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NCAA Tournament Contenders as March Madness Begins

It’s been a wild year in the NCAA. Ever since one-and-dones have become the norm in college basketball, there seems to be more and more parity. This year was similar, with powerhouses in power conferences slugging it out — especially in the Big Ten and SEC.

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Amongst these big programs, several have stood out from the rest in 2022. There’s always a chance of an upset or a poor matchup, but in general, the six to eight teams remain the risen cream on top — the cereal’s snap, crackle, and pop. Based on player ability, basketball quality, and coaching ability, these are the teams who are the most likely to raise the NCAA College Basketball Championship Trophy on April 4.

The University of Dayton Arena, which has hosted all First Four games since the round's inception in 2011 (except 2021), and 123 tournament games, the most of any venue.
The University of Dayton Arena, which has hosted all First Four games since the round’s inception in 2011 (except 2021) and 123 tournament games — the most of any venue. Gump840/Wikipedia

Gonzaga

There have been five teams ranked number one in 18 college basketball weeks, but one stands out among them all: Gonzaga. While the national narrative in 2022 is that there’s no clear best college basketball in college hoops, the gap between the Zags’ KenPom adjusted efficiency margin and number two Arizona is larger than the gap between Arizona and number 10 UCLA.

Amongst its elite players is Chet Holmgren, a unicorn amongst maybe all college basketball players, ever. The 7-foot, 1-inch tall big man with a 7-foot, 6-inch reach not only changes the game on the defensive end, but he’s an offensive savant. Alongside Holmgren might be college basketball’s best forward, Drew Timme.

Since a COVID-19 pause around New Year’s, just two teams have played within 20 points of the Zags — San Francisco and Saint Mary’s — who both lost by 16. The Zags are the clear number one entering the tournament and will be tough for any team to take down.

Duke

One of three teams to beat Gonzaga this year, Duke might have the most impressive starting five in the NCAA. All five players are potential NBA first-round picks, including potential top three forward Paolo Banchero.

The Blue Devils will be especially motivated to go out on top to put an exclamation point on the Mike Krzyzewski retirement tour. When its pick n’ roll offense is humming, there are little to no teams in the country that can stop them. And when Duke is engaged on the defensive end, it’s very hard to score on them with old-fashioned enforcers Mark Williams and Theo John at the rim and switchable, elite athletes at every position.

The Blue Devils have been on cruise control for at least a month now, however. This includes home loss to North Carolina and a beatdown from Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship final. It remains to be seen if they can flip the switch quickly enough to navigate a deadly region that includes Gonzaga and potential Cinderella Texas Tech.

Arizona

Gonzaga has affected the tournament in ways that extend their Spokane home. Assistants from head coach Mark Few’s coaching tree are leading their new squads to stellar seasons across the country. Take Arizona, who should have been reeling from head coach Sean Miller’s shameful dismissal last year after a multitude of NCAA recruiting violations. Instead, the Wildcats are the first Pac-10 number one seed since 2016 — the team’s first number one seeding since 2014.

Led by former Gonzaga assistant and first-year head coach Tommy Lloyd, the ‘Cats play like his former squad in Spokane. Arizona ranks fifth in adjusted offense and eighth in tempo. They are also 20th in defense, putting intense pressure on the opposing team to score enough points to keep up with its racing offense.

Turnovers are a concern, as is lack of depth and experience with a young team. When potential first-round NBA picks guard Ben Mathurin and center Christian Koloko have this team cooking, it’s difficult for anyone in the country to beat them.

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Kentucky

Kentucky didn’t win the SEC regular season or conference championship tournament. The Wildcats also have not won a national championship in 10 seasons. Kentucky, however, can be the best team in college basketball on any given night.

That starts with the Sporting News Player of the Year, Oscar Tshiebwe. The forward averages 17 points and 15.2 rebounds per game. The Wildcats also sport impressive depth with five players who average in the double digits.

The Wildcats have just three losses since mid-December, all on the road against top-20 KenPom teams. In all three games, one of UK’s top guards was hobbled by injury. When everyone is on the floor, Kentucky has all the necessary ingredients for a title run.  This squad is also one of John Calipari’s most experienced and better defensive teams in years.

Baylor

Last year’s national champions (with a win over the Zags) weren’t supposed to be this good again so quickly after losing guards Davion Mitchell and Jared Butler to the NBA. And yet, here the Bears are again, led by its young athletes contributing to Scott Drew’s wicked defense.

The last two months have seen Baylor knockout Kansas at home and lock up its number one seed in the process. The team, however, has been hammered by injuries. Senior big man Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua suffered a season-ending knee injury and top shooter LJ Cryer has been sidelined indefinitely with a foot injury over the last six weeks.

If Baylor can keep any team from scoring 70 points, they’ve got a chance. Already young and thin on bodies, it’s going to take all the pieces clicking into place for Baylor to hoist the trophy for a consecutive year.

Auburn

Up until December, Auburn looked like the best team in the country. Led by the potential number one draft pick Jabari Smith alongside elite rim protector Walker Kessler, the Tigers have maybe the best frontcourt in the country. Head coach Bruce Pearl also has the luxury of not one but two point guards to support that dynamic duo — the relentless, emotional K.D. Johnson and the veteran game manager, a steady hand who doesn’t make mistakes and can hit open J’s. Alongside dynamic playmaker Wendell Green Jr., this team is as good as any in the sport.

Problem is, teams have figured out how to beat the Tigers. The most recent example of this was Texas A&M taking out Auburn in the SEC quarterfinals by flooding the paint with big bodies. The team does not shoot the ball particularly well from deep and if they go cold from the outside with opponents stuffing them inside, Auburn is vulnerable.

The Tigers have now lost four of their last nine games. Can they get hot enough to win six in a row to win the Big Dance?

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