The 2022 NCAA tournament bracket is finally here, so by now, you're either meticulously researching those difficult matchups between No. 8 and No. 9 seeds, or you're busy filling out your second or third (or fourth...or fifth...) bracket in the official Bracket Challenge Game.
NCAA.com is here to help, offering one team from each seed line that you should at least consider picking in your bracket, from national championship frontrunners to potential Cinderella candidates.
Here's the catch: Given the varying difficulty in first-round matchups and the different expected win totals for teams on each seed line, we're setting the bar at different levels, depending on the seed. For No. 1 through No. 4 seeds, I picked one team from each seed line that could potentially win the national championship. For No. 5 through No. 8 seeds, I picked one team that could potentially make the Final Four. For No. 9 through No. 12 seeds, I picked a team that could make a Sweet 16 run. And for No. 13 through No. 16 seeds, I picked the team that's most likely to win its first-round matchup.
Click here to see predictions for every first-round matchup, based on the data for each team.
Advanced stats are courtesy of kenpom.com and barttorvik.com.
No. 1 seeds
My pick: Gonzaga
Let's start with this: Two of the four No. 1 seeds aren't healthy, or at least they weren't the last time we saw them. Baylor lost forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua for the season and guard LJ Cryer's status has been murky, while Arizona point guard Kerr Kriisa suffered an ankle injury against Stanford in the Pac-12 tournament and the program is optimistic he'll return in the NCAA tournament. Since Tchamwa Tchatchoua's injury, the Bears are 6-2, including the game against Texas where he suffered the injury in the opening minutes, and Arizona's record is an impressive 31-3, leaving few nits to pick when the Wildcats are at full strength.
Remember what happened to Virginia when the Cavaliers weren't completely healthy in 2018? That's not to suggest Arizona or Baylor will be exiting in the first round this year, but it could be a big ask for a team with a limited rotation to win the national championship. (Now, if you're looking for the marginal benefit in your Bracket Challenge Game entry, perhaps there's value in picking Arizona or Baylor to win it all if you believe they'll be less popular national champion picks.)
Gonzaga has played in two of the last four national championship games and it has made the Sweet 16 in each of the last six NCAA tournaments, so ignore any notion that Gonzaga's location, size of its undergraduate body or conference affiliation inherently prevents it from winning a national championship. It dominated No. 3 seed Texas Tech, No. 4 seed UCLA and No. 6 seed Texas in the regular season, while Duke and Alabama are the teams responsible for two of Gonzaga's three losses. By the way, Duke and Texas Tech are both in Gonzaga's region, setting up for a potential Elite Eight matchup for the Zags, which are the clear-cut No. 1 team on kenpom.com, with a margin of 5.76 points per 100 possessions better than No. 2 Arizona. For reference, that same margin takes you from No. 3 Kentucky to No. 14 Purdue on the advanced analytics site.
Gonzaga checks off so many boxes: Veteran guards (Andrew Nembhard and Rasir Bolton), an elite prospect (Chet Holmgren) and a coach and roster with extensive NCAA tournament experience.
TALKING TITLES: 7 schools that could become the next first-time national champion
No. 2 seeds
My pick: Kentucky
Kentucky's efficiency margin — in other words, how many more points it typically scores compared to its opponents, adjusted for tempo, opponent and game location — ranks No. 3 nationally on kenpom.com, behind only No. 1 seeds Gonzaga and Arizona, so the Wildcats deserve to be on the short list of the strongest national title contenders, especially when considering the circumstances of several of their losses.
Three of Kentucky's seven losses have come when at least one of its usual starting guards Sahvir Wheeler or TyTy Washington were forced to leave the game due to injury.
The Wildcats are led by national player of the year candidate Oscar Tshiebwe, who's putting up rebounding numbers (15.2 per game, the most nationally) that are fitting of an era decades ago. He's a walking double-double who averages 17 points per game, and the team's other four usual starters each average double figures in points per game.
While Kentucky will potentially face a challenging second-round matchup, regardless of the winner between No. 7 seed Murray State and No. 10 seed San Francisco, which are two top-30-caliber teams, the No. 3 seed in the Wildcats' region is a Purdue team whose defense ranks No. 100 nationally and the No. 6 seed is Texas, which enters the NCAA tournament on a three-game slide. The No. 1 seed is the aforementioned Baylor Bears, which have been playing well, but will not be at full strength again this season.
