The NCAA men’s basketball tournament moves to its regional rounds this weekend, with the Sweet 16 on Thursday and Friday and the Elite Eight on Saturday and Sunday. Most of the teams still hanging around in March Madness are exactly the ones you’d expect. Ten of the top 12 teams in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency ratings are still standing, including three of the four No. 1 seeds. A pair of No. 2 seeds (Kentucky and Auburn) didn’t make it out of the opening weekend, however, and four teams with double-digit seedings have made it to the regional semifinals.
For everyone left (you can view the complete schedule here), the days leading up to the Sweet 16 are a time for optimism. Here’s the brief case for each remaining team to be the one cutting down the nets after the Final Four, which tips off on April 2 in New Orleans. Teams are ordered by their bracket placement in each region, so the first two teams face each other and so on.
Drew Timme is COOKING
22 PTS and counting pic.twitter.com/xdSFXfWqWF
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 20, 2022
No. 1 Gonzaga is (on paper) the best team in the country for the second year in a row. Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren form the best frontcourt in college basketball, and the Zags’ superior conditioning and lightning pace should serve them well as we enter the later stages of March Madness. It isn’t hard to envision the Bulldogs getting over the hump this time.
No. 4 Arkansas is also well conditioned and comfortable playing at a fast pace, so the Zags might not overwhelm them like they have so many other teams. If the Hogs can win this game, they won’t face a more difficult opponent in the rest of the NCAA tournament.
No. 3 Texas Tech has what almost every team wants this time of year: loads and loads of experience. The Red Raiders lost their coach, Chris Beard, to Texas after last season. But new boss Mark Adams hasn’t missed a beat, and a mix of developmental players and transfers has TTU in the mix again. The team has players who were around for a lot of Beard’s success and others who have had it elsewhere—for example, forward Kevin Obanor, who was a star in No. 15 seed Oral Roberts’ ride to the Sweet 16 last year.
No. 2 Duke has as much raw talent as anyone remaining, with the possible exception of Gonzaga. You might prefer a “team of destiny” case considering it’s coach Mike Krzyzewski’s last season, but that doesn’t explain why Duke could win it all. The real reason: There just aren’t that many players in college basketball who can effectively guard 6’10” mega-athlete and Duke forward Paolo Banchero.
Armando Bacot with a BIG blockpic.twitter.com/CLVIT5FuhI
— Caesars Sportsbook (@CaesarsSports) March 19, 2022
No. 8 North Carolina already beat No. 1 seed and defending champion Baylor, so the difficulty level is arguably all downhill from here. That’s not really how it works, of course, but it helps that the Tar Heels are one of the best recruiting teams in the nation and seem to be playing their best ball of the season right now. (Keep in mind that they stuffed Duke into a locker in the second half of Krzyzewski’s last home game just a few weeks ago.) Center Armando Bacot and power forward Brady Manek give the Heels a frontcourt edge over almost everyone.
No. 4 UCLA made the Final Four last year and nearly beat Gonzaga. The key players from that team are still here, the Bruins have no major statistical weaknesses, and they take good enough care of the ball (their offensive turnover rate is 11.4 percent, fourth-lowest in the country) to avoid shooting themselves in the foot.
No. 3 Purdue has both size in the frontcourt and elite shooting ability in the backcourt. The Boilermakers’ offense is scary in every way, and an occasionally troubled defense has looked quite good in the first two games of this tournament. Coach Matt Painter has had many good teams in West Lafayette, but there’s a real chance this one winds up being his best.
No. 15 Saint Peter’s is the longest of longshots to win even one more game, let alone four. The Peacocks are just the third 15th seed to ever make it this far (although they’re the second in two years), and everything about them—their lack of size, lack of scoring talent, and seed line—says they should lose. But they did beat Kentucky, so I’m not going to say they can’t keep this magic carpet ride going a bit longer.
Christian Koloko with BACK-TO-BACK blocks on the same play!
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 21, 2022
No. 1 Arizona has lost just two games in this calendar year. The Wildcats are giant in the frontcourt, with two excellent seven-footers in Azuolas Tubelis and Christian Koloko. Freshman guard/forward Bennedict Mathurin is playing as well as just about anyone in the country and turned in 30 points against TCU. What’s not to like?
No. 5 Houston has been here before—last year, in fact—and has a head coach, Kelvin Sampson, who has repeatedly found ways to win March games. It’s fair to wonder if the Cougars, who got smacked by Baylor in last year’s national semifinals and have not played a team of Arizona’s caliber this year, are up to it. But the Cougars’ voracious offensive rebounding and interior defense should give them a shot.
No. 11 Michigan has Hunter Dickinson, a 7’1” center and one of the few players in the tournament who could drag a team to the Final Four with little help. Admittedly, we’re pushing it a bit here. Michigan will need to win four more games in a row to win it all and it has not won more than three in a row all season. But Dickinson? He’s good.
No. 2 Villanova is one of the most reliable great teams in college hoops. The 2022 outfit lacks the elite shooting talent of Jay Wright’s 2016–18 national champs, but it pounds the offensive glass and makes more of its free throws (82.6 percent) than any team in Division I. The Wildcats can string wins together, and Michigan is a good matchup for them this week.
OCHAI AGBAJI GOT UP pic.twitter.com/ZPWQDovK5G
— ESPN (@espn) March 12, 2022
No. 1 Kansas has what might be the easiest path to the Final Four of any team left. That doesn’t mean the Jayhawks will get there, of course. It simply means if they can get past No. 4 Providence, they’re guaranteed to face either a No. 10 or No. 11 seed in the Elite Eight. KU has both the shooters (Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun) and the rebounders (David McCormack) to be an all-around offensive threat against any team it faces.
No. 4 Providence feels like a longer shot than its seeding would make you believe, because the Friars are not awesome at any one thing. But they get to the foul line a lot, and their roster is almost entirely upperclassmen. In a tightly officiated game, they could be dangerous.
No. 11 Iowa State is what I like to call a chaos team. The Cyclones pressure the ball aggressively, and it works for them—they force a turnover on every one in four defensive possessions. The main problem for the Cyclones, though, is who they play in the Sweet 16 (see below).
No. 10 Miami takes better care of the ball than almost anyone, turning it over on just 14 percent of their trips down the floor. The Canes like to work the ball inside and have been able to score reliably around the basket. Their coach, Jim Larrañaga, made a Final Four with ultimate Cinderella George Mason back in 2006; compared to that, getting Miami to the Final Four doesn’t even feel like a big lift. Miami has the offense, and if its opponents have cold shooting nights to lighten the load on an iffy UM defense? Then hey, it’s possible.