March Madness preview: What to look out for as the men's national championship tips off

New Orleans, Louisiana - The 2022 Men’s Basketball National Championship tournament features a number of favorites who have great chances to not only make it to the Final Four but also take this year’s title.

Gonzaga forward Drew Timme (c) looks to lead his team to the school's first-ever national title.
Gonzaga forward Drew Timme (c) looks to lead his team to the school's first-ever national title.  © IMAGO/ZUMA Wire

The road to the Final Four starts on Thursday and it features 68 men’s college basketball programs, all beginning their quest for the 2022 national championship.

Last year, the Baylor Bears overpowered the Gonzaga Bulldogs 86-70 to win their program’s first-ever title.

It was a massive achievement for a team that usually couldn't get past the Elite Eight, 2012 being the last they made an appearance there.

BYU's Max Tooley pulls an old shoe trick out of the bag and gets penalized
Athletes BYU's Max Tooley pulls an old shoe trick out of the bag and gets penalized

Despite losing three players to the NBA last year, Baylor is still well-poised to win a second-consecutive title, led by senior guard James Akinjo (21), who leads the team in points, assists, and steals.

The Bulldogs (West Region) have been in the title game in two of the past four years and have yet to win a national championship in the school’s history. Junior forward Drew Timme was recently named West Coast Conference Player of the Year and leads the team with 17.5 points per game.

Both of these teams are back as number-one seeds and the earliest they can face off for a rematch is the Final Four, with the winner earning a spot in the title game.

Don’t forget Kansas and Arizona

Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self is looking to win his school's fourth title.
Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self is looking to win his school's fourth title.  © IMAGO/ZUMA Wire

The Kansas Jayhawks (Midwest Region) and the Arizona Wildcats (South Region) round out the number-one seeds out of each region.

The Jayhawks are looking for their school’s fourth title and second under head coach Bill Self. He’s got senior guard Ochai Agbaji, who almost didn’t come back for his last year of college, to lead the Jayhawks out of the Midwest Region and into Kansas’ 16th Final Four appearance.

The Wildcats have just come off of an impressive comeback victory over UCLA for the Pac-12 championship and will look to turn that buzz into a deep tournament run. They’re missing their best playmaker point guard Kerr Kriisa with an ankle injury, but head coach (and former Gonzaga assistant) Tommy Lloyd has what it takes to get Arizona to its first Final Four in over 20 years.

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The Duke Blue Devils, after being upset in the ACC title game, enter as a number-two seed in the West Region and are still in good shape to get through at least the first two rounds. This is Coach K’s final tournament and it would be a spectacular send-off if freshman forward Paolo Banchero, who leads the team in points and rebounds, could lead Duke to glory one more time.

The Kentucky Wildcats have the East’s second seed and are right up there with the Blue Devils, looking to win their first national championship in 10 years.

But don’t count out the Villanova Wildcats, who won NCAA titles in both 2016 and 2018. They just won their program's eighth Big East tournament in an unattractive, low-scoring 54-48 win, but even though they’re up against a 15-seed in the South Region, they’ll still have to figure out how to score more points if they want to last all the way to New Orleans.

And the Auburn Tigers, who shocked college basketball by only losing once in their first 23 games, have rightfully earned their number-two seed in the Midwest. They were recently in the Final Four back in 2019, but have yet to play in the title game.

Any one of the second-seeds can make it to the Final Four and even the national championship, especially if the ball bounces their way enough times.

These teams can go far too, even pulling off an upset or two

Houston Cougars guard Jamal Shead (l.) and head coach Kelvin Sampson hope to get the program back to their second-straight Final Four appearance.
Houston Cougars guard Jamal Shead (l.) and head coach Kelvin Sampson hope to get the program back to their second-straight Final Four appearance.  © IMAGO/ZUMA Wire

The Houston Cougars are coming out of the South’s fifth seed. It may not be the number-two seed that they rode to last year’s Final Four, but it's enough to give them a shot. Houston is missing four players (two departed the school and two to season-ending injuries), but head coach Kelvin Samson has the experience to lead them through the tournament.

The Iowa Hawkeyes just won the Big Ten Title over Purdue Boilermakers and can easily muscle their way through at least the first two rounds. But even though Purdue just lost to the Hawkeyes, it's still seeded higher than Iowa, so either team can see themselves in the Sweet Sixteen.

Look for the eighth-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels to possibly do some damage in the East. They recently beat Duke and came a game shy of facing the Blue Devils again for this past Saturday’s ACC crown.

And the Creighton Bluejays might fly under the radar to pull off an upset or two at the Midwest’s ninth seed. They were on the losing end of that low-scoring Big East final, so chances are the Bluejays are itching for a big game right out of the gate.

The rest of the East Region needs to keep an eye on fourth-seeded UCLA Bruins, who are looking for redemption after letting the Pac-12 championship slip through their fingers and into Arizona’s hands.

Michigan (11th-seed, South Region) and Michigan State (seventh-seed, West Region) are both placed a bit lower than some expected, but these storied squads can always make a deep run.

The first round of the men’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament begins on Thursday, March 17.

Cover photo: IMAGO/ZUMA Wire

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