The NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament kicks off this weekend with some stellar 2022 NBA Draft prospect matchups to watch.
Every March, millions of Americans fill out their brackets and follow along with the most exciting and chaotic event in sports; the men’s NCAA basketball tournament. For the players on the 68 teams in the big dance, it is a chance to cement their legacies at their respective schools and introduce themselves to the world. There are no better opportunities for prospects in any sport to earn millions of dollars by raising their draft stock on the biggest stage. It allows players from small schools to put on their glass slippers and show they can compete with athletes from bigger schools, and for big names to go head to head with other prospects and prove their worth. If you are interested in the NBA draft, there is no better litmus test than this stretch of up to six games for a future star.
We have discussed the alternative pathways to the draft and have analyzed the trends of the recent years. It is no surprise that we have seen an increase in lottery picks from outside of the college basketball realm, whether it be the G League, international prospects, or players that chose to go overseas after high school. This year, however, there is a high probability that not only will the top 10 draft picks be from college basketball, but they will likely all be represented in the NCAA tournament. This means we will see an extraordinary amount of matchups between top players over the next three weeks.
The chaos is a part of the beauty of the tournament, as is the quantity of basketball. While we understand it may not be possible to watch every game, we want to talk about some of the players and teams to keep your eyes on. The matchups may only be definitive for the first round, but we are going to look at those games as well as some others we might see down the road. For this exercise, we will be putting our scouting glasses on and looking at the best prospect matchups we will see. We will look at potential storylines and what players are in the best situations to raise their stock now that the bracket is set.
The West Region
Key Prospects: Chet Holmgren, Jalen Duren, Paolo Banchero, Mark Williams, AJ Griffin
Other Prospects to watch: Hyunjung Lee, Trevor Keels, Wendell Moore, JD Davison, Keon Ellis, Blake Wesley, Jaylin Williams, Max Christie
- Chet Holmgren is the number one prospect in the class according to most experts. He is also on the number one team in the nation, so the expectations could not be higher. Anything less than a Final Four would be very disappointing for Gonzaga, and to get there, Chet will likely have to go through another freshman big in Jalen Duren as well as a rematch of the game of the year in college basketball. In November, Duke took down Gonzaga in Las Vegas with Paolo Banchero dominating the first half and Mark Williams being arguably the best player on the court in the win for the Blue Devils. Holmgren will not only be looking for some revenge but also show he can compete against more physical athletes and traditional big men in the class.
- The aforementioned Duren and his Memphis Tigers have turned it around late in the season under the leadership of Penny Hardaway. What started as a very disappointing season for Duren and the Tigers alike has turned around and become a respectable nine-seed appearance. Assuming the American Conference runner-up can get past the Boise State Broncos, they will earn themselves a date with the Gonzaga Bulldogs. That will be a massive opportunity for the young big man for Memphis who would not only be competing with the top prospect in Holmgren in the frontcourt but also a potential player of the year candidate in Gonzaga big man Drew Timme. While Memphis would be significant underdogs in this matchup and nobody would expect them to win, Duren would have an opportunity to show what he can do and raise his draft stock up to the potential fifth pick of the draft with an impressive showing.
- In recent years, Duke has underperformed in the NCAA tournament given the talent they have on the court, but this team is looking to change that narrative as they continue to embark on the Mike Krzyzewski farewell tour. This Duke team is loaded with talent, having potentially five first-round picks on the roster. All five players are in unique positions to raise their draft stock in specific ways. Paolo Banchero is trying to show that his flashes of dominance could be sustainable as he vies for the top pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. AJ Griffin is one of the many players that is looking to prove that they belong in the top five in what is widely considered a four-player draft. Mark Williams is attempting to solidify a spot in the lottery as the defensive anchor, while Trevor Keels and Wendell Moore need to show more consistent shooting to justify their worth in the first round.
- Michigan State’s Max Christie, along with Alabama point guard JD Davison and Davidson sharpshooter Hyunjung Lee, are amongst the group of prospects right on the outskirts of the first round that can raise their draft stock with stellar performances in a win or two. That may be the difference in if players like that end up declaring for the draft or return to school to try again next year.
