2022 Men's NCAA Tournament Preview
The NCAA Tournament is here and I’ve got you covered with everything you need to know in all four regions, from the best games of the first round to the best players to watch and who’s on upset alert. Plus, I answer the biggest questions surrounding each region. Let’s get right into it!
West Regional - San Francisco, CA
Is this Gonzaga’s Year? Gonzaga has shed its mid-major status and firmly established itself as a major program in recent years. The Bulldogs earned the #1 overall seed for the second consecutive year, which was also the program’s fifth #1 seed in total. The one thing Gonzaga hasn’t been able to pull off yet is a national championship. They fell just short in the 2017 and 2021 Championship Games. Given enough cracks at it, odds are they will eventually win one. The Bulldogs lost Corey Kispert, Joel Ayayi and top 5 NBA draft pick Jalen Suggs from last year’s runner-up team, but has added furture top 5 NBA draft pick Chet Holmgren to this year’s team, and Second Team All-American Drew Timme is still there as well.
Has Memphis Finally Put it All Together? For most of the season, the story with Memphis was how short they were falling of expectations. The Tigers struggled out of the gate going 6-5 and star freshman Emoni Bates couldn’t find a groove in the college game. Bates hasn’t played since the end of January, but Head Coach Penny Hardaway coached his guys up and the team has soared since Bates’ absence, led by Jalen Duren. With wins over Houston (twice) and SMU coming in the last month, it looks like Memphis might be ready to go on a run, but they’ll have to contend with Gonzaga should they even beat #8 seed Boise State on Thursday.
Which Alabama Shows Up? Alabama can beat anybody in the country, as evidenced by their wins over Baylor, Houston and Gonzaga, but they also played down to the competition at times in losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia and Missouri. As the 6 seed, they are expected to beat Notre Dame, but in a matchup historically prone to upsets, will the good Crimson Tide show up and put away the Fighting Irish on the way to a possible Elite 8 or further? Or will Alabama let Notre Dame hang around until the final moments and Nate Oats suffers another disappointing early exit from the NCAA Tournament?
What’s in Store for Coach K’s Finale? When Duke’s tournament run is over, it will mark the end of the most storied coaching careers in the sport’s history. Led by future NBA lottery pick, Paolo Banchero, this Blue Devil squad is capable of giving Mike Kryzewski a sixth and final championship. In the way could stand Hall of Fame adversary Tom Izzo and Michigan State, Texas Tech and a potential Elite 8 rematch against Gonzaga to reach New Orleans. The question will be if the defense can rebound to early season form or if they crumble like they did through the final few games of the regular season and ACC Tournament.
Player to Watch: Abu Kigab, Boise State. The Broncos are balanced offensively with five players averaging at least 9 points per game, but they are led by Kigab who is the heart and soul of the team. Kigab leads Boise State in scoring and in steals. Honorable mentions to defensive stalwart Kevin McCullar (Texas Tech) and one of the best rebounders in the country, Adama Sanogo (Connecticut).
Game to Watch: Michigan State vs. Davidson. Do not let the small school name or the double digit seed confuse you. 10 seed Davidson can flat out ball, and much like their most famous alum Steph Curry used to do on the shores of Lake Norman, they can shoot the lights out. Luka Brajkovic shot over 40% from 3 on the season and could be headed to the NBA shortly. Hyungjung Lee took a tiny step back from last year’s 50/40/90 shooting season, but is still hitting close to 38% of his threes this season. The Wildcats won’t be afraid of the Spartans or legendary coach Tom Izzo. Izzo has been known for either making a long stay in the tourney or a quick bounce out of it, so which way will his 2022 Tournament go?
Upset Alert: Vermont over Arkansas and Notre Dame over Alabama. The Catamounts have one of the most efficient offenses in the country and have the shooters to keep up with an Arkansas team that is also in the top 50 for adjusted offensive efficiency. This one will come down to who shoots the 3 ball better. Vermont is at 36.8% for the season, while Arkansas is only shooting 30.7%. As for Notre Dame against Alabama, it comes back to the point I made earlier about Alabama playing down to the competition at times and if that happens again, the Fighting Irish can make them pay. Alabama’s defense can be suspect at times and Notre Dame can hit shots as demonstrated in their double overtime 89-87 win over Rutgers in the First Four.
Post-First Round Intriguing Matchup: Gonzaga vs. Connecticut (Sweet 16). With all due respect to a Duke-Gonzaga or Duke-Michigan State matchup, this is the one I want to see. Connecticut is one of the most balanced teams in the country, with the 21st ranked offense and 35th ranked defense on KenPom. Historically, more balanced teams (those who don’t rely too much on either offense or defense) go further in March, so the Huskies are a team to watch out for. Of course, Gonzaga is an even better, balanced team with the #1 offense and #7 defense.
