Final Predictions for Champions of Every 2022 Men's CBB Conference TournamentMarch 3, 2022
Final Predictions for Champions of Every 2022 Men's CBB Conference Tournament
The 2022 men's NCAA tournament doesn't get underway until the 15th of this glorious month, but March Madness begins during the fortnight of conference tournaments mislabeled as Championship Week.
The first round of the Northeast Conference tournament was played Monday night, and a few other early-round games took place Tuesday and Wednesday. But business is about to pick up on the journey to award 32 automatic bids to the dance.
And I'm here to let you know who will win each and every one of those tournaments.
OK, not really.
I'm going to give it the ol' college try, for sure. But there were more than 1,100 entrants in last year's "Jerome," and the best of the bunch only correctly predicted the winner of 18 conference tournaments. Going 32-for-32 might be even more improbable than filling out a perfect NCAA tournament bracket.
With that disclaimer aside, here are the picks.
We'll start with the 17 one-bid leagues and work our way up to the six major conferences—and I promise there is at least one surprise pick among that sextet.
The Definite One-Bid Leagues (Part 1 of 2)
For 17 of the 32 conferences, it's "auto bid or bust" for everyone, even the No. 1 seeds in those tournaments. These are the most gut-wrenching tournaments and also the ones liable to put some team into the Big Dance with a 15-19 overall record. We've broken them into two sections, presented in chronological order of their championship games.
Big South (Noon ET on March 6)—Winthrop
My unofficial stance here is "Rooting for Longwood," which is 23-6 overall in just its second winning season in 18 years as a D-I program. The Lancers have won 16 of their last 17 games and will be the No. 1 seed in this tournament. But Winthrop has a Gonzaga-like 52-6 record (including conference tournaments) in Big South play over the past three years. The Eagles remain the team to beat.
SoCon (7 p.m. ET on March 7)—Chattanooga
The Mocs have one name you might remember and one you might want to learn before he breaks your bracket. The former is Kansas transfer Silvio De Sousa, who isn't exactly feasting on the SoCon but does have five double-doubles this season. The latter is Malachi Smith, who has 18 20-point performances on the year, including putting up 36 at Murray State in December. The Mocs haven't been flawless in league play, but they did sweep Furman, which figures to be their top challenger.
Sun Belt (7 p.m. ET on March 7)—South Alabama
Throw a dart and hope for the best here. The Sun Belt doesn't have any teams rated 120th or better on KenPom, but it does have eight teams in the top 200. South Alabama struggled down the stretch with losses in five of its final nine games, but the Jaguars have the fewest red flags and a nine-man rotation containing five seniors and three juniors. Even though they ended up with the No. 5 seed, I like their chances.
Atlantic Sun (5 p.m. ET on March 8)—Jacksonville State
The trendy pick here is going to be Liberty, which has a microwave scorer in Darius McGhee (24.7 PPG) and a proven ability to take and make a ton of three-pointers. But Jacksonville State can also stroke it from downtown and is the No. 1 seed thanks to a 10-point win at Liberty in January. If that ends up being the A-Sun Championship Game, get ready for an entertaining standalone showcase.
Colonial Athletic Association (7 p.m. ET on March 8)—Towson
Towson has three guards who can make it rain threes, three forwards who are tenacious on the offensive glass and a point guard who supplies a ton of assists and steals, and all seven guys are juniors or seniors. Per KenPom, the Tigers are the most efficient team in the league both on offense and defense, and it's not all that close in either category. That's good enough for me to pick them.
Horizon League (7 p.m. ET on March 8)—Oakland
February was none too kind to the Golden Grizzlies, who lost six of their final nine games. But they still managed to end the season with a win over No. 1 seed Cleveland State, and they still have two of the most dynamic players in the conference in Jamal Cain (20.0 PPG, 10.1 RPG) and Jalen Moore (15.4 PPG, 7.8 APG). When that duo starts cooking, anything is possible.
Northeast (7 p.m. ET on March 8)—Wagner
Bryant ended up winning the regular-season crown when it battled back from a six-point halftime deficit to win at home against Wagner on Saturday. Prior to that game, though, the Bulldogs were 0-5 against the KenPom top 200, while Wagner won at VCU early in the year and won the previous meeting with Bryant. The rubber match should be a good one, if we get it.
