2022 Men's NCAA Tournament: Power Ranking All 68 Teams
Selection Sunday has finally arrived, and with it the 2022 NCAA men's basketball tournament field has been set.
After months of arguing about NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings, KenPom.com ratings, quadrant-based records, strengths of schedule and the like, none of that junk matters anymore.
There will, of course, be a few more hours or days of complaining about who got left out or unfairly seeded, but too bad, so sad. We've got our field, and it's time to move on to the real fun: picking the brackets.
Based on a combination of player talent, current roster health, marquee wins, biggest weaknesses and a healthy dose of gut feeling/eye test, we have ranked all 68 NCAA tournament teams.
Generally speaking, if you're trying to decide which team to choose in a matchup, the higher-ranked team would be our suggestion. There are certainly matchup-based exceptions, but the teams at the top of the list are the ones with the least troubling Achilles' heels. Thus, they are the ones most likely to reach the Final Four.
Before we dive in, a thank-you must be extended to Joel Reuter. B/R's MLB power rankings guru was a huge help and contributed to this piece, despite the recent chaos stemming from the conclusion of MLB's lockout. He now knows more about the Cinderella candidates than 99 percent of the population. So if he tweets out a recommendation on a potential No. 15 over No. 2 upset, you might want to take it seriously.
68. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders
Record: 23-11, 7-7 in Southland
Star Player: Isaac Mushila vanished a bit in the Southland Conference tournament, but he was Texas A&M-Corpus Christi's leading scorer and rebounder during the regular season, darn near averaging a double-double in a little over 26 minutes per game. The 6'5" power forward has also made more than 150 free throws on the year.
Biggest Wins: The Islanders did not have a single win over a KenPom top 275 team until upsetting Nicholls State in the Southland semifinals. And then they finished the fight with a championship game victory over Southeastern Louisiana.
Reason to Worry: With the exception of frequently getting to and converting from the free-throw line, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi's offense is quite bad. And if the opposing team can avoid turning the ball over, this defense isn't anything special, either. It's rather telling that this team went .500 in one of the worst conferences in the country.
March Madness Ceiling: All I'm going to say is Abilene Christian shocked Texas in the first round last year with the type of "force turnovers, grab offensive rebounds and play as physical as possible" approach to the game that A&M-CC has. Stephen F. Austin also pulled off some big upsets in the past, too. But I'm not going to sit here and say I would be anything less than completely shocked if the Islanders reach the second round.
67. Texas Southern Tigers
Record: 18-12, 13-5 in SWAC
Star Player: No one on the roster averages so much as 10 points per game, but sixth man John Walker led the way through the SWAC tournament. He finished the three-game run with 40 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks. He was also the MVP of the game we're about to mention, going for 13 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in the best win of the year, by far.
Biggest Wins: For basically every team in the Nos. 15-16 seed range, we're needing to hem and haw to come up with anything worth mentioning here. Not for Texas Southern, though, which picked up one of the most surprising upsets of the entire season, beating Florida in Gainesville by a 15-point margin. Beyond that? No other wins against the KenPom top 250.
Reason to Worry: Texas Southern is much better on defense than ever before in the KenPom era, but the offense is as bad as it has been in a decade. So, instead of losing a 90-70 type of game like they usually do in the first round, maybe it'll be 77-60 this year. Also, even in the win over Florida, Texas Southern had a minus-12 turnover margin.
March Madness Ceiling: Texas Southern has picked off the occasional big dog during the regular season over the past decade, but collecting all those buy-game checks in November and December has yet to translate into a first-round game that was even a little competitive. No good reason to assume that trend will change this year.
66. Bryant Bulldogs
Record: 22-9, 16-2 in NEC
Star Player: The Bulldogs have the nation's leading scorer in Peter Kiss, who is averaging 25.1 points per game. The 6'5" guard began his college career at Quinnipiac, then spent three years at Rutgers before ultimately making his way to Bryant. He's not the most efficient scorer, shooting 45.6 percent from the field and 29.4 percent from long range, but with 10 30-point games under his belt, he's capable of carrying his team like few others in the field.
Biggest Wins: A lopsided 70-43 win over Wagner in the NEC title game was not only the Bulldogs' most important win of the season, but it was also their best in terms of resume building. They also beat Wagner at home in a much closer 78-70 game during the regular season, while a road win over Brown is their only other Quad 3 victory.
Reason to Worry: The Bulldogs faced Houston in December, and they were absolutely dismantled in a 111-44 blowout. They also lost by double-digits on the road to Clemson (93-70) and Cincinnati (73-58), and while facing high-level teams like that is valuable experience, it's not a promising sign that they were unable to keep pace. They shoot just 43.7 percent from the field as a team, which ranks 210th in the nation.
March Madness Ceiling: Even if Kiss goes out and gets his 11th 30-point game of the year, it's hard to see how Bryant can pull off the big upset given the team's lack of offensive efficiency.
65. Norfolk State Spartans
Record: 24-6, 12-2 in MEAC
Star Player: Norfolk State has a trio of senior leaders, but the biggest star is point guard Joe Bryant Jr. He leads the Spartans in points, assists and steals and is one of the most accurate free-throw shooters in the entire country at 92.0 percent. If they happen to be in a position to salt away a late lead, that is a major advantage.
Biggest Wins: The Spartans went just 1-3 against the KenPom top 200, so it appears the biggest win was the early December victory over UNC-Wilmington. Not great, to say the least, and in one of those other games, they lost by 40 to Xavier.
Reason to Worry: When looking for a major upset, you hope to find a team that shoots well and doesn't shoot itself in the foot with turnovers. But that's not the case with Norfolk State. And if the Spartans can't do those things in league play, it's hard to believe they can pull it off against a title contender.
March Madness Ceiling: Dating back to 2016, the MEAC champion has been a sacrificial lamb in the first round, if it even gets past the opening round game in Dayton. But this team feels different. The Spartans most likely will not pull off a UMBC-level upset, but they're at least going to put up a fight, which will have a lot of people buzzing about a school that did pull off a No. 15 over No. 2 upset back in 2012.
64. Cal State Fullerton Titans
Record: 21-10, 11-4 in Big West
Star Player: Tennessee transfer E.J. Anosike is the star of the show in Fullerton. The big man has scored at least 16 points in each of his last eight games and also racked up 20 rebounds in the Titans' Big West opener against UC Davis. In their one-point win in the BW championship game, Anosike was a perfect 6-of-6 from the field.
Biggest Wins: Cal St. Fullerton had a couple of solid wins during the regular season, sweeping both UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara. But, of course, the biggest by far was winning the Big West championship against No. 1 seed Long Beach State. The Titans shot 11-of-20 from three-point range, coming out victorious in a game that went back and forth all night.
Reason to Worry: They may have shot 55 percent in that win over The Beach, but they also allowed 44.4 percent, which is a common problem for them. In fact, Georgia State is the only team in the tournament field with a worse defensive three-point percentage than Cal St. Fullerton. The Titans also are usually a below-average shooting team. That was just a magical night for them.
March Madness Ceiling: Never say never. This team did put up a good battle with each of San Diego State, Wyoming and Santa Clara. And aside from that three-point defense, nothing stands out as a clear red flag. But they're also just average at best across the board and don't profile as a Cinderella candidate. However, maybe they'll fare a little better than their 26-point first-round loss in 2018.
63. Jacksonville State Gamecocks
Record: 21-10, 13-3 in Atlantic Sun
Star Player: After leading the Gamecocks in scoring last year, Darian Adams returned for his fifth year of eligibility and he has again paced the team with 15.6 points per game. He's added 5.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists per contest while leading the team with 44 steals, and he's knocked down 69 three-pointers at a 38.5 percent clip.
Biggest Wins: A 77-67 win on the road against Liberty in January is the Gamecocks' only victory above the Quad 3 level, though they did hang tight with Alabama (65-59) and Wichita State (60-57). They actually only qualified for the automatic bid because A-Sun tournament winner Bellarmine is ineligible for the NCAA tournament in their second year at the D-l level, so the bid instead went to the regular-season champ.
Reason to Worry: First and foremost, it just feels like bad karma to qualify for the NCAA tournament by default. They played a couple of high-level opponents tough this year, but they also have five Quad 4 losses, four of which have come since the start of February. They have thrived on three-point efficiency, ranking fifth in the nation with a 38.8 percent rate from beyond the arc. That's a boom-or-bust approach for a team that will likely be outmatched athletically.
March Madness Ceiling: The Gamecocks feel like a team that could put a first-half scare into a high-seeded opponent with a hot start from the perimeter, but anything other than a first-round exit would be a major upset.
62. Wright State Raiders
Record: 21-13 (15-7 in Horizon)
Star Player: Junior Tanner Holden earned first-team All-Horizon League honors by ranking third in the conference in scoring with 19.8 points. His game is played largely inside the arc with only 39 three-point attempts in 34 games, but he still has 19 games with at least 20 points. On top of his scoring, he's added 7.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.4 steals per contest.
Biggest Wins: The Raiders don't have much of a resume, but they did beat a major conference opponent in December with a 14-point victory over NC State. Forward Grant Basile (23 points, 16 rebounds), guard Trey Calvin (19 points) and guard Tanner Holden (18 points) each had big games, and the team shot 52.5 percent from the floor.
Reason to Worry: With seven Quad 4 losses and a 44-point loss to Purdue in their only game above the Quad 3 level, Wright State has not been a tournament-caliber team for most of the year. They rank No. 261 in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency, and they are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the tournament, making them ill-equipped to play catch-up with a superior opponent.
March Madness Ceiling: After three straight years winning the regular-season title and then falling short in the conference tournament, the Raiders flipped the script and snagged the automatic bid as the No. 4 seed. It will take their best game of the year to even hang around with their first-round opponent.
61. Montana State Bobcats
Record: 27-7, 16-4 in Big Sky
Star Player: Everything Montana State does on offense runs through lead guard Xavier Bishop. He leads the team in both points and assists and was the Bobcats' most dominant force in the Big Sky championship win over Northern Colorado. He finished with 19 points and eight dimes in that blowout victory.
Biggest Wins: The most impressive wins were probably the two nonconference games against Portland and the home game against North Dakota State. But the most impressive performance was the season opener in which the Bobcats went into Colorado and took the Buffaloes to overtime before falling short. That was an immediate notice that this team would be a factor in the Big Sky race.
Reason to Worry: Montana State both draws and commits an awful lot of fouls. That could be seen as more of a reason to believe, because that physical style of play might cause issues for an otherwise superior foe. But it's not like the Bobcats force many turnovers. They just kind of hack way too much. And a 15-point disparity on free throws is a big reason why that game against Colorado got away from them.
March Madness Ceiling: The Big Sky champion always feels like a threat to pull off a first-round upset, but it hasn't happened since 2006. And with the exception of Eastern Washington's Groves brothers giving Kansas a run for its money last year, it's usually not even close. Montana State does profile as a sneaky decent team, but I've been burned by this league too many times. You probably have been, too.
60. Delaware Blue Hens
Record: 22-12 (10-8 in Colonial)
Star Player: Junior guard Jameer Nelson Jr. filled up the box score this season, averaging 13.7 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game. The George Washington transfer has also significantly improved his three-point shooting, knocking down 55 threes at a 36.9 percent rate after shooting just 27-of-108 (.250) from deep in his first two college seasons.