East Regional - Philadelphia, PA
How Healthy are Baylor and Kentucky? The Bears and the Wildcats are the two best teams in this region and are worthy of their #1 and #2 seeds respectively. But both have battled injuries all season. Baylor knows they will be without Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua all tournament and will miss their best shooter, LJ Cryer for at least the first two rounds. Reserve guard Kendall Brown will be available after getting hurt in the Big 12 Tournament, but is he 100%? That remains to be seen. For Kentucky, only Wooden Award favorite Oscar Tshiebwe and Davidson transfer Kellan Grady have played in every game. The Wildcats will hope the likes of dynamic freshman TyTy Washington or Sahvir Wheeler stay healthy for the next six games.
Can the Mid-Majors Make a Deep Run? The East Region is home to the best mid-majors in the tournament. Between St. Mary’s, San Francisco and Murray State, one of these teams could take out some blue bloods on the way to a surprisingly (to the unsuspecting public) deep run in the tournament. All three of those teams are in the top 30 of KenPom and are more than capable of beating anyone else in this region. And don’t forget about the likes of Yale (has tournament upset history), Akron (play in the tough MAC) or St. Peter’s (a top 40 defense) either.
Will Virginia Tech Cool Off? The Hokies rode a hot ACC Tournament where they shot close to 50% and a blistering 42.6% from deep to win the ACC Title and its AQ spot into the field of 68. It’s a good thing too because otherwise Virginia Tech would have been headed to the NIT. It will be up to ACC Tournament MVP Hunter Cattoor to keep up the hot shooting, who hit over 41% of his threes this season, but it’s not just him. Keve Aluma leads the team in scoring at almost 16 points per game and former Wofford Terrier Storm Murphy provides a critical role on this team as another shooter. The 11th-seeded Hokies start on Friday against sixth-seeded Texas in a game that feels more like an 8-9 game with how close it could be. If the Hokies can get by the Longhorns, could Virginia Tech be this year’s sleeper? Perhaps the Hokie magic isn’t done yet.
Are We Destined for a Baylor-UCLA Sweet 16? The path for two of last year’s Final Four is not easy in a region chock full of traditional powers. Kentucky, North Carolina, Marquette, San Francisco and Indiana, in addition to the Bears and Bruins, have all won NCAA Championships in their history, so this will not be any easy path for either. A second round UNC or Marquette matchup could be tough for Baylor, while either St. Mary’s or Indiana could pull an upset of UCLA. Some regard this region as the most wide-open of the four.
Player to Watch: Armando Bacot, North Carolina. Bacot is a double-double machine, averaging 16.5 points per game and 12.5 rebounds per game. The Tar Heels sometimes forget to feed the big man for stretches of games, but even with limited touches, he makes the most of his opportunities and impacts the game on the glass and at the rim. He helped drive this North Carolina offense to big wins against Syracuse and Duke, earning this NCAA Tournament bid. Honorable mentions to teammate Caleb Love and first round opponent Justin Lewis
Game to Watch: San Francisco vs. Murray State. It’s a shame these two teams have to face off against each other in the Round of 64 because both are good enough to make a run and raise awareness of mid-majors everywhere. Both are in the top 30 of KenPom with the Dons having a slight advantage. The Racers raced through the Ohio Valley Conference, going 18-0 in conference games and 30-2 overall, including pushing Auburn to the brink in December. Murray State is led by playmaker Tevin Brown, their second leading scorer and best outside shooter. One of these teams will go home, while the other will get a shot at playing Kentucky in the Round of 32 (in all likelihood).
Upset Alert: Indiana over St. Mary’s. Indiana’s win over Wyoming in the First Four gives them a matchup against another mid-major in fifth-seeded St. Mary’s. The Gaels love to muck up games, posting a top 10 adjusted defense rating on KenPom and playing at one of the slowest tempos in the country. This kind of strategy is good for pulling an upset yourself, but not when you’re trying to avoid an upset. A limited number of possessions increases variance and if the opponent has a hot shooting night, there might not be enough possessions to get back into the game; think back to the 2018 UMBC upset over Virginia. Throw in the fact that the Hoosiers are a very good 12 seed (top 40 overall on KenPom) and have shaken off any rust already (a First Four team has won at least one additional game every tournament since the expansion to 68 except for the 2019 tournament) and this might be ripe for a classic 12-5 upset.
