Coaches and NBA scouts make their March Madness 2022 predictions

For the second straight season, Gonzaga enters March Madness as the overall 1-seed and the betting favorite in Las Vegas to cut down the nets in New Orleans on April 4.

And for the second straight season, the Zags are also the preferred pick among coaches and scouts.

When we performed this exercise last year, there were only three teams selected as potential men’s NCAA tournament champions: Gonzaga, Illinois and Baylor. This time around, there were eight different picks — although Gonzaga is still on the top after sitting at No. 1 in the country for most of this season.

While everyone from data people to television analysts to casual observers have their own opinions on what will unfold over the next few weeks, current coaches and those paid to evaluate players preparing for the next level tend to have a unique perspective on how to fill out a March Madness bracket.

On Tuesday, I polled college coaches from all levels — high-major, mid-major, low-major — and NBA scouts to ask for their national championship predictions.

Here are the results of the 25 industry people polled:

  • Gonzaga: 8
  • Arizona: 6
  • Kansas: 2
  • Tennessee: 2
  • Kentucky: 1
  • UCLA: 1
  • Villanova: 1
  • Texas Tech: 1
  • Duke: 1
  • Purdue: 1
  • Iowa: 1

“Despite the fanfare going to their two All-Americans, the Zags have a balanced attack of five guys scoring in double digits,” one scout said. “They move the ball offensively and protect the rim on defense. It’s a revenge tour for Drew Timme after last year’s national final and a true national coming-out party for a consensus top-three pick in Chet Holmgren.”

“Gonzaga has everything you need to win,” a college coach added. “Depth, scoring, versatility and they have a chip [on their shoulders]. They have something to prove.”

Several coaches had similar reasoning for picking Gonzaga: It’s the Zags’ turn. They’ve fallen just short on multiple occasions, but it’s their time now.

“It took Michael Jordan and LeBron some bad times in the playoffs to better understand the intensity and mental approach you have to have in games in order to break through,” one coach said. “Gonzaga better understands what it takes.”

Arizona has been arguably the biggest surprise nationally, going from unranked and under-the-radar in the preseason to being the No. 2 overall team entering the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats have lost just three times all season under first-year head coach Tommy Lloyd.

“If Kerr [Kriisa] is healthy, they have a go-to scorer in [Bennedict] Mathurin, they have other interchangeable guys,” one coach said. “There’s a chemistry there that looks like a championship-level team and then they back-end that with an elite defender and rim protector in [Christian] Koloko.”

“I like their vibe,” another college coach added. “They have a lot of options, a lot of weapons. They look like they believe in themselves.”

There was a drop-off after the top two favorites, but Kansas and Tennessee both received multiple votes.

“Kansas has a really, really good coach. They have a stud in [Ochai] Agbaji,” one high-major coach said. “If Remy Martin can be good for two weeks, they’ve got a lot to them.”

“Tennessee has momentum and guard play,” a college coach said. “[Santiago] Vescovi, Zakai Zeigler, Kennedy Chandler and Josiah-Jordan James, plus any of their 5-men — that’s a tough cover. And defense is the best thing they do.”

One thing worth noting: Baylor, the fourth 1-seed, received zero votes. Might be bulletin board material for Scott Drew’s Bears.

Here’s what else coaches and scouts are saying about this year’s bracket:

Are Duke and Kentucky still national title contenders after up-and-down finishes?

A month ago, Duke and Kentucky were perceived to be two of the favorites to win the national championship; both teams were playing some of their best basketball of the season. Duke had won 12 of 13 games, while Kentucky had won 10 of 11 and was on a roll. Then the Blue Devils and Wildcats stumbled a bit down the stretch. Duke was blown out on its home floor in the season finale to North Carolina, then lost to Virginia Tech in the ACC title game by 15. Kentucky, meanwhile, has lost three of its last eight games.

So what’s happened over the past couple weeks and what do both teams need to do to get back on track?

Duke has fallen apart defensively of late. The Blue Devils have allowed at least 1.00 point per possession in eight of their past nine games and have allowed at least 1.14 points per possession in four straight games. Their five worst defensive performances of the season have all occurred since Feb. 26.

