The men’s NCAA tournament selection committee has spoken, but now it’s time for the real seed list to be revealed. The Sports Illustrated 1–68 rankings aren’t beholden to Quad This or Quad That, or to any other metrics. This is simply a ranking of the teams playing best when it matters most, which is right now.
1. Gonzaga: The overall No. 1 seed has all the necessary parts to finally win it all. The Zags are the No. 1 offensive team in the country per Ken Pomeroy, which isn’t unusual—but they also have their best defensive team since the 2017 national runner-up squad. Gonzaga is tougher to score on inside the arc than anyone else in the country, in large part because 7-foot freshman Chet Holmgren provides a deterrent at the rim. This is the first time the Zags have ranked in the Pomeroy top 10 both offensively and defensively. The biggest challenge will be a West Region draw that is tougher than the overall No. 1 should be facing.
2. Arizona: On the 25th anniversary of the program’s only national championship, this team is capable of winning a second. The Wildcats have tremendous size and athleticism, enough depth, and play at a pace that can run a lot of opponents off the floor. First-year coach Tommy Lloyd inherited a flush hand and juiced up the tempo to Gonzaga levels to take advantage of his talent. The only questions are the health of point guard Kerr Kriisa (recovering from an ankle sprain in the Pac-12 tournament) and whether a team bereft of Big Dance experience can handle the bull’s-eye placed upon it. The window of opportunity is now, with a laborious NCAA investigation ongoing that could affect the 2022–23 season.
3. Kansas: Speaking of schools under investigation and facing an uncertain future, the Jayhawks are in the same boat as Arizona. Better maximize the present while they can. In the Big 12 tournament, Kansas got consistent production from its post players—David McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot combined to average 19.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game. That provided the interior game Bill Self loves and the support star Ochai Agbaji needs. This isn’t a vintage Self team defensively, but it’s good enough to contend for a title. However, just one of Kansas’s last six teams to earn a No. 1 seed advanced to the Final Four.
4. Purdue: This is a leap of faith—that the Boilermakers can locate some defensive consistency, that they can find a third offensive option to go along with guard Jaden Ivey and the rotating post tandem of Zach Edey and Trevion Williams, and that they can overcome their own institutional history of Big Dance underachieving. Why believe? Because Ivey is that good, coach Matt Painter is that good, and sooner or later a program this successful has to break through in March. When Purdue has been at its best this season, it has been fairly breathtaking. Now it just needs to relocate its best and showcase it for four games in a winnable East Region.
5. UCLA: If you’re looking for the team least likely to panic in a tight tournament game, this is my nominee. The Bruins are gamers, capable of rising to the occasion in an elimination setting. Everyone remembers the run from First Four to Final Four a year ago, and UCLA showed some flashes of that moxie in the Pac-12 tournament last week. Jaime Jaquez Jr. is back on top of his game, Jules Bernard is playing well, point guard Tyger Campbell is a rock of tenacious consistency—and we got a glimpse of the old Johnny Juzang as well. Mick Cronin needs his center duo of Cody Riley and Myles Johnson to step up.
6. Tennessee: The Volunteers were extremely impressive in rolling to their first Southeastern Conference tournament title since 1979, trailing for a total of one minute and 11 seconds in three games. Rick Barnes probably has the quickest guard tandem in the tournament in freshmen Kennedy Chandler and Zakai Zeigler, plus a veteran third guard in Santiago Vescovi. Do the Vols have enough interior oomph at the offensive end? That’s the question, given they rank 249th nationally in two-point field goal percentage. They are an excellent defensive team. Barnes has had some March busts in his career, but this team gives him a shot at his second career Final Four and the first in program history.
7. Kentucky: The Wildcats’ two best performances were in January, when they blew out two teams ranked ahead of them here (Tennessee and Kansas) by a combined 46 points. Can they hit those high notes again in a tournament setting? If so, they can win the whole thing. If not, they’re out in the Sweet 16. Big man Oscar Tshiebwe is an unstoppable force who could dominate in the early rounds, but John Calipari needs an inconsistent supporting cast to produce around him as the competition improves. Kentucky is just 6–7 against teams that are in the tournament.
8. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders showed in Kansas City—and before that—they are up for the grind of March basketball. This is probably the best defensive team in the tournament, and among the physically toughest as well. The draw is advantageous, with a potential second-round game against either slumping Alabama or a No. 11 seed that would be playing its third game of the week. That could be followed with the chance to end Mike Krzyzewski’s career in San Francisco in the Sweet 16. Can a team that shoots the ball poorly from distance and turns it over in bunches make a Final Four? That’s the big question.
