Everybody has their own way of making their bracket every March. Some people do a bunch of research and pay attention to the numbers and the statistics. Some people just pick their favorite teams or the teams they want to see win. Some people just pick whatever mascot would win in a fight. No matter what method you use to fill out your bracket, they all have one thing in common: they don’t actually work. You could have the best understanding of college basketball in the world and your bracket would still end up sucking. The NCAA Tournament is a complete crapshoot. Championship favorites lose in the first weekend, Cinderella teams make a run to the Final Four, and 16-seed UMBC beats 1-seed Virginia. Crazy stuff happens every March that even the experts don’t see coming. So filling your own bracket is just a way to humble yourself and realize how little you actually know about college basketball. But it is fun, that’s undeniable. When you correctly pick a big upset or get the Final Four teams correct it feels really good and you deserve to brag a little bit. Even if you get nearly everything wrong, picking the correct champion is the ultimate flex. Sometimes it is just luck but other times you can actually make a logical pick with some serious consideration behind it.
With that being said I am going to give you my pick for the NCAA 2022 National Champion. First, I will give you some of the criteria that I use to make my selection. Then I will make my official pick for this year’s March Madness and explain my thinking.
The biggest thing that I look to when making a pick like this is the star power. No matter how good a team is, sometimes it takes a special player making huge plays down the stretch to win it all. Carmelo Anthony, Kemba Walker, and Anthony Davis are all examples of big-time players doing what it takes to get their teams the win. Having a go-to scorer that can get a bucket when it matters most is one of the most critical things in the tournament.
Having a big star is not the only thing that matters in March though. One player can not carry a whole team by themselves, at least not all the way to the championship. It takes a well-rounded team behind that player to really unlock title-winning potential. It also matters that though players have some experience under their wings. Other than a very special team every once in a while, a bunch of freshmen are not going to win it all. A team needs some players that have been around for a bit, especially ones that have played in the tournament, in order to sustain a high level of play through the entire tournament.
Riding the hot hand is a very reasonable strategy come tourney time. It is the ultimate win-or-go-home situation so it helps for a team to be peaking at the right time. It doesn’t matter if a team starts out on an insane tear, if they are struggling at the end of the season, I’m out. Conference tournaments are a big indicator of this. A team doesn’t need to win that tournament to be taken seriously in the NCAA tournament but it does help for them to have a decent showing. Losing to a team that doesn’t even make the field of 68 is a huge red flag. Getting blown out by someone in the conference tournament is a bad sign, playing competitive games against tough competition is a pretty good indicator of how well a team can do in March.
Road to the Final
Technically a team will have to beat the best teams out there in order to win the whole thing but it does help to have a clearer path to the Final Four. Playing in a region with more underwhelming top seeds or some underdogs that could knock a contender out is a big plus for a team. Also getting a higher seed and avoiding the teams more capable of pulling off an upset is helpful. A team with a one or a two seed has a higher likelihood of advancing through the region because they get to play one of the lowest seeds in the first round and then a middle-seeded team in round two.
Free Throw Shooting
A team has to be pretty good at a lot of things in order to win the championship, but I view free throw shooting as the most important. If close games happen in the tournament, you want to be able to trust a team to hit its free throws when they matter. So many games come down to hitting free throws at the end, especially in college. A team doesn’t have to be insanely good at free throws to be taken seriously, it is more about not being bad. Bad free throw shooting is much more damaging than good free throw shooting is helpful. Even more important than overall team free throw percentage is if the best players can hit their shots from the charity stripe. When the players handling the ball at the end of the game can knock down their free throws it makes a team’s chances of moving on that much higher
My Pick: Kentucky
I actually talked myself out of my original pick while writing this. I planned on going with Duke as my pick but realized they didn’t meet my criteria enough, but Kentucky did. I also considered Arizona, Tennessee, and Iowa as teams that I like this year.
Kentucky definitely has the star power to win it all. Forward Oscar Tshiebwe was one of the best players in the sport this year. The First-Team All-American led the Wildcats in scoring (17 points per game), rebounds (15.2 per game), steals (1.8 per game), and blocks (1.6 per game). Tshiebwe certainly checks the star power box for Kentucky but he also has a supporting cast of talented veteran players.
Usually, Kentucky is a one-and-done freshmen team but this year’s crew is different. The Wildcats do have stud freshman point guard TyTy Washington, but the rest of the rotation is experienced. Tshiebwe, Keion Brooks, Sahvir Wheeler, and Jacob Toppin are juniors while Kellan Grady and Davion Mintz are seniors. March Madness experience is very valuable this year considering the 2020 iteration of the tournament got canceled. Grady and Mintz have both played in the tournament before on their previous teams so they will be able to provide veteran leadership for the rest of the team.
Momentum is also something that Kentucky has on its side. Although they were not able to win the SEC tournament, they did lose to eventual champions Tennessee in the semifinals. But even that loss to the Volunteers was close, with a final score of 69-62. Since the start of February, the Wildcats have lost just three times. Plus, all of their losses this season have been to teams that made the tournament, with five of the seven losses being to teams seeded four or better. Kentucky really doesn’t have a bad loss on its resume this year. The most points they have lost by is 13, so they have clearly been playing well all season. Even without the SEC tournament championship, Kentucky still has enough momentum to ride to the finals.
I also really like the region that Kentucky ended up in. They are the two seed in the East region and will play Saint Peter’s in the first round. After they win that game (*knock on wood*) they will either face Murray State or San Francisco. Even though both those teams are pretty good, whoever wins will be coming off a tough game and will have to play a Kentucky team that probably won a blowout. The rest of the region is very beatable for Kentucky. The one seed is Baylor and, despite being the defending champions, they are a little banged up and are definitely the most vulnerable of all the one seeds. The other top seeds in the region are Purdue (3), UCLA (4), and Saint Mary’s (5). While any team is capable of making a run to the Final Four, none of those teams are particularly scary to me. I like the Wildcats’ chances against any of those teams and I believe they will get through whoever ends up in front of them.
Lastly, I believe Kentucky is good enough at free throws to make them when it matters. As a team, they made 73 percent of their free throws, which is unspectacular but solid. In their two conference tournament games, they hit over 74 percent of their free throws, so they showed some improvement in that regard. More importantly, though, is the individual free throw shooting ability. Of the Wildcats that averaged double-digit minutes, all but one of them have a free throw percentage higher than 70 percent. The one player below that mark is Tshiebwe, who hits them at 69.3 percent, which is pretty good for a big man. The best free throw shooter on the team is Wheeler, who has an 81.5 percent mark from the stripe. He is certainly good enough at knocking those shots down to ice big games if needed.
Kentucky checks all five of the boxes that I look for in my national title winner. I can still end up being wrong (and almost certainly will end up being wrong) but I feel confident with this pick. If Kentucky does end up winning it all then I reserve the right to brag to you all about how smart I am and how I knew for a fact they were going to win (spoiler alert: I didn’t know that for a fact, I’m just making an educated guess). Let me know who you think is going to get to cut down the nets when March Madness is over.