The UConn Men’s basketball team is going dancing for the 2nd straight year after a 5-year gap. UConn has earned it’s highest seed since 2011 and was considered by the committee to be the 17th overall ranked team and #1 ranked 5-seed. While all of that is positive and to be in the NCAA Tournament is a goal every year, the committee certainly didn’t do UConn any favors putting them in the West Region. For me it’s the toughest region of them all in 2022 and the top seeds are an absolute gauntlet to run through if a team wants to play the Cinderella role, and there are some interesting Cinderella options. Let’s take a look at what makes this region so challenging.
The top 4 seeds in the region are #1 Gonzaga (#1 overall), #2 Duke, #3 Texas Tech, and #4 Arkansas. The Zags are the #1 overall team, not surprisingly, and they are paired with the lowest #2, #3, and #4, but they are far from easy matchups. There is certainly debate about Duke being a #2 seed and while I can understand the argument, that’s far from a favorable #2 paired with the Zags. The Blue Devils in March are always a tough matchup and know how to win in big tournament games. Whether they were playing their best basketball down the stretch or not seems not to matter, especially when they are playing for Coach K in his final season.
The #3 Texas Tech Red Raiders have had a really strong year in the Big 12, finishing 3rd in the regular season and 2nd in the conference tournament, losing to #1 seed Kansas in the title game. All 9 losses on the season for the Red Raiders were to quad 1 teams (8 wins) and they are ranked 9th in NET out of 358 teams. The Red Raiders are one of the toughest defensive teams in the country, ranking 1st out of all 358 teams in adjusted defense according to KenPom. Texas Tech is a veteran-led team that is a tough matchup for most anyone and certainly not an easy #3.
Not to be outdone, the lowest #4 seed Arkansas, is anything but an easy draw (and would be UConn’s 2nd game opponent if the bracket goes chalk). Arkansas turned themselves into one of the best defensive teams in the country later in the season and went 5-2 down the stretch of the regular season with both losses by a combined 5 points. Led by coach Eric Musselman, an outspoken coach who is known for being strong in the area player development, they will be ready. He already made his feelings known that playing Vermont and having UConn as a team in Buffalo was “interesting” based on geographic location. Arkansas is not an easy matchup for anyone and they are the #4 seed.
Looking at the rest of the region and specific matchups, it doesn’t get any easier. Tom Izzo and Michigan State are the #7 seed and face a really tough #10 Davidson team in their first game. Both teams have had past tournament success, obviously Izzo more than almost anyone, so it should be a fun matchup. I wouldn’t be surprised to see an upset there. Another upset alert game is the 4 vs 13. As much as I really like Arkansas as the #4, they have a really tough matchup against #13 Vermont, closer to Vermont’s home turf. Vermont will slow you down and drain the life out of you, which gives them a chance to be this region’s Cinderella.
The 8 vs 9 matchup is another great game. They usually are tight contests, but this one is especially interesting for me. The #8 Boise State Broncos are underseeded in my opinion, finishing the year with the regular season and conference tournament championship in the Mountain West Conference. Their 27-7 record included 7 quad 1 wins (3 losses) and 6 quad 2 wins (3 losses), which is an impressive feat. Their 1 quad 4 loss certainly hit their resume hard, but overall they were able to beat tournament-level teams. The #9 is Penny Hardaway’s Memphis team who had a rocky season, but made a run to the American Athletic Conference tournament final, losing to 5th seeded Houston. They finished with a 21-10 record (13-5 in the conference) and were just 8-8 against quads 1 and 2, and had 2 bad losses to quad 3 teams. Overall, this will be a fascinating game in terms of tempo, Memphis wanting to move the ball quickly and Boise State wanting to grind you down.
A play-in winner often makes a bit of a run in the tournament each year and the #11 in the West Region will be either Rutgers or Notre Dame. Notre Dame is a team that barely got into the tournament and most believe should have been out, which is just the type of story that leads to a surprising run. Rutgers had some bad losses, but overall faired much better against quad 1 teams compared to ND (Rutgers 6-6, ND 2-8) and frankly neither team was particularly impressive this season. I doubt either gets past the fast-paced #6 Alabama team.
As the #5 in the region, if UConn wants to make a run, it’s going to be a tough path. If, and it’s a big if, they beat #12 New Mexico State in round one and avoid the dreaded 12 over 5 upset, than they likely face the tough Arkansas Razorbacks. If for some reason they are able to make the 2nd weekend, then the #1 overall seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs are likely their opponent. If for some reason they can upset the Zags, then they could play Duke or Texas Tech. While that’s a crazy hypothetical, that’s an absolute gauntlet and makes a deep run damn near impossible for the Huskies this year. That being said, stranger things have happened in the NCAA Tournament…