Biggest Wins: The Blue Hens went 1-6 in games above the Quad 3 level, with their only victory coming at the perfect time with a 69-56 win over No. 1 seed Towson in the CAA tournament. They held the Tigers to 31.0 percent shooting from the floor and 4-of-23 from beyond the arc in that one, and then went on to knock off UNC-Wilmington to claim the automatic bid as the CAA tournament's No. 5 seed.
Reason to Worry: A defense that ranks No. 211 in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency is going to be a major issue when it comes to slowing down a quality opponent. The best team they faced this year was Davidson back in November, and they allowed 93 points on 59.3 percent shooting in a 22-point loss.
March Madness Ceiling: The Blue Hens have made the NCAA tournament just once in the last 22 years, nabbing a No. 13 seed in the 2014 tournament when they went one-and-done. The same fate likely awaits this year's team.
59. Colgate Raiders
Record: 23-11, 16-2 in Patriot
Star Player: All five starters average between 10 and 15 points for a Raiders team that ranks eighth in the nation with 17.2 assists per game. Senior guard Jack Ferguson led the way during the Patriot League tournament, averaging 20.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 72.0 percent from the floor in Colgate's three wins.
Biggest Wins: The Raiders won a 100-85 shootout against Syracuse in November, connecting on 18 of 43 attempts from beyond the arc. The Orange are not an NCAA tournament team, but it was proof that the Raiders can hang with a major conference opponent when they're hitting from deep.
Reason to Worry: While the Syracuse win is nice, the Raiders went just 2-8 in games above the Quad 4 level, including six Quad 3 losses. They also have three ugly Quad 4 losses on their resume, and a defensive unit that ranks 203rd in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency is a big red flag that could mean a lopsided first-round exit.
March Madness Ceiling: It's impossible to ignore the fact that the Raiders shoot 40.3 percent from three-point range, the second-best rate in the nation. However, their sketchy resume and shortcomings on the defensive end make a first-round exit the likely outcome.
58. Georgia State Panthers
Record: 18-10, 9-5 in Sun Belt
Star Player: The Panthers have a pair of third-team All-Sun Belt performers in senior guards Corey Allen (14.7 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 3.2 APG) and Kane Williams (12.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 3.8 APG). It was Allen who shouldered the scoring load in the conference tournament, pouring in a season-high 29 points against Appalachian State in the semifinals and then matching that with another 29-point showing against Louisiana in the title game.
Biggest Wins: Upsetting the No. 2 seed Appalachian State in the Sun Belt tournament semifinals might have been the biggest win of the season for the Panthers, both in terms of importance and quality of opponent. They didn't have to face the No. 1 seed Texas State thanks to an unexpected title game run from No. 8 seed Louisiana.
Reason to Worry: The Panthers only played two games above the Quad 3 level. Both of them were blowout losses on the road, with a 29-point loss to Mississippi State in December and a 16-point loss to Richmond in November. They are outside the top 200 in KenPom's adjusted offensive efficiency, and they're not good enough defensively to make up for those shortcomings.
March Madness Ceiling: This is the fourth time in the last eight years the Panthers have punched their ticket to March Madness. That run began with an upset of No. 3 seed Baylor in the 2015 tournament, but that team had a future NBA player on it in R.J. Hunter. This year's squad doesn't have the firepower to hang with a high-level opponent.
57. Longwood Lancers
Record: 26-6, 15-1 in Big South
Star Player: Sophomore Justin Hill (14.2 PPG) leads the Lancers in scoring, but it was junior Isaiah Wilkins who claimed Big South tournament MVP. The 6'4" guard averaged 15.7 points and 9.0 rebounds in three games, and he's just a few weeks removed from a season-high 25 points against Hampton. Both players earned first-team All-Big South honors.
Biggest Wins: The Lancers' best wins are a pair of Quad 3 victories over Big South tournament No. 2 seed Winthrop. It was a four-point game when the two teams matched up during the regular season, but Longwood came away with a lopsided 21-point victory in the conference tournament title game to secure the automatic bid.
Reason to Worry: Can the Lancers maintain their 38.0 percent shooting from beyond the arc against a quality opponent? That efficiency from deep has been the key to their success, but they shot just 9-of-32 (.281) in a 33-point loss to Iowa during their only Quad 1 matchup of the season. Things could get out of hand quickly if the three ball isn't falling.
March Madness Ceiling: The Lancers are in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 15 years at the D-l level, so getting this far is already uncharted territory. Getting any further would be a stunner.
56. Saint Peter's Peacocks
Record: 19-11, 14-6 in MAAC
Star Player: Got to go with KC Ndefo here. Defense is the Saint Peter's calling card, and he supplies a lot of it, racking up 78 blocks and 38 steals this season. Ndefo led the Peacocks in both of those categories and also ranked second on the roster in points, rebounds and assists. Basically, if they're going to pull off a major upset, he's going to need to have his fingerprints all over the box score.
Biggest Wins: Saint Peter's went 0-2 against Iona and lost each of its early-season games against VCU, St. John's and Providence. So, hands down, the biggest win of the season was the one over Monmouth that got the Peacocks into the dance.
Reason to Worry: All eight of the team leaders in minutes played are listed at 200 pounds or lighter and 6'7" or shorter. It doesn't take much frontcourt prowess to push this team around a bit. Saint Peter's is also woeful on offense, both in terms of making shots and avoiding turnovers.
March Madness Ceiling: It has been a hot minute since we had to consider the tournament potential of a MAAC team not named Iona. But this Peacocks team has the defensive intensity to at least make things interesting in the first round. Whether they can actually score 60 points against a quality foe remains to be seen, but they could lose a close rock fight.
55. Yale Bulldogs
Record: 19-11, 11-3 in Ivy
Star Player: Azar Swain is a fearless problem. If he airballs a shot, he might just back up a step and drain the next one. Swain has averaged 19.3 points over his last eight games. And between Yale's two Ivy League tournament games, he only committed one turnover.
Biggest Wins: Though Yale put together a mighty impressive nonconference schedule, its two best wins came against the Ivy League's best team. The Bulldogs won at Princeton in late January and then beat the Tigers in the conference championship game Sunday to secure their spot in the field.
Reason to Worry: Yale did pull off a big upset over Baylor back in the 2016 NCAA tournament, but that was a much better team that absolutely dominated on the glass. The current Bulldogs are just kind of average in every way, and they got trounced by Auburn (86-64), Saint Mary's (87-60) and Seton Hall (80-44) before turning things on against the Ivy League.
March Madness Ceiling: If Swain gets going, maybe Yale has a shot to pull off an upset. But the real problem is a defense that could do nothing to slow down competent opponents pretty much all season. The Bulldogs probably need to score at least 80 to beat a top-tier opponent, and I don't see that happening.
54. Akron Zips
Record: 24-9, 14-6 in MAC
Star Player: Akron's Enrique Freeman is on the shortlist of players who averaged at least 10 points and 10 rebounds this season. He had 17 double-doubles and was the MVP of the MAC championship with 23 points and eight boards in that one.
Biggest Wins: Akron did not beat a KenPom top-100 opponent during the regular season and was winless in three tries against Toledo and Kent State. But the Zips won when it mattered most, toppling MAC No. 1 seed Toledo in the semifinals before a 20-point win over No. 2 seed Kent State in the championship. And they did almost win the season opener at Ohio State, but Zed Key gave the Buckeyes the victory at the last second.
Reason to Worry: The lack of quality wins is the biggest concern, but Akron also had awful losses to Western Michigan and Northern Illinois in succession in mid-February. In fairness, though, the Zips haven't lost since. Maybe that was the wake-up call John Groce's guys needed.
March Madness Ceiling: The MAC champion is usually a trendy pick for an upset or two, and that would have been the case if any of Toledo, Ohio or Kent State had won that tournament. But Akron? Not quite the same threat those other three are. Doesn't mean the Zips can't win a game, as they are average-to-above-average pretty much across the board. It just doesn't seem likely.
53. Richmond Spiders
Record: 23-12, 10-8 in Atlantic 10
Star Player: Forward Tyler Burton (16.3 PPG) leads the Spiders in scoring, but it's Jacob Gilyard who has been shouldering the scoring load recently. The fifth-year senior averaged 19.8 points per game during the team's unlikely run through the A-10 tournament, including a season-high 32 points against VCU in the quarterfinals.
Biggest Wins: There is no doubt the biggest win of the year for the Spiders was their 64-62 victory over Davidson on Sunday to punch their ticket to the NCAA tournament. Gilyard led the way with 26 points on 9-of-17 shooting and 4-of-8 from beyond the arc, while Burton had a double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds.
Reason to Worry: The Spiders took care of business against lesser opponents, but went just 6-9 at the Quad 2 level. They're a bit undersized, don't shoot the three ball particularly well, and rank outside the top 60 in KenPom's adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. How far can the momentum they've built the last four days carry them?
March Madness Ceiling: Could the Spiders be this year's Oregon State? It's certainly possible, and they beat three good teams in a row in VCU, Dayton and Davidson to earn their spot. It will be all about riding the momentum wave.
52. Vermont Catamounts
Record: 28-5, 17-1 in America East
Star Player: Vermont has a certified power duo in Ben Shungu and Ryan Davis, both of whom are great scorers inside and out. Davis missed three games in mid-February, but that has not yet been a game in 2022 in which either Catamount failed to score in double figures. They combined for 36.3 points per game in steamrolling through the America East tournament.
Biggest Wins: For Vermont, the biggest wins are probably more in terms of margin than quality of opponents. The Catamounts did open the season with a 14-point road win over Missouri Valley regular-season champion Northern Iowa, though, and also had a solid 10-point over Colgate in late December. Nothing in America East play is worth mentioning, though.
Reason to Worry: In addition to only even playing one game against an at-large caliber opponent (a 10-point loss at Providence), Vermont is a bit undersized and has had some issues defending the three-point arc. Vermont leads the nation in defensive rebounding, though, which sure helps.
March Madness Ceiling: Vermont was a Cinderella candidate as a No. 13 seed in both 2017 and 2019 but fell short against Purdue and Florida State, respectively. In both of those games, they simply couldn't hang in the paint with a large major-conference roster. But the Catamounts did have that unforgettable overtime win over Syracuse in the first round in 2005. We could definitely see lightning strike twice in that regard.
51. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Record: 22-10, 15-5 in ACC
Star Player: Notre Dame's rotation is almost entirely made up of fourth- or fifth-year players; however, freshman Blake Wesley is the guy they'll lean on the most in the tournament. He isn't efficient, but he has yet to meet a shot that he didn't like. He's also the Irish's best on-ball defender and enough of a willing passer to keep the defense honest.
Biggest Wins: Full-strength Kentucky committing just five turnovers in a loss to Notre Dame is still one of the most bizarre things that happened in this entire season. What a massive W that was for the Irish, though, who somehow got to 15 ACC wins without adding much of anything to their tournament resume. A home win over North Carolina and a road win over Miami is as good as it gets in conference play.
Reason to Worry: Notre Dame is one of the worst in the nation at blocking shots, forcing turnovers and getting offensive rebounds. This means the Fighting Irish routinely allow more field-goal attempts than they take and leave themselves at the mercy of opponents missing shots. The good news is they rarely commit turnovers and can make it rain from three-point range, but it's hard to believe they went 15-5 in ACC play while allowing nearly five more shots per game than they took.
