2022 Men's NCAA Tournament Bracket: Preseason Projection of the Field of 68
Even though the calendar has been reminding me for quite a while that the 2021-22 men's college basketball season is fast approaching, it's putting together the annual preseason bracket projection that really makes it feel like the season is here.
I know there's little to no hope of this projection looking anything like the field of 68 we'll get in March, but if you're ready to argue over projected seeding in November anyway, you're my kind of people. Let's have some fun.
In-season bracket projections will be slathered with dialogue about KenPom.com rankings, strength of schedule, the NCAA's Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings and various other advanced statistics. Huge wins and awful losses will spur the conversation about the biggest movers.
For preseason projections, though, it's all about research and gut feelings. In each region, we'll discuss one team in the field that didn't go to the Big Dance last year, one team projected for a much better seed than last year and one team that—though still projected for a bid—isn't looking quite as strong as it was at the end of last season.
Before that, we'll start with the bubble, as we always do. And after the region-by-region breakdown is a ranking of the No. 1 seeds and a list of overall seeds by conference as a handy reference guide.
Last Five In
Last Team In: Wichita State Shockers
Tyson Etienne's decision to put off the NBA for another year to return for a third season of college hoops was nothing short of massive for a Wichita State team that might be headed for the First Four for a second straight year.
Look for Ricky Council IV to take a major step forward with Alterique Gilbert and Trey Wade out of the picture.
Second-to-Last In: Richmond Spiders
Replacing leading scorer Blake Francis will be a challenge. However, he was just one of five Spiders who averaged at least 12 points per game last season, and the other four are all coming back. Most notably among them is point guard Jacob Gilyard, who averaged 5.0 assists and 3.6 steals per game in 2020-21.
And Nick Sherod is back as a sixth-year senior after missing all of last season while recovering from a second torn ACL. He was a career 39.4 percent three-point shooter who averaged north of 12 points per game in each of his three most recent seasons, so his return to the court could be a game-changer for a team seeking its first tournament berth since 2011.
Third-to-Last In: Oklahoma Sooners
Austin Reaves is now in the NBA, and four of the other six leaders in scoring transferred to other major-conference programs. Perhaps even more noteworthy, Lon Kruger retired, replaced by former Loyola-Chicago head coach Porter Moser.
To make up for that exodus of talent, the Sooners bring in former Duke point guard Jordan Goldwire, Eastern Washington's duo of Tanner Groves and Jacob Groves and several other key transfers. Hard to say how well it will all come together, but there's no shortage of experience on this Oklahoma roster.
Fourth-to-Last In: Rutgers Scarlet Knights
It's a shame Jacob Young, Myles Johnson and Montez Mathis all decided to play another year of college hoops, but will do so for a team other than Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights could have been a serious threat to win the Big Ten if that trio stayed in Piscataway.
But at least they still have the backcourt duo of Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. And at least with Johnson no longer blocking his path to playing time, Clifford Omoruyi is a big-time breakout candidate in his second season.
Fifth-to-Last In: St. John's Red Storm
Like Oklahoma and Rutgers, a bunch of noteworthy players transferred away from St. John's. Last year's third-through-seventh leading scorers have all taken up residence elsewhere around the country.
Getting back both Julian Champagnie and Posh Alexander is huge, though, and Aaron Wheeler from Purdue, Mathis from Rutgers, Joel Soriano from Fordham and Tareq Coburn from Hofstra may well be an improvement upon the group of guys they lost. This team just might win 11 or more conference games for the first time since 2010-11.
Dropping out of the Dance
Within each region we'll focus on one team that is projected to make the 2022 tournament after missing it in 2021, but for every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. For those teams to move in, a bunch needed to move out. And these are the five highest-seeded teams from last year who aren't in our preseason field.
While these wouldn't necessarily be our First Five Out if we were seeding beyond the field for this preseason projection, they're all certainly close enough for consideration.
Iowa Hawkeyes (No. 2 seed in 2021)
Missing the tournament the year after making it as either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed probably seems an unlikely fall from grace, but would you believe it happens basically every year?
Xavier was a No. 1 seed in 2018 but went 19-16 en route to the NIT the following season. Louisville went from a No. 2 seed in 2017 to a no-show in 2018. Oklahoma was a No. 2 seed in 2016 and lost 20 games the next year.