“When you have to engage all five guys, that bothers them,” one ACC coach said. “Their strength is protecting the rim, which in turn allows them to guard the 3 because they don’t have to help. But when you have a big that can stretch the floor like, like [Virginia Tech’s Keve] Aluma, like [Miami‘s Sam] Waardenburg, like [Clemson‘s PJ] Hall, that gives them trouble.”

“They have all the tools to be an elite defensive team, but their effort doesn’t match their talent defensively,” an assistant coach added. “They’re feast or famine defensively. They live-ball turn you over, but they don’t force turnovers, they were last in the league. We thought if we don’t turn the ball over and take good shots, we’ll have a chance.”

Offensively, the biggest issue lately has been the Blue Devils’ inability to make shots from the perimeter — and in their two losses, they failed to get consistent second-chance opportunities. Duke was the second-best 3-point shooting team in the ACC, making 38.2% of its attempts in league play, but it has made just 30% in the past four games.

“The teams that play gap-heavy, that shrink the floor, that can give them trouble,” one coach said. “If you force them to take jumpers, they become isolation-heavy and you can keep them off the rim. That’s Clemson, Virginia, Virginia Tech.”

Kentucky has also had issues defensively lately, ranking No. 156 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency since the middle of February, according to metrics at The Wildcats have struggled to rebound defensively and are allowing too many open shots.

“[Oscar] Tshiebwe was in foul trouble against Tennessee. He’s not a great defender, but what he does is he’s able to clean up a lot of mistakes around the rim. Being able to be an elite rebounder,” one SEC coach said. “When he’s not on the floor, it makes them more susceptible to dribble drives.

“The guy they really like guarding on the perimeter is [Jacob] Toppin and it’s sometimes hard for him to play consistent minutes. [Keion] Brooks [Jr.] and Toppin complement each other. Toppin is good defensively not great offensively, Brooks is the opposite. So they have to decide whether to take an offensive threat off the floor or go less defensive.”

At least one coach in the SEC thinks TyTy Washington Jr., is the key player when it comes to impacting a game for the Wildcats, while another points out that the Wildcats are at their most efficient offensively when Kellan Grady is making shots.

“From an offensive standpoint, they’re as good as Grady is. If Grady is out there and he’s a threat from the 3-point line, it completely changes how you gotta guard Kentucky,” one coach said. “If he’s struggling, you can be more compact defensively.”

“I think TyTy is their most important player,” another assistant coach said. “He’s the one guy who’s not a specialist. Grady is a specialist from 3, [Sahvir] Wheeler is a specialist as a high-assist guy, Tshiebwe is a specialist rebounder and post scorer. TyTy can score at all three levels, he can defend, he can distribute. If his shot isn’t falling, he can still have an effect on the game in a variety of ways.”

So what’s the verdict on the Blue Devils and Wildcats in terms of title hopes?

On Duke, one ACC coach: “They’re capable of winning a national championship. They have everything you want. They don’t shoot it great all the time, but they have four first-round picks.”

On Kentucky, one SEC coach: “I think they can win a national championship. For them to be able to win big, Tshiebwe is going to have to play well. And he’s been doing stuff that hasn’t been done in the modern era.”

Are popular upset picks Vermont and South Dakota State built to win?

The two most likely mid-major upset picks in the first round of the NCAA tournament, according to ESPN’s BPI metric, are South Dakota State and Vermont. BPI gives South Dakota State a 40% chance of knocking off Providence, while Vermont is given a 36% chance of beating Arkansas.

Are the 13-seed Jackrabbits and 13-seed Catamounts smart upset picks?

South Dakota State hasn’t lost since Dec. 15, winning 21 games in a row entering the NCAA tournament. The Jackrabbits are an elite offensive team, ranking No. 12 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency (first in raw offensive efficiency) and are the best 3-point shooting team in the country. In conference play, they shot an absurdly impressive 45.7% from 3 and 59.6% from 2.

