It's March Madness Time Again

A look at the teams and players you need to know to survive it

By Josh Alper
|  Tuesday, Mar 19, 2013  |  Updated 4:38 PM CDT
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Louisville is the top seed in the NCAA tournament after a topsy-turvy season in college basketball, capped by another round of upsets over the weekend.

AP

Louisville is the top seed in the NCAA tournament after a topsy-turvy season in college basketball, capped by another round of upsets over the weekend.

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Last year, Kentucky entered the NCAA Tournament as the presumptive favorites and never lost that title as they rolled to the championship. 

This year, there's no heavy favorite, and Kentucky isn't even in the field. Let the madness begin!

With 68 teams, there's a lot of knowledge to catch up on before you hand in your brackets, so we're going to help you do that by spotlighting some of the teams and players you're going to want to keep an eye on over the next few weeks. In the spirit of the Final Four, we're highlighting one choice from each bracket in each category to help keep things straight. 

FOUR TEAMS TO BEAT

Louisville (Midwest): Rick Pitino's team won the last Big East tournament before the whole grand experiment came to an end, and they could keep on rolling all the way to Atlanta behind the best defense in the entire country. It's an experienced team that made it to the Final Four last year, and they're coming into the dance with the biggest head of steam of anyone.

Florida (South): Florida was never one of the elite teams fighting for the top spot in the rankings, and they lost to Mississippi State in the SEC finals on Sunday, but they get this spot because they were the most balanced team in the country over the entire season. Their offensive and defensive efficiency make them a favorite of advanced metrics and a good bet to weather any opponent that winds up in their path. 

Ohio State (West): Making every possession count is vital to tournament success, and the Buckeyes do that as well as anyone by not turning the ball over and by rebounding well. Starting with guard Aaron Craft, their defense also makes you earn every inch you get, and that's another trait that leads to tournament success. 

Indiana (East): Losing to Wisconsin in the Big Ten semis didn't keep the Hoosiers off the top line, largely because their offense has been the most impressive in the country this season. The question will be how well they can handle an off shooting night against a team that can also find ways to score at the other end. 

FOUR DARK HORSES

Saint Louis (Midwest): The Billikens won the Atlantic 10 regular season and tournament titles with a team that lacks sizzle but has plenty of balance and experience on the floor. Their defense would make a Sweet 16 matchup with Louisville, a feast for fans who like to see teams batter one another for 40 or more minutes. 

VCU (South): Another A-10 school and a team that isn't sneaking up on anyone anymore. That doesn't make their Havoc defense any less difficult to face at a moment's notice. 

New Mexico (West): New Mexico isn't a dark horse as a three seed, but you probably haven't heard much of them if you aren't a Mountain West diehard. They defend at the highest level, and their offense excels at getting to the free throw line, which comes in handy when you play grinding games like they figure to play this week. 

Illinois (East): This is a team that beat Ohio State and Indiana this season, so they aren't out of their class if they advance to a second-round date with No. 2-seed Miami. Their ability to do that will come down to Brandon Paul as the Illini go exactly as far as he takes them. 

FOUR SHAKY TOP SEEDS

Duke (Midwest): Duke's very good, but they'll either draw a very good offensive Creighton team or a killer defensive club in Cincinnati in the second round. Then Michigan State, perhaps the worst possible matchup in terms of physicality, could be the Sweet 16 opponent.

Michigan (South): The Wolverines have talent to spare, but they've been aimless for the better part of two months. They look like the classic case of a team that peaked too soon. 

Gonzaga (West): They were once everyone's favorite Cinderella, but now they are the team everyone thinks is over-seeded because they haven't beaten anyone. Pittsburgh would test their mettle in the second round, assuming they don't get shocked by the Wichita State Shockers in the opening round.

Syracuse (East): The Orange had a nice run in the Big East tournament, but they were all over the place during the season and showed no signs of being one of Jim Boeheim's better teams. If the right team keeps showing up, they've got a shot, but we wouldn't bet on it. 

FOUR POTENTIAL FIRST ROUND UPSETS

(12) Oregon over (5) Oklahoma (Midwest): Oregon was dropped a line because of conflicts elsewhere in the bracket, which means the gap between these teams simply isn't that great. 

(13) South Dakota State over (4) Michigan (South): This should be a blowout for the Blue, but teams reliant on jump-shooting are always at risk of going cold. SDSU can't stop a hot Michigan team, but they can score enough to beat a cold one. 

(11) Belmont over (6) Arizona (West): We'd feel more confident about this one if Belmont hit a few more of their threes, but they are a highly efficient offensive team inside the arc, and that's a nice skill to have if this stays close into the final minutes. 

(12) California over (5) UNLV (East): UNLV has scary talent at its disposal, but the team has never found a way to make the whole greater than the individual parts. They could win this game and make a deep run, or they could fall victim to their own dysfunction. 

FOUR PLAYERS TO WATCH

Ryan Kelly, Duke (Midwest): Kelly's return to health took Duke from ACC contender to national title contender, as his size and stroke extend opponents further than they're usually capable of going on both sides of the floor. He'll be essential for the Blue Devils in any game played in a more physical style. 

Ben McLemore, Kansas (South): The top-seeded Jayhawks will almost certainly be sending McLemore on to the NBA after this season, so this will be your only chance to watch him in the big dance. The freshman might not be capable of pulling a Danny Manning, but it's going to be fun to watch him try. 

Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga (West): Stopping a seven-footer who can run, put the ball on the floor and face up to the basket is no easy trick. Olynyk is capable of putting together the kind of performances that carry the Zags past the doubts about their fitness.

Victor Oladipo, Indiana (East): Uncommonly talented with a knack for making game-changing plays on offense and defense, Oladipo embodies everything that's been great about the Hoosiers this season. The biggest concern is turnovers, but his ability to take things over all by himself more than balances things out. 

Josh Alper is also a writer for Pro Football Talk. You can follow him on Twitter.

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