Last Updated Mar 17, 2022, 1:25 PM
NCAA Tournament Contenders to Back
US Sports Betting Industry Expert
These four teams stand out as serious threats to make a Final Four run and have a legitimate shot at a championship. The market prices reflect that potential but these squads check the boxes of true contenders more than several of the other teams at similar seeding and pricing.
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- Record: 26-3
- Conference: WCC
- Region: West
- Regional Seed: No. 1
- Overall Seed: No. 1
The Bulldogs won’t have the weight of last season’s perfect record hanging on them and after two appearances in the Championship game over the past four tournaments, a breakthrough title is certainly possible for the WCC leaders. Gonzaga played five heavyweight non-conference games and went 3-2 in those games, beating Texas, UCLA, and Texas Tech but losing to Duke and Alabama. The WCC has more quality depth on top of the conference than in most recent seasons as well with likely three teams set to make the NCAA Tournament field.
Gonzaga has top 10 efficiency numbers on both sides of the ball and in terms of the Pomeroy Adjusted Efficiency Margin, Gonzaga has produced the largest gap between the #1 team and the #2 team in the history of those ratings going back to 2001-02. The offensive numbers are among the best in the nation as few teams have the size Gonzaga has, allowing for favorable interior looks while Gonzaga is also a nearly 38 percent 3-point shooting team. There really are not any statistical weaknesses for this group other than a low rate of creating turnovers but that average is likely a factor of being involved in dozens of blowout results with little need for high intensity defense in the second halves of games.
The losses to Duke and Alabama came very early in the season when possible #1 NBA draft pick Chet Holmgren only had a few games under his belt. Holmgren did have one of his least effective games in the late season loss at Saint Mary’s, fouling out with six points, but all-in-all he has lived up to his billing as the nation’s top prospect. The rest of the roster is filled with veterans that were a part of last year’s Final Four team as this is a group that has everything you would look for in a top title threat.
Gonzaga is the #1 overall seed and the odds-on favorite ahead of the tournament as there will be no bargain to had in supporting the Bulldogs in a futures prospect or in any individual game but unlike some past seasons, the status at the top appears to be well-earned for Gonzaga this season. Duke is a young and flawed team as the #2 seed in the West region while Arkansas and Connecticut don’t look overly dangerous as upset threats as the path for Gonzaga is favorable.
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- Record: 26-7
- Conference: SEC
- Region: East
- Regional Seed: No. 2
- Overall Seed: No. 6
Kentucky doesn’t have a bad loss all season, with five of six defeats to top 20 caliber teams and five of six defeats in true road games. The Wildcats always get great support in the NCAA Tournament and Indianapolis offers the Wildcats a great landing spot for the Round of 64 and Round of 32.
The statistical profile for Kentucky is built on the strength of the SEC as the early season non-conference schedule included only a win over North Carolina in Las Vegas as a result worth mentioning. Kentucky bolstered its non-conference resume in a big way in late January however, producing arguably the most impressive win any team produced all season with an 80-62 win on the road at Kansas.
Home court held in over 63% percent of SEC games this season and Kentucky was perfect in Lexington this season as there is some concern for the Wildcats and other SEC teams proving themselves away from home for six straight wins to earn a championship. Kentucky has elite offensive numbers and is less reliant on 3-point shooting than just about any team in the nation.
John Calipari has produced better defensive teams in the past but all six teams he has had at Kentucky that finished with a top 20 defensive efficiency ranking has at least reached the Elite 8. This year’s team is right on the border of the top 25 and could improve with a few postseason wins. Kentucky has allowed below 30 percent 3-point shooting this season and the Wildcats are likely better at creating turnovers than the season numbers represent given that the early season schedule was filled with several blowout wins against overmatched teams.
Murray State and San Francisco are both teams that could give Kentucky a scare in the Round of 32 but lining up with Purdue as the opposing #3 seed is a favorable landing spot in the bracket for Kentucky. Baylor is still the defending national champion but likely sits as the worst of the four #1 seeds. UCLA is a dangerous #4 seed but all-in-all Kentucky has a decent path to earn the shortest title odds of the #2 seeds.
- Record: 28-6
- Conference: Big 12
- Region: Midwest
- Regional Seed: No. 1
- Overall Seed: No. 3
The Jayhawks won a share of the Big XII in the regular season and won the Big XII tournament, credentials in the nation’s top-rated conference that propelled Kansas to a #1 seed. High-end non-conference wins are hard to find in the profile for Kansas but the Jayhawks are a top 30 defense and a top 10 offense.
There is great experience on the Kansas roster with all five starters contributed last season while Arizona State transfer Remy Martin has provided a boost. Kansas was the #1 3-point shooting team in the Big XII and the #1 3-point defense in the Big XII, and those numbers in the nation's top conference should pay dividends in the tournament.
Bill Self’s postseason track record can be questioned. His national title was way back in 2008 and Kansas has been a #1, #2, or #3 seed 11 times since then with only one other Final Four appearance. Kansas does have 13 wins away from home this season and the path in Fort Worth and Chicago should offer the Jayhawks a good opportunity to be well supported as usual.
Kansas has to feel good about its draw in the Midwest however as Providence isn’t overly threatening as the #4 seed and while Iowa has been hot late in the season, the Hawkeyes were slotted as a #7 or #8 seed just a few weeks ago. Auburn has been erratic as the #2 seed in the Midwest while #3 Wisconsin is coming off back-to-back losses and doesn’t grade as a #3 seed in anyone’s power ratings. Kansas can be considered the top tier team that should see its title odds improved the most by the bracket layout.
- Record: 25-7
- Conference: Pac-12
- Region: East
- Regional Seed: No. 4
- Overall Seed: No. 13
After last season’s amazing Final Four run from the First Four as an #11 seed, the possibility of UCLA failing to live up to expectations this season was realistic, if not expected. The Bruins have instead turned in an excellent season even if they fell a step behind Arizona in the Pac-12 race. UCLA split its regular-season meetings with Arizona and USC and produced a notable non-conference win over Villanova as the Bruins have competed well against top-tier teams. UCLA has two major blemishes on the resume with a home loss to Oregon and a road loss at Arizona State but both of those results were overtime games that easily could have swung the other way.
UCLA has top 15 efficiency numbers on both sides of the ball, joining just Gonzaga, Baylor, and Houston. In other words the only four teams as the numbers stand right now to reach that elite ranking tier balance were last year’s four Final Four teams. The key players from last year’s run are back with Rutgers transfer Myles Johnson added to the frontcourt and Mick Cronin’s team will have a tight rotation in the tournament with players that have been proven performers on the biggest stage.
Compared to last season UCLA has improved dramatically defensively, though the case can be made that the Pac-12 is not quite as strong this season with the decline of Oregon and Oregon State. UCLA improved by about three percent on defense this year from last year in both 3-point defense and 2-point defense while also forcing turnovers at a significantly higher rate.
Living up to expectations this season after the fanfare last March is no small feat, particularly in a major market that few other college programs must contend with. There is a lot to like about the Bruins being much more than a one-year wonder, though seeded as a #4 makes the path for the Bruins a bit more difficult than some of the other contenders on this list. UCLA is paired up with a Baylor squad that isn’t at last season’s level and after making the Final Four as a First Four #11 seed last season, the Bruins shouldn’t be counted out.