9. Baylor: The defending champs are the lowest of the No. 1 seeds here for two reasons: Injuries have robbed them of their best three-point shooter and best interior player; and the quarterfinal loss in the Big 12 tournament to Oklahoma runs afoul of historical precedent. No national champion has lost before the semifinals of its league tourney since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Still, dismiss the Bears at your peril. They have elite personnel and coaching, and the trio of Adam Flagler, Matthew Mayer and Flo Thamba knows what it takes to win six games in this tourney.
10. Villanova: Jay Wright probably has his best team since winning the second of two championships in 2018. The Wildcats are a bit better defensively than the previous four years, have a bell-cow guard in fifth-year senior Collin Gillespie and—this matters in March—lead the nation in free throw accuracy. They are built for the rigors of tight games. But ’Nova also has to shoot it well from three, since so much of its offense is generated out there. In the same region with Arizona and Tennessee, the path to New Orleans is arduous.
11. Duke: The Mike Krzyzewski Farewell Tour seems to have gotten a bit burdensome for a young team, which crumpled in his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium and again in the ACC tournament final. (How young are the Blue Devils? The oldest person in their top six is younger than the youngest person in fellow tournament team UAB’s top seven. Reserve center Theo John is the only Duke player to have started an NCAA tournament game, in 2019 while at Marquette. He played 17 minutes and didn’t score in a first-round loss.) Duke has the offensive talent to make the Final Four, but its defense must improve dramatically from what we saw in the last four games.
12. Arkansas: There are abundant similarities between last year’s Razorbacks, which went to the Elite Eight, and this year’s version. Last year the Hogs went 25–7, were ranked 43rd nationally in offensive efficiency and 10th defensively; this year they’re 25–8, ranked 40th offensively and 16th defensively. Last year they rolled through the latter half of the regular season, winning 11 of their last 12; this year they won 14 of their last 16. Last year they were knocked out in their second game of the SEC tourney; this year, same thing. But does this Arkansas team have the late-game magic that pushed the 2021 Hogs past Texas Tech and Oral Roberts in the second and third rounds by a total of four points? Maybe so. Arkansas is 4–2 in games decided by four points or fewer.
13. Iowa: This might finally be the year to take the Hawkeyes seriously. They haven’t made the Sweet 16 since 1999, habitually coming up short defensively when the stakes rise, but the group that just won the Big Ten tournament may possess more attributes than any team Fran McCaffery has ever coached. It has a star player opponents must game-plan to contain in Keegan Murray, plus a devastating array of shooters and a full roster of reliable ballhandlers. Iowa has gotten enough stops defensively over the last 10 games to win nine of them, most notably forcing 17 Purdue turnovers in the Big Ten title game. Watching sixth-year senior Jordan Bohannon make a deep run at what feels like age 36 would be nice.
14. Saint Mary’s: Best Gaels team ever? We’re about to find out for sure. The 2010 version advanced to the Sweet 16 behind the trio of big man Omar Samhan and guards Matthew Dellavedova and Mickey McConnell, and Randy Bennett has similar personnel this time. The big man is Estonian Matthias Tass, and the guards are Tommy Kuhse and Logan Johnson. The key differences: These Gaels are much better defensively and start out the Big Dance in a better position (a No. 5 seed as opposed to the No. 10 in ’10). This is the best seeding in school history, but potentially having to go through UCLA in the second round is a tough break.
15. Houston: The Cougars have been incredibly consistent over the past five seasons, winning 140 games and losing just 29. Last year as a No. 2 seed they broke through to the Final Four, but this year’s fifth-seeded team faces some taller challenges. Injuries have reduced their depth and firepower, especially since Texas Tech transfer Kyler Edwards hasn’t shot the way he did as a Red Raider. Nevertheless, a Kelvin Sampson team will do what it does best, defending tenaciously and smashing the offensive glass in search of easy points. Houston will be a tough out, but it comes in with just a 2–4 record against other tournament teams.
16. Illinois: Not that there’s anything wrong with winning a share of the Big Ten regular-season title, but the talented and experienced parts have not added up to a commensurate whole with the Illini. They’re 5–4 in the last nine games, including a quarterfinal upset punchout from Indiana that helped get the Hoosiers in the tourney and hurt Illinois’s seeding. The Illini are a bit passive defensively, not disrupting opponents much. If Jacob Grandison returns after missing the last two games with a shoulder injury, that could be a big boost. Powerhouse center Kofi Cockburn and daring guard Andre Curbelo have to be stars.
17. Auburn: The Tigers have talent, and the Tigers have issues. They were unbeaten at home and unreliable away from home over the final six weeks—losing four times and nearly being beaten by SEC dregs Missouri and Georgia. They have the best big-man combination this side of Gonzaga in Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler, and the most mercurial guard combination on the planet in Wendell Green Jr. and K.D. Johnson. Yet the mercurial ones take more shots—Johnson and Green have combined to launch 257 shots the last 11 games, to Smith and Kessler’s combined 240. The guards are shooting 41.1% from two-point range and 21.8% (yuck) from three in that span, while the big men are shooting 55.1% from two and 41.5% from three. Bruce Pearl is a good coach, but if he can’t get his guards to shoot less and pass more, Auburn will be an early out.
