Who to pick, who to avoid in your NCAA bracket

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

This year's NCAA Tournament, unlike most in recent memory, has a prohibitive favorite in Kentucky. But the beauty of Tournament is that no team, even Kentucky, is safe from the dreaded upset.

Here's a guide to the 68-team field and filling out your bracket.

5 best story lines of the Tournament

How will Kentucky mesh?

With so many talented freshmen, the only questions were whether coach John Calipari would be able to keep all the players happy with playing time and if the Wildcats would get through the season undefeated.

So far, so good on both fronts. They've managed to avoid injuries and to play through their lulls and even improve — while still winning. If there were questions about whether one-and-dones can succeed together, Coach Cal is making a statement.

There will be more challenges in the Tournament than in the SEC, though, so there won't be an opportunity for a letdown.

Who can challenge Kentucky?

From the start of the season, Kentucky was the odds-on favorite to win the national title. But who's the biggest challenger? Wisconsin? Virginia? Arizona?

All three have the depth, but Arizona and Wisconsin also have the size, offense and experience to hang around, at least. Seeding plays a part in determining the other contenders — whether they knock each other around or get lined up to play Kentucky.

The oddsmakers will favor Kentucky — heavily — but the pressure of finishing an unbeaten season will be an unaccounted variable.

Bo knows Final Fours

With the core of last year's Final Four squad intact, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan has his team back in position for a repeat performance. The Badgers' only two losses were to the two new Big Ten teams (Maryland and Rutgers) and they did it without Traevon Jackson for most of the season.

The book on Ryan was that he was able to succeed in past years without the talent of some of the top programs. With Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes, he has comparable talent — and has made Bronson Koenig into a very capable replacement.

If there's one team that can give Kentucky a run, it could be Wisconsin.

What to make of the Big 12?

Besides Kansas, which won the conference title again, there were a number of teams that added to the Big 12's depth — similar to what the Big Ten has done in recent years.

Iowa State is solid and Oklahoma and Baylor could make some noise, but West Virginia and Oklahoma State also could be teams to watch. They pounded on each other during the conference season, but whether that translates to being tougher during the NCAA Tournament is a question mark.

Count on at least four teams making it to the Sweet 16.

Is Villanova for real?

The Wildcats weren't a lock for a top seed after dominating the Big East, but they did eke into the final No. 1 seed. With so much attention on Kentucky and the ACC squads, Villanova has flown under the radar a bit.

The Big East wasn't as strong as in previous years, which could

bring into question whether the Wildcats were tested enough during the regular season. The 20-point loss at Georgetown raises an eyebrow, but the two dominating wins over St. John's and the nonconference wins over VCU, Illinois and Syracuse more than make up for it.

Senior guard Darrun Hilliard II (14.2 points, 3.2 rebounds) is producing as much as last season, but he's undervalued and holds things together.

Duke's Jahlil Okafor, right, averages 17.6 points and 9.2 rebounds per game for the Blue Devils.

5 players who can lead a team to the Final Four

Jahlil Okafor, Duke: The Blue Devils are loaded, but the cog that drives the engine is Okafor, a freshman center. He averaged 17.6 points and 9.2 rebounds and was a force on the interior, allowing Duke's offense to be as versatile as there is in the country.

Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: "Frank the Tank" is one of the strongest candidates for national player of the year after leading the Badgers to the Big Ten regular-season title. With his inside-outside presence and veteran savvy, he's one of the toughest players in the country to defend.

D'Angelo Russell, Ohio State: Only a freshman, Russell is one of the most polished and versatile players in the country. He was highly regarded coming out of high school and has lived up to the lofty billing. If the Buckeyes pick up some of the slack around him, they could make a run.

Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky: It's hard to point to one Wildcats player as a difference-maker. Cauley-Stein, though, fits the mold as a defensive stopper and one of the most experienced. An injury ended his season last year, but he could be the most important player in Kentucky's path to a title.

Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga: Wiltjer, a junior forward, transferred from Kentucky and has the Zags in the NCAA Tournament for the 17th straight season. They could be a threat to make a big run, with some scoring punch behind him.

5 favorites in the tournament

Kentucky: The Wildcats are the prohibitive favorite after streaking through the regular season without a loss. Although the SEC wasn't the strongest — only six of Kentucky's 18 conference wins were within single digits — but as a No. 1 seed, they might not be challenged until at least the Elite Eight.

Duke: The Blue Devils are rounding into form at the right time, finishing the regular season with 11 straight wins before the ACC Tournament. That streak included a win at Virginia and a sweep over North Carolina. With Jahlil Okafor, they'll be formidable, but Tyus Jones and Quin Cook are ones to watch.

Virginia: This is the year to believe in the Cavaliers, who won the ACC for the second straight season. They showed they can play at a couple difference paces and might have the defense to overshadow their offensive deficiencies (they rank in the 200s in scoring).

Arizona: After making a run last season, the Wildcats are back — and just as good. Their three regular-season losses were by a total of nine points and were all on the road. Unlike many of the top teams, they don't rely on just one star, which is critical in tournament situations.

Wisconsin: If there's one team that can challenge Kentucky's size and depth, it's the Badgers, with Frank Kaminsky in the middle, along with Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker. They won the Big Ten, even with Traevon Jackson injured for much of the conference season. Experience might be their biggest asset.

A.J. Hammons has played more consistently, giving Purdue a lift as it heads into the NCAA Tournament.

