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2022 March Madness Primer

Ochai Agbaji, Kansas

With February in the rearview, we enter one of the most exciting times of the year for college sports fans: March. There's still plenty of good basketball to watch over the coming few weeks, but all eyes are on the impending NCAA Tournament. In that spirit, I've decided to unveil my 2022 March Madness primer, taking into account everything you should be following before Selection Sunday on March 13. From the battle for the No. 1 seeds, to bubble teams and potential Cinderellas, this is the place to start your NCAA Tournament research.

The Basics

Considering the 2020 NCAA Tournament was cancelled and the 2021 edition was a shell of the usual event, the 2022 Big Dance will be the first "normal" iteration of the event in three years! What does that mean? Here are a few things to consider:

  • All 32 Division I college basketball conferences will be represented at the event in 2022. That was not the case last year, as the Ivy League did not play a season at all due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This means that there will once again be 36 at-large spots open for non-automatic qualifiers.
  • The Tournament will expand beyond the state of Indiana, after the 2021 NCAA Tournament was held entirely in the Hoosier State. The "First Four" will once again be held in Dayton, while other first and second round venues include: Buffalo, Cincinnati, Fort Worth, Portland, Greenville, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and San Diego.
  • Expect the stands to be full and raucous this year, after the event was limited to 25% capacity in 2021. The return of fans will add an interesting and much-needed element to the Tournament this year after a weirdly quiet '21.
  • The 2022 NCAA Tournament will wrap up in New Orleans with the Final Four games on April 2nd and 4th. This will be the sixth time the City of New Orleans hosts the event, the first time since 2012. The winner that year? Anthony Davis and the Kentucky Wildcats toppled Kansas.

The No. 1 Seed Battle
With just four No. 1 seeds to play for, it should be a fascinating race down the stretch. There's not any team that is a lock for a top seed right now and as many as 7-8 that seem to have a very realistic shot at rising to the one seed line. Here are the most likely contenders:
  • Gonzaga Bulldogs: Gonzaga is the betting favorite to be the top overall seed for the second consecutive year. This team isn't as dominant as last season's squad, but they're still the nation's current No. 1 with a 23-3 overall record and 12-1 mark in the West Coast Conference. The Bulldogs have been aided by a strong non-conference resume that includes wins over Texas, UCLA, Texas Tech, and Saint Mary's. They've also been helped by the fact that the WCC is the strongest it's been in years, with as many as 4-5 teams in serious contention for a trip to the Big Dance. The loss this past weekend to Saint Mary's showed Gonzaga still has some kinks to work out over the next few weeks, but they're in a good spot.
  • Auburn Tigers: Bruce Pearl's team spent a few weeks perched at the No. 1 ranking and they remain in play for the top overall seed. After an early-season loss to UConn, Auburn ripped off 19 straight wins before falling to Arkansas. They've shown some cracks in the foundation with losses to Tennessee and Florida over the last few games, but if they can hold to the SEC Title, they're in prime position to be a top seed.
  • Arizona Wildcats: One of the best stories in college basketball this year, Arizona has a legit chance to be a No. 1 seed in head coach Tommy Lloyd's debut season. They're 25-3, have essentially already clinched the Pac-12 regular season title, and beat Michigan and Illinois in the non-conference. There's still work to be done, but Lloyd appears set to deliver a No. 1 seed to Tucson for the first time since 2014.
  • Kansas Jayhawks: As the top team in possibly the nation's toughest conference, Kansas will be in contention for a No. 1 seed. Bill Self's club has a strong resume across the board and of their four losses, three have been to current Top 10 teams (Kentucky, Baylor, Texas Tech). Even the one loss that wasn't, a head-scratcher to Dayton, doesn't look as bad recently with the Flyers' improved play. With that being said, KU is lacking a signature victory that could push them into No. 1 seed territory and they're running out of opportunities to find it, plus the loss to TCU last night further complicates things. The Jayhawks could still earn top billing by earning a Big 12 Title, but the better money in the league seems to be on the team from Waco right now.
  • Baylor Bears: The reigning National Champs got a huge win this weekend over Kansas, pushing them back into the top seed discussion. Outside of a defeat to Oklahoma State, Baylor doesn't have a bad loss and they built a nice non-conference resume by beating Oregon, Michigan State, and Villanova. The Big 12 Tournament may decide who takes a top seed between Kansas and the Bears.
  • Duke Blue Devils: Duke owns one of the most important non-conference victories of the season with their win over Gonzaga, but the fact the ACC has been incredibly weak has hurt their No. 1 seed chances. With the chaos that happened over the weekend, the Blue Devils seem to be back in play and who knows, Coach K's farewell tour may be the motivator the Selection Committee needs to place them as a No. 1.
  • Big Ten Champion: Wisconsin's win this week over Purdue earned them a share of the Big Ten Title and with a strong non-conference resume, Greg Gard's team is in play for a top seed. Purdue and Illinois remain at least in the conversation, but neither have been able to string together the consistent play necessary for a No. 1 seed. However, the Big Ten Tournament could complicate things a bit, with neither the Boilermakers or Illini completely dead if enough chaos happens elsewhere.

