These are the only five teams should consider picking to win the 2022 NCAA Tournament in your March Madness bracket.
Much of the joy and lure of March Madness to the casual fan is the first weekend upsets — anything can happen because just about everything has happened.
But the NCAA Tournament is in place to crown college basketball’s national champion. All 68 teams in the field technically have a chance to cut down the nets in New Orleans and secure their place in the sport’s lore, yet we all know that’s a much more likely scenario for some than others.
Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, 32 of the 36 champions were either a No. 1, No. 2, or No. 3 seed in their region. No other seed line has produced a champion more than once. Chances are that’s going to be the case again.
As we look at those 12 teams, there are seven that have no chance to win the championship due to shortcomings they won’t be able to overcome. That leaves five teams as the only ones with a realistic chance to win the national title.
Here are those five and why each has championship potential.
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If you don’t think Gonzaga can win a national championship simply because “they don’t perform well in March,” well, you’re completely misguided.
Mark Few has led the Bulldogs to two of the last four national championship games and they’ve made the Sweet 16 in each of the last six tournaments, including four Elite Eight appearances. They have had more NCAA Tournament success since the start of the 2014-15 season than anyone.
This Gonzaga team has all the pieces necessary to get this program over the hump. They’re the only team in the country that ranks in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They have eight wins over NCAA Tournament teams and had 10 Quad 1 wins during the regular season, which is more than anyone else other than Kansas and Tennessee.
The Zags have the individual stars necessary to make a run, too. Chet Holmgren is the projected No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft and ranks in the top 10 nationally in both block rate and true shooting percentage, showing how dominant he is on both ends of the court. Drew Timme is the best low-post scorer in the country and Andrew Nembhard is the favorite to win the Bob Cousy Award, given annually to the nation’s best point guard.
Gonzaga has even improved greatly in the areas (3-point shooting, turnovers) it struggled in losses to Duke and Alabama. The Bulldogs are now 17th in the country in 3-point shooting and 39th in turnover rate.
The West projects to be a tough region but Gonzaga has been the most dominant team in the country. This group is poised to make a long run at the very least.
Arizona took a page out of the Gonzaga playbook by hiring Mark Few’s lead assistant in Tommy Lloyd, and that decision is paying dividends for the Wildcats. He has led Arizona to a stunning 31-3 record in his first season at the helm with two of those losses coming to top four seeds on the road (Tennessee, UCLA).
Offensively, the Wildcats look a lot like the Zags. They play fast (eighth in pace), dominate the interior (fifth in 2-point shooting percentage) and are incredibly unselfish (nation’s leader in assist rate). Everything flows effortlessly and is aesthetically pleasing to watch but, when Arizona needs a bucket, projected lottery pick Bennedict Mathurin is capable of taking over the game.
Defensively, Arizona is extremely stout as well. This group has tremendous size — they’re the second tallest team in the country — and use that to stifle opponents inside, ranking third in interior defense and 25th in block rate.
The biggest key for the Wildcats will be getting consistent play from their role players. Guard Kerr Kriisa, who is dealing with an ankle injury he suffered in the Pac-12 Tournament, can elevate Arizona to a special level or be an on-court liability if his turnovers get out of hand. Second-year players Dalen Terry and Pelle Larsson can push this team to dominant heights, too, but both have also put up some dud performances.
When this team puts it all together and is firing on cylinders, they have looked like the best team in the country.
Kansas is as proven as anyone in the country. The Jayhawks have more Quad 1 wins (12) and more Quad 1 & 2 wins (20) than anyone else, a product of winning both the regular season and tournament titles in the nation’s toughest conference.
That track record alone should prove that this group is capable of making a long run.
Analytics back it up, too. Kansas has a top 10 offensive and a top 30 defense, things that each of the last non-UConn national champions have had. Ochai Agbaji gives them an All-American capable of winning a game by himself, and a now-healthy Remy Martin is providing a reliable lift off the bench.
Seriously, how many two-time first team all-conference performers come off the bench? That newfound depth has alleviated a major concern for Bill Self‘s squad. The bench contributed an average of 12.8 points per game in KU’s losses compared to 19.5 points per game in its wins this season.
The bracket also sets up well for the Jayhawks with a stumbling No. 2 seed (Auburn) and relatively weak No. 3 and No. 4 seeds (Wisconsin and Providence, respectively). This is widely viewed as the easiest region of the four, which bodes well for Kansas making it to at least the Final Four.
When healthy, Kentucky has looked dominant. Three of the Wildcats’ five losses since early December occurred when they were missing either TyTy Washington or Sahvir Wheeler — or both.
Those two guards are the key to Kentucky’s offensive attack. Both ranked in the top 11 in the SEC in assist rate (Wheeler is 17th nationally) and are reliable scorers averaging at least 10 points per game. In fact, all five of Kentucky’s starters average at least 10 points per game, showing the team’s balance.
Big man Oscar Tshiebwe, though, is the star. The West Virginia transfer leads them with 17.0 points and 15.1 rebounds per game, putting him in pace to be the first college basketball player to average over 15 rebounds per game since at least 1985. It’s why he was named HeatCheckCBB’s National Player of the Year and why the Wildcats are one of the nation’s best teams on the glass.
Kentucky was arguably the nation’s best team when it was healthy back in January. It beat Tennessee by 28 points and then beat Kansas by 18 at Allen Fieldhouse just a few weeks later. That’s their ceiling.
If the Wildcats are able to recapture even just a bit of that magic, they could roll to John Calipari‘s second national title.
Tennessee might be the hottest team in the country right now. The Vols are 12-1 overall since the start of February with wins over Arkansas, Auburn and Kentucky.
Head coach Rick Barnes’ squad has been excellent defensively all year — they rank third nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency — but it has been this group’s greatly improved offense that has propelled this run. The Vols have increased their average offensive efficiency while improving their 3-point shooting and cutting down on turnovers.
This happened as a result of an identity change. Tennessee is a bigger, experienced team that prided itself on being more physical and more defensively dominant than its opponent over the last few years. That style, however, consistently resulted in poor halfcourt offense. The Vols simply didn’t have enough shooting threats to space the floor.
So Rick Barnes made the move to employ more three-guard lineups involving 5-foot-9 freshman Zakai Zeigler. Kennedy Chandler and Santiago Vescovi stayed in their roles as starters, but Zeigler also began playing starter-level minutes.
Tennessee has more quickness on the court with that three-guard lineup, more shooting — and therefore, more spacing — and its defense doesn’t suffer. Zeigler actually leads the team and ranks fifth nationally in steal rate.
This newfound efficiency on the offensive end could be the thing that propels the Vols to their first Final Four — and potentially first national title — in program history.
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