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Andy Wittry | NCAA.com | March 16, 2022

16 teams, from safe to bold, to pick for the Sweet 16 right now

Men’s NCAA tournament predictions, from the Sweet 16 to the national championship

After analyzing the 2022 NCAA Tournament bracket and all of the matchups, here are 16 teams you should pick to advance to the Sweet 16, and why.

To make things more interesting, I self-imposed a rule where I couldn't pick more than three teams on a single seed line, such that I couldn't pick all four No. 1 seeds or every No. 2 seed. The 16 teams are listed in order of their placement on the 1-through-68 seed list, established by the selection committee.

1. No. 1 seed Gonzaga

The Zags have made the Sweet 16 in each of the last six NCAA tournaments. They're the No. 1 overall seed this year. That's enough of an explanation.

2. No. 1 seed Arizona

Despite point guard Kerr Kriisa's injury in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament, Arizona was still able to sweep the conference's regular-season and tournament titles, capped off with a win over UCLA in the championship game. While his status remains up in the air, it seems as if he'll try to play at some point in the NCAA tournament — as long as the Wildcats keep winning. Making the Sweet 16 only requires Arizona to beat a No. 16 seed, then a No. 8 or No. 9 seed, and the Wildcats should have enough options offensively to get by Seton Hall or TCU, with or without Kriisa, based on the Pac-12 tournament.

Sixth-year senior Justin Kier, who was a starter for Georgia last season, replaced Kriisa in the starting lineup and finished with offensive ratings of 114 and 113 in the team's last two games, which is about 10 points higher than the national average. In the win over UCLA, both Bennedict Mathurin and Dalen Terry had seven assists, so Arizona should be able to sustain itself until its starting point guard returns.

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3. No. 1 seed Kansas

Assuming Kansas wins in the first round, which is a safe assumption for a No. 1 seed, the Jayhawks will be matched up against one of the country's top defensive teams in either No. 8 seed San Diego State (No. 2 in defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com) or No. 9 seed Creighton (No. 18). But both schools rank outside of the top 120 nationally in offensive efficiency and Kansas has already won two of its three meetings against Texas Tech, which boasts the stingiest defense in the land, so its No. 6 offense has proven its worse against good defenses. If Creighton is victorious, it's not at full strength, as starting point guard Ryan Nembhard is out for the season due to injury.

4. No. 2 seed Auburn

While Auburn is just 3-3 in its last six games and 5-4 in its last nine, Auburn has advantageous second-round matchups. Southern California, ranked No. 42 on kenpom.com, is the worst-ranked No. 7 seed and Miami, ranked No. 62, is the worst-ranked No. 10 seed — 21 spots behind fellow No. 10 seed Davidson. Many of the Hurricanes' best players are guards and wings, which could be advantageous for Auburn's talented frontcourt duo of Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler. FiveThirtyEight gives Auburn a 76-percent chance of making the Sweet 16, the fifth-best mark among NCAA tournament teams.

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5. No. 2 seed Kentucky

Based on kenpom.com's rankings, Kentucky has the best No. 7, No. 10 and No. 15 seed in its four-team pod, but the Wildcats have a national player-of-the-year candidate in Oscar Tshiebwe, who ranks first or second nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. He's a difficult matchup for any team, let alone one from a one-bid conference that may not have seen a player quite like Tshiebwe this season, or if it did, it was unlikely to have gone well. When Murray State played Auburn this season, big man KJ Williams had just a 3-for-18 shooting performance, for example.

Five of Kentucky's seven losses this season were against teams that earned a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament and the Wildcats weren't completely healthy in three of their defeats, so it typically takes one of the country's very best teams, or a limited 'Cats roster, to beat them.

6. No. 2 seed Duke

The No. 7 seed in Duke's pod is Michigan State, whom Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's teams have had a lot of success against over the years. He's 13-3 against the Spartans. Michigan State's first-round opponent, No. 10 seed Davidson, ranks 11th in terms of offensive efficiency, but just 149th defensively, which means Paolo Banchero, Wendell Moore and Duke's No. 7-ranked offense could have a field day in a potential matchup.

Both Michigan State and Davidson are the second-worst ranked team from their respective seed lines on kenpom.com.

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7. No. 3 seed Tennessee

Since March 1, Tennessee's efficiency numbers are third nationally, per barttorvik.com, as the Volunteers are coming off of an SEC tournament title, after finishing third in the competitive conference in the regular season. They're 12-1 since the calendar turned to February, including two wins over Kentucky, plus victories over Auburn and Arkansas.

Tennessee's defensive efficiency ranks third nationally, per kenpom.com, with the No. 35 offense, so the Vols are elite on one end of the floor and still very good on the other. Their potential second-round matchups, No. 6 seed Colorado State and No. 11 seed Michigan, could be friendly, because they have a number of talented guards and wings to potentially counter Colorado State's small-ball lineups, while Michigan hasn't won consecutive games since late January.

8. No. 3 seed Texas Tech

Texas Tech's adjusted efficiency margin ranks second nationally since Jan. 1, according to barttorvik.com, as the Red Raiders have the best defense in the country, thanks to a 23.6-percent defensive turnover rate and a 45.5-percent effective field-goal percentage allowed, per kenpom.com.

The No. 6 seed that potentially awaits Texas Tech is Alabama, which is on a three-game losing streak, and struggles at both taking care of the ball and 3-point shooting. The No. 11 seed that Alabama will face will be the First Four winner between Rutgers and Notre Dame, two teams with some of the weakest resumes in the entire field, by definition.