5 teams to pick in your bracket

Kansas: The Jayhawks won the Big 12 regular-season title for the 11th straight season and they usually don't get upset in the early rounds. Seeding and location will be critical, but Bill Self usually can navigate through to the Sweet 16 without any issues.

Baylor: Junior forward Rico Gathers is a menace in the paint on both ends of the floor, averaging 11.6 points and 11.7 rebounds. They were tested by the deep Big 12 schedule and could be better for it now that they're playing different teams.

West Virginia: The Mountaineers were able to win the games they were supposed to win — all of their losses were against the top Big 12 teams — but the concern is that five of those seven came by double digits. They could get past the Sweet 16, but they'll need some breaks.

Purdue: Coach Matt Painter probably got the Boilermakers to overachieve a little this season, but with A.J. Hammons playing more consistently, they could turn a few heads. Raphael Davis helped down the stretch and Jon Octeus gave solid contributions.

Louisville: The Cardinals had a topsy-turvy conference season in the ACC, but they usually don't disappoint in the NCAA Tournament. They beat Virginia in the regular-season finale and stayed close with Kentucky in December. If Montrezl Harrell can keep things together, they could make another run.

5 teams to avoid picking in your bracket

Northern Iowa: The Panthers have won three NCAA Tournament games in their history — and two of those were in 2010 before losing to Michigan State. They depend too much on senior forward Seth Tuttle (15.3 points), their only double-figure scorer. Opponents can game-plan against one-man teams too easily.

Michigan State: The Spartans could go to the Elite Eight — or they could lose in the first round. They've had some mind-numbing miscues at the ends of games, which had Tom Izzo famously frustrated against Indiana. And free throws are a bugaboo, which is an issue in the Tournament.

Texas: Don't buy into the Longhorns being an overlooked team in the Big 12. They had two separate four-game losing streaks — all to ranked teams — and they're too inconsistent to put it all together (at least this year).

Valparaiso: The Crusaders won the Horizon League and are back in the NCAA Tournament for the for the second time in the last three years. Even though they're 28-5, they haven't won a Tournament game in their last five tries, dating to 1998.

Arkansas: The Razorbacks were buoyed by the lack of depth in the SEC and only had to play Kentucky once. They don't have a great nonconference resume outside of a win at SMU. There will only be one SEC team to excel in the Tournament — and it's not Arkansas.

5 dark horses in the tournament

Iowa: This choice might draw some laughs, but the Hawkeyes have the experience and the versatility to put things together for a run. They've been inconsistent over the years, but Aaron White is a solid presence and Jarrod Uthoff is underrated.

North Carolina: With Virginia and Duke ahead of them in the ACC, the Tar Heels were overshadowed this season, but coach Roy Williams is due for an NCAA run. They rank second nationally in rebounds and assists. Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige could be a potent combination.

Maryland: The Terrapins finished second in the first season in the Big Ten. They have an inside-outside presence (Dez Wells) and deft scoring (Melo Trimble). Coach Mark Turgeon had them playing well at home but they had their troubles on the road.

Gonzaga: It's tough to call the Bulldogs a dark horse, but they haven't been able to get over the hump in past years, so it's a fitting term until they do. They won the West Coast Conference tournament again and their only two losses were by three points each — at Arizona in OT and to BYU.

Iowa State: What Big 12 team didn't have a hard time in the regular season? With Georges Niang and Monte Morris, the Cyclones have an inside-outside complement and their experience will help them win at least a couple games in the Tournament.

Iowa State guard Monte Morris is a former Flint Beecher standout.

5 top early matchups

No. 5 West Virginia vs. No. 12 Buffalo: Buffalo has flown under the radar all season. It lost at Wisconsin by 12 and at Kentucky by 19, which against Kentucky is more than respectable. Both teams can score (each average 70-plus points a game) and have fiery coaches (Buffalo's Bobby Hurley; West Virginia's Bob Huggins) leading them. Buffalo junior forward Justin Moss of Romulus leads a young but super athletic group that can pull the typical No. 12 seed over No. 5 upset.

No. 4 Georgetown vs. No. 13 Eastern Washington: Two years ago, Georgetown, as a No. 2 seed, looked to have an easy run to at least a Sweet 16 appearance. The 15th seed, Florida Gulf Coast, ran all over the Hoyas to pull off the upset and made the Sweet 16. This go-around is eerily similar. Eastern Washington is third in scoring in the country at 80.8 points a game. If Georgetown can't slow this game down, Tyler Harvey (22.9 points) and his teammates will be ready to run Georgetown out of the gym.

No. 12 Stephen F. Austin vs. No. 5 Utah: Do yourself a favor and pencil in S.F. Austin on your bracket. It averages almost 80 points a game and three of its four losses were to teams that made the NCAA Tournament (Northern Iowa in OT, Xavier and Baylor). Utah had a pretty solid season, but S.F. Austin has something to prove … and will.

No. 7 VCU vs. No. 10 Ohio State: The Buckeyes have absolutely no inside game at all and come Tournament time, that's not a good thing. Ohio State freshman D'Angelo Russell will probably be playing in his last collegiate game. VCU coach Shaka Smart and his athletic team will win this game going away.

No. 7 Wichita State vs. No. 10 Indiana: No respect for Wichita State this year by the NCAA Tournament committee. After being a No. 1 seed last year, Wichita State lost four games and dropped to a No. 7 this year. Indiana has a dynamite backcourt in Kevin "Yogi" Farrell and James Blackmon Jr., to match Wichita State's Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet. Neither team has a serious post threat, but the fact that Wichita State plays good defense will be enough to move on.

Craig Yuhas contributed