Identifying which team is going to fall apart is another matter. And Iowa is the obvious choice after losing not only Wooden Award winner Luka Garza, but also Joe Wieskamp, CJ Fredrick and Jack Nunge. That said, the Hawkeyes should at least make a run at a bid with sixth-year senior Jordan Bohannon back to lead the club.
Oklahoma State Cowboys (No. 4 seed)
Oklahoma State would have been a projected tournament team were it not for the NCAA recently ruling the Cowboys ineligible for the 2021-22 postseason as a result of Lamont Evans' involvement in the FBI bribery investigation.
If you'll recall, we spent all of last season unsure whether Cade Cunningham and Co. would be allowed to go dancing while Oklahoma State appealed this ban. That team ultimately was allowed in, but this one will not.
Creighton Bluejays (No. 5 seed)
Credit to Greg McDermott for putting together an uncommonly great recruiting class for Creighton. No 5-star guys, but he did get four top-75 recruits, as well as D-II star Ryan Hawkins and McNeese State transfer KeyShawn Feazell.
However, replacing all five leading scorers in one offseason is a tough ask for any program. And with Xavier, Seton Hall, St. John's and Butler all likely to be better than last year, Creighton might end up on the wrong end of the Big East bubble.
Colorado Buffaloes (No. 5 seed)
Similar to Creighton's situation, Colorado lost five key contributors, and the hope is that the trio of incoming top-90 recruits will be able to plug most of those holes. The Buffaloes do still have Evan Battey and Eli Parquet as veteran leaders, but replacing everything McKinley Wright IV did for this team is going to be a major challenge.
Clemson Tigers (No. 7 seed)
I like Clemson as a sleeper candidate, if only because Brad Brownell has finished five of the last six seasons ranked in the top 45 on KenPom.com. The Tigers also picked up a pair of intriguing fifth-year seniors from the transfer market in David Collins (South Florida) and Naz Bohannon (Youngstown State). That duo has a combined 2,776 career points, and either one could immediately become the leading scorer for a team that spent most of last season searching for a reliable source of points.
Banking on up-transfers is a risky strategy, though, and the presumed overall improvement of the ACC is likely to squeeze Clemson out of the tournament picture.
East Region (Philadelphia)
No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 16 Winthrop
No. 8 Virginia vs. No. 9 Arizona
Buffalo, New York
No. 4 Alabama vs. No. 13 Liberty
No. 5 Maryland vs. No. 12 Belmont
Greenville, South Carolina
No. 3 Duke vs. No. 14 Georgia State
No. 6 Texas Tech vs. No. 11 St. John's
No. 2 Villanova vs. No. 15 Iona
No. 7 Indiana vs. No. 10 West Virginia
New to the Field: Duke Blue Devils
By Duke's standard of excellence, the 2020-21 season was, in no uncertain terms, a nightmare. Its average year-end KenPom ranking over the prior 24 seasons was 5.6. Its worst was a 19th-place finish in 2012. So going 13-11 and finishing in 36th was quite the mess.
All the same, the Blue Devils were on the bubble heading into the ACC tournament and they brought in three more 5-star recruits, including the potential No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA draft, Paolo Banchero. With Jeremy Roach, Wendell Moore Jr. and late-season bloomer Mark Williams all back alongside that trio of freshman phenoms, a return to normalcy is to be expected for Mike Krzyzewski's final season.
Noteworthy Riser: Maryland Terrapins
Mark Turgeon put in some serious work in the transfer portal, getting Fatts Russell from Rhode Island, Qudus Wahab from Georgetown and Ian Martinez from Utah, this on top of signing a pair of 4-star freshmen and hoping for more out of James Graham III, who graduated early last January to join the Terrapins midseason.
The Russell portion of that equation is the biggest one, because Maryland simply did not have a point guard last season. Bringing in a veteran with nearly 1,600 career points and more than 400 career assists (not to mention more than 200 career steals) should be a game-changer. At any rate, it'll be nice to have someone better equipped to set Eric Ayala and Donta Scott up for good looks.
