The NCAA selection committee has released its men’s March Madness bracket, and it’s hard to get a grasp on the field right away. But brackets need to be filled out by Thursday, so we have to try. The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman goes region by region to break down the teams that could make the Final Four, the double-digit seeds that have interesting stories, and the biggest questions entering the event.
My Final Four Pick: Gonzaga
For the second year in a row, Gonzaga is the best men’s college basketball team in the country and the overall no. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament—and for the second year in a row, the Bulldogs have been given an unusual draw by the selection committee. That didn’t matter last year, as the Zags coasted to the Final Four before losing the championship game to Baylor. Will this year be different?
First of all, before you fill out your bracket, let’s dispel the idea that Gonzaga does not perform well in the tourney. In fact, it has won more NCAA men’s tournament games than any team since 2013. More than Kentucky, more than Villanova, and more than Duke—more than whatever team you think owns March. In the past six tournaments, the Bulldogs have made six Sweet 16 appearances, two trips to the Elite Eight, and two more trips to the national championship game. They just haven’t ended their season with a win, so some people still act like they’re a Cinderella, instead of the best program in the sport.
Last year’s Gonzaga team entered the national championship game 31-0. This year’s team went 26-3—only Murray State lost fewer games—and has the most efficient offense in the sport. They have Fu Manchu hero Drew Timme from last year’s runners-up, and added potential no. 1 pick Chet Holmgren, who has proved to be as talented and weird as scouts thought he would be coming out of high school.
But of those three losses, two came against Duke and Alabama—teams that happen to be in Gonzaga’s bracket region. It has to feel a bit unfair if you’re the Bulldogs. (I’m imagining head coach Mark Few calling up the NCAA like, “Hey, quick question—do you think Duke and Alabama are in the ‘West’ of the United States? Shouldn’t we be playing, like, UCLA, the team we beat by 20 in November?”) Gonzaga has also played no. 3 seed Texas Tech, which makes this a remarkably similar situation to last year, when Gonzaga happened to be drawn against a no. 2 seed, a no. 3 seed, and a no. 4 seed that it had already played. The difference, of course, is that Gonzaga wrecked all those teams in the regular season.
That said, I’ll still take the Zags out of this region. They won’t have to beat Duke and Alabama—only one can make it to the Elite Eight, which is the earliest Gonzaga would have to face them. And Duke and Alabama both finished the season poorly, with the Blue Devils losing twice by double digits in their final four games and Alabama ending the year on a three-game losing streak. This Gonzaga team has improved since its losses to the Blue Devils and the Crimson Tide; the Duke and Alabama teams have gotten worse.
Sportsbooks seem to think Gonzaga is roughly twice as likely to win the tournament as anybody else. Advanced statistics say the sportsbooks are probably underselling that. Remember: There’s no more dependable team in March than Gonzaga, despite all the takes.
Fun Fact: A Penny for Your Picks
March Madness has returned to Memphis, as head coach Penny Hardaway has brought his alma mater back to the NCAA tournament. It took a little bit longer than expected, and the route was strange, but it happened!
In 2018, Memphis seized the opportunity to hire the former star who once took the Tigers to the Elite Eight as a player. Hardaway had never coached in college before, but had established himself on the youth basketball and high school circuits. Penny has landed top players, but it hasn’t always worked out. James Wiseman signed to play for the Tigers, but appeared in only three games due to concerns over his NCAA eligibility en route to becoming the no. 2 pick in the 2020 NBA draft. This year, Penny landed five-star prospect Emoni Bates, the top recruit in the class of 2022, who reclassified to the 2021 class to play in college at the age of 17. But Bates didn’t look like a superstar in the early going and has been out since January with a back injury.