Patriot League (7:30 p.m. ET on March 9)—Colgate
The Raiders—aka the team that broke the NET last season—have won 16 of their last 17 games, most of them in convincing fashion. Just like last year, Matt Langel's guys make a ton of threes, and they will be treated to home-court advantage for as long as they last in this tournament. They're 12-1 at Cotterell Court this season.
The Definite One-Bid Leagues (Part 2 of 2)
America East (11 a.m. ET on March 12)—Vermont
If anyone other than Vermont wins, this would be a colossal upset. The Catamounts rank in the top 75 on KenPom, while no one else in the America East is in the top 225. They are 17-1 in league play with 16 of those wins coming by double digits. And they will have home-court advantage throughout. While not quite TJ Sorrentine and Taylor Coppenrath from the mid-2000s, the senior duo of Ben Shungu and Ryan Davis is sure to convince you that this team could knock off a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Mid-Eastern Athletic (1 p.m. ET on March 12)—Norfolk State
Never sleep on North Carolina Central, which had won the last three MEAC tournaments prior to the pandemic and is lurking in third place in the league this year. But Norfolk State has been the clear favorite for most of the season. The Spartans won at Howard earlier this year, and it sure doesn't hurt that the tournament is being held in Norfolk, per usual.
Southwestern Athletic (6 p.m. ET on March 12)—Southern
Texas Southern made waves in early December with a 15-point road win over Florida. The Tigers were 0-7 before that game and have won 14 of 19 since. As has routinely been the case for more than a decade, they look like the team to beat in the SWAC. But Southern has done just that. Twice. And by double digits both times. Give me the Jaguars over the Tigers in the championship.
Mid-American (7:30 p.m. ET on March 12)—Kent State
Can the Golden Flashes stay hot just a little while longer? They went a perfect 8-0 through February, including a road win over Toledo and a blowout of Ohio—the two other teams most likely to win this tourney. As long as it's one of those three teams, though, look out. Sincere Carry (Kent State), Mark Sears (Ohio) and Ryan Rollins (Toledo) can take a game over against just about anyone.
Big Sky (9 p.m. ET on March 12)—Montana State
One month ago, I would have gone with Weber State here, but the Wildcats' last 11 opponents have shot a combined 40.4 percent from three-point range, resulting in five recent losses. Tough to trust a team that defends like that, especially considering Montana State is an excellent three-point shooting team. The Bobcats should earn and defend the No. 1 seed in the Big Sky tournament.
Southland (9:30 p.m. ET on March 12)—Southeastern Louisiana
Nicholls State will be the most popular pick here, but SELA has had NSU's number, beating the Colonels not once, not twice but three times already this season. The Lions play at a breakneck pace with just about no defense or rebounding, but it confounds Nicholls State for some reason.
Western Athletic (10 p.m. ET on March 12)—New Mexico State
The Aggies have represented the WAC in seven of the last nine NCAA tournaments and still look like the team to beat, but this is going to be a much better tournament than usual. Former Southland members Abilene Christian, Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin are all legitimate candidates, as are Grand Canyon, Seattle and Utah Valley. But NMSU's Teddy Allen should be the star of the tourney—and a guy who might put on a show against a No. 4 or No. 5 seed in the dance.
Big West (11:30 p.m. ET on March 12)—UC Irvine
The Anteaters went through a rough patch in mid-January, but they have won eight of their last nine games, leaning heavily on a defense that paved the way for early-season wins over Boise State and Santa Clara, as well as close calls at Fresno State and USC. Watch out for UC Santa Barbara, though. The Gauchos have a star big man in Amadou Sow, and they could win this thing as the projected No. 6 seed.
Ivy League (Noon ET on March 13)—Princeton
Not only are the Tigers likely headed for an outright regular-season title, but they fared quite well in nonconference play with wins over South Carolina, Drexel and Oregon State, plus close calls away from home against Minnesota and Hofstra. This is one of the best shooting teams in the country, and it is going to make a No. 2 or No. 3 seed sweat in the first round, provided it wins this four-team tournament first.
