Ettinger: The Madness is upon us

March is a special time for most sports fans, and the first week of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament didn’t disappoint. There were upsets. There were buzzer-beaters. There were controversial calls. There were more games decided by one point than I care to count. Four double-digit seeds advanced to the Sweet 16, and top-seeded Pittsburgh got dumped by last year’s Cinderella. Kudos to the NCAA for getting one sport right.

As magnificent as the first three rounds were, the next two weeks will be even better. The field of 16 is stacked with talented programs, historical powerhouses, upset-minded hopefuls and everything in between. Only one team, of course, will cut down the nets. The only predictable thing about March Madness is that it’s unpredictable. With that in mind, here are my rankings of the remaining field, in order of likelihood to win it all (Vegas odds are normalized to add up to one).

1) Kansas.

Kansas is NOT the best team in the field. That distinction goes to Ohio State. That said, they are a reasonably close second that has a shockingly easy path to the title game. The Morris twins give the Jayhawks size and star power. Kansas is also a remarkably deep team, as bench stars like Thomas Robinson will keep the squad energized against physical opponents. Most importantly, however, there’s not much standing in their way. After relatively easy wins over No. 16 Boston University and No. 9 Illinois, Kansas gets No. 12 Richmond in the Sweet 16. Should they advance, they face either No. 11 VCU or No. 10 Florida State. These are good teams, to be sure, but the prospect of making the Final Four without facing a 1-8 seed is almost ludicrous. Should they make the semis, the most dangerous teams are all on the other side of the bracket. A potential finals matchup against Ohio State could loom. The Buckeyes are a tough team to beat, but the Jayhawks have a good shot if they can get the draw fouls and take advantage of their superior depth.

My odds to win title: 4/1

Vegas odds (normalized): 4/1

2) Ohio State

Ohio State is the top overall seed in the tournament, and dominant wins over UT-San Antonio and George Mason (by a combined 61 points) have shown why. With freshman sensation Jared Sullinger leading the way, the Buckeye’s starting five (rounded out by Buford, Diebler, Lighty and Lauderdale) is almost unfair. If they play their game — quick pace and a lot of flair — and stay out of foul trouble, no one can stop them. That said, they face arguably the toughest road to the finals. Despite nearly getting stunned by Princeton, Kentucky is not an easy Sweet 16 opponent. Offensive powerhouse UNC awaits on the other side of the East region, while Duke, UConn and San Diego State represent tough potential semifinal opponents. The Buckeyes will have to earn their spot in the championship. That said, don’t be surprised if they win it all.

My odds to win title: 4.1/1

Vegas odds (normalized): 9/2

3) UConn

Don’t sleep on the Huskies. Most bracketologists have Duke thumping its way past UConn to the Final Four, but anyone who has seen Kemba Walker play knows there are no guarantees. UConn has looked good thus far, and the NBA-ready Walker is likely the most talented player in college basketball. True, the road isn’t easy: No. 2 San Diego State awaits in the Sweet 16, and powerhouse Duke would make for must-see TV in the regional finals. That said, there’s a lot to like about UConn’s chances. Alex Oriakhi and Jeremy Lamb have emerged to make this a more complete team. UConn is the hottest team in the tournament, and there’s something to be said for streaking teams with star players in the Big Dance.

My odds to win title: 8/1

Vegas odds (normalized): 20/1

4) Duke

As much as I love UConn, Duke cannot be ignored. With the return of Kyrie Irving, the Blue Devils now have three true superstars in Irving, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler. They play great defense, too, and are coached by college basketball’s biggest idol. The defending champs, however, have a few question marks. Will Irving be healthy enough to continue to contribute? Will his presence disrupt the flow of Smith’s offense? How do they explain the near upset at the hands of No. 8 Michigan? Even if they can answer these questions, they face a tough Sweet 16 matchup in Derrick Williams and the Arizona Wildcats, and could see UConn AND Ohio State on route to the title game. That’s a lot to overcome, but this is a talented squad that knows a thing or two about winning championships.

My odds to win title: 10/1

Vegas odds (normalized): 13/2

5) Florida

I’ll admit I was down on Florida when it picked up a No. 2 seed on selection Sunday. However, a solid win over a talented UCLA team has raised some eyebrows. You have to like the guard play of Erving Walker, and Kenny Boynton rounds out a solid backcourt. They probably aren’t the fifth-best team remaining, but if they can get past BYU in what promises to be a great game, they’ll play either No. 4 Wisconsin or No. 8 Butler for the Final Four. Other than Kansas, they probably have the easiest path to the finals.

My odds to win title: 20/1

Vegas odds (normalized): 25/1

6) BYU

I think BYU-Florida will be phenomenal game, so wherever Florida goes, BYU follows close behind. They’re no longer an elite team after losing Brandon Davies to an honor code violation, but Jimmer Fredette is the darling of the tournament and this team has a chip on their shoulder. A blowout win over a dangerous Gonzaga team was certainly impressive. That said, they’ll have a tough time getting past Florida given their lack of talent behind Fredette. How far can they ride his scoring ability?

My odds to win title: 25/1

Vegas odds (normalized): 45/1

7) UNC

Never count out the Tar Heels. Harrison Barnes is a future star, and John Henson adds much-needed length. This is an emerging team. That said, I don’t see a finals run. UNC is a very young team that hasn’t quite figured out how to play team defense, giving up a staggering 87 points to Long Island in the second round and then nearly getting upset by Washington in the third. Their pace gives them a good matchup against No. 11 Marquette in the Sweet 16, but they’re too small to stop Sullinger and Ohio State in a potential Elite 8 matchup. Even if they do, they’ll have their hands full with the eventual West region champion. Still, this young team can put on a show on offense.

My odds to win title: 30/1

Vegas odds (normalized): 20/1

8) San Diego State

This team has more talent than people realize. Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White give the Aztecs a scary frontcourt, and guard D.J. Gay has shown flashes of brilliance. That said, Gay is mistake-prone and the team nearly crumbled in double overtime against No. 7 Temple. On top of that, SD faces a tough rode to the finals: UConn awaits in the Sweet 16, and Duke will be a tough out if both teams advance to the regional finals.

My odds to win title: 35/1

Vegas odds (normalized): 26/1

9) Wisconsin

My odds to win title: 40/1

Vegas odds (normalized): 25/1

10) Kentucky

My odds to win title: 45/1

Vegas odds (normalized): 25/1

11) Florida State

My odds to win title: 50/1

Vegas odds (normalized): 50/1

12) Butler

My odds to win title: 55/1

Vegas odds (normalized): 80/1

13) Arizona

My odds to win title: 60/1

Vegas odds (normalized): 100/1

14) VCU

My odds to win title: 75/1

Vegas odds (normalized): 130/1

15) Marquette

My odds to win title: 100/1

Vegas odds (normalized): 120/1

16) Richmond

My odds to win title: 125/1

Vegas odds (normalized): 130/1

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