March Madness: NCAA Tournament Final Four prediction

By Greg Trietley

The bracket is out. The field is set. ESPN analyst Doug Gottlieb might try to sell you on No. 13… The bracket is out. The field is set. ESPN analyst Doug Gottlieb might try to sell you on No. 13 seed Montana — despite its losses to North Dakota, San Francisco and Oregon State — but here are four better bets to dance all the way to the Final Four in New Orleans.

South Region — Kentucky Wildcats

Kentucky is the best team in the nation. The Wildcats lost to Indiana 73-72 at Assembly Hall in December, but they won’t face any road-court disadvantage like that in the tournament. They do have a bumpy road — Connecticut, Wichita State and Duke, possibly — but they have handled tough opponents all season.

The Wildcats beat Kansas by 10 at Madison Square Garden. They beat North Carolina, Louisville and Florida at home. They thumped Florida again on the road and defeated the Gators yet again in the conference tournament.

Vanderbilt did beat them, 71-64, in the SEC title game, because the Wildcats had their sights on loftier prizes. Whom can you confidently choose over the school with Anthony Davis’ wingspan?

Second-best guess: honestly, nobody

West Region — Missouri Tigers

Missouri, the winner of the Big 12 tournament, deserved a No. 1 seed. Undefeated outside of their conference, the No. 2 seed Tigers average 80 points per game and have four guards who average a double-digit scoring clip. They will spread you out and knock down shots, as Baylor, Kansas and especially Notre Dame know. The Tigers crushed the Irish by 29 in late November.

With No. 1 seed Michigan State handed a tough possible third-round matchup against No. 8 seed Memphis, a path is clear for Missouri.

Second-best guess: another group of Tigers, Memphis

East Region — Gonzaga Bulldogs

You didn’t come here to read about a bunch of No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. Here’s how it goes down: Hot-shooting No. 5 seed Vanderbilt or steady No. 4 seed Wisconsin stuns Syracuse, whose rebounding woes are exposed somewhere down the line. Meanwhile, Gonzaga’s Robert Sacre and Elias Harris (combined rebounds per game: 15) match up well against Jared Sullinger of Ohio State, and the Bulldogs pull off the upset.

From there, it’s a grab-bag. Cincinnati, Florida State, Gonzaga, Vanderbilt and Wisconsin all have their flaws. Give it to the Bulldogs, who haven’t made the Elite Eight since 1999. They’re due, I tell ya. Due!

Second-best guess: Cincinnati Bearcats, fresh off a strong Big East tournament

Midwest Region — Belmont Bruins

Kansas can’t escape the mid-major. The Jayhawks were rock-chalked by Northern Iowa two tournaments ago and upset by Virginia Commonwealth last year. They had a scare with North Dakota State the year before that and were trounced by Bucknell in 2005. Saint Mary’s can beat ’em this year.

This region is stocked with mid-majors: Creighton, Temple, Ohio, Belmont, San Diego State — Butler might be hiding here somewhere, too. With recent tournament history foretelling a Cinderella somewhere, why not Belmont? Five of the Bruins’ seven losses were by five points or fewer.

They lost to Duke and Marshall in the final minute. Had they beaten the Blue Devils, the Bruins would be a No. 12 seed with buzz. Instead they lurk, ready to one-up the tournament surprises of Virginia Commonwealth and Butler. Fourth in the nation in scoring, they’re as good of a guess as anybody.

Second-best guess: North Carolina — when in doubt, be boring