Breaking news, rankings, predictions and analysis all in one place.

2022 March Madness Bracket Analysis: East Region

Johnny Juzang, UCLA

The Top Seed: Baylor Bears

With several key pieces, namely Davion Mitchell and Jared Butler, off to the NBA over the offseason, many people expected a significant step back for the defending National Champion Baylor Bears. Instead, head coach Scott Drew continues to work his magic in Waco, winning 26 games and earning a share of the Big 12 Title. Certainly, it's difficult to compare this year's group to last year's, but there is a lot to like. James Akinjo, Adam Flagler, and Kendall Brown lead a dynamic backcourt and up do-it-all Matthew Mayer remains one of the most under-appreciated players in college basketball. With that being said, this Baylor team is without two key cogs who have played important roles the last few years: L.J. Cryer and Jonathan Tchamwa-Tchatchou. Tchamwa-Tchatchou tore his ACL and is done for the year, but Cryer's status is one of the greatest mysteries in this entire NCAA Tournament. He's been out for the past six weeks, but there still is a chance he returns. If he does, the Bears get back their top scorer, who is also a deadeye shooter from three. Tchamwa-Tchatchou is a huge loss; if there is a glaring weakness on this Baylor team, it's their lack of depth in the frontcourt. While Flo Thamba and Jeremy Sochan have stepped up in a big way, this is a team that could realistically be bullied by several teams in this region. They should still roll past MEAC Champ Norfolk State in Round One and the 8/9 matchup with either UNC or Marquette is also favorable, but things get tricky after that. Drew has proven he can work some magic and Akinjo, Flagler, and Mayer have proven they can handle the load, but it's hard to imagine this team making another Final Four run with so many injury questions.

Don't Forget About: UCLA Bruins

After a heartbreaking loss to Gonzaga in last season's Final Four, UCLA was a popular preseason National Title selection. They returned nearly everyone from last year's group and also added in a pair of big-name pieces in Rutgers transfer Myles Johnson and highly-touted freshman Peyton Watson. While it's hard to call any team that earned a Top 4 seed a disappointment, the Bruins haven't been able to quite reach those expectations. UCLA has won several big games over Villanova, Marquette, and Arizona, but have also looked flat in some maddening losses to mediocre Pac-12 foes. Those losses have left the Bruins somewhat underrated as they return to the NCAA Tournament. People seem to forget how many offensive weapons are on this roster; Johnny Juzang was one of the stars of last March and is a fearless shotmaker, Jaime Jaquez is a load to handle, Tyger Campbell is the pace-setter at point guard, and Jules Bernard can take over games when needed. The Bruins haven't shot the ball as well as expected this season, but they aren't going to be an easy out against anyone and last year's run proved without a doubt that this group can make a deep run. Even at the four spot, I think UCLA has as good of a chance as anyone to make it out of this region and return to the Final Four.

The Cinderella Possibility: Virginia Tech Hokies

It's difficult to categorize any team from a power conference as a true "Cinderella" but as an 11-seed who needed a run in the ACC Tournament to secure an automatic qualifier, Virginia Tech still fits the billing. Mike Young's team was fairly average for most of the season, going 19-12 overall and 11-9 in the ACC, but they reeled off four straight and beat Duke to secure the bid from the ACC. It's been a complete 180 for the team; they're playing with a bunch of confidence and an offense that was 205th nationally in points per game has suddenly become flaming hot. Forwards Keve Aluma and do-it-all Justyn Mutts remain a fearsome force on the Virginia Tech frontline, but it's been Hunter Catoor's hot shooting that has fueled the Hokie renaissance. Catoor went off for 31 points against Duke in the ACC Championship Game and paired with another sharpshooter in Storm Murphy, VT could be an incredibly tough out for any team they face. I think they have a fairly good shot at reaching the second weekend; Texas has been playing better over the season's second half, but Chris Beard's team is beatable. A potential meeting with Purdue in the second round is also winnable; while Zach Edey and Trevion Williams will be a difficult matchup down low, Matt Painter's program has some March demons to figure out before I pick them on a deep run. 