The Bubble Teams
The NCAA Tournament bubble is always a fascinating watch this time of year, and the race this year is no less intriguing. There's a handful of teams vying for just a few at-large spots, and there's a chance those spots could be reduced even further with the potential of "bid-stealers," teams who win their conference tournaments and in turn, steal a bid. Here are a few of the bubble teams I'm keeping an eye on as the regular season draws to a close:

  • Indiana Hoosiers: Indiana looked safely in the field for a few months before a recent five-game skid threw their NCAA Tournament hopes into question. They've since recovered by beating Maryland and Minnesota, but neither victory is going to push them back into safety just yet. A battle against another bubble team, Rutgers, looms before the Purdue rivalry game to conclude the regular season. 
  • Memphis Tigers: Penny Hardaway's Memphis Tigers have been one of the most frustrating teams all season, but as winners of eight of their last nine, they're in play for the Big Dance. They have two great wins, over Houston and Alabama, that could propel them over the rest of the pack, but a pair of bad losses, to Ole Miss and Georgia. With one more game against Houston remaining on the schedule, with it being at home, the Tigers are in decent position to break through and reach the NCAA Tournament.
  • San Francisco Dons: San Francisco hasn't made an NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998, but this year's team could be the one to change that. They built a strong non-conference resume, but the WCC has been difficult this year, as they sit at 10-6 in the league. It would be helpful if the Dons were able to come out with a victory against either one of the two Tournament locks in the conference, Gonzaga or Saint Mary's, but they lost all four to those two foes. Their performance in the WCC Tournament is likely to decide their fate.
  • Oregon Ducks: One of the preseason favorites in the Pac-12, Oregon had a frustrating start to the year, but Dana Altman's team is trending up at the right time. They recovered from a pair of road losses to the Arizona schools by beating UCLA, pushing them right back into the bubble. They absolutely need to sweep the Washington schools over the next week, but they're another team that will be have to impress in their respective conference tournament to secure a bid.
  • Wake Forest Demon Deacons: Steve Forbes has done a great job with this Wake Forest team, but the Demon Deacons are trending in the opposite direction of where they'd like to be going. They've lost three of five, and while defeats to Miami and Duke are understandable, the Clemson loss stings. This is a team that lacks the resume of others trying to battle in; outside of Notre Dame and potentially UNC, they don't own a single win against a projected NCAA Tournament team.
  • BYU Cougars: A resounding win over then-No. 12 Oregon early in the season seemed to indicate BYU was going to be a challenger to Gonzaga in the WCC, but they haven't quite fulfilled those early expectations. They're 21-9 overall and 9-6 in the league as they embark on the conference tournament, finding themselves right on the bubble. A bad loss to Pacific is holding them back particularly, but they're also lacking much signature wins. If San Diego State and Oregon can both sneak into the field (they're both firmly on the bubble), that would help BYU quite a bit, but they're simply might not be enough spots for that to happen.

Dark Horse Teams
"Cinderella" stories are part of what makes March Madness so great. But, the whole reason they're "Cinderella" stories is because they come out of nowhere to shock the college basketball landscape. That makes them difficult to predict, especially when you don't even have a cemented bracket. Even so, these are the low and mid-major teams to keep an eye on over the coming weeks.

  • Toledo Rockets (Projected Seed: 13-14): The MAC has quietly became a very respectable mid-major league, and the Toledo Rockets are the favorite to be the conference's automatic qualifier. This team has a high-scoring offense, rebounds the ball well, and shoots a decent percentage from both the stripe and three. They played Michigan State fairly tough earlier in the season and could follow in the footsteps of fellow MAC schools Ohio and Buffalo by winning a game or two in the Big Dance.
  • Iona Gaels (Projected Seed: 12-13): Iona is going to be a popular upset pick this year, for a few reasons. For one, they are 24-5 overall, 16-2 in the MAAC, and beat Alabama in the non-conference. More importantly, they have a legendary coach on the sideline, Rick Pitino, who would love to sink a major-conference school in the first round. This is likely to be Iona's 16th NCAA Tournament team, but they have only won one game in program history, providing a nice dose of motivation.
  • North Texas Mean Green (Projected Seed: 13-14): Grant McCasland's team pulled off a notable upset last spring when they took down fourth-seeded Purdue, and his Mean Green will be dangerous once again. After a shaky start to the year, this team has reeled off 14 straight victories and is in the driver's seat in the Conference USA. As one of the best defensive teams anywhere in college basketball, UNT is going to be an absolute headache for some team in the first round, assuming they lock down a Tournament bid.
  • Colgate Raiders (Projected Seed: 14-16): Colgate is looking to make their third consecutive NCAA Tournament and remains in the driver's seat in the Patriot League. The Raiders have been up-and-down most of the year; they got a big win against Syracuse in the non-conference, but also suffered several head-scratching losses. They've recovered by going on a long win streak of their own and remain a potent offense that shares the ball as well as anybody in the nation. Big Keegan Records isn't going to drop 30 a game in the NCAA Tournament, but is the type of versatile, efficient big that could help fuel a run.
  • Princeton Tigers (Projected Seed: 13-15): Ivy League teams are always dangerous teams when it comes to March and they'll be back with a vengeance after not participating in the event in 2021. Princeton is the favorite to be the league's representative, and the Tigers could be sneaky. Head coach Mitch Henderson always has teams that play fast and love to score, but this team is better shooting than past editions. With three players who average at least 15 points per game, the Tigers have the balanced scoring you need to go on a March run.

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