March Madness Cinderellas and bracket-busters: 10 bold predictions for the 2022 NCAA Tournament

Remember when No. 16-seeded University of Maryland, Baltimore County upset No. 1 Virginia in 2018? Or No. 15-seeded Oral Roberts stunned No. 2 Ohio State, then No. 7 Florida to reach the Sweet 16 last year?

No one saw either of those thrilling March Madness moments coming.

Both could be considered bold picks in an office pool. Let's face it: It's boring to pick all the top seeds or favorites to advance. Everyone needs one (or several) eye-raising, unexpected pick to set themselves apart. We've got you covered in that department.

Here are 10 bold predictions for this year's tournament.

Three of four No. 11 seeds win in first round

Typically, we see the classic No. 12 seed dropping a No. 5 seed in the first round. It's happened the most of any first-round upset (No. 12s are 51-93 vs. No. 5s to be exact). But this year, the No. 6 seeds are more vulnerable and the No. 11 seeds are much more ripe to knock them out. It's definitely conceivable to see three of the four No. 11 seeds advance to the second round given the NCAA selection committee's matchups.

In the Midwest region, you have an under-seeded Iowa State team (should've been a No. 8 seed) matching up against an LSU team whose head coach, Will Wade, was just ousted. In the East, Virginia Tech just won the entire ACC tournament and is red hot. The Hokies meet a Chris Beard-coached Texas team that has underachieved all season and is hardly playing its best basketball – having lost three in a row. In the West, bubble teams Rutgers and Notre Dame are both capable of dispatching an Alabama team that has lost three in a row. And in the South, bubble team Michigan has the stock to oust Colorado State in a Big Ten vs. Mountain West clash.

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Virginia Tech players celebrate after defeating Duke in the ACC tournament final.
Virginia Tech players celebrate after defeating Duke in the ACC tournament final.

North Carolina takes down Baylor in the second round

The reigning national champion Bears were impressive this season and good enough to garner a top seed in the NCAAs, but this is not the dominant team that cut down the nets in 2021 and is the weakest of the No. 1s. No. 8 North Carolina, meanwhile, has emerged as a sleeping giant that is playing far greater than its seeding line. The Tar Heels have won eight of their last 10, including a 13-point win against No. 2 seed Duke in a game that had Super Bowl-like pressure in coach Mike Krzyzewski's last home game. Armando Bacot (16.5 ppg, 12.5 rpg) is a frontcourt player Baylor will have to stop and he pairs nicely with guard Caleb Love (15.4 ppg, 3.8 apg) for a dynamic inside-out game.

ACC shows out in this tourney

This has been a disastrous season for the ACC, which finished as the sixth-worst conference in NET rankings. Once the kingpin of conferences, only No. 2 Duke received a bid higher than No. 8 and that was largely a result of its non-conference prowess. North Carolina is No. 8, Miami No. 10, Virginia Tech No. 11 and Notre Dame No. 11. All that said, once March Madness begins, conference struggles can get thrown out the window. Last year, the Pac-12 sent four teams to the Sweet 16 and four to the Elite Eight. That came after a down regular season. Could the ACC do the same again? It's not out of the cards for all five teams to win in the first round and see multiple wins in the second-weekend game. The NCAA tournament is about individual matchups – where ACC teams are arguably favored – and far less conference supremacy.

Chattanooga to the Sweet 16

The Mocs got a tough matchup vs. Illinois. Or did the Fighting Illini get a tough out vs. Chattanooga? The way the mid-major got into the NCAAs was simply madness, earning their auto bid off a miracle buzzer-beater by David Jean-Baptiste that helped sink Furman in the Southern Conference championship. Momentum is important when looking for upsets in the first and second rounds. That was the case for Oral Roberts last year and Maryland Baltimore County in 2018. Statistics are nice to look at, but how confident and full of energy a team is entering the tournament really can't be quantifiable. The Illini won the Big Ten regular-season and showcase a dominant center in Kofi Cockburn, but they showed weaknesses in a Big Ten tourney loss to Indiana and are not as good as last year's No. 1 seeded team that got stunned in the second round to Loyola.

Malachi Smith (20.1 ppg), an explosive sophomore guard, has the skill set to become a March star. If the Mocs get past Illinois, there's a strong chance they'll face another mid-major in UAB (facing a vulnerable Houston squad in the first round) with a chance to the Sweet 16 on the line.