Noteworthy Slider: West Virginia Mountaineers
Between Miles McBride and Derek Culver, WVU lost its team leader in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. Old Dominion transfer Malik Curry might be a serviceable replacement for McBride, but there are enough question marks in this frontcourt—and more than enough title contenders in the Big 12—that a significant drop off from last year's No. 3 seed seems likely in Morgantown.
Midwest Region (Chicago)
San Diego, California
No. 1 UCLA vs. No. 16 Morgan State / Prairie View A&M
No. 8 Florida vs. No. 9 BYU
Buffalo, New York
No. 4 Ohio State vs. No. 13 Wright State
No. 5 Tennessee vs. No. 12 Richmond / Wichita State
No. 3 Illinois vs. No. 14 Colgate
No. 6 St. Bonaventure vs. No. 11 Syracuse
Fort Worth, Texas
No. 2 Texas vs. No. 15 Yale
No. 7 Auburn vs. No. 10 Seton Hall
New to the Field: Auburn Tigers
Last season was, predictably, an adjustment period for Auburn. The Tigers lost all six of their leading scorers from the previous season, and then the NCAA didn't do them any favors with stud freshman Sharife Cooper unable to play until mid-January while his eligibility got cleared.
This year, though, they bring back four players who averaged at least 8.9 points per game, Bruce Pearl again signed one of the best recruits in the nation (Jabari Smith Jr.) and the transfer portal was quite kind to the Tigers with the addition of three double-digit scorers (K.D. Johnson, Wendell Green Jr. and Zep Jasper) as well as a former 5-star recruit (Walker Kessler). If anything, we're probably under-selling the Tigers at a No. 7 seed.
Noteworthy Riser: St. Bonaventure Bonnies
On the one hand, we never really got a sense of where the Bonnies stacked up last season. They didn't play their first game until mid-December and they ended up going 7-5 against teams in the KenPom top 125, none of which ranked higher than 48th.
On the other hand, they bring back all five starters from a team that won 76 percent of their games played, and the metrics (KenPom, NET, etc.) certainly liked what they saw from that group. If Osun Osunniyi becomes a little more assertive down low, St. Bonaventure might run away with the A-10 title the same way Dayton did two years ago.
Noteworthy Slider: BYU Cougars
BYU isn't falling far, merely from a No. 6 seed to a projected No. 9 seed. But losing both Matt Haarms and Brandon Averette is going to hurt, at least a little bit. The Cougars do still have one heck of a combo guard in Alex Barcello, though, and incoming transfers Te'Jon Lucas and Seneca Knight should help keep this team as the top challenger to Gonzaga in the WCC.
South Region (San Antonio)
Fort Worth, Texas
No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 16 Bryant / Nicholls State
No. 8 Loyola-Chicago vs. No. 9 Virginia Tech
No. 4 Oregon vs. No. 13 New Mexico State
No. 5 Arkansas vs. No. 12 Buffalo
Greenville, South Carolina
No. 3 Memphis vs. No. 14 Vermont
No. 6 North Carolina vs. No. 11 Rutgers / Oklahoma
No. 2 Purdue vs. No. 15 Furman
No. 7 Xavier vs. No. 10 Louisville
New to the Field: Memphis Tigers
Penny Hardaway has won at least 20 games in each of his first three seasons as Memphis' head coach, but year No. 4 is when he'll burst into the NCAA tournament field like the Kool-Aid Man through a brick wall.
Even before the August commitments from Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren, Memphis had a right-side-of-the-bubble roster. Landers Nolley II, Lester Quinones, Deandre Williams and Alex Lomax return as veteran leaders from the 2021 NIT champions, while Chandler Lawson (Oregon) and Earl Timberlake (Miami-Florida) were sneaky good pickups from the transfer portal.
With one-and-done stars Bates and Duren in the mix, though, Memphis has the potential to not only make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014, but to do some serious damage in it.
This projected No. 3 seed feels simultaneously too ambitious for a team that has disappointed in recent years and not respectful enough of the talent on hand.
Noteworthy Riser: Oregon Ducks
A healthy Oregon legitimately might have been a No. 1 seed last year, but the Ducks either struggled after COVID-19 pauses or were in a near-constant state of missing a starter because of injury/COVID-19. As a result, they ended up with a No. 7 seed—and showcased their potential by destroying No. 2 seed Iowa in the second round.
