The Big Dance isn't over yet, but it's not too early to look at a few teams who have excelled and a few who have disappointed in this year's wild NCAA Tournament. You see, some teams went into the tournament with high expectations and had to go to great lengths to show that they were far from being overrated. Other teams were given a chance to demonstrate that their ceilings were higher than people originally thought, but they ultimately left their fans heartbroken.
Sure, I guess you could say that we shouldn't have trusted those teams to make their haters eat their words, but it was important to hold out hope that they would eventually get their act together. Alright, enough stalling, let's begin examining the four biggest winners and losers of the 2022 NCAA Tournament.
The Biggest Winners of the 2022 NCAA Tournament
North Carolina's season could have concluded in the Round of 32 against Baylor, but the Tar Heels were determined to make it to the second week of the NCAA Tournament. Everything appeared to be going against the Tar Heels near the end of the second half, but fighting through adversity isn't a brand new concept for Hubert Davis' squad. When times have gotten tough, the Tar Heels have stuck together as a unit and made plenty of winning plays.
They've trailed in several contests this season (including in the Sweet 16 against UCLA), but I'd be lying if I said that the Tar Heels have continuously succumbed to the pressure that comes with playing from behind and unraveled right before our eyes. I'm no genius, but I don't think that the Tar Heels would have 28 wins and be playing in the Final Four if they did nothing but shrink under the bright lights. It's all about star power in the Big Dance, and the Tar Heels have multiple players who can go and get a bucket when necessary. We're still two games away from figuring out who will be crowned champion, but I'm certain that the Tar Heels have gained numerous fans during their incredible NCAA Tournament journey.
Similar to North Carolina, Duke easily could have had to watch the remainder of the NCAA Tournament from home. The Blue Devils had to step up their level of play immensely in order to take down Michigan State and Texas Tech in the Big Dance. The Spartans gave the Blue Devils all they could handle late in the Round of 32, but the ACC regular-season champions played tremendous basketball when it mattered most. They made plays while driving to the rim, drilled jumpers from the outside and hit enough free throws to put the Spartans away at the end of the contest.
The Red Raiders went toe to toe with the Blue Devils in the Sweet 16, but they couldn't overcome the Blue Devils' flawless 8-minute stretch of basketball in half No. 2. Essentially, Paolo Banchero nailed a three-pointer with 8:19 remaining in the ballgame, and the Blue Devils took off from there. They didn't miss a field goal after that, which forced the Red Raiders to be perfect on the offensive end. Unfortunately for them, they blew two straight opportunities to regain the lead after Banchero drilled another triple with less than three minutes to play. What happened next? Well, Jeremy Roach scored the next four points for the Blue Devils and helped give his squad a five-point advantage with 1:30 left. Once again, the Blue Devils made their late-game free throws and survived to see another day in the NCAA Tournament. I don't know if it has more to do with making up for last year's dreadful season or trying to give Coach K a proper send-off, but the Blue Devils are on a mission to return to campus with the 2022 national championship trophy.
Can you believe that Jay Wright will be coaching in the Final Four for the third time since the 2014-15 season? It's truly unbelievable when you think about it, and it just goes to show that the 6-time Big East Coach of the Year understands the importance of recruiting guys who will flourish in his system. Some coaches welcome skilled isolation players into their respective programs, but Wright goes after fundamentally sound players who are passionate about playing team basketball.
Every rotation player on Villanova's current roster knows what to do when their name gets called, which is a testament to Wright's ability to successfully drill his offensive principles into his club. Oh, and did I mention that you must defend as well if you want to see the floor? Because that's pretty important too. The Wildcats scored less than 67 points in all three of the Big East Tournament games, but they sat down defensively and swarmed each and every one of their opponents. I'll admit that they've made their share of mistakes in the NCAA Tournament, but I can't ignore the fact that the South Regional champions have a knack for making pivotal plays on both ends of the floor. Ohio State, Michigan and Houston didn't roll over and give Villanova three easy wins, which is why the Wildcats had to lock in and earn the right to keep playing in the Big Dance. While I'm impressed that they already have several NCAA Tournament victories under their belt, there's no doubt that Jay Wright and the Wildcats are hungry for more.