March Madness Ceiling: The Fighting Irish have made two trips to the Elite Eight under Mike Brey, but they have also been bounced prior to the Sweet 16 nine times as a single-digit seed. The latter is considerably more likely than the former, considering this team is nowhere near as proficient on offense as it was for those 2015 and 2016 runs.
50. South Dakota State Jackrabbits
Record: 30-4, 18-0 in Summit
Star Player: Sophomore Baylor Scheierman won Summit League Player of the Year honors while filling up the box score, averaging 16.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.4 steals per contest. He has also buried 80 three-pointers at a 47.3 percent clip, leading the way for a Jackrabbits team that shoots a blistering 44.9 percent from distance.
Biggest Wins: The Jackrabbits steamrolled the Summit League competition with an 18-0 record in conference play, but that didn't exactly add any signature wins to their resume. They did beat Washington State at a neutral site and Stephen F. Austin on the road for a pair of Quad 2 victories, but they haven't faced an opponent above the Quad 3 level since the middle of December.
Reason to Worry: This is the classic lives and dies with the three-pointer team, and in their only real test against a tournament-caliber opponent, the Jackrabbits suffered a 104-88 loss to Alabama. They rank 12th in KenPom's offensive efficiency and 222nd in defensive efficiency, and that should tell you all you need to know about this group's boom-or-bust potential.
March Madness Ceiling: If they come out and shoot 50 percent from beyond the arc, the Jackrabbits are capable of making things interesting. However, the fact that they allowed 80 points multiple times during conference play makes it hard to see how they'll slow down a quality opponent.
49. New Mexico State Aggies
Record: 26-6, 14-4 in WAC
Star Player: West Virginia and Nebraska transfer Teddy Allen has been a scoring machine for New Mexico State. He put up at least 10 points in all but one game this season, averaging better than 19 points and nearly seven rebounds per game. He went for 41 in a mid-January win over Abilene Christian.
Biggest Wins: The Aggies beat Davidson on a neutral floor and had a true road win over Washington State. Throw in the three wins over KenPom top-100 Grand Canyon and an entire stockpile of victories over teams in the 101-200 range and NMSU didn't exactly fatten up on cupcakes. The Aggies may be lacking in marquee victories, but they got a ton of solid wins.
Reason to Worry: New Mexico State has been to nine NCAA tournaments in the past 15 years—usually as a No. 12 or No. 13 seed—and all the Aggies have to show for it is an 0-9 record. And though it surprisingly didn't plague them in the WAC championship against Abilene Christian, the Aggies typically have a lot of issues in the turnovers department.
March Madness Ceiling: They're going to win one eventually, right? Not an entire tournament, but at least a game at some point. If you can look past the turnover woes and didn't know about this team's inability to get over the hump lately, you'd love its chances at crashing the Sweet 16, because there's a lot to like about NMSU's 2021-22 resume.
48. Chattanooga Mocs
Record: 27-7, 14-4 in Southern
Star Player: The Mocs are led by SoCon Player of the Year Malachi Smith, who led the conference with 20.1 points per game on 50.5 percent from the floor and 41.5 percent from beyond the arc. The 6'4" sophomore has 19 games of at least 20 points this season, including a career-high 36 on the road against a very good Murray State team in December.
Biggest Wins: A 56-54 road victory over VCU on Nov. 20 was the highlight of a 9-1 start by the Mocs, giving them a Quad 1 win. Smith led the way with 20 points in that game, while former Kansas recruit Silvio De Sousa had 15 points and 10 rebounds. The Mocs also went 3-0 in Quad 2 games and scored a dramatic win in the SoCon title game with a game-winning three at the buzzer in overtime.
Reason to Worry: Even with 36 points from Smith, the Mocs still lost to Murray State by 11 points in their only game against a tournament-caliber opponent. They also suffered back-to-back Quad 4 losses to UNC Greensboro and VMI just a few weeks ago. Their success has been predicated on offensive efficiency, but that might not play against a better opponent.
March Madness Ceiling: The Mocs have not won an NCAA tournament game since 1997 when they reached the Sweet 16 as a No. 14 seed, and they're dancing for the first time since 2016. But maybe if Smith catches fire, they could win a game or two.
47. Indiana Hoosiers
Record: 20-13, 9-11 in Big Ten
Star Player: Indiana has been up and down (more down than up, it seems) all season long, but Trayce Jackson-Davis has been rock solid throughout, racking up 10 double-doubles with quite a few blocked shots along the way. The 43-point performance against Marshall in November was his magnum opus, but he also went for 27 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks in a win over Ohio State, as well as 30 points, eight rebounds, six assists and three blocks in a loss to Wisconsin. Anything the Hoosiers do in the dance starts with him.
Biggest Wins: There's the aforementioned home win over Ohio State from early January, an impressive home win over Purdue two weeks later...and that was about it until beating both Michigan and Illinois in the Big Ten tournament. The mid-December neutral-site win over Notre Dame ended up looking good, too.
Reason to Worry: While we don't have statistical proof of this, Indiana at least anecdotally does the worst job in the country of protecting a second-half lead. In each of their final seven losses of the regular season, the Hoosiers had a lead at some point in the final 20 minutes, often blowing over the last five minutes. And outside of Jackson-Davis, this is a mediocre offense.
March Madness Ceiling: Indiana has not been to an Elite Eight since reaching the national championship game in 2002, and let's just say we don't see that drought coming to an end. Maybe the Hoosiers figure out how to close out a first-round game with a W, but multiple wins likely isn't happening.
46. Davidson Wildcats
Record: 27-6, 15-3 in Atlantic 10
Star Player: After last year's leading scorer, Kellen Grady, transferred to Kentucky, it's been a team effort replacing his scoring in the Davidson lineup. Senior forward Luka Brajkovic is actually third on the team in scoring at 14.3 points per game, but he leads the Wildcats in rebounding (7.2 RPG) and blocks (1.1 BPG), and those well-rounded contributions helped him win A-10 Player of the Year honors.
Biggest Wins: The Wildcats' biggest victory was a 79-78 upset of Alabama in the C.M. Newton Classic in December. Brajkovic led the way with 22 points and seven rebounds in that win, and Davidson shot an impressive 12-of-24 from beyond the arc. A road win over VCU at the beginning of conference play gives them a second Quad 1 victory.
Reason to Worry: A middle-of-the-road defense and a reliance on controlling the tempo could put the Wildcats in a tough position if they can't slow down a more athletic opponent. Four of their six losses came when opponents scored more than 70 points, and one of them was a bad Quad 3 defeat against Rhode Island in February.
March Madness Ceiling: There's Sweet 16 upside if the Wildcats are able to play their game, and early exit potential if they fall behind early or are forced to run. This group won 15 in a row earlier this year, so they're more than capable of getting on a roll.
45. UAB Blazers
Record: 27-7, 14-4 in C-USA
Star Player: It was a winding road for Jordan "Jelly" Walker from Seton Hall to Tulane to now UAB, but he finally found a home where he can shine. Walker averages better than 20 points and nearly five assists per game, shooting over 40 percent from three-point range. And he has been extra hot lately, averaging 27.6 points through five games in March.
Biggest Wins: UAB had impressive road wins over Saint Louis and North Texas during the regular season. They also had near-wins over West Virginia, San Francisco and South Carolina. However, the biggest win was the triple-overtime classic against Middle Tennessee in the C-USA semifinals. The Blazers had to rally from a six-point deficit with less than two minutes remaining in the second overtime, but that's when Walker finally started heating up en route to a 40 burger in a win.
Reason to Worry: The defense is, for the most part, fine. But the Blazers have had some major duds on that end of the floor, resulting in bad losses to Rice, Marshall and Old Dominion. They gave up at least 80 points in each of those games, and none of those foes had a particularly good day from three-point range.
March Madness Ceiling: UAB is right up there with Chattanooga and South Dakota State on the list of teams that no No. 4 or No. 5 seed was hoping to see in the selection show, because this team has Sweet 16 potential if Walker stays hot. I don't know if I'll ultimately pick UAB, but I can definitely see it happening for this fun, well-coached team.
44. Miami Hurricanes
Record: 23-10, 14-6 in ACC
Star Player: Kameron McGusty is Miami's leading scorer, but fourth-school-in-six-years Charlie Moore is the veteran leader capable of busting out something like 20 points, eight assists and four steals in a surprising upset. When he starts cooking with backdoor dimes and pesky defense, Miami is at its best.
Biggest Wins: Hands down, the biggest win was at Duke, in which Miami had 15 steals and somehow Jedi mind-tricked the Blue Devils into not completely dominating in the paint. The Hurricanes also had a season sweep of Wake Forest, a road win over Virginia Tech and a 28-point home win over North Carolina.
Reason to Worry: Aside from the steals, this defense is pretty bad, and the Hurricanes routinely get smoked in the rebounding battle. In all five of those big wins mentioned above, they were either plus-10 in turnover margin or shot at least 50 percent from three-point range. And they still only won one of the five in convincing fashion. They would need to be just about perfect to pull off a major upset.
March Madness Ceiling: Any team that can win a true road game against Duke is a threat to win a big game or two on a neutral floor. But too many things need to go right for the 'Canes to make it to the Sweet 16 or beyond. They can win a game, but two is a stretch.
43. Wyoming Cowboys
Record: 25-8, 13-5 in Mountain West
Star Player: It's hard to choose between Graham Ike and Hunter Maldonado, so I won't. Ike averages nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds per game and is used on more possessions than just about everyone else in the country. And Maldonado is a nightly triple-double threat, averaging roughly 19 points, six rebounds and six assists per game.
Biggest Wins: The primary reason the Cowboys got into the dance was a nine-day stretch in which they beat Colorado State, Boise State, Fresno State and Utah State in succession. Outside of that hot streak, the best win was probably the road game against Grand Canyon in November.
Reason to Worry: The predictive metrics hate this team. Wyoming did temporarily climb into the top 35 on KenPom in mid-February but has since dropped out of the top 50 and has spent much of the season outside the top 100 in ESPN's Basketball Power Index. There are also quite a few categories (steals, blocks, offensive rebounds, three-point percentage) in which the Cowboys rank among the worst teams in the tournament.
March Madness Ceiling: Wyoming is probably going to be a one-and-done team. But between Ike, Maldonado and Drake Jeffries (the one legitimate three-point weapon on the roster), it's very tempting to pick the Cowboys to win multiple games.
42. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Record: 18-13, 12-8 in Big Ten
Star Player: Ron Harper Jr. has been Mr. Big Bucket this season. He hit the half-court heave to knock off Purdue, and he drained the last-second three in the must-win game at Indiana in early March. And the unsung hero is Caleb McConnell, who will be tasked with blanketing the opposing team's best wing/guard.
Biggest Wins: In addition to four consecutive wins over ranked opponents in February (Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Illinois), the Scarlet Knights knocked off AP No. 1 Purdue on Dec. 9. Terrible early losses to Lafayette and Massachusetts left Rutgers on the tournament bubble all the way until the bitter end. Now that they're in the dance, though, this is a scary sleeper team.
Reason to Worry: For starters, none of the games will be played at Jersey Mike's Arena, where Rutgers seems to have the biggest home-court advantage in the sport. But there's also nothing in particular this team does all that well, aside from make you work to get off a clean look. Rutgers is 3-12 when allowing more than 65 points, which isn't much.
