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Quick Takes: Region by Region picks

QuickTakesLet’s begin here: use the following information at our own risk.  With that caveat complete, here are my Quick Takes on each Region for the 2022 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament …

WEST REGION

Favorite: Gonzaga. The Bulldogs enter as the No. 1 overall seed and rank first in three predictive metrics (Ken Pom, BPI, Sagarin).  Last year’s National Runner-Up has a great chance to return to the Final Four.
Dark Horse: Alabama.  Lest we forget that prior to SEC play, the Crimson Tide owned victories over Gonzaga, Baylor and Houston, when the Cougars were at full strength.  They have been inconsistent since January, but a resurgent hot streak isn’t out of the equation.
Best Chance(s) for an Upset: 
Vermont – The Catamounts control tempo and rank 5th nationally in Field Goal percentage.
New Mexico State – The Aggies beat Davidson and have a star in Teddy Allen.
Best Storyline: Duke. This is Coach K’s final NCAA Tournament, and he could potentially meet up with another Hall of Fame coach, Tom Izzo, in Round 2.
Important Questions:
How will Texas Tech be officiated?  Historically, officials tend to call tighter games in the NCAA Tournament.  The Red Raiders feast off of their ability to clog the lane, jam cutters and body-up. Tight whistles are something to consider, because TTU isn’t a great offensive team.
Which Duke team shows up?  At their best, the Blue Devils are capable of a Final Four run – or better.  Gonzaga and Kentucky will be on many people’s short lists for New Orleans, and Duke beat both squads on neutral courts in November.  This is also a team that often lacked focus and urgency during the ACC season.  If inspired and motivated, we could have quite a rematch in the Elite 8.
Teams you will see in San Francisco (Sweet 16): Gonzaga, Arkansas, Texas Tech, Duke.  Both Arkansas and Connecticut better be ready against Vermont and New Mexico State, but I like Arkansas’ ability to get to the free thrown line against the Catamounts.
Quick Picks – Round 1: Boise State, Connecticut, Alabama, Michigan State
Sweet 16: Gonzaga over Arkansas (although I’m tempted by the Razorbacks); Duke over Texas Tech.  In full disclosure, I originally picked TTU, but something tells me the Blue Devils show up and show out when the bright lights arrive.
Winner: Gonzaga. This year’s Zags are not as dominant as last year’s group, so I could certainly see them falling in the Round of 16 or Elite 8.  But there are too many unknowns with regard to whom those actual opponents might be.


SOUTH REGION

Favorite: Arizona. The Wildcats rank among the Top 20 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, per KenPom.  Those are typical traits of a championship team.
Dark Horse: Ohio State. The Buckeyes have been hurt by a porous defense, which means OSU could exit quickly, and Loyola-Chicago is an opening-round nightmare. That noted, E.J. Liddell is a next-level star capable of carrying his team to a second-weekend stay.  The Buckeyes beat Duke in November.
Best Chance(s) for an Upset: 
UAB – The Blazers have a potential Cinderella star in Jordan “Jelly” Walker; he makes 40 percent of his three-point attempts and nearly 90 percent of his free throws – a dynamic playmaker.
Michigan – The Wolverines are consistently inconsistent; they are also capable of being very good for stretches and/or individual games.  If they latch onto one of those stretches, upsetting Colorado State and giving Tennessee a battle are not out of the question.
Chattanooga – Southern Conference teams have a history in the NCAA Tournament. Both Malachi Smith and David Jean-Baptiste can create problems. Defense isn’t necessarily a strong-point, though.
Best Storyline: Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd.  In his first season in Tucson, Lloyd has the Wildcats tabbed as one of the favorites to win a national championship.
Important Question(s):
How healthy is Illinois’ Jacob Grandison?  Often under-the-radar for a team that features Kofi Cockburn, Grandison knocks down 40 percent of his three-point attempts and gives the Illini another shooter to space the floor when opponents collapse the interior.  He’s missed the past two games.
How healthy is Arizona’s Kerr Kriisa?  The Wildcats may not need Kriisa during their opening weekend, but they might well need him to reach New Orleans.  It’s unlikely his ankle returns to 100 percent in the next three weeks, but will it improve enough for him to be a contributing factor?
Teams you will see in San Antonio (Sweet 16): Arizona, Illinois, Tennessee, Villanova.  Chattanooga is a trendy upset pick, but I think Illinois will have a sense of urgency after last year’s second-round exit.  Tennessee has a Final Four roster, and counting out Villanova this time of year is risky.
Quick Picks – Round 1: TCU, UAB, Colorado State, Loyola-Chicago
Sweet 16: Arizona over Illinois (watch Kriisa’s status); Tennessee over Villanova.  While ‘Nova got the better of Tennessee in November, the Volunteers are a different team now and their massive front line will be an issue for the Wildcats.  Arizona toppled Illinois in Champaign, but it was a close game.
Winner: Arizona. The Wildcats dropped a close decision to Tennessee in Knoxville.  On a neutral court in San Antonio, the Cats earn a trip to New Orleans.