Sure, in a zero-sum sense, detractors might say Kentucky has "only" won one national championship despite all the talent in Lexington, but John Calipari has taken the 'Cats to four Final Fours in nine NCAA tournament appearances and that's as impressive of a rate as you'll find in the modern game.
No. 3 seeds
My pick: Tennessee
Remarkably, there's actually two very strong candidates on the No. 3 seed line to make a deep NCAA tournament run. Sure, No. 3 seeds average more than 1.8 wins in the NCAA tournament and 17 of them have made the Final Four since 1985, so their success isn't unheard of, but No. 3 seeds Tennessee and Texas Tech could be especially appealing for Bracket Challenge Game participants.
Using the advanced analytics site barttorvik.com, which allows users to sort team rankings by date, Texas Tech has the second-best efficiency numbers in the country since Jan. 1, behind only Gonzaga. Tennessee ranks No. 7.
Since Feb. 1, the Vols ranks third and the Red Raiders are fifth.
Tennessee is riding a seven-game winning streak, which includes an SEC tournament title, and the Volunteers have the guard play from SEC tournament MVP Kennedy Chandler, Santiago Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler to sustain a deep run in the NCAA tournament. They're elite defensively, with the third-most efficient defense, and have enough offense (No. 36) to have won twice as many games in which they scored in the 60s (eight) as they have games where they've been victorious while scoring in the 90s (four).
Back to Texas Tech, quickly. The Red Raiders have posted the best defensive efficiency in the country in coach Mark Adams' first season, after replacing Chris Beard, but their offensive efficiency ranking, No. 65, lags behind that of Tennessee. Since Dec. 1, Texas Tech has just one winning streak longer than three games, when it won four in a row in February, so there are more concerns about the Red Raiders' March sustainability compared to the Volunteers.
No. 4 seeds
My pick: UCLA
The four teams on the No. 4 seed line offer significant intrigue. There's the Big Ten tournament's No. 1 seed, Illinois. There's the Big East's regular-season champion, Providence. And there's an Arkansas team that went 14-1 in the heart of conference play, winning nine games in a row and later five.
But I'm going with UCLA, which finished second to Arizona in both the Pac-12's regular season standings and in the conference tournament. The Bruins rank No. 15 in offensive efficiency and No. 12 defensively, per kenpom.com, which placed them No. 8 in the country on Selection Sunday.
For a program that made the Final Four last season, returned every key player from that run, added more talent to its roster, started the season ranked No. 2 in the AP poll and then went out and won 25 games before Selection Sunday — for a program that has done all of that — is it possible UCLA is kind of, sort of, maybe...underrated?
UCLA's first, third and most recent of its seven losses came against now-No. 1 seeds Gonzaga or UCLA. No harm, no foul.
The Bruins have the wings — primarily Johnny Juzang, Jaime Jaquez and Jules Bernard — to potentially match up with No. 1 seed Baylor in a potential Sweet 16 meeting and they have two big bodies, Myles Johnson and Cody Riley, they could throw at Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe in a theoretical Elite Eight matchup. UCLA has three five-game winning streaks and a six-game winning streak this season and that's what it would take to get back to the national championship game for the first time since 2006.
The Bruins take care of the ball (a 13.4-percent turnover rate, fifth nationally), they shoot the 3-point ball better than average (35.1 percent) and they're productive on the offensive glass (a 32.0-percent offensive rebounding rate) and almost every rotation player has meaningful NCAA tournament experience.
No. 5 seeds
My pick: Iowa
Now that we're onto No. 5 seeds, remember the parameters I set. We're looking for teams that could potentially reach the Final Four. It's a pretty easy call if you watched any of the Big Ten tournament.
Big Ten tournament champion Iowa won four games in four days, with the first being a record-setting 112-76 win over Northwestern and the next three coming against eventual NCAA tournament teams. Sophomore forward Keegan Murray has the ability to be the best player on the floor in virtually any matchup the Hawkeyes could face in March Madness. He's the country's fourth-leading scorer at 23.6 points per game and he recently put up 32 points on 8-for-10 3-point shooting in a Big Ten semifinal win over Indiana. With his 3-point percentage now above 40 percent and a turnover rate that's just 6.9 percent, good for fifth nationally, he's one of the 10 most efficient offensive players in the country and he's surrounded by a bevy of other players who have above-average offensive ratings, including his twin brother Kris, who's also a 40-percent 3-point shooter.