The Possible Bid-Thief Events
While the previous 17 tournaments have no hope of producing an at-large team, these five reasonably could if the team with the best resume—not necessarily the No. 1 seed—fails to secure the automatic bid.
Ohio Valley (7:30 p.m. ET on March 5)—Murray State
Of the quintet, this is the one most certain to result in two bids if the top team falters. Murray State is 28-2 overall with several quality wins and has climbed all the way into the NET top 25. The Racers have a double bye into the OVC semifinals, and it is beyond difficult to envision a scenario in which they get left out of the dance.
But we're not going to need to worry about it, as the Racers went 18-0 in league play, including two merciless blowouts of No. 2 seed Belmont. KJ Williams, Tevin Brown and Justice Hill will carry them to two more victories and possibly a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Missouri Valley (2 p.m. ET on March 6)—Missouri State
Loyola-Chicago entered conference play looking like a sure thing for the NCAA tournament. In nonconference play, the Ramblers had nice wins away from home over San Francisco, Vanderbilt, DePaul and Arizona State, and their only losses were competitive games against Auburn and Michigan State on a neutral floor. But with each of the five losses that dropped them all the way down to the No. 4 seed in Arch Madness, they slipped closer to the bubble and now look unlikely to dance without the auto bid.
Loyola-Chicago certainly could win it, but I'm leaning in the direction of Missouri State's Isiaih Mosley and Gaige Prim. Mosley has had multiple 40-point performances this season, and Prim has come on strong as of late, averaging 22.2 points over his last nine games. The Bears aren't anything special on defense—especially against Northern Iowa, for some reason—but that duo is going to be a problem in St. Louis.
Summit League (9 p.m. ET on March 8)—South Dakota State
With an 0-2 record in Quadrant 1 games, just two Quadrant 2 wins and one loss apiece in Quadrants 3 and 4, it is highly unlikely South Dakota State would be given at-large consideration, if necessary. It would be a shame if one of the best three-point shooting teams in NCAA history didn't make the tournament, but the resume just isn't there.
Good thing the Jackrabbits went a perfect 18-0 against Summit League competition and should win this tournament. But here's hoping it's South Dakota State vs. Oral Roberts in the championship game so that we are at least treated to another Max Abmas NCAA tournament appearance if we don't end up getting to watch the best shooting team in the nation.
Metro Atlantic Athletic (4 p.m. ET on March 12)—Iona
Everyone kissed Iona's at-large chances goodbye when the Gaels lost back-to-back games at Niagara and Siena in early February, but there might still be a pulse here if they close out the regular season with wins over Manhattan and Quinnipiac before reaching the MAAC Championship Game.
At that point, though, best to just go ahead and punch that ticket with an auto bid. And Iona is no stranger to navigating those waters, having won each of the last five (completed) MAAC tournaments. Those previous Iona teams weren't as good as the current iteration, either.
Conference USA (8:30 p.m. ET on March 12)—UAB
North Texas has won 20 of its last 21 games, climbing into the top 45 in NET, KPI, SOR and KP. You don't need to know what those acronyms mean in order to know that's a good thing. Every other team in that club looks like a sure thing for a single-digit seed in the NCAA tournament, and if the Mean Green do win out, they could end up with a No. 9 or No. 10 seed.
That's a mighty big "if" with UAB likely to be awaiting North Texas in the C-USA championship. The Blazers beat the Mean Green in January, and UNT took the rematch on a last-second three by Tylor Perry. Expect an awesome Thursday-Saturday from UAB's Jordan "Jelly" Walker as the Blazers win and make North Texas sweat out the selection show.
Multi-Bid Mid-Major Tournaments
West Coast (9 p.m. ET on March 8)—Gonzaga
I am well aware Gonzaga was just thoroughly beaten by Saint Mary's this past Saturday, but are you aware Gonzaga has won the WCC tournament in 18 of the past 23 years—including in 2015 and 2017, when its quest for an undefeated WCC season was ruined in the regular-season finale? The Zags have been the clear favorite for this tourney all season long, and that doesn't change because of one bad night.
