February 2022 NCAA Tournament Bracketology: Who are some early contenders for the Final Four?

March Madness is under a month away, and today the selection committee will be revealing their top 16. It’s a good time to begin thinking about which teams could be a good pick to take home a title. In this post I have my latest bracketology, including my prediction of which teams the committee will include in their top 16.

Top 16 Teams:

  1. Gonzaga (22-2, #1 overall)
  2. Arizona (23-2, #8 overall)
  3. Baylor (21-5, #10 overall)
  4. LSU (19-7, #16 overall)

Gonzaga started this season with a mix of big wins and underwhelming losses. However, every team has had their fair share of rough losses this year. In WCC play, they have been as dominant as usual and if they can carry that momentum into the tournament they have a shot to return to the NCAA Championship. Arizona has slowed down a bit since their undefeated start to the season, but wins over high-powered teams like UCLA prove the Wildcats are still among the top teams in the country. The Baylor Bears are another team that has slowed down since an undefeated start. However, Scott Drew’s defense has made the difference in crucial wins for Baylor such as their early season victory over Villanova, and this defense should make them a difficult team to knock out. LSU has struggled in the absence of Xavier Pinson, but when Pinson is healthy they are among the SEC’s best. I expect a turnaround before the season ends, so they just barely make the cut for the top 16.

Final Four Dark Horse: Notre Dame

The Fighting Irish came insanely close against Duke, and they also hold a win over Kentucky. After a rough 2020-21 season, Notre Dame’s roster has gained experience and now has the talent to compete with the nation’s best. I could see their veteran core pulling off some surprising upsets this year.

Top 16 Teams:

  1. Purdue (23-4, #4 overall)
  2. Duke (22-4, #5 overall)
  3. Tennessee (19-6, #12 overall)
  4. Providence (21-3, #13 overall)

Purdue got off to a flaming start this season, taking down teams like UNC, Villanova, and Florida State. In conference play, they’ve had a few concerning road losses, but led by Jaden Ivey, they have developed a strong enough resume to sneak onto the 1-line. They just barely edge out Duke, a team that has taken down other top contenders in Gonzaga and Kentucky in Coach K’s final season, but also has fallen short late into a few of their conference matchups, against Virginia, Miami, and Florida State. Tennessee has delivered when they were expected to, and they have had a couple of big wins as well. It’s easy to forget that they were the team to end Arizona’s undefeated season, and they were also able to split with a strong Kentucky squad. They receive a slight edge on the 3-line over Providence, a team that has been hard to stop recently but lacks a resume against the country’s other top contenders.

Final Four Dark Horse: Memphis

I know, Memphis was looking really shaky to begin the season. However, Penny Hardaway and the Tigers have quietly began to get their act together, recently knocking off UCF, Cincinnati, and most importantly Houston. As they boast one of the most talented rosters in the country, I would not be surprised to see them make a run if they can peak at the right time.

Top 16 Teams:

  1. Kansas (21-4, #2 overall)
  2. UCLA (18-5, #6 overall)
  3. Auburn (24-2, #11 overall)
  4. Illinois (18-7, #15 overall)

The Jayhawks suffered a rough loss to Dayton early in the season, but since then this talented squad has gradually built one of the nation’s strongest resumes. In a highly competitive Big 12, they are 10-2 including wins over Baylor and Texas Tech. You cannot forget their early season wins over Michigan State, Villanova, and Oregon either. UCLA has been on a rough stretch recently, but they still have a very talented team after their Final Four run last year, and they have shown it by taking down teams like Villanova, Arizona, and Marquette. Auburn is another one of those teams kind of like Providence: they’ve been hard to stop, but aside from a January matchup with Kentucky, they have had a fairly easy schedule. Illinois, on the other hand, has come up big against the nation’s best despite some concerning losses to teams like Cincinnati and Rutgers. Kofi Cockburn has allowed the Fighting Illini to stay competitive in most games, but this team may lack the clutch ability necessary to make a deep tournament run, and they could be upset prone.

Final Four Dark Horse: Florida

I have the Gators projected higher than most, so I think it’s fair to call them a dark horse as not many people are expecting much out of them. While they did get taken down by Texas Southern in an embarrassing loss earlier this season, they’ve also put together some quality wins. Keyontae Johnson has moved to a role as player-coach, and I feel he can still make an impact on the strong roster around him in the locker room. After being knocked out by Oral Roberts last year, this Gators team will be hungry for revenge.

Top 16 Teams

  1. Kentucky (21-5, #3 overall)
  2. Texas (19-7, #7 overall)
  3. Villanova (20-6, #9 overall)
  4. USC (22-4, #14 overall)

John Calipari’s Wildcats have turned things around after a rough 2020-21 season. Led by West Virginia transfer Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky has been able to compete with the SEC’s best and knock off Kansas in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. Texas lacked quality wins to begin the season, but that has changed after their recent wins over Tennessee and Kansas. Between Courtney Ramey, Marcus Carr, and many others, Texas has a lot of talent on this team and could make a deep run if they can work well together. Villanova has more losses than your typical top 16 squad, but they’ve also faced one of the nation’s toughest schedules. They’ve had to face UCLA, Tennessee, Purdue, Baylor, Xavier (twice), Marquette (twice), and Providence. They only won about half of those games and it still makes for an extremely impressive resume. USC is another one of those teams that has slowed down after an undefeated start, but they have been competitive against other Pac-12 contenders like UCLA and Arizona, giving them the resume to remain on the edge of the top 16.

Final Four Dark Horse: Murray State

This is a bit of a bold one, but Murray State has been unstoppable in the OVC and even took down a talented Memphis squad. Just imagine what kind of things they could do with a more competitive schedule. They’ll receive that opportunity in the NCAA Tournament.

All of these teams come into the final few weeks of the regular season with something to prove. A good number of them have had extremely mixed resumes, with brutal losses in addition to huge wins. The best way for them to secure their NCAA Tournament bid would be winning the conference tournament, which would add several more big wins to their resume and secure them a spot. However, for those of them play in extremely competitive conferences, it will come down to how they fare against the top contenders on their schedule. Teams here like Arkansas, Michigan, Butler, and SMU do have a lot of potential if they make the tournament, but they’ll first have to prove themselves down the stretch.

Feel free to comment with your thoughts, and you can enjoy today’s bracket preview at noon on CBS.

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