By Hocine LOUKKAF on 3/14/2022

With at least half a dozen teams fully loaded to win it all this year, the NCAA Tournament will be as open as ever even though Gonzaga with its experience and talent is considered the #1 team for most experts.

#1 Gonzaga Bulldogs (26-3)

Gonzaga is ranked #1 in the country for the second year in a row but this team may not be as dominant as last year’s unbeaten squad as it has suffered three losses, albeit against top 25 ranked opponents. Yet, it has more length with Holmgren (14.2pts 9.6rbds 3.6bl) to help Timme (17.5pts 6.3rbds) inside, despite the fact that the 2022 Draft #1 prospect struggles against physicality. The backcourt is loaded with potential draftees Nembhard (11.7pts 5.7as but 18pts per game over the last five games) and Strawther (12.3pts 39% 3pt). The frontcourt may be tested in the second round if Memphis and Jalen Duren beats Boise State and the Bulldogs may find once again Duke, one of the only teams that beta them in the Elite 8.

#2 Arizona Wildcats (31-3)

If it was not for Kriisa’s injury (10.1pts, I may have ranked Arizona #1. Arizona is stacked in the frontcourt with potential first rounders Mathurin (17.4pts 5.6rbds 2.6as) and Koloko (12.1pts 7.1rbds 2.7bl) while Tubelis (14.5pts 6.4rbds 2.4a 0.8bl) and Ballo (7.3pts 4.6rbds 1.2bl) bring their size and experience. Kriisa’s absence has at least allowed other guards to take more responsability as Terry has combined 27pts 10as for only 2tos over the last two games while French freshman Adama Bal scored 6pts against UCLA in the Pac 12 Final. Last but not least, it may sound ironic but Kriisa shot a combined 4/28 in Arizona’s three losses… (no, I don’t wish him to remain injured). Tennesse and Villanova could be Arizona’s main oponens once comes the Elite 8.

#3 Kansas Jayhawks (28-6)

Kansas has size and talent at every spot but it seems like consistency will be the key, even for experienced upperclassmen. Agbaji (19.7pts 40% 3pt) has averaged 18.7pts over the last three games but had a miserable game against Texas with 8pts on 1/11 FG. McCormack (10.1pts 7.1rbds 0.9bl) had 18pts and 11rbds against Texas Tech to win the Big 12 but scored only 14pts combined over the two previous games. PG remi Martin had a streak of ten games with 5pts or less before scoring in double digit in the last two games while sophomore Dajuan Harris Jr shot an awful 5/20 FG in 107min combined over the last four games. Finally, the more reliable weapons have been forwards Jalen Wilson (10.9pts 7rbds) and Christian Braun (14.6pts 6.4rbds 2.6as) who have been efficient either scoring or rebounding in every game of the Big 12 tournament. Kansas’ way to he Final our won’t be easy with Iowa potentially coming pretty quickly before eventually facing Wisconsin or Auburn in the Elite 8.

#4 Tennessee Volunteers (26-7)

One of the latest risers in college basketball, Tennessee has used the SEC tournament to become a contender. With a streak of seven wins, including two against top 5 ranked opponents, the Volunteers have proved they were legit outsiders. Freshman Kennedy Chandler has stepped up recently with at least 50% FG in the last three games and a combined 15as for 3tos. Shooting has also been the key as the quartet made of Vescovi, Chandler, Zeigler and James has shot at least 40% with  15 attempts in each of the last four games, combining an impressive 38/77 in the process. Inside, UT may lack a dominant player but Plavsic, Fulkerson and freshman Huntley-Hatfield, who had 6pts or more in four of his last seven games, have the bodies to handle the paint. With Michigan, Ohio State or Villanova coming even befoe the lite 8, Tennessee doesn’t have the easiest bracket. Ye, it could help them gain confidence before a potential Elite 8 matchup against Arizona.

#5 Villanova Wildcats (26-7)

With four different leading scorers in the last four games, including three won by 6pts or less, the Wildcats are counting on team effort over everything. Yet, fifth year seniors Collin Gillespie (15.9pts 42% 3pt) and Jermaine Samuels (10.4pts 6.4rbds) are the heart and soul of this roster that may not possess the hype and prospects of the previous title winning squads. Justin Moore (15pts 5.1rbds 2.2as) and Caleb Daniels (10.1pts on 39% 3pt) are the other main offensive contributors while Dixon (9.1pts 6.3rbds) and Slater (9.1pts 3.7rbds 34% 3pt) are completing the starting five. Placed in one of the toughest regions, Villanova will need to beat either Michigan, Ohio State, Tennessee and Arizona to go to the Final Four, a tough challenge for the Wildcats.

#6 Auburn Tigers (27-5)

With arguably the best inside duo in college basketball made of potential lottery picks Jabari Smith (17.1pts 7rbds 43% 3pt) and Walker Kessler (11.7pts 8.2rbds 4.5bl), the Tigers have had one of their best seasons ever crowned by a #1 ranking. It may not be enough to go far in the Tournament. Leading passer Wendell Green Jr (12.1pts 5as) is as inconsistent as it gets as he had four games wit 25% FG or less over the last eight games. His backcourt mates are as inconsistent as Johnson shot 0/14 FG with 3tos and 0as against Texas A&M while Jasper had three 0pt game over the last seven games. Finally, Allen Flanigan, who was expected to have a breakout season, has been disappointing with only 6.2pts per game on 41% FG and 21% 3pt and not a single double-digit scoring game over the last month. Smith and Kessler will need their teammates wit potentially Wisconsin and later Kansas on their road to the Final Four.