18. Connecticut: The Huskies have a little Houston in them, defending (especially inside) and waylaying the offensive glass. Danny Hurley has some personnel: Adama Sanogo, the 6'9" sophomore from Mali, is adept at both offensive rebounding (3.7 per game) and blocking shots (2.0 per game); senior guards R.J. Cole and Tyrese Martin combine to average 29.4 points, 11.1 rebounds and six assists. UConn tends to play a lot of close, grinding games against quality competition, so this tournament should be to its liking—or at least in its comfort zone.
19. Boise State: The Broncos win the award for biggest injustice done by the committee, both in terms of seeing and location. Winning a very good Mountain West Conference twice (regular season and tournament) should have been worth better than a No. 8 seed opposite Memphis and a potential second-round game against Gonzaga. The Broncos’ résumé was hurt by November losses to Cal State–Bakersfield and UC Irvine, but they’re 24–3 from December on. Leon Rice’s team is excellent defensively, with a lot of length and sufficient athleticism. The glaring weakness: They are the worst foul-shooting team in the tournament at 65%.
20. Memphis: If you want one team that could blow up the bracket or lose its first game by 15, the ninth-seeded Tigers would be a fine choice. This is a talented group that has played far better over the last 14 games than the first 17, when Penny Hardaway’s lineup was a haphazard chemistry experiment and Emoni Bates was still playing. Good Memphis beat Houston twice; bad Memphis lost to East Carolina, UCF, Georgia and Mississippi. The Tigers are big and athletic and guard well but hurt themselves at the other end with spates of turnovers. Their first-round matchup with Boise will be a battle of contrasting tempos.
21. Texas: Creating gold out of the transfer portal is a tricky alchemy, and Chris Beard has had a fairly leaden touch with his first Longhorns team. The talented players brought in from all over have never shined as expected. Texas enters the Big Dance on a three-game losing streak and is just 4–9 on the year against tournament teams. Perhaps getting out of the Big 12 meat grinder will unshackle an offense plagued by poor shooting and questionable shot selection. Beard is a proven tourney coach, so a run isn’t out of the question. Just unexpected.
22. Creighton: If you want one man’s vote for Greg McDermott’s best coaching job of his career, this team is it. The Bluejays lost point guard Ryan Nembhard for the season Feb. 22 and still made the tournament with what is by far McDermott’s worst offensive team in 12 years on the job. Creighton has cranked up the defense and slowed the pace, with 7’1” sophomore center Ryan Kalkbrenner being named the Big East Defensive Player of the Year. (He’s averaged 17 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.4 blocks over the last 11 games.) San Diego State becomes the second unlucky No. 8 seed to draw a dangerous No. 9.
23. Wisconsin: There is a high degree of uncertainty with the Badgers. Are they the team the AP voters have ranked 14th or the team Ken Pomeroy ranks 34th? Are they the team that won a share of the Big Ten title, or the team that blew the outright title by losing to Nebraska at home and followed that with an opening loss in the league tourney to Michigan State? The Badgers have an A-list leading man in Johnny Davis, but his production dwindled a bit down the stretch and his supporting cast can be a bit spotty. The good news: Wisconsin is in what looks like the shakiest eight-team grouping in the entire bracket. First-round opponent Colgate is the only one of the eight that won its league tourney or even made the final.
24. Murray State: Who ended up with the very best record in men’s college basketball? These guys, who went 30–2. That included wins over NCAA teams Memphis and Chattanooga, plus a 5–0 record against prime Ohio Valley Conference competitors Belmont and Morehead State. Ja Morant’s 2019 sidekicks are all grown up—big man K.J. Williams averages 18.2 points and 8.6 rebounds, while guard Tevin Brown chips in 16.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3 assists. Given coach Matt McMahon’s success recruiting the South—both out of high school and the portal—he should be a hot commodity among the array of SEC schools with vacancies.
25. San Diego State: The No. 8 seed Aztecs took some lumps early this season against quality opponents while sorting out roles, and they remain ugly offensively, but look what they’ve done since January: The record is 11–3, and all three losses were by a single point to NCAA tournament teams away from home. Muscly Cal transfer Matt Bradley is the only Aztec in double figures at 17 points per game, but five other players who average between 23 and 31 minutes per game can take turns having a big night. Caveat emptor: SDSU underperformed as a trendy No. 6 seed last year, getting blown out in the first round by No. 11 Syracuse.