This Memphis team has been frustrating. The Tigers occasionally look like they don’t know how to play basketball or enjoy doing so. They had two three-game losing streaks this year, including losses to East Carolina and a 6-26 Georgia team. But they have tremendous talent, including five-star prospect Jalen Duren, and closed the season 12-2, including two wins over American Athletic Conference champs Houston. It’s tough to imagine them getting past Gonzaga, which has better talent and more consistency, but anybody who has marveled at Penny at some point in his brilliant playing career—or his fascinating coaching career—can smile while penciling the Tigers out of that 8-9 game.
Matchup to Root For: Chet-Paolo
Let’s not overthink this. It’s rare we get to see the top two draft prospects in the same class play against each other during a men’s college basketball season—especially when they play similar positions and literally have to guard each other head-to-head. But that happened back in November, when Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren and Duke’s Paolo Banchero squared off. The game was a thriller, with Duke winning 84-81 behind 21 points from Banchero. Now we have a pretty good chance to see it again—but this time in an NCAA tournament. It would be the greatest game in the history of NBA draft blogging, which is something we do here at The Ringer. It might actually be worth rooting for Duke for a few rounds to see this one happen.
Biggest Question: Who Will End Coach K’s Career?
The guess here is Texas Tech. The Red Raiders are ranked ahead of Duke on KenPom and won three out of five against Baylor and Kansas, losing only in double OT and in the Big 12 championship to the Jayhawks. The Red Raiders could have dropped off after losing Chris Beard in the offseason, as the coach broke Red Raiders hearts by leaving for Texas—but they’ve been just as defensively stout under Mark Adams, a Beard assistant promoted to head coach. Adams is 65 years old, and this is his first Division I head coaching gig, after stops at the Division II and junior college levels and a stint owning a minor league hockey team. What could be better than Coach K’s 40-plus-year head coaching career ending against a guy who waited roughly 40 years to get a shot coaching a Division I team?
My Final Four Pick: Kentucky
You’re probably looking for someone hot to come in and dominate March Madness—but you won’t find that here, in a region filled with conference tourney losers: Top seed Baylor lost its first-round Big 12 game to Oklahoma; no. 2 seed Kentucky lost in the SEC semis to Tennessee; no. 3 seed Purdue lost the Big Ten final to Iowa; and no. 4 seed UCLA lost the Pac-12 final to Arizona. Both fifth-seeded Saint Mary’s and sixth-seeded Texas also lost their most recent matchups. Shout-out to “they got their loss out of the way at the right time”—it’s the dumbest March Madness argument, but it will get some use when one of these teams inevitably makes the Final Four. I mean, someone has to.
As it so happens, this is the same situation Baylor found itself in last year. That worked out great for the Bears: Baylor emerged from a region in which none of the top 11 seeds were conference champions to make the Final Four and win its first national championship. So, can the Bears become the first men’s team in more than a decade to go back-to-back? Sure—but they’ll have to get through a team that can beat Baylor at its own game.
The Bears rank ninth in adjusted offensive efficiency thanks to outstanding offensive rebounding: They grab 36.3 percent of their missed shots, seventh of the 358 teams in college hoops. That’s how Baylor won last year’s national title game, grabbing 16 offensive rebounds on 37 missed shots against Gonzaga.
But Kentucky is actually better than Baylor at offensive rebounding. Kentucky grabs 37.8 percent of its misses and ranks fourth in offensive efficiency. Nobody on Baylor is as good as Oscar Tshiebwe, who leads college basketball with a stunning 15.2 rebounds per game (the most of any player since 1979-80). Tshiebwe will own the boards on both ends of the floor, which heavily disrupts how Baylor attempts to succeed offensively. Kentucky is better than Baylor at the very thing Baylor is best at—and that’s why the Wildcats will get out of this region instead of the Bears.
Biggest Question: Is This Region Ready for a Mid-major in ACC Clothing?