The real intrigue here is the projected quarterfinals matchup between No. 4 seed San Francisco and No. 5 seed BYU. The Dons are probably going to join Gonzaga and Saint Mary's in the NCAA tournament regardless of what happens in that game, but BYU likely needs to beat USF to stay in the hunt for a bid.
Mountain West (6 p.m. ET on March 12)—Colorado State
Seeding for this tournament is still a bit up in the air with at least one game left on each team's schedule. But as long as Colorado State (currently projected for No. 3 seed) doesn't have to face UNLV (likely No. 5 seed), I like the Rams' chances in this loaded field.
The Rebels have been Colorado State's kryptonite, sweeping the Rams with both wins coming by double digits. And with this tournament held in Las Vegas, UNLV is always a little extra dangerous. Outside of those two games and the one hiccup at San Diego State in early January, Colorado State has been great and David Roddy has been phenomenal. He probably won't end up being one of the five finalists for the Wooden Award, but he absolutely could be.
As far as the other MWC bids are concerned, Boise State and Wyoming are in good shape, and San Diego State is looking mighty fine after a road win over Wyoming Monday night. And while not serious threats to crash the at-large field, Utah State, Fresno State and UNLV have all had solid seasons. Lots of intrigue in this one.
Atlantic 10 (1 p.m. ET on March 13)—Dayton
Davidson looks to be in good shape for an at-large bid, while VCU and St. Bonaventure have both come on strong in recent weeks in hopes of making this a two- or three-bid league.
But Dayton might be the best team in the A-10.
From a tournament-resume perspective, the three Quadrant 4 losses are hideous. Those all happened more than three months ago, though, when this very inexperienced Flyers roster was still cutting its teeth. They improved in a hurry and now boast seven wins over KenPom top-100 foes. Three of their four conference losses were by a single bucket. Give me the true-freshman duo of Malachi Smith and DaRon Holmes II in a bit of an upset.
American Athletic (3:15 p.m. ET on March 13)—Houston
Houston is definitely going dancing. Memphis is looking relatively good for a bid. SMU is still hanging around, too, albeit arguably on the wrong side of the cutline at the moment. And it's hard to imagine anyone outside of that trio legitimately threatening to steal a bid. (Then again, who would've thought Cincinnati would reach the AAC title game last year?)
I'm going with Houston because A) Memphis and SMU have both been wildly inconsistent this season and B) those two teams will presumably need to battle each other for the right to face Houston in the championship game. And fatigued is the last thing you want to be when running into a physical Cougars team.
If Memphis does win this tournament, though, ladies and gentlemen, say hello to the No. 8 or No. 9 seed that everyone says is good enough to reach the Final Four. There's always at least one. (Not one that makes the Final Four, but one that everyone falls in love with as soon as the bracket is released.)
When: 8:30 p.m. ET on March 12
The Pick: Duke Blue Devils
The early rounds of the ACC tournament are going to be wildly entertaining for NCAA tournament bubble purposes.
Miami, North Carolina, Notre Dame and Wake Forest are each desperately trying to stay on the good side of the cutline, while Virginia and Virginia Tech still have dreams of playing their way into the field. If things break right, it might be a six-bid league. If things break wrong, maybe only three ACC teams get in.
But as far as a tournament champion goes, it's Duke or the field, and the field is a considerable underdog.
The Blue Devils had a few missteps against Virginia, Florida State and Miami, but those three losses were by a combined four points and all came in games in which they just seemed out of sync/focus. If they can permanently keep the effort switch in the "on" position now that we're in March, not only should the Blue Devils cruise through the ACC tournament, but they might be the top candidate to win the NCAA tournament. (Not the betting favorite, though. That's Gonzaga.)
If anyone is going to upset Duke, it's probably Virginia. Paolo Banchero has scored in double figures in every game this season, save for the two against that pack-line defense. But as the current projected No. 6 seed, Virginia wouldn't get its third shot at Duke until the championship game, so we'll see how things play out.