26. Loyola Chicago: This is the first-round upset visible from space, the No. 10 Ramblers over No. 7 Ohio State, with both 2021 and the past couple of weeks as evidence. Last year Loyola took down No. 1 seed Illinois in the second round, while the Buckeyes were beaten in the first round by No. 15 Oral Roberts. More recently: Ohio State is limping in with four losses in its last five games, while Loyola authoritatively won the Missouri Valley tournament. This Loyola team is different from the ’18 and ’21 tourney darlings in that it’s no longer coached by Porter Moser and doesn’t revolve around ground-bound center Cameron Krutwig. The new edition is led by rookie head coach Drew Valentine and fifth-year wing Lucas Williamson. The one constant: Sister Jean and her mojo.
27. Michigan State: It would be completely on-brand for Tom Izzo to make a run with a team that is 8–10 the last two months and has not won more than two games in a row since early January. But still: This is a difficult group to envision doing it, since these Spartans hardly perform any major basketball tasks extremely well. Nobody averages more than 11.4 points or 6.1 rebounds per game, which I suppose makes Michigan State hard to scout—no idea who will be the threat on a given night—but also hints at the inconsistency of the entire roster. The Spartans are just a bunch of guys in fabled uniforms, hoping that the Big Ten wars toughened them enough to make something memorable out of what has been a forgettable season.
28. North Carolina: Other than one epic night in Durham, this season has been devoid of customary Carolina-level glory. Even the momentum of the Great Duke Upset followed by a 20-point beatdown of Virginia was halted when the Tar Heels were routed by Virginia Tech. There are four Heels capable of being a hero, led by mauler big man Armando Bacot, who enters the tournament as the Player Most Likely to Be Involved In a Replay Review. But they don’t guard well, and when things go poorly they tend to snowball. Seven of their 10 losses are by 13 points or more. First-year coach Hubert Davis helped himself with the UNC faithful by ruining Coach K’s Cameron Indoor sendoff, but what happens in this tournament could matter more.
29. Virginia Tech: Are the Hokies really onto something after their stunning ACC tourney triumph? Or are they this year’s Georgetown, destined to flop after a fluke weekend? There is more substance to this team than the Hoyas of 2021, so don’t expect a first-round blowout at the hands of Texas. Mike Young has more than validated his hiring from Wofford in ’19, running a crisp offense while going 20–13 the past two seasons in the ACC. This team has won 13 of its last 15, riding hot perimeter shooting—one of the best methods for winning games in March. Can Hunter Cattoor possibly sustain the 31-point magic he dropped on Duke?
30. San Francisco: The Dons are back! A program that had some great teams in the 1950s (Bill Russell) and ’70s (Bill Cartwright) has made its first Big Dance in 20 years. Todd Golden is a rising-star coach who has a brassy guard tandem in Jamaree Bouyea (16.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4 assists, 1.8 steals) and Khalil Shabazz (14 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.8 steals). But the key to tourney longevity could be the status of big man Yauhen Massalski’s knee. He hurt it in the West Coast Conference tourney and did not play in the semifinals against Gonzaga. Golden said Massalski will be ready for the Big Dance, but let’s wait and see.
31. Indiana: The Hoosiers got on a roll in the Big Ten tourney with clutch wins over Michigan and Illinois to squeak into the field; why stop there? The Trayce Jackson-Davis matchup with Wyoming’s Graham Ike in Dayton will be a juicy one, but the Hoosiers need sustained support from guard Xavier Johnson and, well, any other perimeter player. This Indiana team hasn’t won a single notable game outside its home state, but Dayton is only about 45 minutes east of the border. Maybe the mojo can travel that far. If it does, you can book the Hoosiers on a long commute to the West Coast for a tough matchup against Saint Mary’s.
32. Colorado State: The Rams were blessed with a No. 6 seed, but like the rest of the Mountain West quartet of tourney entrants, they drew a tough matchup. The short Rams must contend with Michigan monster Hunter Dickinson, which means 6'10", 260-pound sophomore backup center James Moors likely must play the most important minutes of his young career. CSU’s attack revolves around the intriguing David Roddy, who at 6'6" and 255 pounds is built like a blocking tight end. But Roddy has game (19.4 points, 7.6 rebounds), and point guard Isaiah Stevens is a fearless table setter. Coach Niko Medved, while happy to stay in Fort Collins, can coach at any level.
33. USC: Unlike last year’s team that rolled into a regional final before being stopped by Gonzaga, these Trojans have just kind of existed. Aside from two losses to Stanford, they’ve won the games they were supposed to win. Aside from a February win over UCLA, they’ve lost the games they were supposed to lose. With a No. 7 seed, that should mean USC beats Miami before being bounced in the round of 32—but there are some intriguing parts to this team that could present a second-round challenge to Auburn. Long forward Drew Peterson has flashed some Franz Wagner game; guard Boogie Ellis is an explosive scorer when the threes are falling; big man Isaiah Mobley, while not as good as his younger brother Evan, is an interior presence.
