This article is part of our March Madness series.
March Madness is back, and this year’s tournament of buzzer beaters and bracket busters is set up to be even more chaotic than usual. Unlike last season, when the consensus best teams in men’s basketball met in the national final, the 2021-22 season didn’t feature twin juggernauts. Gonzaga held top billing for nearly half the season — and this might be only the third-best team that Mark Few has coached in the past four years.1 Seven different teams held the No. 2 spot in the AP Poll, quite the departure from last season when one team held it in all but two iterations.
Strap in for a unique run to New Orleans. The 68-team field includes more representation from the Mountain West Conference than it does the Conference of Champions, er, Pac-12. Nine teams from the Big Ten qualified, the most of any conference; however, none of them has even a 5 percent probability of becoming the conference’s first national champion since Michigan State in 2000.
Prepare for the unmistakable chaos of the NCAA Tournament by reading up on our forecast model. The First Four games will be played Tuesday and Wednesday, with the first round tipping off Thursday and continuing Friday.
|Chance to …|
The big picture: Baylor lost its three leading scorers from last season’s national championship team and still managed to secure its second-ever No. 1 seed and a first-round matchup in Fort Worth. But Scott Drew’s squad isn’t nearly as intimidating as it was 12 months ago, especially given its lengthy injury report. The Bears are not only the lowest-rated No. 1 seed in the field, but they also hold the distinction of being the lowest-rated No. 1 seed in any tournament since we introduced our team power ratings in 2016. Our model gives Baylor just a 14 percent probability of getting back to the Final Four, lower odds than three other teams in its region.
The Bears are joined in the East Region by four of the 12 winningest teams of all time in Kentucky, North Carolina, UCLA and play-in participant Indiana. Nearly half of the region’s 17 teams2 have national titles to their credit, with the East having won a region-high 35 national championships all time.
The East also features Cinderella candidates Saint Mary’s (No. 5), a team that toppled No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga less than a month ago, and Murray State, which enters the big dance on a 20-game win streak.
This figures to be the most intriguing region, with Kentucky (32 percent), Purdue (19 percent), UCLA (16 percent), North Carolina (3 percent) and Virginia Tech (3 percent) all with the best Final Four odds in the field for their respective seeds.
First-round upsets to watch: The top quarter of the region looks especially chalky; the East is the only region where the top four seeds each have odds of at least 90 percent to avoid an opening-round upset and at least 60 percent of advancing to the Sweet 16. But middle seeds face no such security.
The 30-win Murray State Racers haven’t lost since late December but are considered to be the region’s most vulnerable top-eight seed in a 7-versus-10 matchup against San Francisco, which hasn’t been to the tournament since 1998. According to Ken Pomeroy’s site, the Dons have the 19th-best defense in the country which is precisely what is required to tame the potent Racers offense.
Virginia Tech over Texas in an 11-over-6 matchup is a trendy pick. The Longhorns, who enter play on a three-game losing streak, have made a habit out of leaving tournaments early, mired in a three-tournament streak of opening-round defeats. The Hokies, who just upset Duke to win the ACC Tournament, feature a top-20 offense and the third-best 3-point shooting percentage in the country.
|Chance to …|
|12||New Mexico State||77.67||3.0||<0.1||<0.1|
|15||Cal State Fullerton||71.79||0.3||<0.1||<0.1|
The big picture: Gonzaga has come agonizingly close to its first national championship in recent years, with two appearances in the past four national finals. This Bulldogs team is considered less dominant than the national runners-up squad last season, according to Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, but more dominant than the 2016-17 unit that lost to North Carolina in the championship game. The Bulldogs feature the No. 1 offense and No. 7 defense in KenPom’s ratings, a potential National Player of the Year in Drew Timme and possibly the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA draft in Chet Holmgren.
Our model is bullish on Gonzaga, giving it the best odds of any team to cut down the nets in New Orleans, at 27 percent. Our model has granted better than 1-in-5 championship odds only twice in its pre-tournament projections since 2015.3
But Gonzaga might not even occupy the most attention in its region, since the gravitational Duke Blue Devils are the second seed. After a season’s worth of swan-song marketing, the actual last dance of Mike Krzyzewski’s coaching career is upon us. Duke is perhaps fittingly overseeded — our model pegs it as the weakest No. 2 seed in the field — when it opens tournament play in a neighboring state. The Blue Devils have an 11 percent chance of reaching what would be a record-breaking 13th Final Four for Krzyzewski, but they have been stunned twice already this month.
Should Duke avoid another Lehigh situation, Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils will clash with a legendary head coach in the Round of 32, either Davidson’s Bob McKillop or Michigan State’s Tom Izzo. The two have combined to win more than 1,200 games. These Spartans don’t have the hallmarks of the tournament-feisty teams that earned Izzo the Mr. March moniker, but since 2000, Michigan State leads the nation in performance against seed expectations according to Bart Torvik.
Our model considers the West the strongest region by average power rating, and it has seven teams measured at 85.0 or better. But if Gonzaga and Duke can both survive their potential usurpers, a battle between Few and Krzyzewski would make for an outstanding regional final.
First-round upsets to watch: Boise State, which recently earned its first Mountain West title, has the lowest odds (46 percent) of any No. 8 seed to advance past the opening round. This is largely because its opponent, the Memphis Tigers, might be the most volatile team in the tournament. Penny Hardaway brought in the nation’s best recruiting class, and stockpiled his roster with gravity-defying athletes. But the Tigers also lost to East Carolina and Georgia. Which team shows up when Memphis plays its first tournament game since 2014?