Post-First Round Intriguing Matchup: Baylor vs. UCLA (Sweet 16). It’s easy to choose a possible battle between two of last year’s Final Four teams. Baylor has looked every bit the part of a defending champion this year, but has battled injuries and will be without key big man Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, plus maybe a couple others. UCLA has used last year’s surprising run to the Final Four as an 11 seed to springboard towards an even better year. The Bruins brought back basically everyone from last year’s team, including stars Johnny Juzang and Jamie Jacquez Jr., and are now a 4 seed. History says at least one Final Four team from the previous season will make it back; the winner of this game would be one win away from a trip to New Orleans. This is clearly the most exciting potential Sweet 16 matchup in the men’s tournament.
South Regional - San Antonio, TX
Is Arizona a Sure Thing in the South? The consensus seems to be the Wildcats are a safe pick to at least make the Final Four, if not win the whole thing. However, in their way are the likes of top 5 KenPom team Houston, a hungry Illinois team, and a Tennessee team that’s been on fire recently, just to name a few. I wouldn’t be so sure that this South Regional is a cakewalk for Arizona.
Will Houston Finally Play like the Computers Think They Will? Houston has been lodged in the top 5 of KenPom’s rating system all season. The Cougars made the Final Four last season, but went through significant roster turnover. On top of that, they lost their leader Marcus Sasser to injury early in the year. Houston has rallied and found a way to win with All-AAC First Teamers Fabian White Jr. and Josh Carlton. However, the Cougars did not beat an at-large caliber opponent until beating Memphis in the AAC final on Selection Sunday, so the public isn’t sure Houston is as good as KenPom thinks. Does Houston finally play on that top 5 level? If so, then top seed Arizona and the rest of the region is in for a rude awakening.
Can Kofi Cockburn and Illinois Put Last Year’s Disappointment Behind Them? Last year, Illinois was a #1 seed and people expected the dynamic duo of Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu to carry the Illini to the Final Four, but in-state Cindarella Loyola Chicago took down Illinois in the Round of 32 to the shock of many. Now, Dosunmu is in the NBA, but Cockburn has elevated his game from a Second Team All-American last year to the First Team list this season. Cockburn has put Illinois on his back, averaging 21.1 points per game and 10.8 rebounds per game. The fourth-seeded Illini open on Friday against a tough Chattanooga team with serious size inside to challenge Cockburn, but this team is hungry and determined to avenge last year’s early exit.
Is Another Loyola Chicago Cindarella Run in the Cards? Speaking of Loyola Chicago, they are back and ready to do more damage in the NCAA Tournament. The Ramblers have made a name for themselves after a Final Four run in 2018 and a Sweet Sixteen run last season. Loyola Chicago was briefly in the top 25 this season and had built enough respect that there was talk of an at-large bid in January. Then some struggles came in February and suddenly the Ramblers likely had to win the Missouri Valley Tournament just to make it back to the Tournament. Well, they won the MVC Tournament and might have re-established some good mojo. Lucas Williamson is the one major contributor from the 2018 team still playing and is the leader of the team. Tenth-seeded Loyola Chicago begins against Ohio State, before a likely date against Villanova.
Player to Watch: Collin Gillespie, Villanova. Gillespie is the super-senior leader on a senior-laden team. He’s grown his game every season, hitting a career high 15.9 points per game this season, while also posting career highs in 3 point percentage, free throw percentage and steals. Gillespie will try and cap his career with another national championship after being a key bench player on the 2018 championship team. Honorable mentions go to Silvio de Sousa (Chattanooga) and Santiago Vescovi (Tennessee).
Game to Watch: Houston vs. UAB. When the bracket was revealed, this was one of the games that made me say “ooh interesting.” Two former Conference USA rivals meeting up is just the tip of the iceberg for what makes this one interesting. As mentioned above, Houston hasn’t necessarily played like a top 5 team and UAB is a top 50 team according to KenPom. The Blazers’ Jelly Walker is one of the most exciting players to watch in the country, but must perform against a gritty Houston defense. Sign me up.
Upset Alert: Michigan over Colorado State. This isn’t about Colorado State, who had a fantastic year in the Mountain West and have one of the more underappreciate players in the country in David Roddy. This is about Michigan, who is the classic example of a major conference team that sleptwalk through much of the season and then awakens in March and plays as the true giant they are supposed to be. The two teams are separated by just two spots in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin metric, so this should be a lot closer than the 6 vs 11 seed matchup implies.
Post-First Round Intriguing Matchup: Villanova vs. Ohio State/Loyola Chicago winner (Round of 32). Whoever comes out of the Ohio State/Loyola Chicago matchup should give #2 seed Villanova a tough fight. Ohio State has an exceptional offense led by EJ Liddell and can take advantage of an at-times suspect Villanova defense. Meanwhile, Loyola Chicago has proven themselves to be dangerous to any higher seed that crosses their path in March. Mid-Majors don’t typically beat #1 or #2 seeds in the Round of 32 but Loyola is no ordinary mid-major; they did beat #1 Illinois last year after all.