After Kansas fell to Dayton at the buzzer in the ESPN Events Invitational on November 26th, many irrational Jayhawk fans believed that Bill Self's crew was in for an unpleasant 2021-22 campaign. At the time, the Flyers' resume consisted of three awful losses to Umass Lowell, Lipscomb and Austin Peay, so I knew exactly where their frustration was coming from. However, that November loss didn't end the Jayhawks' season, which is why that negative way of thinking confused me early on.
Kansas won their next seven non-conference games and eight of their first nine Big 12 contests. The overreactions returned when the Jayhawks lost to Kentucky at home in the Big 12/SEC Challenge by double digits (80-62). They were down by 20 at the half and never gave the Wildcats a scare in the contest. As soon as March arrived, the Jayhawks quieted all their skeptics and started looking like a team that could make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. They've beaten every team that they've matched up against since their March 1st loss to TCU, and are extremely dangerous when they're scoring in a variety of ways. No lead is safe when you're facing the Jayhawks, which is what Miami learned in the Elite 8 when their six-point halftime lead rapidly disappeared in the second half. Based on what I've seen from them lately, I think that this Kansas team has what it takes to help Bill Self win his second national title.
The Biggest Losers of the 2022 NCAA Tournament
Nate Oats isn't on the hot seat just yet at Alabama, but many fans are starting to grow weary of his underachieving tendencies in the NCAA Tournament. Last season, the Crimson Tide finished 1st in the SEC and won the SEC Tournament title by defeating LSU by a point in the championship game (80-79). After a stellar regular season and conference tournament showing, the Crimson Tide earned a No. 2 seed in the Big Dance and had all the motivation they needed to show that their 24-6 record wasn't a fluke.
They didn't play around with Iona and Maryland in the first two rounds, but their season came to a halt against UCLA in the Sweet 16. Now, Alabama did lose a few key pieces to the NBA Draft after their loss (Joshua Primo, Herbert Jones and John Petty Jr.), but you would think that they would fill those voids and build on the success they had in 2020, right? Well, you're dead wrong about the second part, because Nate Oats' club was one of the most erratic teams in the country this season. They annihilated Miami on November 28th and handed Gonzaga their second loss of the year a week later, but also fell to Missouri and gave Georgia their only SEC win in 2021-22. Essentially, they could beat college basketball's best teams when they were on their game and lose to below-average squads when they came out flat. Talent-wise, the Crimson Tide were at least a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but their overall body of work indicated that they were on the 6 seed line. Even when they lost Jahvon Quinerly early in their first contest against Notre Dame, I still believed that they would find a way to advance to the Round 32. However, their abysmal man-to-man defense and atrocious decision-making led to their downfall against the Fighting Irish. Listen, I applaud Alabama for making regular appearances in the Big Dance, but at some point, Nate Oats will have to figure out how to get the Crimson Tide over the hump.
Perhaps I'm taking it too far, but I seriously believe that Gonzaga should consider leaving the WCC and increasing their level of competition. In the NCAA Tournament, the Bulldogs were vulnerable when they had to face off against physical ball clubs who took it straight to the No. 1 overall seed. There's no doubt that the grind of the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and/or Big East will get you ready for the main event in March. Demolishing inferior teams in the WCC is fun I'm sure, but the Bulldogs' soft conference came back to bite them in the postseason again this year (they have yet to win a national championship.)