One of my favorite NCAA tournament teams in recent years was the 2019 Wofford squad led by Fletcher Magee, the NCAA’s all-time leader in 3-point shots. After going 18-0 in the Southern Conference, it beat Seton Hall in their first-round game before a heartbreaking 62-56 loss to Kentucky when Magee went 0-for-12 from beyond the arc. If Magee, who shot 43.5 percent for his career from 3-point range, had hit just two or three of those shots, the Terriers could’ve become March Madness legends.
Luckily, the 2019 Terriers are getting a second chance in the form of this year’s Virginia Tech squad. Right after the 2019 tournament, Virginia Tech hired Wofford coach Mike Young, who immediately began replenishing the Hokies roster with the best guys from his Terriers team. He snagged Keve Aluma, a 6-foot-9 forward with range who had started for the Terriers. He flipped the recruitment of Hunter Cattoor, who had just signed with Wofford and was presumably thrilled to suddenly get an offer from an ACC team. And this past year, he secured a grad transfer from Storm Murphy, who picked up the slack at Wofford after Magee graduated.
The Hokies have already made a remarkable run this March and won the ACC tournament as a no. 7 seed. This squad of Wofford recruits dominated Duke’s five-star lineup, with Cattoor going off for 31 points in the championship game while Aluma had 19 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists.
That win earned them an automatic bid, and the committee gave them a no. 11 seed. But considering their 13-2 finish to the season, their ACC championship, and their top-25 KenPom rating, they almost certainly deserve to be higher than that. I’m fine with their low seed—it reconnects this squad with its Wofford roots. It can avenge Magee with a win over Texas. Picking Virginia Tech won’t buy you the same bracket cred as picking a UT-Chattanooga or a Cal State Fullerton, but theoretically, it’s the same idea. Go
Worst Draw: The Mid-major Death Fight
The evil stepsisters didn’t want Cinderella invited to the dance, and seemingly neither does the NCAA selection committee. The committee has emphasized the importance of playing a strong schedule over the importance of winning a lot of games, which incentivizes small-league powerhouses to move to larger conferences that offer tougher matchups, which in turn makes it easier for the committee to justify ignoring everybody but the largest leagues. I wrote about this trend in 2018, when Loyola-Chicago demonstrated why it was important to include teams from non-power conferences in the tournament. But the committee hasn’t learned: Just three teams from outside FBS football conferences and the Big East received at-large bids this year.
And if someone from outside those conferences does make it into the tournament? Wouldn’t you know it, they get matched up against another elite mid-major instead of getting a shot to beat a power-conference team. It happens like clockwork: Steph Curry’s 2008 NCAA tournament run started with a 7-10 matchup between Gonzaga and Davidson; the 2013 tournament featured a Bucknell-Butler game and a Middle Tennessee–Saint Mary’s play-in game; in 2017 the committee pitted no. 7 seeds Saint Mary’s and Dayton against no. 10 seeds VCU and Wichita State, respectively. Considering the rarity with which teams from small leagues get seeded higher than 11 or 12, it feels impossible that they keep finding their way to matchups against another team in the same boat.
Well, it happened again. The committee gave Murray State a no. 7 seed after its dominant performance in the OVC, a 18-0 regular season with 12 double-digit wins, plus a non-conference win over Memphis … but put it in a game against San Francisco, which performed impressively in Gonzaga’s WCC. Of course, both are under-seeded, due to the committee’s anti-mid-major bias: According to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, Murray State is the best of the four no. 7 seeds in the field, and San Francisco is the best of the four no. 10 seeds. They’re ranked no. 21 and 22 in the NET ratings, which the committee supposedly uses to make its bracket, which indicates both should probably be no. 6 seeds.
Instead, they’re playing each other in a 7-10 game. Sorry, Racers; sorry, Dons. You deserved to become March Madness darlings. The good news is at least one of you will move on to the next round. The bad news is you’ll have to play … Kentucky. The committee is mean.