Midwest Regional - Chicago, IL
Will Kansas Party in New Orleans Once Again? There’s something about the Big Easy that attracts the Kansas Jayhawks. This year is the sixth time New Orleans has hosted the Final Four. The previous three times New Orleans hosted, Kansas made it to the Final Four and was runner-up in 2003 and 2012. Perhaps the magic of Bourbon Street draws them in again.
Will Providence’s Penchant for Close Games Finally Cost Them? Providence has played 30 games so far this season. 19 of them have been decided by 10 points or fewer. Typically, you’d expect a team to win about 50%, maybe 55 or 60 percent, of close games. The Friars have managed to win almost 90% of games within ten points (17-2)! For reasons like that, computer rating systems like KenPom have frowned at Providence’s performance relative to their top 4 seed. Regression to the mean could strike at the worst possible time now in March and the public is picking the Friars as a popular upset victim in the first round.
How Far Can LSU Go Without Will Wade? The dark cloud hanging over LSU and Head Coach Will Wade due to NCAA investigations into recruiting violations has now passed and taken Wade with it. Now under the direction of interim coach Kevin Nickelberry, will the sixth-seeded Tigers still be distracted? Led by versatile defender Tari Eason, they have the talent to compete with just about anybody, but this might be a difference-maker.
Can Auburn Recapture Their Early Season Magic? For much of the season, Auburn was among the best teams in the country. However, February and March was not kind to the Tigers if they weren’t in the friendly confines of Auburn Arena, going 1-4 in the final five non-home games. Obviously, to repeat a 2019 Final Four run, Jabari Smith, Walker Kessler and the rest of the Tigers will have to figure out how to win away from home again.
Player to Watch: Keegan Murray, Iowa. Murray’s draft stock has soared this season because he’s proven he can do almost anything. He truly flies to the ball, gobbling up 8.6 rebounds per game. He’s got the size, he’s got the strength and he can shoot the ball, hitting 40% of three pointers. Murray is 4th in the country in scoring at 23.1 points per game and somehow he exceeded that at the Big Ten Tournament, going for more than 25 points per game across four contests. Honorable mentions go to Jordan Bohannon (Iowa), Jacob Gilyard (Richmond) and Tyler Burton (Richmond) who will all be on the floor in the 5-12 matchup.
Game to Watch: San Diego State vs. Creighton. Do you love defense? If you do, this is the game for you. The Aztecs grind games to a halt and hold opponents to 56.2 points per game and only three teams scored more than 70 points on San Diego State all season. Not to be outdone, Creighton boasts a top 20 defense on KenPom and have needed to win with defense after losing electric freshman Ryan Nembhard to injury for the rest of the season. The Bluejays have only allowed 62.3 points per game since losing Nembhard. Do not bet the over in this game.
Upset Alert: South Dakota State over Providence. First off, the Friars love to play close games, which is already a dangerous thing to do against lower seeded teams; you don’t want to play with fire in March. But also, #4 seeds with a bad defense are a recipe for disaster (think back to 2018 Buffalo vs. Arizona). Providence has an adjusted defense rating near 80th in the country, and if there was ever a 13 seed to take advantage of a bad defense, it’s the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State. The teams shoots 44.8% percent from three, which is best in the country, and they are led by Baylor Scheierman and Douglas Wilson, two sharpshooters averaging over 16 points per game. Watch out Friars.
Post-First Round Intriguing Matchup: Auburn vs. Wisconsin (Sweet 16). The Midwest Region has a lot of fascinating possible matchups (Iowa vs Kansas, Auburn vs Kansas), but I’m interested in a potential 2 vs. 3 game between Auburn and Wisconsin. Wisconsin appears overseeded according to advanced analytics sites like KenPom, but Auburn has struggled to beat anybody away from home in the last month. This could come down to the final moments, which is where Auburn execution has really struggled. Wisconsin has one of the best late game closers in the game with Johnny Davis, and seeing him and Jabari Smith, two NBA lottery picks, go against one another would be special.
I’ll be back with a women’s tournament preview tomorrow (or early Friday morning), plus previews of the second weekend when this first weekend of madness wraps up. If you still haven’t gotten enough of my Tournament preview (or want to listen instead of read), you can check out the Midnight Snacks podcast, where I joined friend of the Sub, Kyle Loughran, to break down some of the same things discussed in this post. Take a listen and subscribe to his podcast as well!
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