Even though they lost three key players (Chris Duarte, Eugene Omoruyi and L.J. Figueroa), a more normal, healthier year should pay dividends in the form of a top-16 finish.
Per Stadium's Jeff Goodman, big man N'Faly Dante (ACL) likely won't play until December, so that's a less than promising start to that "healthier year" dream. Even so, they bring back Will Richardson and Eric Williams Jr., they've got a 5-star freshman center in Nate Bittle and transfers Quincy Guerrier (Syracuse), De'Vion Harmon (Oklahoma) and Jacob Young (Rutgers) will all feature prominently at a program where transfers have been thriving for years.
Noteworthy Slider: Arkansas Razorbacks
Same as BYU in the Midwest, it's not a huge slide. Arkansas was a No. 3 seed last year and we like the Hogs for a No. 5 seed this year. But there are a whole lot of moving parts here, and losing Moses Moody, Justin Smith and Jalen Tate feels like a bigger deal than Eric Musselman's annual influx of transfers. That said, Chris Lykes (Miami-Florida) and Au'Diese Toney (Pitt) in the backcourt with returning microwave scorer JD Notae should be a lot of fun.
West Region (San Francisco)
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 James Madison
No. 8 Michigan State vs. No. 9 San Diego State
No. 4 Kentucky vs. No. 13 South Dakota State
No. 5 Florida State vs. No. 12 UAB
No. 3 Houston vs. No. 14 UC Irvine
No. 6 Connecticut vs. No. 11 Colorado State
San Diego, California
No. 2 Baylor vs. No. 15 Southern Utah
No. 7 USC vs. No. 10 LSU
New to the Field: Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky's 2020-21 campaign made Duke's look not so bad. The Wildcats went 9-16 for their worst winning percentage since going 3-13 in 1926-27. It was also just their second sub-.500 season in the past nine decades.
But despite losing the top four freshmen from last year's star-studded, best-in-the-nation recruiting class, a bounce-back year is in the offing for what will be an unusually experienced Kentucky roster.
In every year since John Calipari took over, Kentucky has ranked in the bottom 35—often in the bottom 10—in experience, per KenPom. But with Davion Mintz back as a sixth-year senior, with Keion Brooks and Jacob Toppin both returning as third-year contributors and with the addition of transfers Kellan Grady, Oscar Tshiebwe, Sahvir Wheeler and C.J. Fredrick, there are going to be stretches where Kentucky is the wily old veteran capitalizing on its opponents' youthful mistakes.
There will also be stretches when freshmen TyTy Washington Jr. and Daimion Collins shoulder the load for a team that returns to its usual spot at or near the top of the SEC standings.
Noteworthy Riser: Michigan State Spartans
After seven consecutive years of ranking top 50 in the nation in effective field-goal percentage, Michigan State bottomed out into 257th place last season. That's largely because the Spartans didn't have a true point guard, which will change considerably with Northeastern transfer Tyson Walker and freshman Jaden Akins coming in to replace the departed Rocket Watts, Aaron Henry and Foster Loyer.
They also have Illinois' Mr. Basketball Max Christie and Michigan's Mr. Basketball Pierre Brooks II joining the fray, either of whom could be a much-needed volume scorer on a team with only one returning player who averaged better than 7.2 points per game (Joey Hauser, 9.7 PPG).
Noteworthy Slider: LSU Tigers
Plain and simple, LSU lost a ton of star power in Cam Thomas, Trendon Watford and Javonte Smart. The Tigers do have quite the haul of incoming talent, most notably freshman big man Efton Reid and veteran guard Xavier Pinson, but a modest drop off from last season seems likely.
Ranking the No. 1 Seeds
No. 4 UCLA Bruins
I'll be honest, I don't love putting UCLA on the top seed line. Not because I dislike the Bruins, but because they've only been a single-digit seed once in the past seven years. As far as the recent history goes, Villanova in this spot would feel a whole lot safer.
But the Bruins are No. 2 in the preseason AP poll, so let's roll with it.