My Final Four Pick: Tennessee
Like Gonzaga, Arizona is a no. 1 seed that landed in a region with a team it lost to during the regular season: the third-seeded Tennessee Volunteers, who beat the Wildcats 77-73 in December. But unlike Gonzaga’s situation with Duke and Alabama, this isn’t an example of a long-ago loss that does not bear much relevance heading into March. If anything, Tennessee has gotten considerably better since December.
The Vols feel under-seeded after closing the season on a 12-1 stretch that featured two wins over Kentucky, a victory over Auburn, and an SEC title. They’re ranked seventh on KenPom, suggesting that they should probably be a no. 2 seed. Tennessee isn’t elite offensively, but it’s third in adjusted defensive efficiency. And top-seeded Arizona will probably be without star point guard Kerr Kriisa, whose ankle looks like this.
Of course, there’s a catch: While Tennessee beat Arizona, it also lost to second-seeded Villanova. That matchup wasn’t particularly close, as the Wildcats (Philly Edition, not Desert Edition) stomped the Vols 71-53. So, uh, let’s ignore that result, and assume that Tennessee flipped the switch some time between that Villanova game on November 20 and the Arizona game on December 22.
Biggest Question: What Does Loyola-Chicago Have This Year?
It’s March, which can mean only one thing: It’s time to watch a 102-year-old nun cheer on former two-star recruits as they wreck billions of brackets and topple a bunch of schools that never considered giving them a scholarship. That’s right—it’s Loyola-Chicago season! After making the 2018 Final Four and last year’s Sweet 16, the Ramblers are back in the tournament as a no. 10 seed, with a first-round matchup against Ohio State.
Former Loyola head coach Porter Moser left for Oklahoma during the offseason, and mustachioed center Cameron Krutwig is off playing pro ball in Belgium. (Sadly, the NBA didn’t come calling for a 6-foot-9 center with limited shooting ability.) The Ramblers are now led by head coach Drew Valentine—who looks exactly like his younger brother, former Michigan State star Denzel Valentine—and they have the pieces to make another run. After all, they beat Vanderbilt and Arizona State, and they nearly took down Michigan State in a game that was decided on the final possession.
Loyola is 24th on KenPom, significantly higher than it was before its 2018 Final Four run (41st). More importantly, the Ramblers are ranked above Ohio State, and are favored by 1.5 points in that matchup. Let’s see whether Sister Jean can get the best of Villanova’s basketball priest in the second round.
Story Line to Watch: The March Madness First Timers
Two schools from the Never Made the Tourney Club are in this year’s bracket, and both are in the South region. The first is Bryant, which is led by the nation’s leading scorer, Peter Kiss. Kiss earned some fans with his emphatic PG-13 smack talk in Bryant’s conference championship game win over Wagner. Unfortunately, Bryant is in the no. 16 seed play-in game, and won’t even get to face Arizona unless they beat Wright State. Judging from a 111-44 loss to Houston earlier this season, the Bulldogs are probably not the next March Cinderella story.
But our other first-time entrants have a chance: The no. 14 seed Longwood Lancers hail from Farmville, Virginia, and have already overcome the odds that come with living inside a video-game town and having a nickname that sounds like “Boner University.” The Lancers shot 38.0 percent from 3 as a team this season, 16th in men’s Division I, and went 15-1 in Big South play. They went 10-of-17 from beyond the arc against Winthrop to win the conference title game by 21 points.
With shooting like this, the Lancers have a legitimate chance to upset anyone—even the Tennessee team I just picked to make the Final Four. Oral Roberts reached the Sweet 16 last year, and Morehead State beat Louisville in 2011, so it’s clear that schools with suggestive names can dominate in March. Maybe Longwood can take a stand.
My Final Four Pick: Iowa
Sometimes, I’ll watch a team have one great offensive performance and think, “Wow, these guys can get hot and win it all.” And right now, Iowa just keeps having great offensive performances. There were 76 games this season between Division I men’s teams in which one squad scored at least 100 points in regulation; five of those outbursts came from Iowa, including two in Big Ten competition. The Hawkeyes were fourth in college basketball in scoring, averaging 83.8 points per game. Two of the three schools ahead of them are no. 1 seeds, Gonzaga and Arizona.