Since Feb. 1, Iowa's efficiency margin ranks second in the country, behind only Gonzaga, per barttorvik.com.
No. 6 seeds
My pick: Alabama
The No. 6 seeds in the 2022 NCAA tournament can be viewed as being in precarious positions. LSU is operating under an interim head coach. Alabama and Texas are on three-game losing streaks. Colorado State faces No. 11 seed Michigan in the first round and the Wolverines are only 17-14, but they've throttled Purdue by 24, they beat Iowa and Ohio State on the road, and they knocked off San Diego State by 14. Their one-game ceiling is still considerable in a single-elimination tournament.
No. 6 seeds win 62.5 percent of the time against No. 11 seeds, or roughly 2.5 first-round games per year, so it wouldn't be a surprise if two No. 6 seeds were sent home in the first round.
Faced with this year's No. 6 seeds, I'll go with Alabama, simply because of the Crimson Tide's ceiling, with wins over Gonzaga and Baylor (No. 1 seeds), Tennessee (No. 3 seed), Arkansas (No. 4 seed) and Houston (No. 5 seed). Yet Alabama is only 19-13 on the season after dropping its last three games. Its offense ranks No. 14 nationally in efficiency, per kenpom.com, thanks to great 2-point shooting (56.3 percent) and offensive rebounding (a 35.5-percent rate). While the Crimson Tide struggles at shooting from deep, making just 30.8 percent, 48 percent of the team's shots are 3-pointers, meaning if Alabama does get hot, it's opponent is probably in trouble.
No. 7 seeds
My pick: Michigan State
Tom Izzo's Michigan State teams have earned a No. 7 seed three times before this season and those Spartans went to the Final Four in 2015 and the Elite Eight in 2003. For all the cliches about Izzo's teams — "January, February, Izzo," etc., etc. — his program has clearly proven its ability to make deeper NCAA tournament runs than expected, given its NCAA tournament seeding. He has also coached two No. 5 seeds to the Final Four and a No. 4 seed to the Elite Eight.
Granted, the No. 2 seed in Michigan State's region is Duke, whose coach, Mike Krzyzewski, owns an 12-3 all-time record against Izzo — although Michigan State has won two of the last three games in the series, including in the 2019 Elite Eight — but predictive metrics, such as those of kenpom.com, suggest Duke is the weakest No. 2 seed. The Blue Devils are ranked No. 12 on kenpom.com after losing to Virginia Tech by 15 points, following a home loss to North Carolina and some at-times-shaky ACC tournament wins over Syracuse and Miami.
Michigan State's play hasn't inspired a lot of sustained confidence since early January but fellow No. 7 seed Ohio State isn't much different, 30-2 Murray State has a challenging first-round matchup with San Francisco with Kentucky looming in a potential second-round matchup, and Southern California was 1-4 against Arizona and UCLA this season, so it has questions about just how good it can be on its best nights.
In Izzo I trust, if you're taking a big swing from the No. 7 seed line.
No. 8 seeds
My pick: North Carolina
Just five No. 8 seeds have made the Final Four, so this is clearly a big "what if?" but Butler played for the 2011 national title as a No. 8 seed, as Kentucky did three years later, so there are recent examples that prove it's possible.
While North Carolina may not have locked up an at-large berth until beating Duke on the road in its regular-season finale, the Tar Heels showed on that Saturday that the best version of themselves is pretty darn good. They averaged 1.25 points per offensive possession — the national average is roughly 1.03 — as stretch-four Brady Manek made half of his 10 3-point attempts, while guards RJ Davis and Caleb Love made two each, and forward Armando Bacot repeatedly scored efficiently, going 10-for-11 shooting. The Tar Heels have shot 36.2 percent from deep on the season and they rank second in defensive rebounding percentage, at nearly 80 percent, thanks to Bacot.
That win was part of a six-game winning streak, so the Tar Heels have provided recent evidence that they can string together enough wins to make a run, but their seed and region will likely require them to beat No. 1 seed Baylor if they're able to get past No. 9 seed Marquette in the first round.
Given Baylor's current roster situation and North Carolina's talent, at least on paper, the Tar Heels could have a window to the Sweet 16.