9. No. 4 seed UCLA

The Bruins returned the players who fueled last season's Final Four run, while adding Rutgers transfer Myles Johnson and freshman Peyton Watson, and the results are a team that was ranked No. 8 on kenpom.com on Selection Sunday, so the Bruins are arguably even better than their No. 4 seed would suggest. UCLA's 65-percent chance of making the Sweet 16 is the ninth-best, according to FiveThirtyEight. UCLA ranks fifth in offensive turnover percentage and in the top 60 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, per kenpom.com, with a group that ranks eighth in minutes continuity from last season.

10. No. 5 seed UConn

The Huskies' 49-percent chance of making the Sweet 16, according to FiveThirtyEight, is the 14th-best among the 68 teams in the field. They have a top-25 offense and top-35 defense, per kenpom.com, while ranking second in offensive rebounding rate, fifth in block rate and fifth in 2-point percentage allowed, thanks to dominant big man Adama Sanogo. UConn put together two five-game winning streaks in Big East play, the latter of which included a win over conference tournament champion and No. 2 seed Villanova.

11. No. 5 seed Houston

The four-team pod of Houston, No. 12 seed UAB, No. 4 seed Illinois and No. 13 seed Chattanooga is arguably among the most competitive in the entire tournament bracket. Per FiveThirtyEight, UAB has an eight-percent chance of making the Sweet 16 and Chattanooga has a five-percent shot, and that's while facing kenpom.com's No. 4 team (Houston) and the Big Ten tournament's No. 1 seed (Illinois) in the first round, respectively.

You've probably heard a lot about Houston's roster being limited by season-ending injuries to Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark. Since the day after Sasser's injury, Houston has the second-best efficiency numbers nationally, per barttorvik.com, and the same can be said about the Cougars since the day after Mark's injury.

Yes, Houston's only win against a team that received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament came in the AAC tournament championship game against Memphis, but the Cougars rank 10th in offensive efficiency and 11th defensively, which is why FiveThirtyEight gives Houston a 45-percent chance of making the Sweet 16, compared to Illinois' 41 percent.

12. No. 5 seed Iowa

Since Feb. 1, Iowa has posted the second-best efficiency numbers in the country, behind only Gonzaga, according to barttorvik.com. The Hawkeyes are 12-2 in that stretch, losing only to Michigan by five points at home and at Illinois by two, capped off with a Big Ten tournament title.

As ESPN college basketball writer John Gasaway wrote, Iowa led all teams from the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC in shot volume index, which measures the combination of a team's offensive turnover rate and offensive rebounding rate. The Hawkeyes rank third nationally in turnover percentage at just 12.9 percent, per kenpom.com, while ranking 55th in offensive rebounding rate by grabbing 32.2 percent of their missed shots. Not every Hawkeye has AP All-American forward Keegan Murray's lethal efficiency — 40.5 percent from 3-point range and 62.0 percent on 2-pointers — but it sure helps when you rarely commit turnovers and get second-chance opportunities.

If you find yourself falling into the trap of putting the No. 1 through No. 4 seeds in the Sweet 16 in multiple regions of your bracket, No. 5 seed Iowa is an easy way to differentiate your selections, while still going with a team that's currently playing at the level you'd expect of a top-four seed.

13. No. 6 seed LSU

Adjusted for its seed and the expectations of those seeds, LSU might be one of the least-common Bracket Challenge Game picks after the first round, as the Tigers are operating under an interim head coach. However, they're ranked No. 19 on kenpom.com compared to potential second-round opponent and No. 3 seed Wisconsin's position at No. 34. The Badgers have lost their last two games, including a home loss to Nebraska, and in Big Ten Player of the Year Johnny Davis' first game back from injury, he had a 3-for-19 shooting performance in a loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament.

LSU's first-round opponent, No. 11 seed Iowa State, finished four games below .500 in Big 12 play and it has lost its last three games. Meanwhile, LSU's defensive efficiency ranks fourth in the country, so the Tigers are elite on one end of the floor, while having two efficient scoring options at the forward position in Darius Days and Tari Eason.

Despite the circumstances, LSU could otherwise be in a favorable position for a second-weekend appearance.

14. No. 8 seed North Carolina

This might be the boldest pick of all because it requires a No. 1 seed to lose in the first weekend, but based on the rules established that I couldn't choose more than three schools on the same seed line, it's what is required. A few weeks ago, North Carolina beat a now-No. 2 seed, Duke, on the road by double digits, and the Tar Heels should have the individual talent to potentially play Baylor close if the two schools meet in the second round.

While North Carolina's rotation is incredibly thin — all five starters played the entire second half in the win over Duke — Baylor has been without two rotation players, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and LJ Cryer, so the Bears aren't at full strength or as deep as they were a few months ago. FiveThirtyEight's 18-percent chance of a Sweet 16 run is the best among any No. 8 or No. 9 seed.

15. No. 10 seed Loyola Chicago

On average, there's about 2.2 double-digit seeds that make that Sweet 16 each year, so these final two picks are my attempt at correctly guessing who'll join that unlikely group this season. Loyola Chicago is projected to beat No. 7 seed Ohio State, according to kenpom.com, the Ramblers have NCAA tournament experience and they wouldn't face a major size or tempo disadvantage against No. 2 seed Villanova in a potential second-round matchup.

16. No.  11 seed Virginia Tech

With a coach-and-players connection that dates back to when Mike Young was at Wofford with several current Hokies, this group has tremendous experience and Virginia Tech is coming off of an ACC tournament title. The Hokies have made 39.3 percent of their 3-pointers this season, which ranks third nationally, per kenpom.com, and is part of the reason why their offense ranks No. 18 nationally. The No. 3 seed in Virginia Tech's pod, Purdue, has a defense that ranks 100th nationally, so Virginia Tech could potentially outscore the Boilermakers in a potential second-round matchup if Virginia Tech can get by No. 6 seed Texas, which has lost three in a row.

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