Since all things revolve around Mike Krzyzewski's impending retirement these days, let's also note that of the 40 completed ACC tournaments since he became the head coach, Duke has won 15 and played in six other championship games. Not No. 1 on his long list of career accolades, but mighty impressive in a league that usually sends at least four teams to the dance.
When: 6 p.m. ET on March 12
The Pick: Kansas Jayhawks
The only team I'm confident will not win the Big 12 tournament is Oklahoma State, and that's only because the Cowboys aren't eligible to play in it.
We can probably also rule out West Virginia and Oklahoma, considering they have a combined 25 losses since January 10. However, the Sooners are still a top-50 team on KenPom, and the Mountaineers are top-75. If either one were to upset Kansas in the quarterfinals, would it really be all that shocking?
It's almost always (21 out of 24 years) one of the top three seeds that wins the Big 12, though, so that narrowed the list of candidates down to Baylor, Kansas and Texas Tech.
Texas Tech has the best head-to-head record in that group, sweeping Baylor and winning the home game against Kansas. But the Red Raiders also have some offensive woes that showed up in a big way in the losses to Iowa State, Kansas State, Oklahoma and TCU. They absolutely could win three games in three days, but I worry they'll shoot 15 percent from three and commit at least 15 turnovers in one of those games.
Between the other two, I'll take Kansas, which has been excellent over the past three months outside of that blip at "desperate for another statement win" TCU on Tuesday.
Part of the reason for that pick is that Baylor would likely* need to go through Texas Tech in the semifinals. Another part is that the Bears are short-handed without Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and with LJ Cryer having missed nine of their last 10 games. They do still have a formidable seven-man rotation, as evidenced by the recent 10-point win over Kansas. But beating three tournament-caliber opponents in a span of about 48 hours without two key players is asking an awful lot.
Also, did you know Baylor has never won the Big 12 tournament and that it has only made it to the championship game three times? The Bears were awful until about 15 years ago, but they've been a single-digit seed in eight of the past 11 NCAA tournaments. Hard to believe they haven't won one of these along the way.
*If both Baylor (currently 13-4) and Kansas (12-4) finish at 14-4, I believe Kansas would get the No. 1 seed because it went 1-1 against No. 3 seed Texas Tech, while Baylor was swept by the Red Raiders.
When: 6:30 p.m. ET on March 12
The Pick: Marquette Golden Eagles
For a hot minute there, I was starting to think Creighton could be the surprise team that wins the Big East tournament as a No. 3-5 seed. But losing point guard Ryan Nembhard to a season-ending wrist injury put that notion to rest in a hurry.
Why not Marquette, though?
The Golden Eagles were swept during the regular season by Creighton, which is the foe they would draw in the quarterfinals based on current/projected records. But with Nembhard out, Marquette should have its revenge over the Bluejays.
We all know about Providence's propensity for playing in (and winning) nail-biters. Suffice it to say, the Friars aren't your average, overpowering No. 1 seed in a conference tournament. And Marquette already shellacked Providence by 32 points earlier this season.
Villanova will likely be the betting favorite to win the Big East tournament, but the Golden Eagles swept Villanova during the regular season, so we know they could win that potential No. 2 seed vs. No. 5 seed championship game.
Marquette's 0-3 start to conference play—coupled with a recent bad loss to Butler—has somewhat obscured a very capable team that has seven wins against the NET top 40. Villanova's Collin Gillespie will probably be named Big East Player of the Year, but Marquette's Justin Lewis is equally deserving of that honor. He has been in a bit of a late-season funk recently, but the Golden Eagles can win this tournament if he gets back to dominating like he did during that seven-game winning streak in January.
(Just so I don't get accused of forgetting about Connecticut, the Huskies are also very capable of winning this tournament, and they did sweep Marquette during the regular season. With wins in 11 of their last 14 games, they certainly appear to be hitting their stride at the right time. But I'm picking Marquette. Deal with it.)
When: 3:30 p.m. ET on March 13
The Pick: Illinois Fighting Illini
If you feel like no one in the Big Ten can be trusted, you're not alone. Believe it or not, Iowa was the only team in the conference that did not suffer multiple losses in February, though the Hawkeyes did lose at home to Michigan and lost to Penn State on January 31.