March Madness Ceiling: Bet against Rutgers at your own risk. Excluding themselves, the Scarlet Knights won a game against every team that earned a top 11 seed in the Big Ten tournament. And that streak of four wins against ranked opponents was ridiculously impressive. Few outside Piscataway will have the guts to pick it in their brackets, but this team can crash the Elite Eight.
41. Seton Hall Pirates
Record: 21-10, 11-8 in Big East
Star Player: It's Jared Rhoden, and it's not even close. The 6'6" senior has scored in double figures in 26 of his last 29 games and picked up five double-doubles. Despite shouldering a heavy load for this offense, he scored a career-high 30 points in the late February win at Xavier and might be gearing up for a big March.
Biggest Wins: The 67-65 road win over Michigan in mid-November looked incredible at the time, gradually lost value for two months and now looks solid once again. Seton Hall also scored a nonconference home win over Texas and had a nice overtime victory over Connecticut in early January.
Reason to Worry: All three of those big wins happened before the Pirates lost Bryce Aiken to a concussion. Since his mid-January departure from the lineup, Seton Hall's best-looking wins were at crashing-and-burning Xavier and at playing-without-star-point-guard Creighton. It's tough to know what to make of this team, which doesn't shoot the ball all that well, either, for the record.
March Madness Ceiling: Even at their early-January peak, the Pirates were only a borderline Sweet 16 candidate. In their current state, getting to the second weekend of the tournament seems unlikely at best. There's still enough talent to win a first-round game, though.
40. Creighton Bluejays
Record: 22-11 overall, 12-7 in Big East
Star Player: Ryan Nembhard was Creighton's star player, but the freshman point guard is out for the year with a wrist injury, which maybe lowers their ceiling. The Bluejays might be able to ride big man Ryan Kalkbrenner to a couple of wins, though. The 7'1" sophomore has come on strong as of late, averaging 17.4 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.0 blocks over his final eight games of the regular season.
Biggest Wins: Creighton didn't do much of anything in nonconference play outside of a neutral-site victory over BYU, but it made up for it in Big East play by sweeping Connecticut, sweeping Marquette and winning the home game against Villanova. Most of those games were nail-biters, but they did crush Villanova by 20 and destroyed Providence in the Big East tournament.
Reason to Worry: These aren't the Doug McDermott-era Bluejays who could bury you with three-pointers. In fact, this is one of the least efficient offenses and one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the tournament field. And even before losing their starting point guard, turnover margin was a major issue for the Bluejays. Now it's an even bigger concern.
March Madness Ceiling: Could Creighton win a first-round game? Absolutely. The March 2 victory over Connecticut served as proof that this team can still figure things out, even while short-handed. But given the offensive woes and turnover problems, it would be a bit of a surprise if this team made it into the second weekend of the tournament.
39. Michigan Wolverines
Record: 17-14, 11-9 in Big Ten
Star Player: The preseason "Hunter Dickinson for NPOY" campaign quickly faded during Michigan's woeful 7-7 start, but the big Wolverine has been even better than he was while earning consensus All-American honors as a freshman last year. He averaged 20.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.6 blocks in 18 regular-season Big Ten games. And after shooting 0-of-4 from three-point range last year, Dickinson has added enough of a perimeter stroke (18-of-57) to keep opponents honest.
Biggest Wins: Winning the regular-season finale at Ohio State (without Dickinson, by the way) was by far the most important victory. That was probably the difference between the NCAA tourney and the NIT for Michigan. But the Wolverines also had a road win over Iowa and a 24-point home win over Purdue in February.
Reason to Worry: Michigan's longest winning streak was three games. It happened once, and it included home games against Maryland and Northwestern. This team has been much better over the latter half of the season, but it is still wildly inconsistent from one game to the next. Michigan has also had massive issues defending the perimeter. In the five losses to UCF, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State and Rutgers, those opponents shot a combined 53-of-97 from downtown and committed just 45 turnovers.
March Madness Ceiling: Purely from a talent and peak-performance perspective, this is a Final Four-caliber team. Dickinson is a phenom, both Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabate could be one-and-dones and DeVante' Jones has emerged as a veteran leader at point guard in recent weeks. Throw in ultimate glue guy Eli Brooks and you've got a starting five that can go toe-to-toe with any foe. It's just hard to trust this team to win multiple games in a row when it has rarely shown itself capable of doing so. To reach the Elite Eight, Michigan would have to defy the inconsistencies it has shown over the past four months.
38. San Francisco Dons
Record: 24-9, 10-6 in WCC
Star Player: The backcourt duo of Jamaree Bouyea and Khalil Shabazz gets most of the attention, but the real MVP here is Yauhen Massalski. The big man recently had a streak of nine consecutive double-doubles while racking up 22 blocked shots.
Biggest Wins: This was the troubling part in trying to figure out if or where San Francisco deserved to be seeded in the tournament, as well as for trying to figure out what to do with the Dons in your bracket. This feels like a team that can beat anyone, but it hasn't proved it, going a combined 0-5 against Gonzaga and Saint Mary's. The Dons' best wins were probably the neutral-site games against Davidson and UAB, which isn't saying a whole lot.
Reason to Worry: In addition to the lack of quality wins, San Francisco has had several terrible late-game collapses. Most memorable was the home loss against Saint Mary's in which the Dons blew a 17-point halftime lead. They also wilted down the stretch in the home losses to BYU and Portland. You've got to wonder if this team can deliver a full 40-minute effort on a neutral floor.
March Madness Ceiling: San Francisco has not been to the NCAA tournament since 1998 and has not won a tournament game since 1979, so even one win would be an incredible feat in program history. The Dons have the talent and the veteran leadership to win multiple games, but an immediate exit wouldn't be surprising in the least.
37. Virginia Tech Hokies
Record: 23-12, 11-9 in ACC
Star Player: Stretch 5 Keve Aluma is the primary scoring threat, but Justyn Mutts is so critical to everything Virginia Tech does. The 6'7" fifth-year veteran leads the Hokies in rebounds, assists and steals and is second only to Aluma in points and blocks. He had a triple-double (12 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists) in a February win over Syracuse.
Biggest Wins: The Hokies' best wins of the regular season were a road game against Miami and a home game against Notre Dame. But goodness gracious did they make up for that in Brooklyn, knocking off Notre Dame, North Carolina and Duke to win their first-ever ACC tournament.
Reason to Worry: The metrics have loved Virginia Tech in spite of its many losses, but the only thing this team does particularly well is shoot three-pointers. In fairness, if you had to pick just one thing to be great at, "the great equalizer" is a fantastic choice. However, this defense has frequently run into issues against competent offenses.
March Madness Ceiling: At the end of the regular season, Virginia Tech was just 2-8 against the NET Top 75. Do we just throw that away because of the unlikely ACC tournament run? VT has lost in the round of 64 in three of its last four trips to the dance. It wouldn't be a surprise if that trend continues, but it also wouldn't be a surprise if they win two games.
36. Marquette Golden Eagles
Record: 19-12, 11-8 in Big East
Star Player: Justin Lewis is the best player who not enough people are talking about. During Marquette's seven-game winning streak in January, Lewis averaged 19.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists while shooting 49 percent from three-point range. And he seems to save his best efforts for the toughest opponents.
Biggest Wins: Villanova has been swept by a Big East foe just twice in the past eight years: by Butler in 2016-17 and by Marquette this year. The Golden Eagles also swept Seton Hall, won a home game against Illinois (sans Kofi Cockburn, but still impressive) and destroyed Providence by 32 points in early January.
Reason to Worry: Marquette is one of the worst rebounding teams in the entire country. And while the defense has certainly improved under Shaka Smart compared to where it was at under Steve Wojciechowski in recent years, this isn't exactly HAVOC. Marquette allowed at least 80 points in each of its final four losses of the regular season—and two of those were against DePaul and Butler.
March Madness Ceiling: The top-tier wins suggest this is a team that could go on a bit of a sleeper run to the Elite Eight, though recent performance suggests otherwise. Marquette has been all over the map this season and appears to be on the wrong end of it at the wrong time. We'll officially put the ceiling at Elite Eight, but a first-round exit might be in the offing.
35. TCU Horned Frogs
Record: 20-12, 8-10 in Big 12
Star Player: TCU doesn't have many offensive weapons, but it does have Mike Miles Jr. The sophomore combo guard has had a handful of 20-point performances this season, including recently lighting up an excellent Texas Tech defense for 26 points and four assists. He also threw in five steals. Miles was a huge factor in each of the Horned Frogs' best wins, and it's hard to imagine them accomplishing anything in the tournament if he gets shut down.
Biggest Wins: Save for a home win over LSU and road wins over Iowa State and Oklahoma, TCU hadn't done much through its first 26 games of the season. But then the Horned Frogs picked up back-to-back home wins over Texas Tech and Kansas, surging comfortably into the field after a long few months on the bubble.
Reason to Worry: This is an exceptional offensive rebounding team, but TCU sure is awful elsewhere on offense. At the start of the Big 12 tournament, the Horned Frogs were averaging 5.6 made three-pointers and 14.5 turnovers per game. While that might not quite be the worst such ratio in the entire country, it's pretty darn bad and has led to 20 games (with an 8-12 record) with fewer than 70 points scored.
March Madness Ceiling: TCU has won precisely one NCAA tournament game since 1968, and even that came back in 1987. So, fortunately, one win would be a big deal for this program, because that is probably the Horned Frogs' ceiling. The defense is good enough and the offensive rebounding is potent enough to believe in them for one, though.
34. Iowa State Cyclones
Record: 20-12, 7-11 in Big 12
Star Player: Penn State transfer Izaiah Brockington has been a godsend for the Cyclones, leading the team in both points and rebounds by ridiculous margins. Brockington has had a dozen 20-point performances. During a recent four-game winning streak that felt like a must-have for a team fading toward the bubble, he put up a combined total of 94 points (23.5 per game).
Biggest Wins: You would think from Iowa State's subpar nonconference strength of schedule that it didn't play anyone of note for the first two months, but the Cyclones knocked off Xavier, Memphis, Creighton and Iowa in the span of about two weeks. They also won home games against Texas Tech and Texas in the first half of January.
Reason to Worry: When this offense goes cold, it is frighteningly bad. Iowa State has been held below 55 points seven times, including a 53-36 home loss to Oklahoma State on senior night. And even when the Cyclones aren't ice cold, they are just OK at best across the board on offense.
March Madness Ceiling: Iowa State is a poor man's Texas Tech. The Cyclones have a great turnover-forcing defense, though it's not quite as elite as TTU's, and they make the Red Raiders' offensive issues look like no problem by comparison. If you view Texas Tech as a title contender, you should probably view Iowa State as a threat to reach the Elite Eight. But getting to the Final Four for the first time since 1944 is a stretch.
33. San Diego State Aztecs
Record: 23-8, 13-4 in Mountain West
Star Player: Everything San Diego State does on offense revolves around former California transfer Matt Bradley. He averaged 20.5 points over the final 11 games of the regular season, scoring just a shade under 30 percent of the Aztecs' total points during that time. And if you're prone to dizziness, be careful while watching SDSU games. Bradley has more spin moves than a washing machine.
Biggest Wins: By far the biggest win was the neutral-site game against Saint Mary's—in which the Aztecs notably shot 70 percent from three-point range. They also won at Wyoming and absolutely blew out Colorado State in early January.