34. Seton Hall: Kevin Willard has done a fine job cobbling together a tournament team that sustained a major injury and lacks the ability to shoot. The Pirates rank 312th nationally in two-point field goal percentage and 194th in three-point accuracy—but what they lack in art, they compensate for in heart. They will defend tenaciously with an array of disruptive 6'6" players who can guard multiple positions. Senior Jared Rhoden is the bellwether: He’s averaged 18.6 points in Seton Hall’s nine victories in February and March and just 9.7 in its three losses.
35. Michigan: The Wolverines surprisingly bypassed Dayton and made the main bracket despite a most uneven résumé and a five-game suspension for coach Juwan Howard for the Infamous Handshake Melee in Madison. They haven’t won consecutive games since Feb. 8–10, and their 14 losses are the most of any team in the field. That said, 12 of those defeats were against teams who are in the tournament, and Michigan did post a lot of quality wins and does have a favorable interior matchup against Colorado State. After being one of the best defensive teams in the nation last year, this team is not as good at that end. Towering center Hunter Dickinson is the constant; the supporting cast tends to fluctuate around him.
36. Rutgers: What’s the best gift for an inartistic offensive team? Matchups with suspect defenses, naturally. The Scarlet Knights face Notre Dame (No. 84 nationally in defense) Wednesday and would then advance to play Alabama (No. 94). That gives Rutgers a fighting chance to win NCAA tournament games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history. The Knights have an ironclad starting five and not much depth, but the trio of Ron Harper Jr., Paul Mulcahy and Geo Baker all are capable of big games and big shots at key times. And center Clifford Omoruyi is a candidate to supply a couple of devastating dunks.
37. Alabama: The No. 6 seed Crimson Tide played the toughest schedule in the country, according to Ken Pomeroy. They can hope that the seasoning gained from a gantlet that included Gonzaga, Baylor, Houston, Kentucky twice, Auburn twice and Tennessee will make a difference. But Bama’s current three-game losing streak came against none of those teams, and only one that made the Big Dance (LSU). Alabama is a subpar defensive team that fouls too much and shoots too many threes given its accuracy (30.5%). If the guards get hot, maybe the Tide make a run. Or they could be one-and-done.
38. Ohio State: The Buckeyes are staggering into this thing, having lost four of their last five. But a couple of key injured players—forward Kyle Young and postman Zed Key—may be back by Friday, which would certainly help. Ultimately, star forward E.J. Liddell and freshman guard Malaki Branham have to carry the load offensively while everyone must play better on the defensive end. This is a markedly worse defensive team than even last year’s, which was shocked in the first round by Oral Roberts because the Buckeyes couldn’t stop Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor. Despite the No. 7 seed, Ohio State is a deserving underdog to No. 10 Loyola Chicago.
39. South Dakota State: Beware the mid-major that has forgotten how to lose—and that draws a vulnerable marquee opponent. The No. 13 seed Jackrabbits have won 21 straight, and while the Summit League is not a meat grinder it has done some damage in this event in years past (Oral Roberts last year, North Dakota State in 2014). Providence looms as a juicy target for South Dakota State, which can blaze away offensively—the Jacks lead the nation in three-point accuracy, hitting 44.2%. But they also have a capable interior scorer in forward Douglas Wilson, who leads the team in scoring at 16.5 points per game. The defense is suspect, though, which is where SDSU could have problems matching up.
40. Providence: This is a major lightning-rod team—good record, bad metrics. The Friars are 25–5 and won the Big East, which is how you get a No. 4 seed. But a succession of close victories followed by an utter bludgeoning from Creighton in Madison Square Garden last week is how you attract so many doubters (like me) expecting a first-round loss to South Dakota State. They’re 11–2 in games decided by five points or fewer, which should be a strength under tournament pressure, but there is also a belief that Providence has at times been more lucky than good. (KenPom rates it the luckiest of all 358 Division I teams this season.)
41. LSU: It’s been a nice, quiet walk-up to the Dance for the Tigers—other than receiving a notice of allegations last week and having their coach fired less than 30 hours before the bracket was revealed. Will Wade is gone, but LSU has done this drill without him before, having reached the Sweet 16 in 2019 when he was suspended after the “strong-a-- offer” wiretap revelation. This time the interim coach is Kevin Nickelberry, who at least has extensive head-coaching experience at Hampton and Howard. He’s leading a talented and athletic team that defends at a high level but can be dysfunctional offensively. The x-factor is point guard Xavier Pinson, who makes a roughly equal amount of good and bad plays.