It doesn't help matters that the Big Ten has eight teams in the KenPom top 50, none of whom are in the top 10.
Plenty of capable teams; no dominant ones.
But it does feel like Illinois is starting to turn a corner and might be gearing up for a deep run in both tournaments this March.
After ending January with back-to-back games held below 60 points, the Illini have scored 79, 83 and 93 over their last three games.
Alfonso Plummer and Jacob Grandison have taken turns catching fire. Trent Frazier keeps coming through in huge moments. Andre Curbelo is still a far cry from what we expected in the preseason, but he's getting there. Coleman Hawkins was a ghost for much of the Big Ten schedule, but he has been making major contributions off the bench lately. And, of course, Kofi Cockburn remains a very large human being, capable of going for 20 and 10 against anyone.
Purdue, Iowa and at times Ohio State have seemingly unstoppable offenses, but questionable (at best) defenses. Michigan and Michigan State occasionally look like contenders, though rarely in consecutive games. Wisconsin is a strong candidate with Johnny Davis' ability to go into "Kemba Walker mode," but I'll take the more well-rounded Illini.
When: 9 p.m. ET on March 12
The Pick: Arizona Wildcats
The Pac-12 tournament has been a bit batty in recent years. Oregon State won it as the No. 5 seed in 2021, stealing a bid from the bubble. Similar story in 2019 with Oregon getting the job done as a No. 6 seed. And let's just say if the No. 5 or No. 6 seed wins it again this year, that is bad news for some unfortunate soul on the bubble, as no one outside the top four in the Pac-12 has a realistic argument for an at-large bid.
Not only has there been recent history of chaos in this tournament, but UCLA lost four games in February, Arizona just got smashed by Colorado this past weekend, and let's not forget USC needed two overtimes to beat 3-24 Oregon State and barely survived a home game against Pacific less than a month ago.
Even though I could not possibly talk myself into picking a team like Arizona State or Washington State to win, anything is possible here.
The pick pretty much has to be Arizona, UCLA or USC, though, and I'm going with the Wildcats, who have been very good all season long outside of two ice-cold nights on the road against UCLA and Colorado.
In both of those games, Bennedict Mathurin, Kerr Kriisa and Dalen Terry could not buy a bucket, shooting a combined 11-of-62 from the field. That's 17.7 percent compared to a combined 46.2 percent in the other games played this season, so I'm not overly worried about that lightning striking for a third time in Las Vegas.
And as was the case with the Houston pick in the AAC, being the No. 1 seed in a tournament with a clear top tier of three teams is such a big advantage, as No. 2 and No. 3 likely need to play each other before getting to you. Either UCLA or USC could win this tournament, but I'm not picking either to beat the other and Arizona on back-to-back days.
When: 1 p.m. ET on March 13
The Pick: Kentucky Wildcats
This is probably going to be the most entertaining conference tournament of them all.
In the middling seeds, you've got Florida and, to a lesser extent, Mississippi State and Texas A&M all fighting for positioning on the bubble. In the No. 5-6 seed range, Alabama and LSU are the wild cards that could lose to Georgia or upset Auburn. And somewhere in the top four is hotter-than-the-sun Arkansas, which has expanded the top trio of Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee into a quartet of Final Four contenders.
Who the heck is best equipped to survive that gauntlet?
My money's on Kentucky, if it is finally healthy again.
All four of Kentucky's SEC losses have happened on the road, in a game in which TyTy Washington Jr. and/or Sahvir Wheeler either got injured, missed the game because of injury or was just returning from missing a game or two to injury. But when the main five of Washington, Wheeler, Oscar Tshiebwe, Kellan Grady and Keion Brooks is fully available, good luck finding three better teams in the country than the Wildcats.
If yet another rolled ankle or sprained wrist derails the Wildcats, though, my backup pick is Arkansas, which has played well regardless of venue for nearly two full months. Auburn and Tennessee are excellent teams, but they have been substantially more vulnerable when not on their home courts. The "Muss Bus," on the other hand, is ready to face anyone, anytime, anywhere.