Last season, the Bulldogs won their first five NCAA Tournament contests and advanced to the national title game against Baylor. The Bears' relentless half-court defense gave the Bulldogs fits all night long and helped them build a 20-point cushion in the second half. When you're used to getting into your sets with ease and lighting up opposing defenses on a nightly basis, you're not going to know how to respond when you get punched in the mouth multiple times on the big stage. The Bulldogs clearly weren't battle-tested enough going into the NCAA Tournament, which is why they didn't have a single answer for the Bears' ferocious runs in the contest. This year, the Bulldogs escaped with two lackluster wins in the opening two rounds, but were eliminated in the Sweet 16 by Arkansas. Drew Timme's offensive domination allowed the Bulldogs to keep pace with the Razorbacks, but their miserable ball-screen defense hindered them from getting multiple defensive stops in crucial moments. Yes, JD Notae finished with 21 points on 9-29 shooting from the field, but he controlled the game in the pick-and-roll and toyed with the Bulldogs' guards on multiple occasions. Until the Bulldogs prove that they can end a season with a national title victory, they'll continue to receive scrutiny from the media.
After Auburn fell to UConn in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament back in November, the Tigers proceeded to pick up 19 straight wins. It was honestly amazing to witness, but as the season went on, I began to worry that the Tigers' selfish/shaky guard play would prevent them from reaching their full potential as a team. Don't get me wrong, K.D. Johnson and Wendell Green Jr. are solid offensive players who helped the Tigers win 27 regular-season games, but their reckless behavior on that end of the floor was detrimental to the team.
When they converted acrobatic shots this season, no one could say anything negative about their shot selection. When they practically shot the Tigers out of games, however, (e.g., K.D. Johnson- 0-14 shooting from the field against Texas A&M the second time around and Wendell Green Jr.- 2-15 shooting from the field against Tennessee) individuals had no choice but to speak up and voice their displeasure with the team's play from the guard spot. You can't win a basketball game in the first half or even early in the second half, which is why it'll never make sense to go into desperation mode and perform as though the game will be decided during the next few possessions. Green and Johnson got into the habit of panicking and trying to erase substantial deficits in one or two plays. This occurred several times against Miami in their second round matchup, which made it difficult for the Tigers to chip away at the Hurricanes' lead. Walker Kessler and Jabari Smith were non-factors as well, but I think I speak for everyone when I say that it certainly doesn't help when your primary ball-handlers aren't making the smartest reads offensively. They must play more under control in the future if they wish to take the Tigers to the Sweet 16 and beyond.
As the only No. 2 seed to drop their first-round NCAA Tournament contest, I'm guessing that Kentucky is still disappointed in their performance in the Big Dance. We all know that Saint Peter's wasn't a pushover this year, but the Wildcats lost a very winnable game in gut-wrenching fashion. After failing to close the Peacocks out in regulation, the Wildcats had to regroup and try to finish the job in overtime. They were able to play through Oscar Tshiebwe at first, but the Peacocks eventually figured out that they needed to take away the Wildcats' No. 1 scoring option if they wanted to prevail.
John Calipari made it clear from the jump that he wanted the West Virginia transfer to be the focal point of the Wildcats' offense, which worked out pretty well for most of the season. He imposed his will in the paint repeatedly and showcased his ability to terrorize unprepared defenses. Thanks to the Peacocks' well-timed adjustments in the Round of 64, though, the Wildcats' offense instantly transformed into a trainwreck. The guards were unsure of what to do on the perimeter once the Peacocks took Tshiebwe out of the equation, which is why four of the Wildcats' last five possessions didn't end in made baskets. Kellan Grady made 328 total threes during his collegiate career and never shot below 34 percent from deep, but the Davidson transfer appeared to be scared to shoot when the ball came his way. I expected the 5th year senior to show no fear and frequently look for his shot, but instead, he looked like he had zero interest in getting involved offensively. I suppose John Calipari and the Wildcats learned the hard way that relying on one player to carry your team offensively can be both a blessing and a curse.
Additional noteworthy winners include Arkansas, March Madness 2022 Cinderella Saint Peter's, Miami, Richmond, Providence, Iowa State and Houston, while additional noteworthy losers include Tennessee, Michigan, Arizona, Baylor, Murray State, Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa.
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