No. 9 seeds
My pick: Memphis
Yes, this pick clashes with my pick of Gonzaga as the No. 1 seed to consider picking to win the national championship, but for similar reasons referenced earlier, there's a good explanation. Dating back to Jan. 23, Memphis has won 12 of its 14 games, and during that stretch, the Tigers' efficiency numbers rank 10th nationally, per barttorvik.com, which puts them on a similar level as some No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the last two months or so.
Memphis swept Houston in the regular season, it ranks fifth in offensive rebounding rate (37.5 percent), it's an above-average shooting team that ranks 50th in offensive efficiency and 31st defensively, per kenpom.com. Freshman Jalen Duren, 6-foot-11, is a big-time athlete, and DeAndre Williams, Lester Quinones and Landers Nolley II average between nine and 11 points per game as veteran scoring threats.
Memphis didn't play like an NCAA tournament team for the entire season, but it's now dancing for the first time in the Penny Hardaway era and the Tigers are arguably the strongest No. 9 seed, based on how they've played in the last month or two.
No. 10 seeds
My pick: Loyola Chicago
Twenty-three No. 10 seeds have advanced to the Sweet 16 since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams, so it happens roughly twice every three NCAA tournaments, on average. It's not easy to eliminate a No. 2 seed from your bracket before the first weekend is over, but it might happen more often than you realize.
This year's batch of No. 10 seeds actually offers some pretty strong candidates in San Francisco (No. 21 on kenpom.com), Loyola Chicago (No. 24) and Davidson (No. 41). The first two schools mentioned are actually projected to win their respective first-round matchups, according to kenpom.com.
I'll go with the Ramblers and while they have significantly exceeded their expected NCAA tournament win totals in their last two appearances, the reasoning is more sound than "Well, it's happened before!" Loyola Chicago ranks No. 42 in offensive efficiency and No. 22 defensively, per kenpom.com, and it's one of the nation's most efficient shooting teams. The Ramblers make 38 percent of their 3-pointers and 55.8 percent of their shots inside the arc, while playing at a tempo that ranks outside of the top 300 nationally, so they're capable of holding their opponent's point total in the 50s — maybe even the 40s! — while operating at what can be lethal shooting levels. Ohio State has lost four of its last five games, and its coach, Chris Holtmann, has five first-weekend exits in six NCAA tournament appearances.
The Buckeyes will unquestionably have the best player on the floor in E.J. Liddell, but Loyola Chicago may very well be the better team, especially of late. If the Ramblers can win in the first round, they're likely to face No. 2 seed Villanova next. The Wildcats play even slower than the Ramblers — one of the 15 slowest tempos nationally, in fact — and given that Villanova often plays without anyone taller than 6-foot-7 on the floor, Loyola Chicago's lineups frequently look the same, so the Ramblers wouldn't run the risk of a potentially bad frontcourt matchup that a No. 2 seed such as Auburn or Duke might present.
No. 11 seeds
My pick: Virginia Tech
Let's start with this: For as much individual talent as No. 11 seed Michigan has, the Wolverines haven't won consecutive games since Jan. 26, so for as appealing as it might be to pick them to advance to the second round of your bracket, picking them a second time against a better-seeded opponent — presumably the surging, No. 3-seeded Tennessee Volunteers — feels like a bridge too far.
My pick is Virginia Tech, the reigning ACC tournament champion, which won four games in four days, capped off with a 15-point thrashing of Duke. For much of the season, some men's basketball observers wondered why Virginia Tech's predictive metrics appeared more bullish on the Hokies than their resume suggested at the time, but now they're ranked in the top 25 on kenpom.com at No. 23, with the No. 18 offense and No. 54 defense. They're a 39-percent 3-point shooting team and they play at one of the 20 slowest tempos nationally, which can be beneficial to the worse-seeded team because it could allow for a greater variance in the expected result. This is a veteran group that starts five upperclassmen, some of whom played for coach Mike Young when he coached at Wofford.
Virginia Tech's first-round matchup is against No. 6 seed Texas, which has lost its last three, albeit two of those games were against eventual No. 1 seeds Baylor and Kansas. That could be a game where the first team to 60 wins.