They get back everyone who contributed during that First Four-to-Final Four run this past spring, and they also added considerably to their talent pool in the form of Rutgers transfer Myles Johnson and standout freshmen Will McClendon and Peyton Watson. UCLA definitely has the pieces to compete for a title, especially if it can come anywhere close to replicating the three-point luck (both offense and defense) that it had in the 2021 tourney.
No. 3 Michigan Wolverines
The Wolverines lost forwards Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner, as well as veteran point guard Mike Smith. But Juwan Howard signed a pair of 5-star forwards, as well as a pair of guards who rank in the top 50 overall, so there's no shortage of talent in Ann Arbor.
Hunter Dickinson coming back for a second season might have been Howard's best recruiting work, though, and the big man will be joined by veteran glue guy Eli Brooks and a pair of potential breakout second-year guys Zeb Jackson and Terrance Williams.
Even if three of the young stars fail to live up to their potential, Michigan is still going to have one heck of a starting five. Maybe they won't get a second straight No. 1 seed, but it's hard to imagine the Wolverines bottoming out.
No. 2 Kansas Jayhawks
Kansas did a lot of things very well last season, but there were more than a few games where it felt like the Jayhawks couldn't hit water in the ocean.
With 1,754 points scored over the past four seasons, Arizona State transfer Remy Martin should be able to change that. Drake transfer Joseph Yesufu might also be a key scorer. And though Bill Self didn't sign any 5-star guys this year, any of the four 4-star recruits in this year's class could be a major factor in the offense.
At any rate, the Jayhawks brought in a whole lot of new options after an offseason in which the only major loss was Marcus Garrett. Will be interesting to see how deep they go into their bench on a regular basis.
No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs
After coming up one game short of the first undefeated season in nearly half a century, Gonzaga might flirt with perfection again this year.
Of the four leading scorers from that national runner-up, only Drew Timme returns for the Zags. That's a mighty significant guy to get back, though, as Timme might be the unanimous preseason favorite for National Player of the Year.
Point guard Andrew Nembhard also returns, as do breakout candidates Julian Strawther and Dominick Harris. But it's the addition of No. 1 overall recruit Chet Holmgren, 5-star guard Hunter Sallis and high 4-star guard Nolan Hickman who cement Gonzaga as the clear preseason favorite to win it all.
As with Michigan, it's just very difficult to imagine this team sputtering to the bubble. Even if they miss out on the top line, it won't be by much.
Seeding by Conference
In case seeded regions aren't enough and you want to know where the "top" 68 teams stand in relation to one another, here is a list of each team's overall seed, broken down by conference.
American (3): 10. Memphis; 12. Houston; 47. Wichita State
Atlantic 10 (2): 21. St. Bonaventure; 46. Richmond
ACC (7): 11. Duke; 20. Florida State; 22. North Carolina; 29. Virginia; 36. Virginia Tech; 37. Louisville; 41. Syracuse
Big 12 (6): 2. Kansas; 7. Texas; 8. Baylor; 24. Texas Tech; 39. West Virginia; 45. Oklahoma
Big East (5): 6. Villanova; 23. Connecticut; 27. Xavier; 38. Seton Hall; 43. St. John's
Big Ten (8): 3. Michigan; 5. Purdue; 9. Illinois; 15. Ohio State; 19. Maryland; 25. Indiana; 32. Michigan State; 44. Rutgers
Mountain West (2): 33. San Diego State; 42. Colorado State
Pac-12 (4): 4. UCLA; 16. Oregon; 26. USC; 34. Arizona
SEC (7): 13. Kentucky; 14. Alabama; 17. Arkansas; 18. Tennessee; 28. Auburn; 31. Florida; 40. LSU
West Coast (2): 1 Gonzaga; 35. BYU
Other (23): 30. Loyola-Chicago; 48. Belmont; 49. UAB; 50. Buffalo; 51. Liberty; 52. New Mexico State; 53. Wright State; 54. South Dakota State; 55. UC Irvine; 56. Vermont; 57. Georgia State; 58. Colgate; 59. Furman; 60. Southern Utah; 61. Iona; 62. Yale; 63. Winthrop; 64. James Madison; 65. Bryant; 66. Nicholls State; 67. Prairie View A&M; 68. Morgan State
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.