in the sweet 16 is a juicy potential matchup.