2022 NCAA Tournament bracket South Region: March Madness predictions, upsets, players to watch

The South Region of the 2022 NCAA Tournament is arguably the toughest of the four because of how well its top teams are playing. No other region has more than one of its top three seeds coming off of a conference tournament title. But in the South, No. 1 seed Arizona, No. 2 seed Villanova and No. 3 seed Tennessee enter the Big Dance having just cut down nets last weekend.

No. 5 Houston — a Final Four team in 2021 — is also riding high off an AAC Tournament title. Beyond the top seeds, the South Region is brimming with quality depth. Dark-horses No. 10 seed Loyola-Chicago and No. 11 seed Michigan are seasoned from second-weekend appearances in last season’s NCAA Tournament.

There is even some buzz around No. 13 seed Chattanooga, as the Mocs take on No. 4 seed Illinois after catching the nation’s attention last week with a buzzer-beater win over Furman in the SoCon Tournament final. No. 8 seed Seton Hall and No. 9 seed TCU each have battle scars from navigating brutal conferences, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see that experience pays dividends in a potential second-round game with Arizona.

No. 6 seed Colorado State, No. 7 seed Ohio State and No. 12 seed UAB all have individual superstars in David Roddy, EJ Liddell and Jordan Walker, respectively. Any of the three are capable of carrying their teams to success that surpasses the expectations of their seeding.

Lastly, the long shots. No. 14 Longwood is making its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance, and No. 15 Delaware is seeking its first-ever NCAA Tournament victory. Wednesday’s First Four game between No. 16 seeds Wright State and Bryant will mark the first-ever NCAA Tournament victory for the winner.

Let’s break it down further as the opening games of the 2022 NCAA Tournament approach.

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Best first-round game

(7) Ohio State vs. (10) Loyola-Chicago: The Ramblers need no introduction at this point. They are the same disciplined, defensively stout squad as usual, even after the coaching transition from Porter Moser to Drew Valentine. An Ohio State team entering with four losses in its last five games is the wild card here. The Buckeyes were upset in the First Round of the NCAAs as a No. 2 seed by Oral Roberts last year, and they certainly won’t overlook Loyola-Chicago. Ohio State has been banged up recently but may have the South Region’s best player (Liddell), who will likely have redemption on his mind.

Top potential matchup

(1) Arizona vs. (2) Villanova: Arizona has already played No. 3 seed Tennessee (a 77-73 road loss on Dec. 22) and No. 2 seed Illinois (an 83-79 road win on Dec. 11), but the Wildcats haven’t played No. 2 seed Villanova. If they did meet in the Elite Eight, it would be an utter contrast in styles. The Wildcats are one of the sport’s most up-tempo teams, whereas Villanova is one of the slowest. The bet here is that Arizona would win because of its ability to score inside the arc against a Villanova squad lacking an elite rim protector.

Upset lock of the regional

(5) Houston bounced early: It’s incredible that the Cougars won the AAC regular season and AAC Tournament titles after losing guards Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark to season-ending injuries. Eighth-year coach Kelvin Sampson has built Houston into a national power, and the Cougars will make another NCAA Tournament run soon. But UAB is on the rise under second-year coach Andy Kennedy and putting together a special late-season run. The Blazers looked like a team of destiny in pulling out a three-overtime win over MTSU in the Conference USA Tournament semifinals. It’s a clash of UAB’s 3-point shooting prowess (38%) against Houston’s 3-point shooting defense (29%), and the bet here is that the Blazers get hot.

Cinderella team that will surprise

(13) Chattanooga: The Mocs are a trendy Cinderella pick and for good reason. Kansas transfer Silvio De Sousa is big enough to contend with Illinois star big man Kofi Cockburn, which is the type of luxury most mid-major squads do not have. With the ever-critical ingredient of veteran guard play also present in the form of Malachi Smith and David Jean-Baptiste, the Mocs are a sleeper pick to make the Sweet 16. Don’t be surprised if their fifth-year head coach Lamont Paris , a former Wisconsin assistant, becomes a name heard in connection with power conference vacancies over the coming weeks.