“They’ve got three of the top 15 shooters in the country all on one roster,” one Summit League coach said. “They can really score the basketball because of their ability to shoot. It’s somewhat hard for high-major teams who are used to playing Big East, Power 5 schools to get adjusted to a team like this. You’re not used to little guards or bigs that can stretch it and shoot 50% from 3. At the Power 5 level there’s usually a guy out there you don’t have to guard. That is not the case with this group — you have to be extended, then [Baylor] Scheierman goes and gets in the paint. You get so extended defensively. It’s just different.”

Scheierman is the key for Eric Henderson’s team. The Summit League Player of the Year will be the best NBA prospect on the floor in the first-round game against Providence after averaging 18.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists.

“He’s a 6-foot-6, 205-pound wing with NBA range,” one coach said. “You have a guy who can do it off the bounce, who can get to the paint, create for himself, create for others. Do not give this kid an open look because you can just put it in the bank. He makes open shots as good as I’ve seen. I cringed every time he had an open look against us. He’s the one guy on their team who can do a lot off the bounce.”

Defensively, South Dakota State might have some issues. The Jackrabbits rank No. 220 nationally in adjusted defense and are in the bottom-third both inside and outside the arc. Their lack of size and physicality down low could be an issue, too.

“You’re not going to have problems scoring on them. It’s not what they want to do,” a Summit coach said. “They get gap-oriented, so they’ll try to take away penetration. If you have guys who can make 3s, you can get quality shots. Two teams in our league shot north of 40 3s in a game against them. Now, you have to be able to make them. Doug Wilson and Luke Appel struggle to score through people. Power 5s have bigger guys that you have to play through. They struggled against Washington, they struggled against Missouri State. If you’ve got a big who isn’t giving up angles, they’re not going to score. And then you’re relying so much on Baylor because the rest are primarily catch-and-shoot.”

Vermont is a familiar face in the NCAA tournament, with the Catamounts going dancing for the third time in the past five tournaments. But this might be the most dominant of John Becker’s teams, after absolutely obliterating their competition in the America East tournament. The Catamounts won their three conference tourney games by a combined 110 points, which was the largest by any team in the past 40 seasons.

“They just make the right plays. They’re old, which gives them an advantage,” one coach in the league said. “They have this level of confidence and arrogance when they’re on the court. Not in a bad way — they’re a very confident group of guys. They run their stuff, then they go into iso ball when they sniff out your worst defender. If you don’t guard something right, they’re getting a layup or 3.”

The Catamounts are performing at a high level offensively right now, scoring at least 1.25 points per possession in all three America East tournament games — while shooting at least 41% from 3-point range in all three. They shot 41.0% from 3 and 60.4% from 2 in conference games.

“They’re in a great rhythm right now,” an America East coach said. “Ryan Davis — he’s a 5-man that make a 3-pointer, so it’s hard to guard. How do you prepare for it defensively, what do you do in ball screens? He’s a guy that’s gonna pick and pop and he makes half his 3s. They understand what it takes to win. [Aaron] Deloney comes off the bench, makes shots. [Robin] Duncan comes off the bench and guards, Finn Sullivan is the perfect role player for the program. All the pieces fit and they’re fully bought in.

“Ben Shungu is good. He was a walk-on, redshirted and worked himself into a starter and all-league player. He’s strong, athletic. He can score. In high-major games, seeing his body, he’s a high-major body at his position. He’s guarding either the best scorer or the point guard.”

One potential trouble spot — especially against a team like Arkansas — could be the Catamounts’ lack of explosiveness and pace in their lineup. An America East head coach said they struggle when games become more hectic and up-and-down.

“If they can control the pace of the game, they have a shot. But against speed and athleticism, they might get worn down,” he said. “They can hang, but for 40 minutes? If Arkansas makes it straight athleticism, speed, who is the quickest to the ball, they’ll wear down. They have to control the tempo of the game. Looking at Arkansas, they switch a lot, they can go five-out — that could be hard for Ryan Davis. But they went through a stretch when Davis was out and hurt and they played small and switched everything. If they have to adjust, they have experience at it.”

Did Iowa and Tennessee peak too soon?

