At long last, the 2022 NCAA Tournament is upon us, and debate is raging in the final days leading up to the first round action over how the bracket shapes up. Ultimately, the twists and turns of the event end up creating unforeseen matchups, and a single upset can open the door for utter chaos in a given region.
But until the ball is tipped, it's impossible to know who is going to get the breaks that will help facilitate a deep run. As things stand before Thursday's action, the best we can do is look at the bracket and see whose path looks the easiest and whose looks most difficult.
In the West Region, for example, a potential Sweet 16 matchup with No. 4 seed Arkansas or No. 5 seed UConn looks like it could be tough for No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga. But what if No. 13 seed Vermont becomes the darling of the Big Dance and knocks off the Razorbacks and the Huskies to reach the Sweet 16? The Zags and their front court duo of Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren would match up quite favorably against the undersized Catamounts, and their path to the Final Four would all of the sudden become easier.
Never say never. But while we wait for the hypotheticals to play out, here is a look at some of the easiest and toughest potential paths in the 2022 NCAA Tournament as things stand before the chaos.
- First round: vs. (16) Texas Southern/Texas A&M Corpus-Christi winner
- Second-round possible opponents: (8) San Diego State vs. (9) Creighton winner
- Sweet 16 possible opponents: (4) Providence | (5) Iowa | (12) Richmond | (13) South Dakota State
The Jayhawks have the shakiest case to be a No. 1 seed yet managed to land the easiest path of the group. There should be little fear in facing the winner of No. 8 San Diego State and No. 9 Creighton. The Bluejays reached the Big East Tournament title game but have lost three of their past six in total and are missing starting point guard Ryan Nembhard due to injury. San Diego State's stout defense will require KU's attention, to be sure, but the Aztecs' double-digit losses to USC and Michigan from earlier this season suggest the talent gap will be too steep to for the Aztecs to overcome.
From there, potential Sweet 16 matchups with Providence and Iowa are quite favorable for KU from an advanced statistics standpoint. While the Hawkeyes are unquestionably entering the Big Dance as one of the nation's hottest teams, their defense still lags behind at No. 77 nationally, according to KenPom.com. Iowa star forward Keegan Murray can't be stopped entirely, but KU forward Jalen Wilson is equipped with the right combination of size and athleticism to at least contain him.
Providence has been a team of destiny at times this season and has a Big East regular season title to prove it. But it's well-documented that the Friars have charted well in the "luck" category by repeatedly squeaking out victories in close games. From there, anything can happen. But even potential Elite Eight matchups with Auburn and Wisconsin are not daunting. The Badgers lost at home to lowly Nebraska on March 6 and then bowed out of the Big Ten Tournament after one game. Then there's Auburn, which enters playing the worst basketball of anyone with a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the bracket.
- First round: vs. (15) Jacksonville State
- Second-round possible opponents: (7) USC vs. (10) Miami winner
- Sweet 16 possible opponents: (3) Wisconsin | (6) LSU | (11) Iowa State (14) Colgate
Auburn is just 5-4 over its last nine games since a 22-1 start that catapulted it to No. 1 in the AP Top 25 for the first time in program history. But the Tigers were gift-wrapped a spot in the manageable Midwest Region and should be able to plod their way through the first weekend while looking to regain their January form. An opening round contest against No. 15 seed in-state foe Jacksonville State could prove testy, but the Tigers are superiorly talented. A second round matchup with No. 10 seed Miami might be more challenging for Auburn than playing No. 7 seed USC. The Hurricanes' savvy guards can give Auburn problems, but Miami has no one capable of containing Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler in the front court.
Once in the Sweet 16, Auburn would be likely to face No. 3 seed Wisconsin or No. 6 seed LSU. The Badgers' plight is mentioned above, and LSU is a team Auburn beat in the regular season that has since lost its coach. Then, it could come down to a meeting with Kansas, and the Jayhawks are the weakest of this year's four No. 1 seeds.