The Scrappy Underdog: Murray State Racers

As they embark on their 18th NCAA Tournament appearance, it's becoming more and more difficult to call Murray State an underdog. But, as a seven-seed with a potential second round date against Kentucky on the horizon, they'll operate as one. The thing is, Matt McMahon's team could be a very scary team in the bottom-half of this region, as they didn't lose a single game in the Ohio Valley this year and play both ends. They're a scrappy defensive team that has a knack for getting in passing lanes and on offense, Tevin Brown and K.J. Williams offer a potent 1-2 scoring combo. Add in guard Justice Hill, an excellent distributor and decent shooter, and the Racers will put up points. They open against a San Francisco program that hasn't been to the Big Dance in decades, but they shouldn't overlook the Dons. San Francisco has some high-scoring guards and coach Todd Golden is the type of guy who could become a household coaching name in March. I still like the Racers to move onto the Round of 32 and perhaps provide John Calipari and Kentucky a stressful game on the Tournament's first weekend.

The Storyline Team: Kentucky Wildcats

There's little denying Kentucky basketball remains one of the most recognizable and well-known brands in collegiate athletics. However, not since Anthony Davis was dominating opponents has Kentucky lifted a National Title, with the drought now over a decade. At some point, Calipari is going to bring another National Title to Lexington. He's way too good of a coach and has had way too much elite talent pass through this program not to do it. Plus, I think this year's group has a really good shot, particularly considering they play in an East Region where the top seed has so many questions. This Wildcats team checks a lot of boxes of a championship contender. They have elite lead guards (TyTy Washington, Sahvir Wheeler), shooting (Kellan Grady, Davion Mintz), the probable National Player of the Year (Oscar Tshiebwe) and significant depth. This is not your typical Cal-coached "one-and-done" team that might buckle under the pressure of the NCAA Tournament. Grady, Wheeler, Mintz, Tshiebwe, and Jacob Toppin are all transfers from other programs, with most of that group already earning past March Madness experience. I just feel like the timing is right for Calipari to win another one and while this isn't his most talented team he's ever had, I think it's built in a way to do so. I'm slightly hesitant as of late only because the national media seems to be jumping on the Kentucky bandwagon, but they're my National Title pick this year.

Picking the East

First Round

1 Baylor over 16 Norfolk State ... In 2012, Kyle O'Quinn and Norfolk State shocked Missouri as a 15 seed. They won't do it this year as a 16, Baylor rolls on.

8 UNC over 9 Marquette ... This is essentially a coin flip for me. North Carolina has been frustrating all year, but their improved play down the stretch has me going Tar Heels.

5 Saint Mary's over 12 Indiana (projected First Four winner) ... The Gaels are deep, experienced, and well-coached. They make Mike Woodson's first NCAA Tournament run short-lived.

4 UCLA over 13 Akron ... The Zips should put up a valiant fight, but there's just too many weapons on this UCLA roster to think they bow out in the first round this year.

6 Texas over 11 Virginia Tech ... I know I list Virginia Tech as the Region's "Cinderella" possibility, but Texas has too many scoring options and I trust Chris Beard in March.

3 Purdue over 14 Yale ... Even after last year's shocking loss to North Texas, I don't see Purdue losing in the first round again. Jaden Ivey guides them past the Ivy League Champion Yale Bulldogs.

7 Murray State over 10 San Francisco ... Dons are certainly not an easy first round matchup for the Racers, but this Murray State team is too good to lose in the first round.

2 Kentucky over 15 Saint Peter's ... Saint Peter's took advantage of Iona's shocking loss to earn the MAAC's auto bid, but it will be short-lived, as they fall to UK.

Second Round

1 Baylor over 8 UNC ... Definitely not a breeze of a second round game for Baylor, but their edge at the guard spots helps them overcome the Heels.

4 UCLA over 5 Saint Mary's ... Should be a fun, back-and-forth game between these two California schools, but Juzang and Jaquez are too much for the Gaels.

3 Purdue over 6 Texas ... A potential upset spot here with all the scorers Texas can throw at you, but Matt Painter's team is just too well constructed to head home before the second weekend.

2 Kentucky over 7 Murray State ... The Wildcats are in for a fight whether it's Murray State or San Francisco in the second round, but Oscar Tshiebwe is too much for the Racers to contain.

Sweet 16

4 UCLA over 1 Baylor ... UCLA has been frustratingly inconsistent all season, but I'm still a believer in Mick Cronin and the Bruins. They take down a Baylor team who I would probably have winning the Region if they were at full strength.

2 Kentucky over 3 Purdue ... So much future NBA talent on display in this game, but Kentucky just has too many weapons for the Boilermakers.

Elite Eight

2 Kentucky over 4 UCLA ... A fun clash between two of the sport's blue bloods, the Wildcats are deep enough to come out on top in a slugfest.

East Region Champ: 2 Kentucky Wildcats

1 comment:

Vince said...

Sure hope you are wrong about Kentucky - never been a fan.

Theme images by LUGO. Powered by Blogger.