It’s hard to argue that any teams in the country are playing better right now than Iowa and Tennessee. Iowa has won 12 of its past 14 games and just won the Big Ten tournament, while Tennessee has won 12 of its past 13 and the SEC tournament. Since Feb. 1, the Hawkeyes are No. 2 in adjusted efficiency margin at — the Volunteers are right behind them at No. 3. (For what it’s worth, Gonzaga is No. 1, but we’ll get to the Zags shortly.)

Iowa and Tennessee have emerged as sneaky-popular Final Four picks, but the counter to that would be that their momentum won’t carry over to the NCAA tournament.

As one coach said, however, “If it’s a mirage, it’s a hell of a long-lasting one.”

Iowa, the 5-seed in Kansas’ region, has the nation’s best offense by a fairly wide margin over the past six weeks. The Hawkeyes haven’t been held below 1.00 point per possession since Jan. 19 and are shooting 41.4% from 3-point range since Feb. 1.

“They were playing the best of any team in the league going into the tournament,” one Big Ten coach said. “I think [Jordan] Bohannon is shooting the ball a lot better. It didn’t seem like he was really shooting it like he was capable of, but since then, he’s been making them. When he’s making shots, you can’t help off anybody. Keegan Murray is so good — I think he was the best player in our league — and when Bohannon is making shots and Murray is singled up and Kris Murray is picking and popping, good luck.”

Murray finished the season on a tear, scoring fewer than 22 points just once in his final 12 games leading into the Big Ten title game — where he still managed to go for 19 points and 11 rebounds in the win. He averaged 25.2 points and 8.8 rebounds on the season and might be a top-five pick in the NBA draft.

“He just impacts the game at both ends,” a coach said. “He can shoot, he can rebound, he’s smart, he’s long. He’s big as s—. There’s nothing he can’t do. He’s comfortable now. He’s kind of a quiet guy, so it takes those kids a year. He’s also damn near 6-9, 215-225 pounds.”

Several coaches in the league think Iowa is better this season than last season, despite the loss of Wooden Award winner Luka Garza. Most of that is due to improved defense and toughness, and the increased balance on the offensive end.

“They have so many different options,” a league assistant said. “They can go to [Joe] Toussaint and he’s going to bully into the lane. I don’t know if they had that last year when Bohannon was playing the point. Tony Perkins makes a difference too. He’s tough, he’ll rebound, he’s athletic. Sometimes they put those guys on the court together, along with [Ahron] Ulis, so you can guard them, but they change the game with their energy and toughness. I don’t know if they’ve had in the past.

“I didn’t think they were better than last year during the season, but right now they are. They can beat you in more ways. I think they’re capable of guarding you really well.”

Tennessee was quite obviously underseeded on Selection Sunday, getting slotted as a 3-seed despite having a superior résumé to multiple teams ahead of the Vols on the seed list. But they’re still a legitimate Final Four and national title threat after beating Arizona, Auburn, Arkansas and Kentucky — twice — this season.

Over the first three months of the season, offense was a major issue — the Vols were No. 85 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency up until Feb. 1. Since then, they’re No. 21. Combine that with a defense that has been ranked in the top-five all season, and Rick Barnes has a team hitting its stride at both ends of the floor.

“The biggest thing, if you look at the course of the year, is Josiah-Jordan James,” one SEC coach said. “He has gotten so much better, game to game over the last month and a half. They’ve flown up from a trajectory standpoint, and a lot of it is him. The guards get a lot of praise, but he’s kind of been their X factor. At times they struggle to score, and he’s been their one steady force.”

Tennessee’s guard play has been fantastic for the second half of the season. Barnes has used freshmen Kennedy Chandler and Zakai Zeigler alongside each other as a two-headed point guard, and then Santiago Vescovi — last year’s starting point guard — is also on the floor with them. Chandler and Zeigler put so much pressure on the opposition at both ends of the floor, and Vescovi was an all-SEC selection.

“They play three point guards on the floor at the same time,” an SEC coach said. “Chandler can get to the paint, he can score from 2 and make 3s. Zeigler is the opposite, better 3-point shooter and not as good in the paint. The two really complement each other. A big thing with Chandler, early on when he struggled a little bit, he was running toward the ball. Teams were denying him, not letting him get easy catches. He’s done a great job being more of a cutter, playing off the ball a little bit more. A lot of that is having Zeigler and Vescovi, multiple ball handlers, he’s not an island as the lone ball handler.”