42. Davidson: Bob McKillop doesn’t have Steph Curry, but he does have a highly skilled team that drew the same seeding (a No. 10) as the one Curry led to the regional final in 2008. The Wildcats have four double-digit scorers who have combined to make 246 three-pointers, stretching the floor and opening passing and driving lanes. The most intriguing player is 6'7" Korean Hyunjung Lee, a junior who does just about everything well. Davidson is, as usual, not a great defensive team, which makes it all the more imperative to make shots. Late-game stops can be an issue—five of six losses are by seven points or fewer.
43. TCU: Hiring Jamie Dixon continues to pay dividends (as Pittsburgh continues to wither without him). The Horned Frogs are in their second Big Dance in the last four, something it last accomplished in 1968–71. This TCU team follows a familiar Dixon script, relying on defense and offensive rebounding and trying to cobble together enough scoring. One familiar name for college hoops fans of a certain age: TCU forward Chuck O’Bannon Jr., son of the former standout on UCLA’s last national championship team in ’95. He’s one of four transfers in the starting lineup.
44. Miami: The Hurricanes made the tournament between Dec. 1 and Jan. 26, going 11–2 and notching their only three wins of the season against teams that are in the bracket (Duke, North Carolina, Virginia Tech). Since then? Not much to move the needle. The Canes ride or die with a perimeter-oriented starting five that all play between 30 and 34 minutes and average between 8.6 and 17.6 points per game. They take care of the ball but don’t defend very well, lacking length and bulk on the inside. The tournament is always better with Jim Larrañaga in it, and this is his first appearance since 2018.
45. UAB: Say hello to Jordan “Jelly” Walker, the premier gunner in the Big Dance. The New Yorker by way of Tulane has attempted more three-pointers than any other player in the bracket (283) and has made more as well (115). His 40-point game in triple overtime saved the Blazers in the Conference USA tourney semifinals, and he had a 42-point game in February (both against poor Middle Tennessee). Andy Kennedy’s Blazers are an old bunch, with nobody younger than 21 in the primary rotation. Will that maturity help against Houston? C-USA teams have a history of pulling upsets in the tourney (North Texas last year, Marshall in 2018, Middle in ’16 and ’17, UAB in ’15).
46. Vermont: Another mid-major that has forgotten how to lose. The Catamounts have lost just once since Dec. 7, by a single point at Hartford in overtime Feb. 14. They left a trail of destruction in the America East tournament with the closest margin of victory being 32 points. John Becker’s team is led by a couple of big-time seniors in guard Ben Shungu (16.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists) and forward Ryan Davis (17.2 points, 5.7 rebounds). Vermont is a quintessential mid-major threat: unlikely to beat itself with bad shots and turnovers, diligent on the defensive glass, possessing an abundance of senior-class poise. The bad news: The Catamounts drew uber-athletic Arkansas.
47. Notre Dame: Mike Brey white-knuckled his senior class into its first NCAA tournament, surviving a late loss to Florida State and an early ACC tourney ouster against eventual champion Virginia Tech to grab a play-in spot in Dayton. The Fighting Irish have just four victories over teams in the field, but a big one in December resonated: beating Kentucky by two points. As one might expect from a team that is not abundantly athletic, Notre Dame can struggle defensively and doesn’t do much offensive rebounding. But the Irish don’t make many turnovers and do have stellar freshman guard Blake Wesley—a future pro, whether it’s this year or in the future.
48. Wyoming: The Cowboys’ comeback from consecutive 24-loss seasons in 2019 and ’20 is complete, thanks to the work of excellent second-year coach Jeff Linder. This team revolves around the all-court savvy of point forward Hunter Maldonado (18.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 6.4 assists) and the interior power of Graham Ike (19.6 points, 9.6 rebounds). Three-point shooting is subpar, which is a problem because the Cowboys shoot a lot of them—42% of all field goal attempts). Wyoming got to 21–3 by winning a ton of close games but finished 4–5. That could be the law of averages, or it could be that the Pokes lacked the bodies to sustain what they started in a rugged Mountain West.
49. Colgate: Put the Red Raiders on the list of mid-majors who thoroughly dominated their league and could be a tough out. After playing nine of their first 14 games on the road and losing most of them, they’ve won 19 of their last 20 games. Colgate rolled through the Patriot League to earn its third consecutive berth with a pretty offense and a defense that will be the weakness Wisconsin attacks. Lessons learned from pushing Tennessee in 2019 and Arkansas in the first round last year could be valuable this time around. The Badgers might be a better matchup. Dismiss Team Toothpaste at your peril.
50. Marquette: Shaka Smart did quick work reinvigorating the program in his first season, making some savvy pickups in the transfer portal and cranking up the tempo. That got the Eagles off to a 15–6 start, and then the Big East grind caught up. Marquette went 4–6 over its last 10 and hasn’t won consecutive games since January. If they’re going to win games in this tournament, the Golden Eagles need Justin Lewis and Darryl Morsell to score and point guard Tyler Kolek to distribute on a high level. And for the defense to create the customary Shaka havoc.
