NCAA Tournament features wide-open field

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons | Gonzaga has not missed an NCAA Tournament since 1997-98, but has never won a national title. The Bulldogs will look to finally flip the script this season.

Benjamin Gottschalk | Staff Writer

March 17, 2022

As the month of March quickly passes by, college basketball fans across the country know what is soon to come. The 2022 NCAA Tournament is just about ready to take center stage on the sports calendar.

This year’s field features many high-quality teams, players and coaches that will ensure this season’s tournament is entertaining and open for a handful of teams to win.

Most notably, the Big Ten Conference’s qualifiers are loaded with prolific scorers like Ohio State’s EJ Liddell (averaging 19.6 points/game), Iowa’s Keegan Murray (23.6 points/game), Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis (19.7 points/game), Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn (21.1 points/game) and Purdue’s Jaden Ivey (17.4 points/game).

One storyline to keep an eye on is a potential rematch between Gonzaga and Baylor — both No. 1 seeds — in the Final Four. The two teams met in last season’s national title game, with Baylor coming out on top.

Led by Drew Timme (West Coast Conference Player of the Year) and Chet Holmgren (WCC Defensive Player of the Year and a projected high draft pick in the 2022 NBA Draft), the Gonzaga Bulldogs look to be unstoppable. However, with four players averaging over 10 points/game, the Baylor Bears’ scoring depth and championship experience should serve them well.

The No. 1-seeded Kansas Jayhawks, Baylor’s counterpart in the Big 12, have a potent scorer of their own in Ochai Agbaji (19.7 points/game). Fellow No. 1-seed Arizona features three legitimate stars in Bennedict Mathurin (17.1 points/game), Azuolas Tubelis (14.5 points/game), and Christian Koloko (12.1 points/game). Under the guidance of first-year head coach Tommy Lloyd, the Pacific-12 Conference champions could be well positioned for a matchup with Gonzaga — where Lloyd formerly served as an assistant coach— in the championship game.

One dark horse to keep an eye on is No. 5-seeded UConn. The Huskies’ success is due in large part to their defense, which allows the second-fewest amount of points/game (65.2, trailing only No. 2-seeded Villanova) in a talented Big East Conference. Pair this with a deep frontcourt, led by center Adama Sanogo (14.9 points/game and 8.9 rebounds/game), and UConn could be in a sneaky position. The Huskies will open up against No. 12-seeded New Mexico State in Buffalo, N.Y., on Thursday.

In the Southeastern Conference, keep an eye on No. 3-seeded Tennessee. The Volunteers feature a dynamic scoring duo of Kennedy Chandler (13.8 points/game) and Santiago Vescovi (13.4 points/game). Tennessee, which has won 12 of its last 13 games entering the tournament, will square off with No. 14-seeded Longwood in Indianapolis on Thursday.

Reverting back to the Big Ten, a team to watch is No. 4-seeded Illinois. Led by Cockburn (who also averages 10.6 rebounds/game), the Fighting Illini are looking to avenge a second-round exit as a No. 1 seed in last year’s tournament. Illinois will do battle with No. 13-seeded Chattanooga on Friday at PPG Paints Arena.

Other first-round games that will be played in Pittsburgh on Friday include: No. 7-seeded Ohio State vs. No. 10-seeded Loyola of Chicago, No. 2-seeded Villanova vs. No. 15-seeded Delaware and No. 5-seeded Houston vs. No. 12-seeded UAB.

While Arizona garners much of the love and attention in the Pac-12, No. 4-seeded UCLA is flying under the radar. Last season, as a No. 11 seed, the Bruins went from First Four to Final Four and took Gonzaga to overtime in the national semifinal before falling on a buzzer beater from the Bulldogs’ Jalen Suggs.

The Bruins have the experience to make a deep run, and that experience is coupled with four players that average in double figures. As long as they can stay healthy and consistent, the Bruins could surprise some people. They’ll open against No. 13-seeded Akron in Portland, Ore., on Thursday.

One team that could be on high upset alert is No. 4-seeded Providence. While the seeding was the Friars’ highest in school history, they’ll run into a buzzsaw in No. 13-seeded South Dakota State in Buffalo on Thursday. The Jackrabbits have won 21 games in a row (a streak that began on Dec. 20) and are led by a dynamic point forward in Baylor Scheierman (16.2 points/game, 7.8 rebounds/game and 4.6 assists/game).

The phrase “March madness” is aptly named because truly anything can happen. Come tournament time, the most fundamentally sound, well coached and hottest teams could all be eliminated in the blink of an eye.

In other words, logic doesn’t and won’t exist for these next few weeks of college basketball during the tournament. It’s all about who shows up, survives and advances. And, with that in mind, it’s time to let the madness ensue.