Iowa has gotten better over the course of this season, as it’s become clear that 6-foot-8 forward Keegan Murray is not just a good college player, but a likely NBA lottery pick. From February on, Murray averaged 25.4 points and 9.1 rebounds per game while connecting on 49.3 percent of his 3s. Murray demolished the all-time record for points in a Big Ten tournament by putting up 103 in the Hawkeyes’ run to the conference championship; the previous record had been 92. Between Murray and Caitlin Clark, Iowa is home to college basketball’s two truest scoring machines.
To make the Final Four, this group will have to keep scoring in bunches. But Iowa is the hottest team in college basketball. That has to count for something, right?
Biggest Question: Is LSU Ready for Another Interim Coach Run?
I have to admit, the NCAA has incredible comedic timing. On Saturday, the association released a notice of allegations detailing recruiting violations committed by LSU head coach Will Wade. This report revealed that Wade was personally involved in paying former Tigers point guard Javonte Smart, something that has been a topic of immense interest ever since Wade was recorded talking about the “strong-ass offer” he made to Smart on a federal wiretap. Smart is now in the NBA, and at this point it’s kosher for college athletes to receive money for playing college sports through their name, image, and likeness rights. Still, years after these semi-crimes took place, the NCAA decided to bring the hammer down.
LSU fired Wade as a result, sending the 6-seeded Tigers into March without their supposed leader. You’d think this would leave the program in a state of total disarray. The Tigers also got rid of associate head coach Bill Armstrong, meaning they’re essentially down to their third-string coach, Kevin Nickelberry, a former head coach at Howard and Hampton.
But it’s possible that LSU will be just fine … because essentially this same thing happened in 2019. When the rumors of Wade’s involvement in paying Smart first came to light in 2019, the school suspended the coach with one game remaining in the regular season. Assistant coach Tony Benford took over, and LSU promptly rolled. In addition to taking the SEC regular-season title under Benford, the Tigers made it all the way to the Sweet 16, their deepest NCAA tournament run since 2006. Benford even drew up a game-winner for Tremont Waters in a thrilling win over Maryland.
So don’t count this team out just because it doesn’t have a head coach or a backup head coach. This is LSU. The Tigers football team has won national championships behind one coach who ate grass off the field during games and another coach who previously ripped off his shirt and then challenged players to fight him. LSU thrives in the chaos. It’s madder than March.
The Easiest Upset Pick Ever: South Dakota State Over Providence
The first factor here is that Providence is a bad no. 4 seed. It won the Big East regular-season title behind an absurd run of success in close games: The Friars went 12-2 in contests decided by five or points or fewer and had three overtime wins. They also lost to Creighton in the Big East tournament semifinals by 27 points.
Of the 40 teams to earn a no. 4 seed in the past 10 men’s NCAA tournaments, none have ever finished the season with a KenPom ranking below 33, with an average ranking of 16.5. (This checks out; a no. 4 seed should theoretically rank between 13 and 16.) Providence is ranked 49th—49th!—a full 16 spots below any other no. 4 seed in the last decade.
The other factor here is that South Dakota State has been dominant. It went 18-0 in Summit League play, with 12 double-digit wins. What’s more, the Jackrabbits led college basketball in 3-point percentage, hitting on 44.9 percent of their attempts from deep. Two of South Dakota State players, Charlie Easley and Alex Arians, shot at least 50 percent from 3 this season.
This feels more like an 8-9 matchup than a 4-13. In 2021, the average spread for a 4-13 matchup was 9.5 points; Providence is listed as just a 2.5-point favorite over South Dakota State. If the Jackrabbits win, it’d barely count as an upset in Vegas—but it would still look nice on your bracket, thanks to a dramatic misseeding by the selection committee.