#7 Baylor Bears (26-6)

With Tchamwa Tchatchoua out for the year and top scorer LJ Cryer out indefinitely (13.5pts 47% 3pt), the Bears have lost some of their momentum, even losing their Big 12 quarterfinal against Oklahoma. That may be the necessary waking call before the Tournament with several players who have been part of last year’s championship. Mayer (9.4pts 5rbds), Flager (13.4pts 3.1as 39% 3pt) and Akinjo (13.4pts 5.7as), who combined an awful 0/13 from three against Oklahoma, may never experienced the same drought. Senior soldier Flo Thamba (6.2pts 5.6rbds 1bl) has found new energy recently with averages of 11.8pts and 8rbds over the last eight games while freshmen forwards Kendall Brown (10pts 4.9rbds 1.9as) and Jeremy Sochan (8.8pts 6.2rbds) could be the X-factors for the Bears.

#8 Iowa Hawkeyes (26-9)

Winner of the tough Big 10, the Hawkeyes are almost a one-man team led by projected top 10 pick Keegan Murray. The dominant forward never has a bad day and fills the stat sheet even wen he’s cold scoring. He recorded at least 19pts and 7rbds in each of his last seven games shooting 22/41 from three in the process. He’s not totally alone to be faire as sophomore guard Tony Perkins (7.5pts 2.5rbds) has stepped up recently displaying almost the same versatility, with 11pts 4rbds 4as against Purdue or an even more impressive 17pts 12rbds 5as 1to in the short loss against Illinois. More is expected from Kris Murray (9.9pts 4.2rbds 41% 3pt) who shot 40% FG or less over the last three games while 6th year senior Jordan Bohannon (11.1pts 38.5% 3pt) had a nice streak of games in the Big 12 tournament (17, 16 and 12pts) before struggling against Purdue with 7pts on 2/8 FG.

#9 Kentucky Wildcats (26-7)

With three losses over the last eight games and a semi-final elimination in the SEC tournament, some of the Wildcats weaknesses have been exposed. While Oscar Tshiebwe (17pts 15.1rbds 1.6bl) and TyTy Washington (12.8pts 4as) have done their job, Kellan Grady (2pts on 1/8 vs Tennessee) and, to a lesser extent, Sahvir Wheeler (18pts 14as 5tos combined over the last two games but on 7/24 FG). Kentucky can’t count on its bench either as the substitutes scored only one point against Tennessee. With Purdue, UCLA and a the diminished Baylor Bears, the whole roster will need to play their A game to reach the Final Four.

#10 Purdue Boilermakers (27-7)

With three losses over the last six games, the Boilermakers have lost some of the magic that had them ranked at #1 during the regular season. While Edey (14.6pts 7.8rbds 1.2bl) and Trevion Williams (11.7pts 7.4rbds 3.1as) have been their usual self, Jaden Ivey (17.4pts 4.9rbds 3.2as) has suffered from the lack of a real PG as he recorded 5tos in two of the last three losses while combining 2/14 from three in these two games. Purdue also needs better play from Stefanovic who had 2,6 and 3pts in the Big 10 tournament while combining 3/17 FG over these three games. Purdue is in one of the most open regions with Kentucky, UCLA and Baylor among others.

Honorable mentions :

UCLA Bruins (25-7)

The Bruins proved last year that the NCAA Tournament was a whole new season as they got out the First Four to go all the way to the Final Four. The roster has been almost the same with C Myles Johnson and freshman Peyton Watson joining the vets. The Bruins lost in the Pac 12 Final against one of the contenders for the college title, Arizona. The game exposed its lack of size (39rbds to 32, 11bl to 3) and the need for every player to put their best game on the table and hit their shot as do-it-all forward Jaime Jaquez (12.3pts 6.1rbds), whose 3pt % has dropped from last year’s 39% to 29%, shot 0/5 from three. Johnny Juzang (16pts 4.6rbds 36% 3pt) is now known all over the country and it will be harder for the Bruins to be the cinderella.

Duke Blue Devils (28-6)

With two losses in the last four games, including a secound-round loss in the ACC tournament and a heartbreaking home loss against UNC for Coach K’s last game in the Cameron Stadium, both by 13pts or more, Duke has not prepared its postseason the best way. Paolo Banchero (17pts 7.8rbds 3.1as) has been good in both losses but Keels’ (1/7 FG and 0/4 3pt in each of the last two games) and Griffin’s inconsistency (5pts against UNC, 1/8 from three against VT) could be hard to handle for a team lacking viable solutions from the bench. Mark Williams (10.9pts 7.4rbds 2.8bl) could be the X factor if he can avoid foul trouble like it has been the case against VT (8pts 3rbds 4fo in 19min).