(3) Texas Tech
- First round: vs. (14) Montana State
- Second-round possible opponents: (6) Alabama vs. (11)Rutgers/Notre Dame winner
- Sweet 16 possible opponents: (2) Duke | (7) Michigan State | (10) Davidson | (15) Cal State Fullerton
As the No. 3 seed in the West Region, the Red Raiders would play Alabama or the winner of Wednesday night's First Four game between Rutgers and Notre Dame in the second round. None of those three teams are entering this tournament playing particularly well.
While Texas Tech's offense can go cold at times, its defense travels and will make it a difficult team for opponents to prepare for on short notice. If chalk holds and Texas Tech plays Alabama, it's easy to see the 3-point reliant Crimson Tide having one of their increasingly common poor shooting nights against the length and athleticism of the Red Raiders.
From there, Texas Tech's veteran savvy could make it a betting favorite in a potential Sweet 16 game with No. 2 seed Duke. The Blue Devils are one of the youngest teams in this tournament, and the Red Raiders are a bunch of grizzled vets by comparison. Eventually, a rematch of a 69-55 Dec. 18 loss to Gonzaga would be in store for TTU. But at least it would have some familiarity for that game.
- First round: vs. (16) Norfolk State
- Second-round possible opponents: (8) North Carolina vs. (9) Marquette winner
- Sweet 16 possible opponents: (4) UCLA | (5) Saint Mary's | (12) Wyoming | (13) Akron
Of the No. 1 seeds, Baylor is the one on shakiest ground because of the season-ending injury to center Jonathan Tchamwa-Tchatchoua and because of the continued uncertainty surrounding the availability of key guard LJ Cryer. Given that the Bears lost in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament, they are a trendy pick to lose in the second round against either Marquette or North Carolina.
UNC just won at Duke on March 5 and is a team that played its best basketball in the second half of the season. Even if Baylor does reach the Sweet 16, it still has a likely brutal path from there. As a No. 4 seed with an abundance of experience back from last season's Final Four run, UCLA would be a daunting Sweet 16 opponent. A potential Elite Eight matchup with No. 2 seed Kentucky or No. 3 seed Purdue would also be a challenge for the Bears without Tchamwa-Tchatchoua inside to help contain the star post players on those rosters.
Most difficult region: South
- No. 1 Arizona
- No. 2 Villanova
- No. 3 Tennessee,
- No. 4 Illinois
- No. 5 Houston
- No. 6 Colorado State
- No. 7 Ohio State
- No. 8 Seton Hall
- No. 9 TCU
- No. 10 Loyola-Chicago
- No. 11 Michigan
- No. 12 UAB
- No. 13 Chattanooga
- No. 14 Longwood
- No. 15 Delaware
- No. 16 Bryant or Wright State
Whoever emerges from the South Region will likely have some battle scars to show for it. With the top three seeds — No. 1 Arizona, No. 2 Villanova and No. 3 Tennessee — all entering off conference tournament titles, there is going to be no skating through this bracket. Arizona should make the Sweet 16 without much issue, but a No. 4 seed Illinois team will likely be waiting there, and the Illini have as much talent as anyone in the 68-team field.
The Wildcats beat Illinois on the road during the regular season, but there are no guarantees that outcome would repeat itself. Then, with the bottom half of the bracket, a potential second-round matchup with Ohio State looks like a pain in the rear for Villanova.
Tennessee's path to the Sweet 16 is not daunting. But the prospect of facing a Villanova team there that it lost to by 18 on Nov. 20 is not attractive. Then there are myriad other squads with the talent and pedigree to make some noise. No. 5 seed Houston made the Final Four last season and just won the AAC Tournament, No. 6 seed Colorado State is flying under the radar but has one of the tournament's best one-two combinations in Isaiah Stevens and David Roddy.
The list goes on. A preseason top-10 Michigan team, anyone? What about Loyola-Chicago? But even just looking at the top three seeds in the South is enough to cause some heartburn after all three finished in the top six of this season's final AP Top 25 this week.