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USATSI

The 2022 NCAA Tournament bracket has been announced, and now fans everywhere have a few days to research the teams and players for their bracket game entries. Things will get particularly interesting when you pour over the bottom right corner of the bracket in the East Region, where we have the reigning national champion in Baylor as the No. 1 seed, a title-contending Kentucky as the No. 2, a high-powered Purdue offense occupying the No. 3 seed and UCLA looking for a return to the Final Four -- this time from a more favorable position as the No. 4 seed instead of starting in the First Four like the Bruins did a year ago. 

That group stands out as the most impressive collection of top-four seeds in the field, as all four teams have occupied space in the top five of the AP Top 25 poll at some point during this season; both Baylor and Purdue reached No. 1 at different points. When all four teams have been operating at their peak this season, they have each appeared to be legitimate national championship contenders. 

But this is not a top-heavy East Region, at least in terms of interest, because the rest of the bracket features a couple blue bloods looking to make surprise runs in No. 8 seed North Carolina and No. 12 seed Indiana, Chris Beard's first trip through the Big Dance with No. 6 seed Texas and several dangerous mid-major squads capable of a Sweet 16 appearance. And while the top seeds include several title contenders, none of them won their conference tournament like No. 11 seed Virginia Tech, which punched its ticket thanks to taking down Duke in the ACC Tournament final. 

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With so much intrigue up and down the bracket, let's dive into some superlatives and storylines for the East Region. 

Best first-round game 

(7) Murray State vs. (10) San Francisco: The Racers rolled through the Ohio Valley Conference with an 18-0 regular season conference record and arrive with only two losses -- to East Tennessee State and Auburn -- in the 32 games they've played this season. Matt McMahon has a deep team with a few potential future pros, and while eying a battle with Kentucky in the second round is enticing, Murray State will have its hands full in the first round with a San Francisco team that defends at an elite level and is led by a pair of senior guards in Jamaree Bouyea and Khalil Shabazz that have been rock solid for the last three years under Todd Golden. 

Top potential matchup 

(2) Kentucky vs. (3) Purdue: If we get Kentucky and Purdue in the Sweet 16, it's going to be one of the most impressive collection of college basketball talent we might see in the entire tournament. Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe is potentially going to be the National Player of the Year and he'd have his hands full trying to rack up another double-double against Purdue's one-two punch of Zach Edey and Trevion Williams. The Boilermakers usually have an advantage when it comes to perimeter playmaking with likely NBA Draft lottery pick Jaden Ivey, but the Wildcats have multiple high-level perimeter players to provide an answer to that edge. With two of the highest-rated offensive teams clashing on the Sweet 16 stage, it could be one of the most entertaining games with plenty of points. While Kentucky might be a narrow favorite, it would likely be a coin-flip matchup decided in the final minutes.   

Upset lock of the regional 

Baylor won't make it to New Orleans: This isn't a huge "upset," except with the understanding that the 1-seed failing to make it out of the region is not meeting seed line expectation. But it's important to note why I'm bouncing the Bears from my Final Four projections because the reason could cause their exit at any time. Simply put: the injuries this team has sustained during the year create both depth and matchup concerns that could cause Baylor to fall short of another Final Four run. The absence of Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, the team's top rebounder and interior defender, is not ideal when staring down a region that includes Oscar Tshiebwe, Zach Edey, Trevion Williams and potentially a meeting for North Carolina's All-ACC big man Armando Bacot in the second round. Scott Drew did a terrific job getting Baylor to a steady position after those injuries -- they aren't recent developments -- but with new, unfamiliar matchups, it could be difficult to overcome those issues as well as the Bears did in Big 12 play.  

Cinderella team that will surprise 

(12) Wyoming: Led by all-conference point guard Hunter Maldonado and big man Graham Ike, the Cowboys have had a breakthrough season in Year 2 with Jeff Linder while reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. The Cowboys won't be a popular Cinderella pick due to losing four of their final seven regular season games, but the midseason surge that got them to 21-3 and ranked in the AP Top 25 poll included wins over two of the other three tournament teams from the Mountain West.   

Team that will make a far-too-early exit 

(6) Texas: This Longhorns team defends at a high level, just like you'd expect for any Chris Beard-coached team, but in the close losses over the last eight games it's been evident that those key clutch buckets don't come easily. The pieces of this team are great on paper, but in execution it's been clunky at times. I don't like that as a trait when we're expecting every game the Longhorns will play to be close in the final minutes. 

Six players to watch 

Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky: Potentially the National Player of the Year, Tshiebwe averages 17 points, 15.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. He's got 27 double-doubles on the year, including 15 in a row, and if he keeps the streak going on a deep Kentucky run, he'll threaten David Robinson's NCAA record of 31 double-doubles in a season. 

Jaden Ivey, Purdue: The highly-rated Boilermakers offense is led by Ivey, who has emerged as a potential NBA Draft lottery pick. The 6-4 guard also has a history of stepping up and knocking down huge shots in clutch moments, and if Purdue needs one, it's almost certain he'll have the opportunity to add another highlight to the buzzer-beater resume. 

Zach Edey, Purdue: The 7-4 center ranks second in the country in field-goal percentage, leads the team in rebounds and blocks and has a backup that could start for most schools is Trevion Williams. This one-two punch overwhelms opponents who don't have one big man on their level, much less two. 

Jaime Jaquez, UCLA: Johnny Juzang took the spotlight during last year's UCLA run, but coming down the stretch of this season, the Bruins' have leaned on Jaquez to be the engine on offense as Juzang was dealing with injury issues. Jaquez is also an elite defender, leading a group that ranks in the top 15 nationally in defensive efficiency. 

James Akinjo, Baylor: Scott Drew's ability to reload the Bears after a mass exodus from last year's title team has been thanks in part to the transfer of Akinjo, who has been a reliable presence on the floor since he overcame his own injury issues. He's a double-digit scorer and the Big 12 assist leader, and when Baylor needs a bucket, he's the one who makes things happen. 

K.J. Williams, Murray State: The 6-10 big man was the OVC Player of the Year after averaging 18.2 points and 8.6 rebounds in this memorable run. He's just as dangerous down low as he is stepping outside, where he can space the floor as a plus-value three-point shooter. 

East Region winner

(2) Kentucky: It's not just aligning myself with the best player in the country in Tshiebwe, but also a dynamic rotation with so many options that can be the superstar on any given night. TyTy Washington can take a game over attacking the rim, Kellan Grady can burn teams from behind the arc and the program mainstays like Keion Brooks and Davion Mintz have come up huge in crucial moments this season. But, most importantly, I think it's good to identify how this team got so much confidence with its rotation, and that's because they've had to plug holes because of injury all season. Now they're healthier and ready to make a deep run all the way to New Orleans.