No. 3 seed Purdue is the likely second-round opponent for the winner of the Texas-Virginia Tech matchup and while the Boilermakers have the country's third-most efficient offense, they ranked 100th defensively, which could be a major opportunity for a Virginia Tech team that's among the best 3-point shooting teams in the country.
No. 12 seeds
My pick: Indiana
I went with Indiana as the team in the First Four that's most likely to make a run and I'll go with the Hoosiers here, too.
No. 13 seeds
My pick: Vermont
The Catamounts have won 22 of their last 23 games, going 17-1 in America East play and winning the conference tournament with three wins by an average of 36.7 points. They're the highest-ranked No. 13 seed on kenpom.com at No. 59 and the advanced analytics site only projects No. 4 seed Arkansas to win by four points in the first round.
Vermont ranks fourth nationally in experience, per kenpom.com, and the Catamounts are third in effective field goal percentage at 57.3 percent, so they're old and great shooters. That's a good recipe in March.
No. 14 seeds
My pick: Colgate
Colgate is the highest-ranked No. 14 seed on kenpom.com (No. 119) and it's facing the worst-ranked No. 3 seed, Wisconsin, which is No. 34. FiveThirtyEight gives Colgate a 15-percent chance of advancing to the Round of 32, which is a higher percentage than some No. 12 seeds.
Wisconsin has lost its last two games, including a home loss to Nebraska, and the Badgers have the fifth-worst effective field goal percentage, 48.2 percent, of any team in the field, while Colgate, winner of 15 in a row, ranks second in 3-point percentage (40.1 percent) and 11th in effective field goal percentage (55.9 percent). No. 14 seeds are just 22-122 in the Round of 64 since 1985 but that means they win roughly two out of every 13 first-round matchups so you can squint and see how maybe this is an upset that comes to fruition.
No. 15 seeds
My pick: Saint Peter's
No. 15 seeds have won five of their last 36 matchups against No. 2 seeds, including Oral Roberts' upset of Ohio State last season, so while No. 15 seeds are only 9-135 against No. 2 seeds since 1985, for the last decade, they've averaged roughly two wins out of every four NCAA tournaments.
While acknowledging Kentucky was my pick for the No. 2 seed to consider as your national championship pick, the Wildcats are also matched up with what is arguably the best No. 15 seed, Saint Peter's, in the first round. The Peacocks are ranked No. 118 on kenpom.com, which is one spot behind Temple, three spots ahead of Utah and five spots ahead of 2021 madness-maker Ohio, so the predictive metrics of kenpom.com say Saint Peter's is roughly the quality of a lower-end AAC or Pac-12 team, or a solid MAC squad.
The defense of Saint Peter's ranks 34th in terms of efficiency, as opponents shoot just 29.4 percent from 3-point range and 44 percent inside the arc, and while the Peacocks are not a particularly good shooting team, they have made 34.8 percent of their 3-pointers and they find points in other ways, through offensive rebounding (they rank 68th nationally in offensive rebounding rate) and free throws (29th in free throw rate).
Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe is a load down low, but Saint Peter's does have four rotation players who are 6-foot-7 or 6-foot-8, so the hope for the Peacocks would be that they can collectively do a good enough job, with their allotted minutes and fouls. Once again, several of Kentucky's losses have been games in which one of its guards has dealt with injury issues, and if that's a recurring concern for the 'Cats, then it could be a potential opportunity for Saint Peter's, if for some reason Kentucky is not at full strength.
No. 16 seeds
My pick: Norfolk State
OK, let's not get carried away here. No. 16 seeds are 1-143 against No. 1 seeds since 1985. If and when another No. 16 seed upsets a No. 1 seed, it might not happen for another 30 years, given how unlikely such an upset is in the NCAA tournament.
But that doesn't mean that Bracket Challenge Game participants are dissuaded from a low-percentage, high-reward upset pick in the first round. If you're dead set on casting restraint to the wind and going for it all, take a look at Norfolk State, which has a 39-percent free throw rate, which ranks ninth nationally and means the Spartans average nearly four free throw attempts for every 10 field goal attempts, and opponents shoot just 29.3 percent from 3-point range against them.
Baylor, Norfolk State's first-round opponent, lost its most recent game after making just three of its 22 3-point attempts, or 13.6 percent, against Oklahoma. As mentioned earlier, Baylor isn't at full strength and the one time when a No. 1 seed lost in the first round was when it wasn't at full strength.