Vermont should make a nice first-round foil for Arkansas. The Catamounts performed unspeakable acts throughout the America East Conference Tournament, winning each of their three games by at least 30 points. They rank third in the nation in effective field-goal percentage and can fill up the scoreboard in a hurry. Arkansas, meanwhile, is No. 16 in adjusted defense according to KenPom. Our model gives Vermont a 28 percent probability of winning its third NCAA Tournament game in school history.
Davidson’s leading scorer, Foster Loyer, transferred out of East Lansing after last season and now could bounce his former team out of the tournament. Davidson has a 49 percent chance to upset Michigan State in the opening round, the best odds of any No. 10 seed, and the game will be played just over 100 miles from its campus.
Alabama has been erratic all season, with wins over Gonzaga, Houston and Tennessee and losses to Iona, Missouri and Georgia. Could the Tide wash out of the opening round to Rutgers or Notre Dame? Recall that 12 months ago, UCLA started its Final Four run in the First Four. Our model is higher on Notre Dame (22 percent) than it is on Rutgers (16 percent) to make it out of Dayton and then down the Tide.
|Chance to …|
|8||San Diego State||83.49||11.5||1.7||0.2|
|13||South Dakota State||79.68||8.1||0.6||<0.1|
|16*||Texas A&M-Corpus Christi||67.32||<0.1||<0.1||<0.1|
The big picture: Only one team joins Gonzaga with double-digit odds of reigning supreme in New Orleans — Kansas, at 10 percent. The Jayhawks earned a favorable draw and have better than 1-in-3 odds of advancing to the Final Four. Aside from second-seeded Auburn, Bill Self’s biggest threat in the region is the No. 5 Iowa Hawkeyes, whom our model is particularly high on. Should Kansas and Iowa meet in the Sweet 16, we give the Hawkeyes a 42 percent chance of advancing to the Elite Eight. Iowa recently upset the Purdue Boilermakers to win the Big Ten Tournament, and in its first season since 2016-17 without arguably the most celebrated player in program history in Luka Garza, we give it a 17 percent probability of advancing to the Final Four for the first time since 1980. In fact, our power ratings see Iowa as a stronger team than the East’s top seed, Baylor.
Our model’s power ratings consider the Midwest to be the weakest region in the 2021 bracket, and it has just four teams at 85.0 or better.
First-round upsets to watch: Kansas and Auburn are expected to waltz through the opening rounds. No. 3 Wisconsin opens play in Milwaukee, less than two hours from its campus in Madison, but our model indicates a tougher road for the Badgers, who square off with hot-shooting Colgate, which started the season 4-10 and but has gone 19-1 since.
The Midwest features the overall bracket’s most likely 13-over-4 upset, as South Dakota State has a 34 percent chance of beating the crunch-time-crazed Providence Friars. The Jackrabbits lead the nation in 3-point percentage by an incredible 4.1 points and haven’t lost since mid-December.
Creighton made a notable run to the Big East championship game without starting point guard and conference freshman of the year Ryan Nembhard, who is out for the year with a wrist injury. The Bluejays’ opening round affair with San Diego State should be a low-scoring one; it pits two conference-leading defenses against each other. Our model favors the Aztecs at 55 percent.
Iowa State and LSU effectively limped into the tournament. Iowa State has lost three consecutive games, including a 31-point shellacking at the hands of Texas Tech. LSU has lost four of its past seven, and head coach Will Wade was just fired. Our model gives the Cyclones a 33 percent probability of edging LSU in a battle of struggling offenses.
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The big picture: Top-seeded Arizona has quietly obliterated its schedule in its first season under coach Tommy Lloyd, who is in the midst of one of the most impressive freshman head coaching campaigns in recent memory. Nobody has won more games this season than the Wildcats, champions of both the Pac-12 regular season and conference tournament. Our model gives Arizona the third-best odds (8 percent) to win the tournament and a 32 percent probability of advancing out of the region.
Tennessee (No. 3) and Villanova (No. 2) represent Lloyd’s stiffest competition. Though many believe they should have received a better seed than a No. 3, the Volunteers are tied for the 12th-best power rankings in our model; they’ve beaten Arizona once this season but would likely need to beat two sets of highly rated Wildcats to earn a trip to the Final Four.
A season after being the first No. 1 seed to exit the 2021 tournament, Illinois returns to the dance floor as a No. 4 seed and as a popular dark-horse pick. Our model gives the Illini a 44 percent of advancing to the Sweet 16, where a 2005 matchup with Arizona would likely await.
First-round upsets to watch: A Cinderella candidate might immediately exit stage left when No. 6 Colorado State and No. 11 Michigan collide to open first-round play Thursday in Indy. The darling Rams face the worst opening-round win probability of any No. 6 seed (31 percent) against the No. 11 seed Wolverines.
The South also features perhaps the most famous celebrity endorsement: Sister Jean. Loyola of Chicago has its work cut out for it in the opening round, with worse than coin-flip odds (45 percent) of advancing past Ohio State in a 10-versus-7 matchup. Fans in search of an under-the-radar upset might consider No. 12 UAB over No. 5 Houston, a 2021 Final Four team; we give the Dragons a 25 percent chance of pulling it off.
Check out our latest March Madness predictions.
CORRECTION (March 15, 2022, 11:28 a.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed Arizona’s championship odds as 17 percent. The Wildcats’ chances to win the title are 8 percent, while their odds to make the title game are 17 percent.