51. Iowa State: It was a long time ago when the Cyclones started 12–0 and beat Memphis, Creighton and Iowa—but those wins counted on Selection Sunday, getting them in with a No. 11 seed. Iowa State was just 3–9 in Big 12 play against teams that made the field, and the Clones struggled badly to score (36 points against Oklahoma State on March 2; 41 against Texas Tech on March 10). That makes LSU’s athletic defense a bad matchup, and makes that game a leading contender to be the ultimate rock fight of the first round. Perhaps getting out of the brutal Big 12 will set T.J. Otzelberger’s team free?
52. New Mexico State: Chris Jans has won 20 games in each of his five full seasons as a head coach (the Aggies played only 20 games last year). He’s now earned his third No. 12 seed at NMSU, with some slight alterations to his customary formula: fewer players in the rotation and fewer transfers in the starting lineup. The one transfer who does start is leading scorer Teddy Allen, continuing a nomadic college journey by averaging 19.3 points and 6.8 rebounds five seasons after playing in the NCAA tournament for West Virginia. New Mexico State will not be averse to grinding it out with Connecticut but must be better than usual protecting the ball and making free throws to spring an upset.
53. Chattanooga: The Mocs had the full mid-major experience, winning the Southern Conference with a 14–4 league record but having nothing guaranteed going into the league tourney. Then March Magic struck—trailing Furman by two in the final seconds, David Jean-Baptiste rushed the ball upcourt and hit a contested shot from, oh, 30 feet to beat the buzzer and deliver the bid. The matchup with Illinois is daunting, but Chattanooga does have one weapon many mid-majors lack: a powerful post presence. Get reacquainted with Silvio De Sousa, the one-time Kansas player whose recruitment is part of the investigation of the Jayhawks, and who earned a significant suspension in 2020 for escalating a brawl against Kansas State. At 6'9" and 250 pounds, De Sousa gives Chattanooga a chance against Kofi Cockburn.
54. Richmond: The second of two bid stealers from the commonwealth of Virginia, along with ACC champion Virginia Tech. Richmond wasn’t even on bubble radar before winning four games in four days, the last two by a total of six points, and bumping out fellow Atlantic 10 team Dayton. Undersized senior guard Jacob Gilyard is capable of going off (see his 32 in the A-10 title game), with frontcourt players Grant Golden and Tyler Burton providing firepower as well. This is Richmond’s first bid since 2011, reinforcing longtime coach Chris Mooney. Now the defensively mediocre Spiders have to figure out how to slow red-hot Iowa.
55. Akron: John Groce might not have been great at Illinois, but he’s done some stuff in the MAC. He took Ohio to the 2010 and ’12 NCAA tournaments and won games both times as a big underdog. Now he’s back with the Zips, who knocked off top seeds Toledo and Kent State to win the MAC tournament. UCLA had better be ready for an opponent that made 27 of 59 three-pointers in that tourney, with three different leading scorers. Dangerous underdog from a decent league.
56. Montana State: This tournament is lacking Wayne Tinkle, but we do have Danny Sprinkle. The coach of the Bobcats has delivered their first NCAA bid since 1996, just the fourth in program history. Montana State (27–7) by no means fluked its way here, winning the Big Sky Conference by two games, then winning a tight semifinal against Weber State and a stroll in the title game over Northern Colorado. This is a balanced team led by a quintessential mid-major point guard in 5'8" Xavier Bishop (13.9 points, 4.3 assists). The Bobcats’ success getting to the foul line often in the Big Sky will run into a challenge against the brick wall that is Texas Tech.
57. Saint Peter’s: There are some interesting elements to the MAAC tournament champions: their nickname is the Peacocks; their home gym in Jersey City is called Run Baby Run Arena; they are coached by former Seton Hall Star Shaheen Holloway, who led the Pirates to the 2000 Sweet 16; and they are the third-worst offensive team in this tournament per Ken Pomeroy (ranked No. 259). However, the Peacocks are on a seven-game winning streak, so they can display their feathers and strut proudly into a first-round elimination at the hands of Kentucky.
58. Longwood: Griff Aldrich is the most unique coach in the tournament. He was making big money as a lawyer turned oil company executive in Houston, but he always wanted to be a basketball coach. After starting a Christian-based AAU program, he called former college teammate Ryan Odom and asked for a job on his staff at UMBC. One thing led to another, and now the 47-year-old Aldrich has taken Longwood to the program’s first NCAA tournament in his fourth season on the job. The Lancers have won eight straight and 19 of their last 20, but that was in the Big South and the next opponent is from the Bigger South, the SEC. That’s Tennessee.
