March Madness predictions: Why these seven title favorites won’t win the NCAA Tournament

Bruce Pearl, Auburn, college basketball

March Madness upset predictions: Here are seven high seeds in the 2022 NCAA Tournament that you should avoid picking to win it all.

Everyone loves trying to pick the right upsets in the NCAA Tournament, but those happen in the early rounds. The further into the 68-team bracket we get, the more the cream rises to the top.

Of the of the 36 national champions since 1985 – when March Madness was expanded to 64 teams – 23 were No. 1 seeds. Nine of the remaining 13 title-winning teams were either a No. 2 or a No. 3 seed. When it comes to selecting a national champion, those are really the only seed lines to identify a champion.

Of course, not every team on the same seed line is the same. They all have had successful seasons, sure, but some of these teams are more flawed than others. We’re here to try to decipher that for you.

Here are the top seeds that will not win the national title this season:

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Baylor Bears

The reigning national champions put forward a terrific season despite losing four starters from last year’s team and spent roughly a month ranked No. 1 in the country.

Since their 15-0 start, though, the Bears are just 7-6 against KenPom top-50 teams — the same kinds of teams they will face in the NCAA Tournament.

There are a number of reasons for this. Texas Tech, the first team to knock off Scott Drew’s squad this season, laid out the defensive blueprint for how to stop Baylor’s offensive attack. The Bears rely on a lot of drive-and-kick principles in their half-court sets, so the Red Raiders packed the paint and had a lot of success slowing them down. Other teams have copied this strategy and those with good size and athleticism have had success, too.

Baylor has also dealt with a number of injuries this year as well and will remain without Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua due to a knee injury he suffered roughly a month ago. Drew has adjusted his rotations accordingly, but there is an undeniable hole in the interior without “Everyday Jon.”

There’s also the question of how much top-end talent this group has, particularly in the backcourt. James Akinjo and Adam Flagler are great college players, yet both have also had their struggles against elite competition. Kendall Brown and Jeremy Sochan are Baylor’s best NBA prospects, yet both players are not go-to offensive options. They each have more single-digit scoring performances than double-digit performances since the calendar flipped to 2022.

This team is well coached and talented enough to make it to at least the second weekend. Beyond that, though, the Bears have some flaws that will keep them from repeating.

Auburn Tigers

Auburn earned the No. 1 ranking for the first time in school history back in January and won the outright SEC regular-season title, already making this one of the most successful seasons in program history.

But that has caused this group to be compared to Auburn’s 2019 Final Four team, and this Tigers team has legitimate flaws that I believe will keep them from even reaching New Orleans.

Inconsistent guard play and poor 3-point shooting (32.1 percent; 259th nationally) are major issues. There have been 13 games this season in which Bruce Pearl’s squad shot below 30 percent from long range despite taking 40 percent of their total shots from distance.

Auburn’s biggest issue, however, is how much worse it plays away from home.

At Auburn Arena, the Tigers boasted the nation’s 12th-best offense and eighth-best defense, per Torvik. That would put them as one of three teams (Gonzaga, Houston) to post those numbers if they did for the entire season. Elite company, right?

Away from home, though, Auburn ranks just 49th in offensive and 13th in defensive efficiency. That puts them on par with teams like Arkansas and Texas Tech — teams viewed as long shots to win the national championship.

The on-court results paint an even worse picture:

Those issues away from home showed up in the SEC Tournament, too, as the Tigers lost to Texas A&M in the quarterfinals. Since 1985, every national champ has made it to at least the semifinals of its conference tournament.

History is not on Auburn’s side.

Villanova Wildcats

Villanova has championship pedigree, so I certainly understand some pushback here. Jay Wright is a phenomenal coach and Collin Gillespie was named Big East Player of the Year for a second consecutive season.

That said, this is far from the caliber of team that won those titles in 2016 and 2018.

The Wildcats have been solid defensively yet certainly have limitations given their lack of size (no rotation player is taller than 6-8) and overall athleticism. They also have an extremely short bench (321st in bench minutes) that cost them in nonconference losses to UCLA, Purdue and Baylor earlier this season.

This isn’t a team with a surefire NBA player on its roster, either, and that shows up in situations when Villanova really needs a basket. No one is able to create their own shot off the bounce on a reliable basis.

In most of Villanova’s losses, they have faltered late in close games when its starters appear fatigued and have needed to create individual offense.

The fact the Wildcats are in this position is a testament to Wright and the smarts of this team. They have the highest collective basketball IQ of any team I can remember.

That will potentially be enough to get Villanova to the second weekend but, as the competition ramps up, those flaws will keep the Wildcats from winning their third championship in six NCAA Tournaments.