While the offensive improvement might have keyed their run down the stretch of the season, it’s been the defense that has anchored the Volunteers since day one. They haven’t allowed a single opponent to score 1.00 point per possession since Texas A&M hit that mark on Feb. 1.

“It all starts with Jordan James. He can take the team’s best two through four and take them out of the game,” one coach said. “Vescovi the last two years has been below average and he’s actually a pretty good defender now. Zeigler and Chandler, they were first and second in the conference in steals. And you don’t even talk about [John] Fulkerson, he’s played 150 games in this conference, he’s coming off the bench. Changes their identity.”

Is this finally Gonzaga’s year?

Gonzaga once again has the overall 1-seed and is atop a region for the third consecutive NCAA tournament — but despite going to two national title games in the past four tournaments, there are still doubters on whether they will ever win a national championship.

The pre-tournament hype isn’t as strong as it was last season, when Gonzaga had one of the best offenses in the modern era. But that doesn’t mean the Zags are less of a title contender.

“They’re so different,” one WCC coach said. “Their guard play was off the charts last year and this year their frontcourt is off the charts. And obviously Timme and Holmgren speak for themselves, but I don’t think the country really realizes how much Anton Watson also improved. He was a menace defensively, the way he got steals and defended and was able to switch. He’s improved and that’s your third big and that’s behind two All-Americans.

“The guards are good, don’t get me wrong, but last year they were elite college guards. They’re missing some of the explosiveness from last season. Jalen [Suggs] was a historic talent and so was [Corey] Kispert. Kispert was so much more than a shooter and he developed so well. He was so fast, he was more athletic than people thought. They were just so dynamic last year. They were ridiculous.”

One key to this year’s run will be Andrew Nembhard. The Canadian guard was the fifth or sixth option on last year’s team, but now he’s the starting point guard and the primary weapon on the perimeter. He finished the season strong, averaging 17.8 points and 6.0 assists — while shooting 50% from 3 — over his final five games.

“The growth for him has been his ball security,” an assistant in the league said. “His assists went up, but his 3-point shooting also went up. He was also making the shots that teams were daring him to shoot. People went under ball screens because they didn’t want him to get into the paint, but he was making step-backs. He’s proven he can make some shots. And he’s comfortable making 3s when guys go under.”

Naturally, the big storyline is the potential No. 1 draft pick Holmgren, who struggled in some prime-time matchups early in the season but established himself as a clear-cut All-American by the end of the campaign.

“His rebounding numbers going up as the season went on was impressive,” a WCC coach said. “I always thought he was a great offensive rebounder, blocking shots and getting rebounds out of his area. He’s got some Evan Mobley qualities in that aspect, in terms of blocks and out-of-area rebounding. He got more and more efficient as the year went on. I don’t know if that’s a result of him getting better or competition. But he started finishing in the paint and playing with more energy.”

Does the slipper fit for Murray State?

Murray State has been the best true mid-major team in the country this season, entering the NCAA tournament on a 20-game winning streak with its last loss coming at Auburn on Dec. 22. The Racers have wins over Memphis and Chattanooga and they destroyed Belmont a couple of times in league play.

Despite being ranked in the top 25 for most of the season, Murray State received a 7-seed and could face in-state rival Kentucky in the second round. Do the Racers have a chance to make a run?

“They’ve had three players score 30 points in a game this year. Justice Hill, Tevin Brown and KJ Williams,” one OVC coach said. “You can shut Tevin Brown down, but then KJ Williams goes for 39. Justice Hill went off for 36 against Belmont. That’s three big-time guys. Then they got DJ Burns, he’s like Dennis Rodman. If he didn’t lead our league in offensive rebounds, I’d be shocked. [Burns was No. 2 behind Morehead State star Johni Broome]. He does that role at an elite level. Three guys that are elite scorers, one guy that’s an elite rebounder. Guys that play their roles.”

The Racers are also a high-level defensive team, holding 14 of their final 16 regular-season opponents below 1.00 point per possession. They were the best team in the OVC at that end of the floor, ranking in the top two in nearly every category.