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Chattanooga guard David Jean-Baptiste, left, is congratulated by center Avery Diggs (23) after making the winning basket to defeat Furman in the Southern Conference championship game.
Chattanooga guard David Jean-Baptiste, left, is congratulated by center Avery Diggs (23) after making the winning basket to defeat Furman in the Southern Conference championship game.

An ex-bubble team goes to the Sweet 16

First Four battlers Rutgers or Notre Dame have a clear pathway to take down Alabama in the first round of the West region before potentially facing Texas Tech in the second round. Wyoming or Indiana are both dangerous teams that can knock off No. 5 seed Saint Mary's and perhaps even UCLA – the team that last year went all the way to the Final Four as a No. 11 former bubble team. Then looking at Michigan, the team that just slipped into the field of 68 as a No. 11 seed in the South, and the Wolverines have a winnable game vs. Colorado State in the first round.

Murray State to the Elite Eight

The Racers (30-2) aren't a typical mid-major and the NCAA selection committee noticed by rewarding the team WITH a No. 7 seed. That's bad news for the East side of the bracket where No. 2 Kentucky could very well face Murray State in the second round with a shot to the Sweet 16 on the line. Kentucky has national player of the year front-runner Oscar Tshiebwe, a double-double machine the Racers will have to control on the glass. Likewise, coach John Calpari's team will have to find a way to stop KJ Williams (18.2 ppg, 8.6 rpg), the centerpiece of this dynamic group that dominated the Ohio Valley Conference with a perfect 18-0 record.

If the Racers get past Kentucky to reach the Sweet 16, the Elite Eight will be more than reachable against a weaker Purdue or Texas team that could have trouble in their first and second rounds.

Tennessee is last SEC team standing

Auburn and Kentucky garnered No. 2 seeds and up until mid-to-late February were the best teams in the league. But coach Rick Barnes' team has been gradually getting better. Tennessee, a viable Final Four threat at the No. 3 line, is the definition of a team peaking at the right time as March Madness begins. With difficult matchups for Kentucky (East region), Auburn (Midwest region) and No. 4 Arkansas (West region), Tennessee's pathway could be easiest.

Only one No. 1 seed in the Final Four

It's the opposite of gutsy to put three or four No. 1s in your Final Four. Some will settle on two, which is at least a little riskier. This year, though, there are no obvious title favorites like last year with Gonzaga and Baylor. The No. 1 seeds are far more vulnerable. That's why it'd be smart to only go with one No. 1 seed, whether it be Gonzaga in the West, Arizona in the South, Kansas in the Midwest or Baylor in the East. Odds are the Jayhawks have the easiest pathway in the Midwest and they're also playing great basketball now, coming off a Big 12 tournament title.

Kansas guard Ochai Agbaji (30) and forward Jalen Wilson (10) high five after forcing Baylor to call a timeout.
Kansas guard Ochai Agbaji (30) and forward Jalen Wilson (10) high five after forcing Baylor to call a timeout.

Three blue-bloods in the Final Four

We know, we know. Usually saying three blue-bloods will make it to the final weekend wouldn't sound bold at all. But given the atrocious year some of the sport's power teams had last year and how other teams have emerged, it would be semi-unexpected this year. This year, Duke in the West, UCLA (or Kentucky if you're ignoring what written ahead) in the East, Arizona or Villanova in the South and Kansas in the Midwest all are well-positioned to reach New Orleans.

Duke wins it all to send Coach K out in style

The NCAA Tournament is all about storybook endings (or ruining those endings, depending on the year). Just look to 2019 when Virginia seemingly defied all odds to capture the national championship the year after it lost in the first round of the NCAAs for a historic upset. These types of feel-good moments are what define March Madness.

So consider it good news for Duke fans that this No. 2 seed has gotten smacked twice now in pivotal send-off moments for Krzyzewski – first in Coach K's final home game vs. rival North Carolina and then in the ACC tournament title game vs. Virginia Tech. There's a lot of pressure riding on this send-off season and Paolo Banchero and Co. needed to have those wake-up calls for when it really matters.

"We need to learn from losing," Krzyzewski said. "Now we're 0-0. I'm glad this (final home game pageantry) is over. Let's just coach and see what the hell happens in the (NCAA) tournament."

Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: March Madness: 10 bold predictions for the 2022 NCAA Tournament