March Madness is nothing if not pure, unadulterated chaos, and we’ve come to expect over the years that no team — not even No. 1 seeds in the first round (sorry, Virginia) — is safe from an early exit. But over the years we’ve also come to expect that, even with all the upsets that inevitably come with the Big Dance, there’s only a handful of teams that enter March with a real shot at the ‘chip. And this year is no different.
Here’s the cold, hard truth of it all: The NCAA Tournament winner crowned in April is probably going to be a team with a top-three seed. That has been the case 30 of the last 32 years since expansion. You can probably take that to the bank.
Now, will there be other contenders that emerge? Maybe! But unlikely. So using that data as gospel, which is pretty close to it, I’ve put together a list of the 12 teams that can win it all based on the latest Bracketology from Jerry Palm. All of these teams fit the criteria as projected top-three seeds and are ranked, based on the wisdom of yours truly, on their likelihood of winning it all.
Odds via Caesars Sportsbook. Projected seeds from CBS Sports Bracketology.
1. Gonzaga | Projected No. 1 seed
Odds to win title: +425
Not sure people realize just how good Gonzaga is this season and how the markets view this team, but it is the betting favorite to win the 2021-22 national championship. Right now, the Zags have an average scoring margin of nearly 25 points — multiple points better than the team a season ago that went 31-0 before falling in the title game. Led by the potential No. 1 overall pick in Chet Holmgren and an All-American producer in Drew Timme, this team has the goods to go the distance and the collective experience to boot.
2. Purdue | Projected No. 2 seed
Odds to win title: +1000
Full disclosure here: I’m biased when it comes to Purdue futures. I picked this team in the preseason as my champion and I’m enamored by the skill set of superstar sophomore Jaden Ivey, who ranks No. 1 on my Big Board for 2022. That said, it’s hard not to like the upside and potential of a team that ranks No. 1 in adjusted offensive efficiency at KenPom.com, while possessing incredible talent in the frontcourt with Zach Edey and Trevion Williams to complement what Ivey brings to the table in the backcourt. Even as iffy as the defense is at times — and it’s plenty iffy — the Boilermakers’ could easily run the table in March.
3. Auburn | Projected No. 1 seed
Odds to win title: +1000
Remember in August when I listed Auburn as a “longshot” I liked as a future bet? The Tigers were 60-1 to win it all at the time. 60-1! Now that number is 10-1, and the Tigers have earned the respect. Led by one of college basketball’s best motivators in Bruce Pearl and a surefire top-five pick in Jabari Smith, who continues to look like one of the most talented players in the sport, Auburn demands your attention immediately (if not sooner) ahead of March. Adjust your future bracket accordingly.
4. Arizona | Projected No. 1 seed
Odds to win title: +850
First-year coach Tommy Lloyd has made quick work of his new digs in Arizona. In his debut season as a head coach after waiting in the wings for years at Gonzaga, the Wildcats are 24-2, a projected No. 1 seed and in the driver’s seat to steal the Pac-12 by multiple games. Keep in mind this is during season in which UCLA — fresh off its Final Four run — still has most of its pieces in place. This team plays with an edge and swagger that’s both intoxicating and efficient.
5. Kentucky | Projected No. 2 seed
Odds to win title: +800
It’s hard to describe this Kentucky team without using some tired, old clichés, so allow me to do precisely that in a quick summation of the Wildcats: They’re just special. Oscar Tshiebwe is a monster on the boards; TyTy Washington is a top-10 draft prospect who can fill it up when healthy; Sahvir Wheeler has the passing chops to lead this team; and Kellan Grady’s experience and shooting is what the Wildcats so desperately have needed. Between the talent new and old, they seem to just find ways to win.
6. Kansas | Projected No. 1 seed
Odds to win title: +1400
Bill Self’s program is 23-4, on track to earn a No. 1 seed and sixth on my contenders list. Yes, yes, I do see why that may not add up. It seems about right, though. Amazing guard play should sustain them — Ochai Agbaji has been a true breakout star — but this team really doesn’t have a true No. 1 lead guard like many of the great Self teams (Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham, for example). Maybe it’s a nitpick, but all of these teams at the top are separated by slim margins.
7. Duke | Projected No. 2 seed
Odds to win title: +1400
Duke’s won 10 of its last 11 games, has three likely first-round picks, a reliable veteran in Wendell Moore and — oh, by the way — a Hall of Famer at the helm in Coach K, who is aiming to ride off into the retirement sunset on a high note. Still, sometimes it’s frustrating to watch what this team’s potential is and what it puts out on the court. Consistency will be key. The Blue Devils have one of the highest ceilings of any team on this list, but could just as easily be an early exit candidate.
8. Baylor | Projected No. 2 seed
Odds to win title: +1800
This isn’t the same Baylor team that opened the season 15-0. Yes, it has off-and-on battled the injury bug, but we’ve seen some cracks in the armor from the reigning national champion. And yet … I’m comfortable with the Bears as a top-10 placement on this list. Kendall Brown and Jeremy Sochan are X-factor freshmen loaded with potential and the vets, coupled with a brilliant tactician in coach Scott Drew, could click on the right track just in time for March. This remains a dangerous team that’s going to give any opponent a run for its money in the tournament.
9. Illinois | Projected No. 3 seed
Odds to win title: +3000
I was wrong about Illinois. I thought the Illini were ready to spiral earlier this season when Andre Curbelo was recovering from a head injury. I incorrectly assessed that the injury, coupled with early season losses, clouded the outlook. That’s on me, hand up. This Illini team is way better and more resilient than I gave it credit for. As Curbelo works his way back into the mix down the stretch, this team should only get better with Kofi Cockburn playing like an All-American and quality contributors led by Alfonso Plummer and Trent Frazier stepping up.
10. Villanova | Projected No. 3 seed
Odds to win title: +2500
This isn’t quite a vintage Jay Wright club, but it does have the trappings of one: It is the best 3-point shooting team in the Big East; it has a reliable star at point guard in Collin Gillespie; its offense is elite (generally speaking); and it knows how to close games as the best free throw shooting team in college hoops. Those are a lot of really important boxes to check. Perhaps a loss here or there over the last few months has shaded our view of this team unfairly because it certainly seems the early-season struggles are in the rearview. As expected, the Wildcats are making their moves just as March arrives.
11. Wisconsin | Projected No. 3 seed
Odds to win title: +7000
Here are three reasons why Wisconsin can win it all: 1. Johnny Davis, 2. Johnny Davis, 3. Johnny Davis. (Oh, and did I mention Johnny Davis?) He might be the best player in college hoops and he has a good supporting cast around him. Davis has delivered in almost every big game this season, so if he goes bananas in the dance and takes the Badgers to the Final Four, please don’t be surprised.
12. Texas Tech | Projected No. 2 seed
Odds to win title: +2500
Mark Adams being hailed as the defensive guru on Chris Beard’s staff the last few years was not at all an exaggeration, as it turns out. In his first season at the helm in Lubbock, Texas Tech has the No. 1 defense in adjusted efficiency at KenPom, and it has routinely relied on that strength to win big games — including suffocating performances to oust Texas and Oklahoma most recently. It’s a style that has made the Red Raiders one of the most dreadful matchups in the Big 12, and it should be a pain for teams to match up against in March.
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