Reason to Worry: Bradley is a star, but he's also a one-man show for what is otherwise not a good offense. The Aztecs remind me a lot of the 2013-14 Cincinnati Bearcats, who were outstanding on defense, who didn't have much on offense beyond their star guard (Sean Kilpatrick) and who were eliminated by No. 12 seed Harvard in the first round.
March Madness Ceiling: A first-round exit is certainly on the table, as is always the case for Mountain West schools. But I could see the Aztecs leaning on Bradley and their excellent defense to win a couple of games. Prior to the regular-season finale against Nevada, they had held 11 consecutive opponents to 66 points or fewer and also limited USC to 58 back in November. Eliminating this team won't be easy.
32. Boise State Broncos
Record: 27-7, 15-3 in Mountain West
Star Player: Lead guard Marcus Shaver is the most assertive scorer on the Boise State roster, but combo forward Abu Kigab is the best one. He's also one of Boise's top rebounders and plays a key distributing role for a team that doesn't have a true point guard.
Biggest Wins: Boise State has a bunch of respectable wins, sweeping each of San Diego State, Fresno State and Utah State, but the only games the Broncos even played against a team that ended the season in the AP Top 25 were the two losses to No. 23 Colorado State.
Reason to Worry: The Broncos are one of the worst free-throw shooting teams in the nation, and the only thing they do at a particularly high level is limit second-chance opportunities on defense. Factor in the complete lack of games played against Sweet 16-caliber foes and the Mountain West's eternal track record of falling flat in the NCAA tournament and a deep run is highly unlikely.
March Madness Ceiling: I truly don't know what to make of Boise State. Aside from the free throws, this is a solid all-around team with a bunch of veterans, several of whom started their college careers in the Pac-12. But unless the bracket breaks in their favor, the Broncos' second-round opponent (and each potential one thereafter) will be much better than anything it faced during the regular season. Anything more than one win would be surprising.
31. Loyola-Chicago Ramblers
Record: 25-7, 13-5 in Missouri Valley
Star Player: The Ramblers had big shoes to fill with third-team All-American Cameron Krutwig moving on to pro ball. Senior guard Lucas Williamson has taken up the mantle as the team's leading scorer (14.0 PPG) and rebounder (5.0 RPG), and he also won Defensive Player of the Year honors in the Missouri Valley with a conference-leading 42 steals.
Biggest Wins: A five-point neutral-site victory over San Francisco is the standout win on the Ramblers' resume, and they went a solid 8-6 overall in Quad 1 and Quad 2 matchups while playing a tough nonconference schedule. They beat Vanderbilt on the road and Arizona State at a neutral site, and they also hung tight with Auburn and Michigan State in single-digit losses at the Battle 4 Atlantis.
Reason to Worry: The Ramblers are a middling 10-7 on the year when they allow more than 60 points, and while they again do a good job controlling tempo, this isn't the same smothering defensive team we saw a year ago. They are also extremely undersized with only one player over 6'7" in the regular rotation, and that will inevitably create some matchup issues.
March Madness Ceiling: With three starters back from last year's squad and the proven ability to hang with high-major teams, the Ramblers are going to be a tough draw. After holding their three opponents in the MVC tournament to a combined 30.1 percent shooting, another Sweet 16 appearance seems doable.
30. Michigan State Spartans
Record: 22-12, 11-9 in Big Ten
Star Player: For Michigan State, it's much more about depth than star power. The Spartans have eight players averaging between six and 12 points per game. But at least as far as the NBA scouts are concerned, freshman wing Max Christie is the brightest star. He only shot 28.4 percent from three-point range in Big Ten play, though, so don't expect him to catch fire in the dance.
Biggest Wins: During nonconference play, the Spartans defeated Loyola-Chicago and Connecticut in the Battle 4 Atlantis. And then, in the Big Ten, they had an impressive 12-point road win over Wisconsin in January and eked out a three-point home win over Purdue in late February. They also had a great win over Wisconsin in the Big 10 Tournament quarterfinals.
Reason to Worry: After a 14-2 start, Michigan State lost nine of its next 15 games. Several of those losses—84-63 at Rutgers, 86-60 at Iowa, 87-70 at Michigan—got quite out of hand, too. And for the umpteenth consecutive year, the turnover battle is a major issue for the Spartans. In fact, they have only had a positive turnover margin in six games this season.
March Madness Ceiling: Once Mike Krzyzewski is officially retired, Tom Izzo will become the active leader in Final Four appearances with eight of them. Three of those came as a No. 5 seed or worse, too, as he has had quite the knack for saving his best for March. But between the rough second half of the season, the lack of a go-to scorer and the constant turnover issues, it's much more likely that this will be the 10th time Izzo exits the tournament prior to the Sweet 16.
29. Ohio State Buckeyes
Record: 19-11, 12-8 in Big Ten
Star Player: Malaki Branham has been pretty special since the beginning of January, but E.J. Liddell is still the straw that stirs Ohio State's drink. The third-year big man has scored in double figures in every game this season and has eight double-doubles. He also tied for the Big Ten lead in blocked shots with 77. There's an outside shot he'll be named an AP first-team All-American later this week.
Biggest Wins: For the second time in the past three seasons, Ohio State picked up a massive win in the ACC-B1G Challenge. The Buckeyes knocked off No. 7 North Carolina in 2019 and toppled No. 1 Duke this past November. They also beat full-strength Seton Hall on a neutral floor. And then in conference play, OSU got a huge road win over Illinois and an impressive home win over Wisconsin.
Reason to Worry: Ohio State got bounced in the first round last year in large part because its mediocre defense allowed Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor to combine for 59 points. And rather than learn their lesson and get better on defense, the Buckeyes got worse. They barely force 10 turnovers per game, and they are susceptible to the deep ball. Ten opponents have shot at least 38 percent from downtown against them.
March Madness Ceiling: Ohio State was already looking a little sketchy through its first 25 games, and then losing to Maryland, Nebraska, Michigan (sans Hunter Dickinson) and Penn State over its final five games reinforced the notion that this team might get knocked out in the first round for a second consecutive year. If the Buckeyes do reach the Sweet 16 (which is feasible), it would break a streak of five consecutive trips ending in the first weekend.
28. LSU Tigers
Record: 22-11, 9-9 in SEC
Star Player: Tari Eason is a force on both ends of the floor, averaging around 28 points, 11 rebounds, three steals, two blocks and two assists per 40 minutes. Granted, he only plays 24.6 minutes per game because he is no stranger to foul trouble. But when he isn't limited by whistles, he is an all-regional Most Outstanding Player candidate.
Biggest Wins: Outside a respectable neutral-site win over Wake Forest, LSU didn't accomplish much of anything in nonconference play. But the Tigers did get out to one heck of a start against the SEC, winning home games against Kentucky and Tennessee and a road game against Florida in the first half of January. They also wrapped up the regular season with a great home win over Alabama in overtime.
Reason to Worry: Losing veteran point guard Xavier Pinson for the better part of a month is a big reason LSU's offensive numbers look as bad as they do, but the Tigers haven't exactly been an offensive juggernaut with Pinson on the court, either. They have an excellent defense, but the only thing they do well on offense is feed Eason and crash the offensive glass.
March Madness Ceiling: The defense could propel LSU to the Sweet 16, and maybe the Tigers could even crash the Final Four if Eason has a massive second weekend. But for a team that didn't have a single win away from home against anything better than a bubble team, a prolonged stay in the dance is unlikely.
27. Texas Longhorns
Record: 21-11, 10-8 in Big 12
Star Player: No individual player has been particularly dominant for the Longhorns, but they do seem to be at their best when Timmy Allen shows up. The Utah transfer leads the team in both points and rebounds, and Texas is 12-4 when he scores at least 11 points. He's also the biggest contributor to an excellent turnover-forcing defense.
Biggest Wins: Thank goodness for the victory over Tennessee in the B12/SEC Challenge, because until that late-January event, Texas' best win was probably a home triumph over Oklahoma. The 'Horns later added a home win over Kansas and a few more solid wins over Iowa State, Oklahoma and TCU.
Reason to Worry: It makes no sense when you consider Texas added six transfers who averaged a combined 87.9 points per game in 2020-21, but this team has had more than a few woeful offensive performances this season. Per KenPom, the Longhorns barely averaged one point per possession (1.02) over their final 24 games of the regular season. For sake of comparison, Gonzaga's elite offense averaged 1.19 PPP over its final 24 regular-season games, and San Diego State's run-of-the-mill offense averaged 1.01.
March Madness Ceiling: The tone here has been, admittedly, a bit pessimistic, because Texas never quite lived up to the hype as a preseason Top Five team. But we're still talking about a Chris Beard-coached squad that has spent most of the season in the AP Top 25. While the Longhorns haven't been consistently good on offense, they have plenty of guys capable of catching fire. And that defense is good enough to propel a Final Four run.
26. Murray State Racers
Record: 30-2, 18-0 in Ohio Valley
Star Player: Guards Tevin Brown (16.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG) and Justice Hill (13.2 PPG, 5.0 APG) both deserve a mention, but forward KJ Williams is the one to watch on the Racers roster. The 6'10" forward led the conference in scoring (18.2 PPG) and the team in rebounding (8.2 RPG) en route to OVC Player of the Year honors, and he had four 30-point games this season while shooting 54.4 percent from the floor.
Biggest Wins: The Racers haven't lost since closing out nonconference play with a 71-58 loss to Auburn on Dec. 22. Their perfect run through conference play included a pair of victories over a good Belmont team, but their best win of the season was a 74-72 thriller at Memphis on Dec. 10 when they connected on a blistering 14 of 29 from beyond the arc.
Reason to Worry: It's tough to gauge how the Racers stack up to elite-level teams when they only played four NET top 100 opponents. The Memphis win came at the end of a four-game losing streak when the Tigers were in a tailspin, and the Auburn loss was lopsided from the jump, including a 43-27 deficit on the board and 11 offensive rebounds allowed. Just how good is this 30-win team?
March Madness Ceiling: A top-40 team in adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency, the Racers don't have any glaring holes on paper, and that alone gives them Sweet 16 upside. Not many mid-major teams have three guys who can score 20 points on any given night.
25. USC Trojans
Record: 26-7, 14-6 in Pac-12
Star Player: He's nowhere near the force of nature that younger brother Evan Mobley was last season, but Isaiah Mobley has taken a big step forward for the second consecutive year. He's leading the Trojans in both points and rebounds and contributes an awful lot of assists and three-pointers for a 6'10" center. It's hard to believe they were able to beat UCLA without him.
Biggest Wins: There's the three-point home win over UCLA, the neutral-site win over San Diego State and, well, hmm. Not much else, eh? Frankly, the most impressive performance of the season was the near-win at Arizona. USC was up six late in the second half until the Wildcats ended that game on a tear. But that was when we first started taking the Trojans seriously as a possible multiple-weekend tournament team.
Reason to Worry: With one of the tallest rosters in the country, USC does a great job of defending the paint. However, its perimeter defense and free-throw shooting leave a lot to be desired. The Trojans also had as many losses to sub-.500 Stanford as they had wins against teams that entered Championship Week with realistic hopes of an at-large bid.
March Madness Ceiling: USC steamrolled its way to the Elite Eight as a No. 6 seed last year, but that iteration of the Trojans was considerably better than the current one. That said, if they can somehow combine Mobley with the January version of Boogie Ellis and the final three weeks of February version of Drew Peterson, this team could break some brackets again. A Sweet 16 appearance is well within the realm of possibility.