“Murray is so physical on defense. They are a robotic team defensively,” a coach in the league said. “They guard cross screens the same every time. Ball screens the same way every time. Stagger screens the same every time. It’s robotic. They’re locked in. They’re physical, they deny, and they generate quick offense. They push hard in transition if the opportunity presents itself. Matt McMahon calls a play every time down. If they don’t have a numbered break, they’re calling a play.”

What might hurt them, especially against a team like Kentucky in the second round? They haven’t been consistently tested against top-tier competition, beating Memphis in the nonconference when the Tigers were struggling and then losing to Auburn just before Christmas.

“They go through spells of long scoring droughts,” an OVC coach said. “I don’t know if it’s because they lose focus or what, but they’ll hang up 15 in a two-minute span, then they’ll go six minutes without scoring. Which is shocking, because they’re really good offensively. Even in the OVC tournament, they had a long drought. … They’re not great against zone. It slows them down. I think their offense is such a timing, rhythm, pace offense. If you can disrupt some of that stuff, deny a reversal, it screws up their timing and plays.”

What if Kerr Kriisa misses time?

Arizona point guard Kerr Kriisa suffered an ankle injury during the Pac-12 tournament, and while the Wildcats went on to win the conference tourney without him, he’s clearly a key part of their national championship quest. Kriisa does post daily photos of his injury on social media, so we can keep tabs on his recovery, but what if he’s not back for this weekend — or next weekend?

“I think the biggest impact he makes is, you can’t leave him,” one Pac-12 coach said. “With the size they have inside and with the way [Bennedict] Mathurin can both score and just make plays and [Dalen] Terry is obviously playing really well right now, he just gives them so much space to make individual plays. They don’t have that when he’s not in there. He can see all the things that can open. You have to show on his ball screens because he’s such a good shooter.”

One league coach who scouted the Pac-12 tournament did think Arizona was a bit more imposing defensively without Kriisa.

“It allows them to switch ball screens five ways,” he said. “You don’t want him guarding the post. With [Christian] Koloko and [Azuolas] Tubelis, those guys can switch anywhere on the perimeter, then you have guys like Terry and Mathurin. When [Pelle] Larsson is in there, they have five guys who can defend inside and outside.”

But even that coach admitted Arizona is a better basketball team with a healthy Kriisa.

“I’d rather play them without Kriisa,” he said. “He’s a good player. I think he’s a special shooter and I think he can really pass the ball.”

What to do with LSU?

LSU is a complete mystery entering the NCAA tournament. For the second time in three tournaments, the Tigers will be without their head coach in March. In 2019, Will Wade was suspended just before the postseason, but LSU still reached the Sweet 16 as a 3-seed with Tony Benford at the helm. And now in 2022, Wade has been fired and the school put Kevin Nickelberry into the interim spot.

Coaches are split as to how it will impact the players entering a first-round game against 11-seed Iowa State.

“I just don’t think in the short term it’s going to matter much,” one coach said.

“They have no chance,” another said.

LSU is more talented than Iowa State and the Cyclones have huge issues scoring the ball — so the Tigers might not end up missing Wade until the second round. But one high-major head coach said the roster rumors and how unsettled the program is will undoubtedly be a hindrance for LSU.

“I think it matters,” he said. “I think they’re going to win because they’re better than Iowa State. But they won’t win after that. It’s become a major distraction. Those kids are planning transfers. I don’t think it’s going to be a rally around each other, win it for Coach Wade thing.”

We won’t find out where LSU is mentally until Friday’s tip-off.

But one coach might have summed it up best: “They’re either going to drill Iowa State or get beat.”

NBA scouts’ watch list

It’s not a vintage first round for NBA scouts to see matchups of highly ranked prospects, but there are plenty of intriguing battles that scouts will have their eyes on Thursday and Friday.

The most popular pick among scouts was Colorado State’s David Roddy going against Michigan’s forward duo of Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabate.

“Roddy has such an unconventional game; it’s an acquired taste,” one scout said. “He gets to show his value vs. a Big Ten team fresh out of the gate.”

