March Madness: Crazy-but-possible 2022 NCAA Tournament bid scenarios

Niko Medved, Colorado State

How a five-bid Mountain West, at-large North Texas, 5-seed Murray State and more are still on the table in crazy-but-possible 2022 March Madness bid scenarios.

We’re coming up on the start of conference tournament action in college basketball as teams jockey for league titles and at-large safety.

As is the case every season, the college hoops landscape provides unique storylines to monitor over the closing weeks of the regular season.

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Without further ado, let’s check out some crazy-but-possible NCAA Tournament bid scenarios over the next three weeks.

North Texas earns an at-large bid

Even after losing star guard Javion Hamlet and two other starters to graduation last spring, North Texas seemingly has an even more dominant team this year than the one that reached the NCAA Tournament second round in 2021.

Grand McCasland’s squad is up to 21-4 on the year with three of its four defeats coming in the first 18 days of the season. Since then, the Mean Green have been one of the most dominant teams in America, thanks in large part to a 21st-ranked defense.

Now top 40 in both NET and KenPom, UNT has a fairly strong argument to receive an at-large bid if it should fail to win the CUSA Tournament. North Texas is 6-3 against Quads 1 and 2, owns one of the toughest nonconference schedules among mid-major teams, is undefeated in away games and has zero losses to teams outside of the NET top 125.

Assuming UNT takes care of business in its three remaining regular-season games, a bid should be all but locked up no matter what transpires in the CUSA Tournament. Alas, a two-bid CUSA is a possibility, but only if a team is capable of unseating North Texas, which has proven to be a nearly impossible task of late.

Kansas and Baylor receive 1-seeds

In each of the last three tournaments, a conference has had multiple 1-seeds. The Big 12 could be the next league to do it, thanks to the dominance of Kansas and Baylor.

The Jayhawks and Bears are the only teams in the country with more than eight Quad-1 wins on the season as both boast a 10-4 record in such opportunities. Neither team has an unforgivable loss and KU and BU are both highly regarded by advanced metrics, ranking no worse than ninth in any ranking that appears on the team sheet.

Naturally, these two teams match up on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) in what could be a pivotal 40 minutes for 1-seed hopes. Should Baylor return the favor after the Feb. 5 blowout loss in Lawrence, there’s even more reason to believe the Big 12 could have two teams seated on the top seed line on Selection Sunday.

AAC is a one-bid league

While Houston has been the class of the AAC since its inception, the Cougars’ dominance can’t mask the lacking support by the league’s other competitors.

Despite Houston’s Final Four run last year, Kelvin Sampson’s squad was the only AAC team locked into the NCAA Tournament’s first round. Wichita State won the regular season title but lacking metrics contributed to the Shockers’ placement in the First Four, an eventual 53-52 loss to Drake.

This time around, the hobbled Cougars squad is once again the only tournament lock late in the regular season. Memphis and SMU are the other American teams most likely to dance. However, both teams sit outside of the NET’s top 40 and have multiple losses outside of the top two NET quadrants. We could see a 2022 redux of the AAC’s second bid landing in the First Four again, yet both the Tigers and Mustangs are far from locks.

Murray State lands a 5-seed

Murray State is officially the mid-major darling of the 2021-22 college basketball season. The Racers have ripped off a 27-2 start to the season and now sit 24th in KenPom after a 76-43 beatdown against Belmont Thursday night, the second such blowout victory over the OVC’s No. 2 team.

Matt McMahon’s group can seemingly do no wrong with only SEMO standing in the way of a perfect 18-0 record in OVC play. Should they win out, the Racers will be a fascinating seeding proposition for the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

A 30-2 squad that sits in the top 20-25 in most advanced metrics should, theoretically, be no worse than a 5-seed. Thanks to Memphis’ recent upswing, Murray State’s Dec. 10 win in the FedEx Forum is looking more and more like a signature victory to strengthen the Racers’ seeding position. Some similar mid-major tournament profiles in recent years: 2019 Buffalo (31-3, 23rd in KenPom, 6-seed), 2015 Northern Iowa (30-3, 12th in KenPom, 5-seed), 2012 Murray State (30-1, 47th in KenPom, 6-seed) and 2011 San Diego State (32-2, 8th in KenPom, 2-seed).

Mountain West sends five teams dancing

The best mid-major league this season is the Mountain West, which remains in shouting distance of both the ACC and Pac-12 in KenPom’s conference efficiency rankings.

Lukas Harkins’ Friday bracketology update has three MWC teams comfortably in the field — Colorado State, Boise State and Wyoming — and San Diego State on the bubble. The Aztecs close the regular season with games against San Jose State (home), Wyoming (away), Fresno State (home) and Nevada (away). A 4-0 finish would put SDSU at 21-7 on the season with likely top-25 marks in both KenPom (currently 23rd) and NET (currently 31st).

Assuming the other three MWC contenders hold serve and SDSU finds a more comfortable perch, it would lend the opportunity for a possible bid steal to push the MWC to five overall bids. The most obvious candidate would be UNLV, which hosts the Mountain West Tournament and is 17-11 on the year with the 11th-highest efficiency margin improvement since New Year’s Day. Bryce Hamilton and the Rebels have already walloped Colorado State twice and show the makings of a tough March out.