24. Memphis Tigers
Record: 21-9, 13-5 in American
Star Player: Because of injury and COVID absences, 11 different Tigers have scored at least 12 points in a game this season, though none has scored more than 24. And of the bunch, Jalen Duren is the biggest star, leading the team in points, rebounds and blocks per game. Fellow big man DeAndre Williams is also crucial, though. There's no question Memphis has been at its best with both of those guys healthy since the beginning of February.
Biggest Wins: Memphis swept Houston in the regular season, winning both of those games by double digits. You also might recall a 92-78 victory over Alabama, right before "omicron" entered the national lexicon and messed up Memphis' rotation and rhythm for a month-and-a-half.
Reason to Worry: Memphis. Your turnovers. Woof. Though they're not nearly undergoing the nightly nightmare that giveaways gave them for the first month of the season, the Tigers still struggle in that department, committing 14.9 turnovers over the final 10 games of the regular season. They have also had trouble ending defensive possessions with rebounds, somewhat negating the benefit of all the steals and blocks they register.
March Madness Ceiling: The Tigers opened the season at No. 12 in the AP poll, and this finally feels like the team we thought it could be four months ago. The Final Four might be a stretch, but there is always at least one team in the Nos. 7-11 seed range that is hitting its stride at the right time and that nobody wants to face in the dance. Memphis is absolutely at the top of that list.
23. Colorado State Rams
Record: 25-5, 14-4 in Mountain West
Star Player: David Roddy is the best player in the country that not nearly enough people are talking about. He's not quite as big of a deal as when Dayton's Obi Toppin (2020), BYU's Jimmer Fredette (2011) and Saint Joseph's Jameer Nelson (2004) won Wooden Awards, but Roddy is more than just "impressive for a mid-major." He is a stat-sheet stuffer and a three-point sniper, and it would frankly be a surprise if he fails to drain a late-game dagger at some point in the tournament.
Biggest Wins: It's a shame Colorado State was unable to play the game it scheduled at Alabama because of COVID issues, but the Rams still put together a solid nonconference profile, going 10-0 with wins over Saint Mary's, Creighton and Mississippi State. And then in MWC play, they swept Boise State and won the home games against San Diego State and Wyoming.
Reason to Worry: Fortunately they won't need to face UNLV in the dance, but those two blowout losses to the Rebels are going to be the first two tapes that opponents study to prep for the Rams. Roddy was held in check in both of those games, Colorado State got worked on the glass and a mediocre defense (particularly along the perimeter) was exposed in a big way.
March Madness Ceiling: Colorado State is a great sleeper candidate, for as long as it can avoid running into an excellent three-point shooting team. Although, even when the Rams have gotten torched from the perimeter, they've typically been able to do more than enough on offense to make up for it. Doing so against, say, Northern Colorado and Oral Roberts is much different from doing it against one (or more) of the 16 best teams in the country, though. Still, definitely some Elite Eight potential here.
22. North Carolina Tar Heels
Record: 24-9, 15-5 in ACC
Star Player: The improvement of Caleb Love and R.J. Davis from last year to this year is the biggest reason North Carolina was able to win 24 games. But the biggest star is Armando Bacot. After sharing the frontcourt with Garrison Brooks, Day'Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler last year, we weren't sure how he would fare as the only true post player on the roster. He sure has risen to the challenge with 25 double-doubles on the season.
Biggest Wins: Better late than never, and UNC saved its best for last, going on the road and knocking off Duke in the final game of the regular season. The Tar Heels also swept Virginia Tech and got a 21-point home win over Michigan, but they were very much on the bubble prior to ruining the last Cameron Indoor chapter of Coach K's farewell tour.
Reason to Worry: Up until that big win, there were major concerns about North Carolina's ability to win outside of the Dean Dome. The Heels lost six of their first nine games away from home and by an average margin of 18.3 points per loss. They also got crushed by Virginia Tech in the ACC semifinals. For whatever reason, their defense has been a brick wall at home and an open door elsewhere.
March Madness Ceiling: The notion all season long with North Carolina has been: I don't know if it'll get into the tournament, but I definitely wouldn't want to face that team in the tournament. It's not quite a "the ceiling is the roof" season in Chapel Hill because of those defensive woes, but would you really be that surprised if the Heels made a run to the Final Four, reminiscent of when they got there as a No. 8 seed in 2000?
21. Alabama Crimson Tide
Record: 19-13, 9-9 in SEC
Star Player: Alabama can win games when Jaden Shackelford isn't draining triples, but it sure makes it harder. Shackelford has made 99 three-pointers on the season, and he shot a combined 11-of-15 from deep in the massive December wins over Gonzaga and Houston. The third-year, 6'3" wing is also one of Alabama's top rebounders.
Biggest Wins: It's hard to argue with what "Good Alabama" has accomplished this season. The Crimson Tide beat Gonzaga in Seattle and won home games against Baylor, Tennessee, Houston, LSU and Arkansas. It often feels like the Crimson Tide can't figure out how to string together multiple consecutive good games, but those Gonzaga and Houston wins were back-to-back and came immediately after a 32-point win over Miami.
Reason to Worry: This is a colossal "aside from," but aside from the win over Gonzaga, Alabama has not been the same team when forced to play outside Tuscaloosa, suffering losses to Georgia, Missouri, Iona, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. Also, for a team that shoots a ton of three-pointers, Alabama isn't good at actually making them.
March Madness Ceiling: Throughout the season, Alabama has felt like a team with neither a ceiling nor a floor. The Tide have beaten enough quality opponents that we can't rule out a championship run, but there have also been so many disappointing performances that a first-round exit wouldn't surprise anyone. Considering this team has managed just one three-game winning streak in the past three months, though, the Elite Eight is probably where you should really start pumping the brakes.
20. Connecticut Huskies
Record: 23-9, 13-6 in Big East
Star Player: Adama Sanogo and Tyrese Martin are both indispensable assets, but R.J. Cole is the heart and soul of this Huskies squad. Among the KenPom player comps for Cole are senior year Cassius Winston, senior year Joel Berry and senior year Yogi Ferrell, each of whom was the veteran sine qua non of a title contender.
Biggest Wins: Connecticut hasn't had a ton of top-tier wins, but knocking off Auburn (in double overtime) in the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis was quite large. The Huskies also won their home game against Villanova and swept Marquette.
Reason to Worry: It's nice that the Huskies are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, but they aren't all that adept at actually putting the ball in the hoop. They shot below 41 percent from the field 11 times this season, going 4-7 in those contests. That includes a recent game against short-handed Creighton, in which they only committed six turnovers and still managed to lose.
March Madness Ceiling: Putting a cap on Connecticut's potential in March is a fool's errand after living through the 2011 and 2014 NCAA tournaments, but this doesn't feel like a championship team. Second weekend? Sure. Final Four? Maybe with some help in the form of early upsets elsewhere in their region. But if UConn did win it all, it would be almost as shocking as when it did so as a No. 7 seed eight years ago.
19. Saint Mary's Gaels
Record: 25-7, 12-3 in WCC
Star Player: The beauty of Saint Mary's is it's not entirely clear who should go in this spot. The Gaels have four upperclassmen who average at least 10 points per game, but let's go with Logan Johnson, if only because of the highlight-reel plays he made in the recent win over Gonzaga. Johnson has had a few 20-point performances this season, but his real impact is as the first line of defense, where he averages two steals per game.
Biggest Wins: Saint Mary's used to be the patron saint of refusing to leave California during nonconference play, but the Gaels won early neutral-site games (in Las Vegas) against Notre Dame and Oregon and scored a solid road win over Utah State. But their best wins came in league play, sweeping San Francisco prior to the gargantuan victory over Gonzaga to take the WCC tourney. Coach Randy Bennett has had some impressive teams over the years, but I can't remember a year when Saint Mary's had this many impressive wins.
Reason to Worry: Though outstanding on defense, Saint Mary's is just OK on offense. Couple that with a very methodical pace of play, and the Gaels are prone to the occasional low-scoring dud. They were held to an average of 56.5 points in their six regular-season losses.
March Madness Ceiling: Every time the Gaels get into the tournament, they seem like a team that could win multiple games. And yet, they have been to just one Sweet 16 since 1959. If you don't trust them for that reason, that's understandable, but this year's Gaels have more potential for greatness than any previous iteration. Final Four expectations might be pushing it, but this is at least a Sweet 16 candidate.
18. Houston Cougars
Record: 28-5, 15-3 in American
Star Player: Fabian White Jr. has had a remarkable breakout year, blossoming into something special since the end of January. After shooting just 2-of-8 from three-point range in his first four seasons with Houston, the big man has become their best perimeter shooter. He's also their top shot-blocker and a major contributor to this turnover-forcing defense.
Biggest Wins: Herein lies the problem for the Cougars. The metrics love 'em, but their best win of the season came against an Oklahoma State team that wasn't even eligible for the postseason. And even if you want to talk about the near-wins away from home against Wisconsin and Alabama, those both came before they lost leading scorer Marcus Sasser to a season-ending injury.
Reason to Worry: Aside from that whole "hasn't beaten anyone worth mentioning" dilemma, Houston is a dreadful free-throw shooting team that has been smoked by Memphis twice in the past month. In each of those games, they committed a ton of turnovers, which was also the case in the aforementioned win over Oklahoma State. Aggressive defenses have given this offense problems.
March Madness Ceiling: Houston has been perpetually ranked in the KenPom top 10 since Nov. 15, which is something only Gonzaga, Baylor and the Cougars can proclaim. Based on that information and that information alone, they have to be considered a championship candidate. But unless the Cougars are handed another "four double-digit seeds" path to the Final Four for a second consecutive year, the realistic ceiling here is probably the Elite Eight.
17. Providence Friars
Record: 25-5, 14-3 in Big East
Star Player: Jared Bynum's numbers aren't all that special, but was any player in the nation better over the final five weeks of the regular season? Providence's lead guard averaged 20.6 points, 5.1 assists and 4.4 rebounds over his last eight games, including one afternoon against Georgetown in which he shot 7-of-8 from three-point range. Not too shabby for a guy who was just 5-of-42 from distance in the entire 2020-21 campaign.
Biggest Wins: There are a couple of big wins with asterisks on them. Providence won at Wisconsin while Johnny Davis was out. It also went on the road and knocked off Adama Sanogo-less Connecticut. But the home win over Texas Tech in which Providence had the compromised roster (no Bynum)? Now that was impressive. The biggest victory of all, though, was winning the Big East regular-season title for the first time in program history.
Reason to Worry: Whether this is a reason to believe in Providence or a reason to worry about Providence depends entirely on your rooting interest in the Friars, but this team is 17-2 in games decided by 10 points or fewer. The fans want you to believe that their track record of winning close games means they are ready to grind out any win in the tournament. The Providence detractors, however, question how many times that coin can continue to land on the Friars' side.
March Madness Ceiling: Providence can clearly hang with anyone. Even the two losses to Villanova came right down to the wire. While this team probably won't win its first national championship, a first Sweet 16 since 1997 seems likely and a first Final Four since 1987 is more than conceivable.
16. Wisconsin Badgers
Record: 24-7, 15-5 in Big Ten
Star Player: We all expected Johnny Davis to become a bigger factor for the Badgers this season, but no one realized he would be "first-team All-American" great. Davis has scored in double figures in all but one game played, and has corralled at least eight rebounds more often than not. It's hard to imagine where Wisconsin would be without him, but earning a share of the Big Ten regular-season title certainly wouldn't have been possible.