“Roddy hasn’t played a weak schedule, but I’d like to measure him against Diabate,” an Eastern Conference executive added, “as well as see how Houstan handles the tourney pressure.”

Scouts also want to see Alabama freshman JD Davison, who has shown flashes of elite talent during his first season in Tuscaloosa — but still has some areas that scouts question.

“It’s in part because they bombed out of the SEC tournament early and most people arrived for the quarters,” one scout said. “Not that there weren’t a million other chances to see him, but a lot of people were hoping to get their bookending look in Tampa.”

One scout hopes he gets to face Notre Dame freshman Blake Wesley in the first round, while another is looking forward to a potential matchup with Texas Tech’s defense in the second round.

“JD Davison is this freaky athlete that everyone either loves or hates,” a Western Conference scout said. “Against that defense, it’s practically our answer to the test.”

One scout is looking forward to watching Ohio State freshman Malaki Branham, one of the true breakout stars of the second half of the season. But the Buckeyes are going against a veteran-laden team in Loyola Chicago, which should provide a good test.

“Branham has been the talk of February,” he said. “Can his play evolve even further into March, or does Lucas Williamson, a versatile wing that’s been around for what feels like forever, stop him? This is the type of matchup that could propel each into June. Sure, Williamson likely won’t be drafted but with a great defensive showing, I could see him being a priority two-way type. With Branham, he has gone from a two-year guy to being maybe a near-lotto talent. The next few days will be big for him.”

Two other first-round matchups that have some level of intrigue to them are Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn vs. Chattanooga’s Silvio de Sousa and Murray State’s Tevin Brown vs. San Francisco’s Jamaree Bouyea.

The potential first-weekend matchup that has NBA personnel salivating, however, is Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren vs. Memphis’ Jalen Duren. The Tigers would have to get by Boise State first, but a head-to-head battle between two of the top-10 prospects in the draft has been circled by nearly everyone polled.

“With Jalen, can he show the ability to play away from the basket and actually guard consistently and will he be willing to play more around the basket and use his strength advantage to his advantage,” one scout said. “For Chet, how does he guard in the post if he is actually on Duren? That’s the primary question. Can he guard 5s near the basket? Durens are a dime a dozen in the NBA. How far away is he from competing and holding his own consistently around the basket?”

Gonzaga in … 2023?

Some coaches are already wondering what Gonzaga looks like next season, and whether the Bulldogs can make it a fourth 1-seed in a row for the program.

After landing elite guard Jalen Suggs in the 2020 class and Holmgren in 2021, they only have one commitment in 2022: four-star forward Braden Huff. But they do have former five-star guards Hunter Sallis and Nolan Hickman ready to make a bigger impact after coming off the bench this season.

Will the Zags continue to be able to stockpile the best talent from overseas and the portal, while also competing for top-10 prospects?

“It’s now or never for Gonzaga,” one coach said. “I don’t know if they’ll be able to replicate Timme and Holmgren again.”

A West Coast college coach looked at it a bit differently, pointing to the fact Suggs and Holmgren were anomalies more than a continuation of the norm in Spokane.

“They were never getting top recruits and the best transfers until the last two years,” he said. “So I’d say this isn’t the end, it’s the beginning in my opinion.”

My picks

I usually have an idea of which team I’m picking to win it all well in advance of Selection Sunday, but I wasn’t completely sold on anyone this season. Before the bracket was announced, my intention was to put Arizona and Tennessee in the national championship game. That’s impossible given that the Wildcats and Vols are in the same region. So I think the winner of that Elite Eight game is cutting down the nets.

Final Four: Gonzaga, Kentucky, Arizona, Iowa
Title game: Arizona over Kentucky

Double-digit first-round upset picks:

– No. 10 Davidson over No. 7 Michigan State
– No. 11 Virginia Tech over No. 6 Texas
– No. 13 Chattanooga over No. 4 Illinois
– No. 10 Loyola Chicago over No. 7 Ohio State
– No. 13 South Dakota State over No. 4 Providence
– No. 11 Iowa State over No. 6 LSU
– No. 10 Miami over USC

For a complete pick-by-pick breakdown, I went through the entire bracket with Victoria Arlen earlier this week:

Good luck filling out your brackets!

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