Duke Blue Devils

You’re going to hear a lot about Duke having as high of a ceiling as anyone in the NCAA Tournament. That’s true — at their best, the Blue Devils have shown the ability to beat anyone (see their 84-81 victory over Gonzaga on Nov. 26).

However, Duke hasn’t brought its collective best very often.

There are a number of examples throughout ACC play, starting with how Virginia Tech shredded their defense in the ACC Tournament title game. UNC did the same thing in Cameron Indoor Stadium in the regular-season finale. The Blue Devils lost to Florida State and Virginia teams that finished outside the KenPom top 80 and had a two-point victory over a bad Clemson team.

That inconsistent play extends to all facets of the game.

As a team, Duke has the potential to be truly elite on that end with their size, length and athleticism. However, it only ranks 44th nationally on that end because of the poor effort/rotations/communication that come with having a younger team.

Individuals have been inconsistent, too. Paolo Banchero has posted eight of his 10 worst offensive ratings in the last month and a half. Trevor Keels and Mark Williams have each been held to six points or fewer in three of Duke’s last six games.

There’s also the issue of this team’s lack of depth. The Blue Devils rank 312th in bench minutes and employ mostly a six-man rotation that extends to seven or eight when either Theo John or Joey Baker need to come in due to foul trouble. Teams with that little depth tend to get exposed the further we get into the tournament.

So, yes, Duke’s victories over Gonzaga and Kentucky do show the Blue Devils can beat anyone. But these larger issues have caused them to go just 6-4 against teams that made the NCAA Tournament. I don’t trust them to suddenly go 6-0.

Purdue Boilermakers

Purdue was ranked really high in the preseason polls. Its roster is experienced and is headlined by a projected top-five NBA Draft pick in Jaden Ivey. Zach Edey and Trevion Williams are as unstoppable of an offensive big man duo as you’ll find in college basketball. Oh, and the Boilermakers lead the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency.

So why do they find themselves on this list?

As good as Purdue is offensively, it is putrid defensively, ranking outside the top 100 in the country in efficiency on that end of the floor.

Only two teams have made the Final Four in the last 20 years with worse defensive ratings: the 2011 VCU team that went from the First Four to the Final Four (and did so on the strength of their pressure defense) and the 2003 Marquette team that was led by Dwyane Wade.

That’s it.

And that’s just to make the Final Four, too. Neither VCU or Marquette even advanced to the national championship game.

Lackluster defense cost the Boilermakers in most of their losses and nearly cost them several more games in which they blew big leads. We’ll likely see Purdue’s defensive struggles come back to bite it sooner rather than later.

Texas Tech Red Raiders

Even with a new head coach, the Red Raiders have the same identity — an elite defensive team with an offense that occasionally gets stuck in the mud.

Texas Tech leads the nation in defensive efficiency, per KenPom, and has shown the capability to win games based on their effort on that end alone and will continue to do so in the NCAA Tournament.

They have drastically improved offensively since the start of the season, too. To win the whole thing, however, there can be no slip-ups, and I don’t trust them to go six games against the best teams in the country without that happening.

This team is 295th nationally in turnover rate and 282nd in 3-point shooting, both of which would rank as the worst of any national champion in at least the analytics era (since 2002). Bryson Williams and Kevin Obanor are good enough offensive threats but no one has been a reliable scorer on the perimeter.

Also, the road struggles that applied to Auburn also apply to Texas Tech. The Red Raiders were just 3-7 in true road games this year and 7-9 in all games played away from Lubbock (one of these wins was over Incarnate Word, which finished 353th in KenPom’s rankings).

Texas Tech’s defense will likely carry them to multiple victories in the NCAA Tournament, but its inconsistent offense will likely keep them from reaching the Final Four.

Wisconsin Badgers

Wisconsin won a share of the Big Ten regular-season title and has potentially the National Player of the Year in Johnny Davis. Its resume deserved a No. 3 seed.

At the same time, this is not a team with a championship roster.

The notion that Davis is carrying a team full of scrubs isn’t true but the Badgers would look more like a bubble team without its star. Just look at what happened down the stretch when Davis was limited with an ankle injury: they lost to Nebraska and Michigan State.

Shooting is a concern. Wisconsin ranks 291st in 3-point shooting and its defense isn’t anything special, ranking 273rd in turnovers forced and 178th in interior defense.

Head coach Greg Gard’s gameplan is to have this team not beat themselves. The Badgers are second in turnover rate and they make their free throws at a high clip. That keeps the game close and puts Davis in position to be great, which has been a recipe for success. Wisconsin is 15-3 in games decided by six points or fewer.

That lack of dominance and tendency to be a one-man show has me concerned about the Badgers making a long run. Their region sets up well but, eventually, I think we see Wisconsin fall short of the Final Four, let alone cutting down the nets in New Orleans.