Team that will make a far-too-early exit

(11) Michigan: At 17-14, the Wolverines are lucky just to be here after losing to Indiana in their first Big Ten Tournament game. It’s been over a month since they have won consecutive games, and there is no reason to think they can string together consecutive victories on this stage. Michigan began the season ranked No. 6 in the AP Top 25, but a heavy reliance on youth has proven more problematic than expected, and the postgame behavior of coach Juwan Howard has drawn more attention than anything his team has done on the court recently.

Six players to watch

Jared Rhoden, Seton Hall: A first-team All-Big East honoree, Rhoden is capable of exploding offensively in the way that legends so often do in March. He scored 29 points on just 15 shots from the field against Ohio State in November and has gone for 25 or more on four occasions this season. Don’t be surprised if you look up and see this 6-foot-6 guard causing problems for TCU and/or Arizona during the first weekend.

Malachi Smith, Chattanooga: The Southern Conference Player of the Year is a physical 6-foot-4 guard who shoots an incredible 50.5% from the floor on 14.1 shots per game, which includes a 41.5% mark on 4.2 attempts from 3-point range. Smith can seriously fill it up, and he’s a key reason why the Mocs are trendy pick to upset No. 4 seed Illinois.

Josiah-Jordan James, Tennessee: The 6-foot-6 junior wing gets lost in the shuffle sometimes for the Volunteers, but his offensive emergence was the driving force behind their run of 12 wins in 13 games entering the NCAA Tournament. James’ size, versatility, defensive prowess and recent 3-point marksmanship make him an X-factor.

Jordan Walker, UAB: The C-USA Player of the Year is a “bucket,” as the kids say. He’s notched two 40-point games this season and scored 27 in the C-USA title game on Saturday on just 11 shot attempts. He gets to the free-throw line often and makes 88.3% of his attempts once there. The 5-foot-11 guard also leads UAB in assists. He’s a March superstar waiting to happen.

Jameer Nelson Jr., Delaware: Name sound familiar? It might for those who remember St. Joseph’s Elite Eight run in 2003. Nelson is the son of that team’s star, Jameer Nelson. The younger Nelson is a guard, just like his father, and he leads the Blue Hens in scoring. He’s reached double figures in 12 of his last 13 and will have Villanova’s attention.

David Roddy, Colorado State: At 6-foot-5 and 252 pounds, the Mountain West Player of the Year is a human bowling ball who presents matchup problems for everyone. Roddy scores from all three levels and does everything else for the Rams, too. Mountain West defenses know his game well and still can’t defend him. NCAA Tournaments don’t know him well and don’t have much time to prepare for his unique skill set.

South Region winner

(1) Arizona: For a team as dominant as Arizona has been this season, the Wildcats have flown somewhat under the radar due to the fact that they play in the Pac-12, which reverted to mediocrity in 2021. Make no mistake, though. Arizona is an elite college basketball team with all the ingredients of a national title winner. With an excellent duo of rim protectors in Christian Koloko and Oumar Ballo, the Wildcats check the defense box. Offense is where they thrive, however. First-year coach Tommy Lloyd has seamlessly implemented the Gonzaga philosophy after a long run on the Zags’ staff, and he’s got a deep rotation of quality guards and wings capable of carrying it out. The group is led by a potential lottery pick in Bennedict Mathurin, and his high-end talent is a key part of the formula.

The Wildcats have already played two of their top competitors in the region, beating Illinois on the road. They lost at Tennessee, but the Volunteers went undefeated on their home floor and a neutral-court rematch would likely produce a different result. The No. 2 seed in this region, Villanova, would be unable to match up with Arizona on the interior, and it’s hard to imagine any of the other candidates having the talent to hold this offense down for 40 minutes.

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