Biggest Wins: How far down the list should we go? Neutral-site wins over Houston and Saint Mary's in December were fantastic. The season sweep of Purdue was even better. The Badgers also won home games against Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan and Marquette, as well as road games against Rutgers and Michigan State. Suffice it to say, lack of quality wins isn't an issue.
Reason to Worry: If you want to know how hopelessly dependent the Badgers are on Davis, look no further than the season-ending loss to Nebraska, or the close call against Nicholls State (in which he didn't play). If he has an off night, the Badgers are in deep trouble, and he has had a handful of lackluster performances in the past two months. Even with Davis' heroics, Wisconsin is nothing special on offense.
March Madness Ceiling: The reason we were so blown away by Kemba Walker's championship run in 2011—and why we still routinely bring it up 11 years later—is because these one-man teams almost never make it to the Final Four, let alone win it all. But we'll always have proof that it can happen. Realistically, though, the Elite Eight is as far as we can recommend picking the Badgers to go. They'll eventually run into a team that can stifle Davis.
15. Iowa Hawkeyes
Record: 25-9, 12-8 in Big Ten
Star Player: Keegan Murray was overshadowed for most of the year in the Big Ten by Johnny Davis, Kofi Cockburn and E.J. Liddell, but Iowa's breakout star has been easily one of the best all-around players in the country. We'll have to see where his season averages land at the end of the NCAA tournament, but 23 points, eight rebounds, two blocks and one made triple per game put Murray on a shortlist with Vin Baker, Donyell Marshall and Juan Mendez.
Biggest Wins: Until about four weeks ago, Iowa was looking like a bubble team because of its lack of quality wins. But the Hawkeyes did win at Michigan and at Ohio State, blew out Michigan State at home late in the regular season and then made it to the Big Ten championship.
Reason to Worry: All the predictive metrics would have you believe this is a team that should reach the Sweet 16 and one that could win it all. But a combined 0-5 regular-season record against Illinois, Purdue and Wisconsin makes you wonder if this team can knock off an upper-echelon opponent. And while the Hawkeyes defense is marginally better than it has been over the past five seasons, they certainly aren't great on that end of the floor.
March Madness Ceiling: If you're picking any Big Ten team to reach the Final Four, Iowa might be the best bet. Though there were a couple of duds (48-46 loss at Rutgers, most infamously), the Hawkeyes have scored at least 80 points on 23 occasions and figure to hold their own on that end of the floor no matter the opponent. But we must point this out: In 10 career trips to the NCAA tournament, coach Fran McCaffery has an overall record of 6-10 and has never made the Sweet 16. (Though a similar tournament history didn't keep Mick Cronin from getting to the 2021 Final Four.)
14. Arkansas Razorbacks
Record: 25-8, 13-5 in SEC
Star Player: JD Notae leads Arkansas in points, assists and steals, and there's no chance this team would be in this spot without him. But the biggest star might be Jaylin Williams, as the Razorbacks changed for the better when he became a bigger piece of the puzzle. Williams averaged 7.0 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.1 steals through his first 15 games, but those numbers spiked to 14.4, 10.6 and 1.7, respectively over the next 16. He has also been a big difference-maker on defense with his drawn charges.
Biggest Wins: Prior to mid-January, nothing worth reporting here. But the Jan. 15 road win over LSU was the start of an impressive final two months that produced home wins over Auburn, Tennessee and Kentucky, a road win over Florida and a second victory over LSU. Arkansas opened February as a bubble team and entered March as a possible No. 3 seed.
Reason to Worry: Arkansas has been pretty fortunate in the injury department with just two missed games among its primary seven-man rotation. There was a month-long stretch in the middle of the season in which the Hogs went 1-5 against six opponents who are borderline at best to make the NCAA tournament, though. Could that defense-optional version of Arkansas rear its ugly head again? And is there anyone who isn't at least a little concerned about an offense that ranks outside the top 200 in effective field-goal percentage?
March Madness Ceiling: If momentum heading into the postseason matters in the slightest, advantage Arkansas, which won 14 of its final 16 regular-season games. The Hogs gradually became a trendy Final Four candidate, and then really locked that in with the late wins over Kentucky and LSU and by darn near erasing a 24-point deficit at Tennessee without Au'Diese Toney. Pick against these guys at your own peril.
13. UCLA Bruins
Record: 25-7, 15-5 in Pac-12
Star Player: It hasn't been the NPOY campaign we were expecting when he opted to return for another season, and he has been banged up recently, but UCLA is still Johnny Juzang's team. If he can get back to full strength and reharness some of that mid-January magic when he scored at least 23 points in four straight games, it drastically increases UCLA's odds of making another Final Four run.
Biggest Wins: Save for that one loss to Oregon when fans weren't allowed in Pauley Pavilion, UCLA has done an excellent job of protecting its home court, beating each of Arizona, Villanova and USC. The Bruins also won at Marquette back in mid-December and knocked off USC in the Pac-12 semifinals.
Reason to Worry: Juzang, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Cody Riley are all considerably better than average mid-range shooters, but even for above-average shooters, those still aren't high-percentage two-point attempts. And as a result, UCLA has an effective field-goal percentage that ranks around 150th in the nation. It's a good thing they usually win both the turnover battle and rebounding battle to make up for it.
March Madness Ceiling: After opening the season at No. 2 in the AP poll, UCLA trickled its way down into the teens for the past five weeks. And with that slippage, the Bruins went from one of the top candidates to win it all to one of those teams on the fringe for whom the Final Four seems a more realistic ceiling. And it's a shame that this team has never gotten much of a chance to play at full strength, because it could've been great.
12. Illinois Fighting Illini
Record: 22-9, 15-5 in Big Ten
Star Player: Kofi Cockburn is a mountain of a man who has racked up 16 double-doubles in just 26 games played. He scored in double figures in each of those 26 games, this despite not attempting a single three-pointer and only shooting 65 percent from the free-throw line. The only opponents that have been able to slow him down even a little bit are the ones with multiple formidable big men (Arizona, Ohio State and Purdue). And that checks out, because trying to go one-on-one with Cockburn in the paint is going to be a losing battle far more often than not.
Biggest Wins: For a Big Ten regular-season champion, Illinois' list of big wins is surprisingly scarce. The Illini swept Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State, which is mighty impressive. They also won the home game against Wisconsin. But doesn't it feel like they had more/bigger wins over the past four months?
Reason to Worry: Illinois doesn't force many turnovers, and for as large as he is, the 7-foot, 285-pound Cockburn isn't much of a shot-blocker. As such, this defense has been prone to spurts in which it just cannot buy a stop. Ohio State went on a 22-2 run in the span of about seven minutes a few weeks ago in Champaign, and that's just one of the many recent examples.
March Madness Ceiling: Now that Andre Curbelo has been back in action for more than a month, Illinois might finally be the team we thought it could be in the preseason. Cockburn has been awesome, as expected. Both Alfonso Plummer and Jacob Grandison have become three-point assassins. And Trent Frazier is that clutch, tough-as-nails veteran that every championship team seems to have. Illinois might not be one of the top 10 picks to win it all, but this team winning a title would be less surprising than this team suffering a first-round loss.
11. Purdue Boilermakers
Record: 27-6, 14-6 in Big Ten
Star Player: The tandem of Zach Edey and Trevion Williams is all kinds of special, giving Purdue around 26 points, 15 rebounds, four assists and two blocks from its 5 spot on a nightly basis. But the singular star is Jaden Ivey, who has proved multiple times he can hit an ice-cold three-point dagger late in the game and/or deliver a highlight-reel, momentum-shifting breakaway dunk. Soak him up while you can, because he's going to be a top-five draft pick soon.
Biggest Wins: It's pretty hard to argue with season sweeps of both Illinois and Iowa. The Boilermakers also won the Hall of Fame Tip-Off tournament in November, beating both North Carolina and Villanova in the span of 24 hours in Connecticut.
Reason to Worry: This is the part where I'm supposed to point out that Purdue has spent basically the entire season ranked outside the top 100 in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom. But what I'm actually worried about is how frequently this allegedly super-efficient offense just vanishes without a trace. In all of its losses (and in two other nail-biters), Purdue has been held below 70 points. In conjunction with the mediocre defense, that's a gigantic red flag.
March Madness Ceiling: With the trio of Ivey, Edey and Williams, Purdue is absolutely a title contender. But I'm also picking the Boilermakers to lose before the Final Four. These "Top 10 Offense, Not Top-100 Defense" teams flame out in the first few rounds of the tournament all the time, and I did a little bit of digging last month to prove it.
10. Tennessee Volunteers
Record: 26-7, 14-4 in SEC
Star Player: It has been a very hit-or-miss season for freshman point guard Kennedy Chandler, but Tennessee sure is tougher to beat when he's hitting some shots and/or avoiding turnovers. In fact, the Volunteers are 20-2 when he shoots at least 37.5 percent from the field, so getting him into a rhythm will be critical. Chandler is also the team leader in assists and steals.
Biggest Wins: Tennessee went undefeated in Knoxville, which included wins over Arizona, Auburn, Kentucky, Arkansas and LSU. The Kentucky and LSU wins were beatdowns, although the Tigers were without Xavier Pinson and TyTy Washington Jr. was nowhere near 100 percent for the Wildcats. And then the SEC semifinal win over healthy Kentucky was huge.
Reason to Worry: You're going to hear this a lot in regard to the SEC's top teams, but the road has not been kind to Tennessee. During the regular season, the Volunteers went 1-7 away from home against teams who were in the conversation for a single digit seed in the dance, and that lone win came on a neutral-court against North Carolina nearly four months ago.
March Madness Ceiling: Save for the loss at Kentucky that got out of hand in a hurry, at least Tennessee's top-notch defense has traveled well all season long. Even with that 107-point dud on their resume, the Vols still have one of the most efficient defenses in the country. That propensity for getting blocks and steals will serve them well in the tournament, and keeps the door open for them to possibly win it all.
9. Texas Tech Red Raiders
Record: 25-9, 12-6 in Big 12
Star Player: Texas Tech's go-to guy is former UTEP big man Bryson Williams. He struggled in the three big games in December, but he has been a machine since the beginning of January, averaging 16.1 points per league game. And while the rest of the roster shot 25.2 percent from three-point range, Williams shot 42.3 percent from downtown in Big 12 play.
Biggest Wins: Most of the nonconference schedule was pretty bleak, but Texas Tech did pick up a big overtime win over Tennessee in Madison Square Garden. And then in Big 12 play, the Red Raiders swept Baylor, swept Texas and won the home game against Kansas. They also almost beat the Jayhawks in Lawrence, but Ochai Agbaji and Co. escaped in double OT.
Reason to Worry: Texas Tech is superb on defense but lacking and inconsistent on offense. Williams is the only respectable three-point shooter, and without a true point guard, the Red Raiders commit nearly 14 turnovers per game. In five of their losses, they were held to 55 points or fewer. And in that victory over Tennessee, it was 44-44 at the end of regulation.
March Madness Ceiling: Defense wins championships, and this defense might. You don't go 5-2 against Baylor, Kansas and Texas unless you're a legitimate title contender. The one big concern—as it always has been with Virginia in recent years—is that the Red Raiders allow a lot of three-point attempts. They contest them admirably, but a hot shooter coupled with Tech's shortcomings on offense could lead to an unceremonious early exit.