MIDWEST REGION

Favorite: Kansas. It may not be a vintage Jayhawks team, but KU once again won both the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles – and it was arguably the nation’s toughest conference top to bottom.
Dark Horse: LSU.  There’s both plenty of talent and plenty of turmoil in Baton Rouge these days – with head coach Will Wade removed.  Could that be a spark?  The Tigers are also a different team with Xavier Pinson back in the lineup.
Best Chance(s) for an Upset: 
South Dakota State – The Jackrabbits lead the nation in three-point shooting percentage (44.9 percent), tallying almost 10 made treys a game; they also ranked second in overall FG percentage.
Iowa State – Lost in the shuffle on Selection Sunday are the under-seeded Cyclones who posted nine Quadrant 1 wins – including Texas Tech and Iowa.
Colgate – The Raiders rank second (only to South Dakota State) in three-pointers made per game.  Against a Wisconsin team that can struggle to score, if the Raiders catch fire things could get interesting. 
Best Storyline:
Providence. The Friars put together a remarkable season, and while many will pick against them due to metrical analytics, this team has shown a knack for winning close games – and many NCAA games are close.  A deep run would be really cool for Ed Cooley and Company.
Important Questions:
Is this Iowa’s year?  The Hawkeyes have the scoring punch and talent to reach New Orleans.  We’ve also seen talented Iowa teams bow out too early.  Maybe it’s Keegan Murray’s time to shine and carry his team to the Final Four.  Defense is a major question mark.
How will Auburn’s backcourt perform?  Jabari Smith might be the best all-around player in college hoops – and he can carry the Tigers, at least for a while.  To reach New Orleans, though, the Tigers need improved play and decision-making from their backcourt.  If that happens, they can reclaim a spot among the nation’s elite teams.
Teams you will see in Chicago (Sweet 16): Kansas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Auburn.  Honestly, the Badgers might be the biggest risk here – as Johnny Davis hasn’t been as dominant in recent games – and Wisky often struggles to make perimeter shots.  The question is … how much do you believe in LSU or Iowa State?
Quick Picks – Round 1: Creighton, South Dakota State, LSU, USC
Sweet 16: Kansas over Iowa.  Auburn over Wisconsin.  A potential Sweet 16 affair between the Jayhawks and Hawkeyes could be one for the ages – if both teams make it to the United Center.   Auburn has a relatively clear path to the Elite 8.
Winner: Kansas. Ultimately, KU has the better credentials against high-end competition.


EAST REGION

Favorite: Baylor. The reigning NCAA champions are back, trying to reach consecutive Final Fours. Injuries are a notable question mark; otherwise we would be further discussing the Bears’ chances to repeat.
Dark Horse: Texas. It’s been a disappointing year for Chris Beard and the Longhorns – at least based on preseason expectations – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t enough talent on the roster for a lengthy stay.  At times, Texas has looked the part of an Elite 8 team.  Can they find some offensive consistency?
Best Chance(s) for an Upset: 
Indiana – The Hoosiers’ defense carried them past Wyoming in the First Four, and IU is arguably playing at a level above its allotted 12 seed.  Saint Mary’s is talented and experienced, but it would not be shocking to see the confident Hoosiers advance to play UCLA.
San Francisco – Murray State has had a remarkable season, but San Francisco is no slouch and the Dons match-up favorably against the Racers.
Virginia Tech – Few teams enter the bracket on a higher note than the Hokies, who rampaged through the ACC field in Brooklyn to secure a bid.  Texas has struggled to score at times, so there’s no reason to think VT can’t find a path into the Round of 32.
Best Storyline:
Murray State. Lost in a season dominated by Coach K’s farewell tour, Gonzaga’s continued dominance and the emergence of Arizona, Murray compiled a 27-2 record (Division 1) and completed a perfect 18-0 run through the Ohio Valley.  The potential for a storybook clash with Kentucky should have Indianapolis buzzing.
Important Questions:
Can Purdue find a way to fine-tune its defense?  The Boilermakers rank in the Top 15 nationally in points scored per game (79.8).  They also rank 187th in points allowed (68.6).  When it comes time for Purdue to get a few stops, will they?  They couldn’t against Iowa at the Big Ten tournament, and the Boilers have struggled to shut down better opponents most of the season.
Will we see the “Kansas” version of Kentucky again?  We haven’t yet, but it’s scary how good UK can be when everything clicks.  Defense and rebounding are consistently strong for the Wildcats.  If they find an offensive rhythm, watch out.
Teams you will see in Philadelphia (Sweet 16): Baylor, UCLA, Purdue, Kentucky.  Texas, Indiana and North Carolina are name-brands that could surprise, but this region feels chalky – setting up some heavyweight battles.
Quick Picks – Round 1: North Carolina, Indiana, Texas, San Francisco
Sweet 16: UCLA over Baylor and Kentucky over Purdue.  One has to wonder about Baylor’s depth and the impact it could have against high-level opponents.  At its best, Kentucky might be the most potent all-around team in the bracket.  UK shot it poorly against Tennessee in the SEC semifinals.  Assuming they don’t build another brick wall in Philadelphia, the Cats have the size and athleticism to knock out Purdue.
Winner: Kentucky.  From a pure talent perspective, John Calipari has had stronger teams.  That said, this team is finally together and something tells me they are ready to find a groove.  If they do, a trip to New Orleans is very possible.

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