59. Yale: The Bulldogs, like the rest of the Ivy League, did not play last season. They began this season with a challenging schedule and paid the price, losing eight of their first 14, but that was good seasoning for the Ivy slate. Yale pulled out the rubber match against top-seed Princeton 66–64 to earn the bid, capping a run of seven straight games decided by single digits. If Yale can keep it close against Purdue, there is no doubt where the pressure will lie. But there is considerable doubt how a team with nobody in the rotation taller than 6'8" or heavier than 220 pounds is going to deal with 7'4", 295-pound Zach Edey.
60. Jacksonville State: Nobody got to the Big Dance in a more bizarre fashion than the Gamecocks. They won the Atlantic Sun regular season but lost to Jacksonville in the tourney semifinals, then backed into the bid via bureaucratic red tape. Jacksonville was beaten by Bellarmine in the tourney final, but the Knights were ineligible for the NCAA tournament as a transitioning Division II program. That defaulted the bid to the regular-season champs, and here Jax State is. This is the fourth time coach Ray Harper has taken a team to the NCAAs, twice here and twice at Western Kentucky. His teams have made a decent showing each time, despite never being seeded higher than 15th.
61. Delaware: The Blue Hens wobbled into the CAA tournament on a three-game losing streak, then beat two of those teams (top seeds Towson and UNC Wilmington) to earn the autobid. Coach Martin Ingelsby, who was an assistant at Notre Dame for onetime Delaware coach Mike Brey, earns his first bid in six years on the job. The Blue Hens have a familiar name in the backcourt: Jameer Nelson Jr., son of the Saint Joseph’s star who memorably led the Hawks to a regional final in 2004. Delaware is a solid offensive team but doesn’t defend the three-point line well, which should be fatal against Villanova’s proficient shooters.
62. Wright State: Scott Nagy has had better teams that didn’t make the NCAA tournament, so this might be karma paying him back for some Horizon League tourney heartache. The Raiders rallied from 17 down in the second half to beat Northern Kentucky for the bid, a year after blowing a 24-point lead in the league quarterfinals. Nagy has steadily developed this team’s trio of leaders: leading scorer Tanner Holden (19.8 points, 7.1 rebounds), big man Grant Basile (18.5 points, 8.6 rebounds) and point guard Trey Calvin (14.3 points, 3.3 assists). The Raiders are eternally skilled and solid, but athletic deficiencies make this a shaky defensive team.
63. Norfolk State: The best team during the MEAC regular season was the best team in the tournament as well, rolling easily through three games to capture the school’s second consecutive bid. This year’s team is better than the group that served as cannon fodder for Gonzaga last March, with a standout in senior guard Joe Bryant Jr. (16.8 points, 5.1 rebounds) and a solid supporting cast. But a team with a high turnover rate could be quickly overwhelmed by the defensive pressure of Baylor.
64. Cal State–Fullerton: The Big West tends to be a revolving door at the top, and it was the Titans’ turn to walk through it for just the second time in the last 14 seasons. But disregard the league champ at your peril—UC Santa Barbara lost a first-round heartbreaker last year to Creighton, and UC Irvine pulled an upset of Kansas State in 2019. Fullerton will be tasked with keeping Duke out of transition and finding someone to limit Paolo Banchero.
65. Georgia State: The committee dealt some disrespect to the Sun Belt, giving its champion a No. 16 seed for the first time since 2013. The Panthers weren’t the best team in the league in the regular season but did finish on a seven-game winning streak that now stands at 10. That said, a team that struggles offensively is not likely to match points with first-round opponent Gonzaga. At least the Panthers will get to spend some time in Portland.
66. Bryant: Few No. 16 seeds arrive with the fanfare of Bryant, which has the nation’s leading scorer in Peter Kiss and the distinction of having been party to a massive brawl in the Northeast Conference championship game. (This was mostly a fan thing, some of which might have been instigated by Kiss blowing kisses at the crowd while scoring 34 points in a blowout of Wagner.) We will definitely need a Kiss Cam for the Bulldogs’ play-in game against Wright State.
67. Texas Southern: It has not been lost on the good people in Baton Rouge that Johnny Jones now has taken the Tigers to consecutive NCAA tournaments after failing to get LSU there when Ben Simmons was in school. Texas Southern is good at one thing offensively, and that’s rebounding its own misses. It is more stout on the defensive end, which might be enough to win the Battle of Southeast Texas in Dayton.
68. Texas A&M–Corpus Christi: At No. 243 in the Pomeroy ratings, the Islanders are the lowest-rated team in the field by 55 spots. But, hey, they’re in! Steve Lutz has done remarkable work in his first year at a school that was 5–19 last season and hadn’t had a winning record since 2017. The Islanders are dancing for the first time since ’07, so let the party rage on Padre Island for as long as it lasts (probably 40 minutes).
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