8. Auburn Tigers
Record: 27-5, 15-3 in SEC
Star Player: We're basically required to put the potential No. 1 overall draft pick, Jabari Smith, in this spot. Smith has been great all year, but he has been playing out of his mind as of late, averaging 24.8 points and 7.3 rebounds over his final six games of the regular season. He is also an excellent defender, whose presence on that end of the floor allows Walker Kessler to hunt blocks without fear of giving up easy buckets.
Biggest Wins: The biggest win was the come-from-behind victory over Kentucky. But even if you want to discount that one because TyTy Washington Jr. got hurt in the first half, Auburn also swept Alabama and convincingly beat LSU, Murray State, Loyola-Chicago and Oklahoma.
Reason to Worry: Playing on the road has been tough for everyone in the SEC, but especially for Auburn and especially over the past seven weeks. In those final seven games, the Tigers lost to Texas A&M, Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee and just barely survived against Missouri, Georgia and Mississippi State. Also, aside from Smith, their three-point shooting leaves a lot to be desired.
March Madness Ceiling: Auburn could win it all, but only if it leans heavily on its dynamic duo. With all due respect to K.D. Johnson and Wendell Green Jr., when either of those guards fires up a shot without Smith or Kessler getting a touch, that's a win for the defense. But if Kessler is blocking shots like Anthony Davis and Smith is doing his Kevin Durant thing, Auburn is scary.
7. Villanova Wildcats
Record: 26-7, 16-4 in Big East
Star Player: After losing the 2020 tournament to the pandemic and losing the 2021 tournament to a knee injury, fifth-year senior Collin Gillespie is finally going to get his chance to lead Villanova in the dance. Whether from three-point range or the free-throw line, he's one of the better shooters in the country. And that heroic 33-point performance at Providence in February felt like a precursor of things to come.
Biggest Wins: Villanova put together a grueling nonconference schedule, though the only good win to come from it was a win over Tennessee in Connecticut. But that schedule did prepare them well for the rigors of Big East play, resulting in a season sweep of Providence and another conference tournament title.
Reason to Worry: The Wildcats are still plenty capable of making it rain from three-point range, as has been the case for the better part of a decade. But they aren't anywhere near as lethal inside the arc as we're used to seeing. Nor is the defense operating at the same level as it was in 2016 or 2018, particularly along the perimeter.
March Madness Ceiling: Though not one of the eight primary candidates to win it all, cutting down the nets is surely within the realm of possibility for Villanova. Doing so with what is basically a six-man rotation is going to be a challenge, but Jay Wright knows a thing or two about winning in this tournament, wouldn't you say?
6. Duke Blue Devils
Record: 28-6, 16-4 in ACC
Star Player: Duke could have as many as five players selected in the first round of the upcoming draft, but the biggest star is certainly Paolo Banchero. The 6'10" stretch 4 is so fluid and makes everything look so effortless that it sometimes feels like he's just going through the motions out there. But then you look up and he's got like 18 points, nine rebounds and a few assists for yet another impressive day at the office.
Biggest Wins: It was a down year for the ACC to say the least, so even the best wins of the past few months—at North Carolina, at Notre Dame, sweeping Wake Forest—weren't anything that special. But the Blue Devils did win neutral-site games against both Gonzaga and Kentucky in November, notably before three-point assassin AJ Griffin had recovered from a preseason knee injury.
Reason to Worry: Duke lost five games against a weak ACC, three of those coming at Cameron Indoor. In three of those four games, the Blue Devils were atypically sloppy. And in the home loss to North Carolina, they seemed to think the Tar Heels were just going to graciously let Coach K win his finale. If Duke lost its focus in those games, who's to say it couldn't happen again in the tournament? (Of more statistical concern, Duke only forced 8.4 turnovers over its final 19 games of the regular season, which is absurdly low.)
March Madness Ceiling: Duke can win it all. No question about it. Peak Duke might be the best team in the country, though arguments for peak Gonzaga, peak Kentucky and peak Arizona are certainly on the table. We'll just have to see if peak Duke can actually show up for six games. Or one.
5. Kentucky Wildcats
Record: 26-7, 14-4 in SEC
Star Player: At the start of the major conference tournaments, Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe was leading the nation in both offensive rebound percentage and defensive rebound percentage, which is just absurd. It's going to go down in history as perhaps the best season ever on the glass. But Tshiebwe is also a great defender, and he has really developed into a go-to option in the post, as opposed to a Rico Gathers type of guy who only gets touches by cleaning up teammates' misses.
Biggest Wins: Kentucky had four huge wins, all by big margins. The Wildcats won at Kansas by 18, beat North Carolina in Las Vegas by 29, beat Tennessee at home by 28 and had an 11-point road win over Alabama. They also swept Florida and won home games against LSU and Alabama.
Reason to Worry: Tshiebwe is a fantastic one-man show on the glass, but it's fair to worry about Kentucky's frontcourt depth. Big O played at least 28 minutes in every SEC game, including nine with at least 35 minutes. He usually does a great job of staying out of foul trouble, but if UK has to rely on Jacob Toppin, Lance Ware or Daimion Collins at the 5 for any considerable length of time, that could be a major problem.
March Madness Ceiling: Is full-strength Kentucky the best team in the country, or is that just a notion we all sort of agreed to while rarely getting to see full-strength Kentucky in the past two months? Maybe we'll finally get an answer to that question, but this is certainly a championship-caliber team if both Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington Jr. can avoid any further bumps, bruises or sprains.
4. Baylor Bears
Record: 26-6, 14-4 in Big 12
Star Player: Freshmen Jeremy Sochan and Kendall Brown are the main attractions for NBA draft scouts, and big man Flo Thamba is probably Baylor's most critical player, since it lost Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua to a season-ending knee injury in mid-February. But James Akinjo is clearly the Bears' top candidate for Most Outstanding Player. He doesn't put up gaudy numbers, but outside the three-week stretch when he was recovering from a tailbone injury, he always seems to rise to the occasion. Think of a 2018 Jalen Brunson but with more turnovers—both forced on defense and committed on offense.
Biggest Wins: In nonconference play, Baylor went through Arizona State, VCU and Michigan State to win the Battle 4 Atlantis and destroyed Villanova by 21. The Bears also swept Texas, Iowa State and TCU and recently won a home game against Kansas by double digits.
Reason to Worry: One considerable concern is depth, especially in the frontcourt. With JTT officially out and LJ Cryer perpetually questionable with a foot injury, the Bears have been operating with a seven-man rotation for the past month. They've gotten by pretty well, but that's a lot of high-leverage, don't-get-into-foul-trouble minutes for a team hoping to win six in a row.
March Madness Ceiling: Despite the short rotation, Baylor is easily one of the top candidates to win it all. The Bears aren't anywhere near as lethal from three-point range as they were last year (especially without Cryer), but they still have five very capable shooters, a strong turnover-forcing defense and great offensive rebounding. Do what you want with your bracket, but I'll be penciling them into the Elite Eight before I even start worrying about matchups.
3. Kansas Jayhawks
Record: 28-6, 14-4 in Big 12
Star Player: David McCormack is probably the most important player to Kansas' success, but there aren't many stars in college basketball brighter than Ochai Agbaji. "Och" had scored in double figures in every game prior to a rare eight-point due in the season finale against Texas, but at least he scored 75 percent of those points in overtime to get the Jayhawks the W. If Kansas has any sort of prolonged run in the tournament, he'll likely finish his senior season with more than 100 made three-pointers.
Biggest Wins: It felt like Kansas had a lot of huge wins this season, but the only particularly big ones (before winning the Big 12 tournament) each came at home against Baylor, Texas and Texas Tech—and the latter two necessitated overtime. The Jayhawks did stockpile a bunch of good wins, though, sweeping the likes of Iowa State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State, and beating both Michigan State and North Texas on neutral floors.
Reason to Worry: The predictive metrics look more than fine because of the strength of schedule they've faced, but if you actually watch the Jayhawks play, their defense isn't that great. Don't get me wrong, it's better than Ohio State's or Purdue's, and they looked really good on that end of the floor in the season finale against Texas. But it does feel like the frequent inability to stay in front of opposing guards could be their downfall.
March Madness Ceiling: Kansas is on the relatively short list of teams that could win it all and that perhaps should at least reach the Elite Eight. Although it is a little concerning that this team didn't beat anything close to a top-tiered opponent outside of Phog Allen Fieldhouse until the Big 12 title game against Texas Tech.
2. Arizona Wildcats
Record: 31-3, 18-2 in Pac-12
Star Player: Benn Mathurin has blossomed from a raw talent who balled out maybe once a month last season to one of the most consistent stars in the country this season. Over the final 10 games of the regular season, the Pac-12 POY shot 42.6 percent from deep and averaged 18.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists against 1.3 turnovers.
Biggest Wins: The 18-point win over Michigan in Las Vegas in November first put Arizona on the map. The Wildcats backed it up with a 29-point win over Wyoming and a hard-fought win at Illinois. And in Pac-12 play, they swept USC and split with UCLA before winning the conference tournament. (Don't sweat the loss at Colorado. Arizona always seems to lose in Boulder.)
Reason to Worry: The only semi-legitimate concern I've had with this team all season long is its age and its lack of NCAA tournament experience. Even when Kentucky won it all with four key freshmen in 2012, that team at least had Darius Miller, who had played in nine NCAA tournament games over the previous two seasons, as well as Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones, who went to the Final Four the previous year. This Arizona team has nothing of the sort, unless you count Oumar Ballo playing eight minutes during Gonzaga's run last year.
March Madness Ceiling: In spite of that inexperience, Arizona is surely one of the top candidates to win it all. The Wildcats have won in convincing fashion pretty much all season long and spent most of the past month ranked in the top five of all the resume and predictive metrics on the selection committee's team sheets. If Kerr Kriisa can recover from the ankle injury and get into a groove when it matters most, Arizona will be celebrating the 25-year anniversary of its only national championship with another one.
1. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Record: 26-3, 13-1 in WCC
Star Player: Drew Timme opened the season as the favorite to be named National Player of the Year, but he isn't even Gonzaga's most valuable player. Don't get us wrong; Timme has been quite good. But freshman phenom Chet Holmgren has been even better. The 7'0" unicorn is lethal from three-point range, seemingly can't miss from inside the arc and is one of the best shot-blockers in the country.
Biggest Wins: Way back when Gonzaga was No. 1 and UCLA was No. 2 in the AP poll, the Bulldogs throttled the Bruins by 20 in Las Vegas. They also beat Texas Tech by 14 points in Phoenix and had a 12-point home win over Texas that was never in doubt. And then the Bulldogs drove a freight train through the first 13 games of their WCC schedule.
Reason to Worry: Saint Mary's, Texas Tech and Tarleton State showed the blueprint for slowing Gonzaga: Get super physical with Timme, grind the game to a halt with long possessions on offense and always, always, always get back in transition to negate any fast-break opportunities. Combine that with the good fortune of Julian Strawther having an off night from the perimeter, and those three teams held the Zags under 70 points. It's fair to wonder if a defensive-minded foe might be able to replicate that formula.
March Madness Ceiling: Gonzaga is the favorite to win it all, so the only ceiling here is the glass one that many have placed on this program over the past decade. The Zags are the only team to play in multiple national championships in the past five seasons, but some folks refuse to believe they can win it all until they do so. Perhaps this will finally be the year.