Well, well, well… Here we are again. Back on the doorstep of another March where the madness is about pop. Here at The Sportsletter, our team is a bunch of crazy college hoops fans with an obsession for brackets. I was courtside for the 2015 NCAA Final Four when Duke cut down the nets. I remember watching 16-seed UMBC (University of Maryland Baltimore County) not just upset 1-seed Virginia, but throttle them. A year later, the Cavaliers were the team to cut down the nets. It all comes full circle. The madness is unmistakable, and it’s coming soon.
So What Are We Doing Here?
With two days until the beginning of March, the college basketball regular season is just about wrapped up. In today’s Sunday Take, I’ll analyze the teams I think are heading to New Orleans for the Final Four.
First, let’s look at the league leaders for each of the notable conferences with just a few regular season games left. These are the teams likely to be celebrating regular-season conference titles in the coming days, if they haven’t already.
Power Conference Leaders
ACC: #7 Duke (14-3)
Big 12: #5 Kansas (12-2)
Big East: #11 Providence (13-2)
Big Ten: #4 Purdue (13-4) / #13 Wisconsin (13-4)
Pac-12: #2 Arizona (15-1)
SEC: #3 Auburn (13-2) / #6 Kentucky (12-3)
Teams ranked 2-5 are likely to walk away with regular-season championships, but the No. 1 overall team resides in the West Coast Conference. That’s #1 Gonzaga. The Bulldogs are the unanimous No. 1 team in the land, and for good reason. They’ll likely roll into the tournament unscathed as the top team once again — just like they were a season ago.
As for the top teams gunning for Final Four glory, I’ll narrow down the field of 68 to my top 12 finalists. Here’s a look at who could be on the 1, 2 and 3 lines when the brackets are revealed in two weeks.
Gonzaga, Arizona, Auburn, Kansas
Purdue, Kentucky, Duke, Baylor
Villanova, Texas Tech, Wisconsin, Illinois
The top-12 teams are (obviously) subject to change, with Providence, UCLA, Houston and USC as our 4-line prospects. But sticking with just a dozen contenders for the Final Four seems reasonable for now…
Scratching ‘Em Off
Of the 12 teams on our list of finalists, I’ll start by ruling out a few squads I simply don’t believe have Final Four “stuff” in 2022. Those on the cut line are Baylor, Villanova and Illinois. The Bears have lost five of their last 13 games since turning the calendar. The Wildcats are 1-2 against top-10 teams. And the Illini have been getting bruised by Big Ten competition down the stretch.
That leaves nine teams with Final Four aspirations who I think can reach New Orleans, but only four will. So what should we look for in a Final Four contender?
Three things separate the elite in March — experience, coaching and a star guard who can take over. And these four teams have some or all of those qualities.
The Final Four Prediction
The Bulldogs enter March 2022 with a chip on their shoulder after last year’s near-miss on the perfect season. They haven’t lost since Dec. 4, and both of their early-season losses came by single digits against ranked opponents. Head coach Mark Few, along with Drew Timme and Andrew Nembhard, have unfinished business. The Zags — now with a championship loss to fuel them — are going back to the Final Four.
I like the Jayhawks after a battle-tested season in Big 12 play. Kansas has an experienced coach in Bill Self and the best 1-2 punch of guards in the nation with Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun. That duo combines to average 35 points per game, and they can score in flashes. That’s a recipe for a takeover in March. It’s been 14 years since the Jayhawks won a national title, but they’ve went to the Final Four once every 4-6 years in the 21st century. Their last trip was 2018.
If ever there was a proper send off for head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final season, this is it. The Blue Devils have faltered almost every time they get too high in the rankings this year, but they’re putting it together at the right time. They’re 24-4 with all four losses by a combined nine points — just nine! Coach K has five titles to his name — 1991, 1992, 2001, 2010 and 2015 — and his frontcourt of Paolo Banchero, Wendell Moore Jr. and Mark Williams can overpower anyone.
If any team is due for a Final Four run, it’s the Boilermakers. Purdue’s frontcourt features 7-foot-4 Zach Edey and a load in Trevion Williams coming off the bench. But if there’s one name to remember in this tournament, it might be Jaden Ivey. He has all the makings of that special takeover guard who shines in March. Plus, the Boilers can shoot it and match up with anyone, and head coach Matt Painter is a defensive genius. The combo of Ivey and Edey could be lethal, and it could finally be time to hang a banner in West Lafayette.
That’s who I like to reach New Orleans. This has been your Sunday Take.