The East Region
Key Prospects: Kendall Brown, Jeremy Sochan, Jaden Ivey, TyTy Washington
Other Prospects: Justin Lewis, Trayce Jackson-Davis, Jaime Jaquez Jr., Trevion Williams, Oscar Tshiebwe, Tevin Brown, Peyton Watson
- You can argue that no player has more to gain in this tournament than Jaden Ivey. While Purdue looks to avenge last year’s first-round upset, the sophomore guard is trying to get himself to the top of the draft. The super athletic combo guard has as much potential star power as anybody in the draft, but Purdue’s offense does not always highlight him. With a great performance in the tournament and a deep run, Ivey can potentially raise himself from the fourth prospect in a four-player class to a conversation for the first pick overall. While it would be surprising, I do not think it would be a complete shock to see Ivey in that conversation on draft night but he needs a good showing in the tournament, especially with a potential second-weekend matchup looming with potential lottery guard prospect TyTy Washington and a loaded Kentucky team.
- Baylor is the top-seeded team in this region and they are trying to defend their title with a retooled Baylor team including a couple of freshmen prospects. Baylor does not necessarily play a style to allow their players to put up gaudy numbers or give their freshmen the keys to the car. However, Kendall Brown and Jeremy Sochan are both playmaking two-way wings that will have a chance to shine in the tournament. If Baylor is to have a chance at repeating, Sochan and Brown will have to be impressive, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They should have a fun matchup for them in the second round either way with the winner of North Carolina/Marquette waiting for them, but their marquee matchup would be a Sweet Sixteen matchup with versatile big wings Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez to match up with, which will put the Baylor wing’s length on display.
- It is widely known that the 2022 guard class is underwhelming, to put it gently, and the biggest gripe is the complete lack of primary lead guards. TyTy Washington would be the “purest” point guard at the top end of this NBA draft class but Kentucky will have a tough pathway to any run that will not only likely include a matchup down the road with Jaden Ivey. However, getting to the Sweet Sixteen will be no gimme as they will have a ready-made Cinderella waiting to happen in either Murray State or San Fran that will be looking to knock them out in the second round. Could an upset for Kentucky hurt Washington’s draft stock and keep him from being a lottery pick on draft night?
- Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr. were darlings of the tournament last year and UCLA is looking to regain their magic from last year’s Final Four run. Those two will be the stars for the Bruins and are hoping to get hot in the tournament yet again but freshman Peyton Watson is looking to continue to recoup his draft stock. Watson was an elite recruit coming in and after a disappointing start to the year, has started to bounce back in the Pac-12 tournament and is looking to continue that momentum into the tourney. If Watson can live up to his previous potential, he can bring himself right back into the first-round conversation.
The South Region
Key Prospects: Bennedict Mathurin, Kennedy Chandler, EJ Liddell
Other Prospects: Christian Koloko, Kofi Cockburn, David Roddy, Caleb Houstan, Malaki Branham, Dalen Terry
- Arizona is a team to watch in the tournament loaded with talent and the most high-powered offense in the country. Bennedict Mathurin is a lottery pick that Knicks fans should certainly be monitoring. Expect him to be a guy that shows up multiple times in the “One Shining Moment” montage should Arizona make a run because he will have the ball in his hands late in the game and is an absolute killer.
- Arizona freshman Dalen Terry is one of the most prime examples of the pre-draft process and what that looks like in the modern NBA. With Kerr Kriisa seemingly still out with an ugly ankle injury, Terry will have more of an opportunity to play himself into this year’s draft class. If Kriisa is to miss multiple rounds and Arizona does what they are expected to, that could leave a lot of room for Dalen Terry. That could make a major difference for a player who was expected to return to school for the majority of the year.
- David Roddy is one of the most unique players in college basketball with his 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame, which made him a dominant force en route to winning the Mountain West player of the year. This will certainly get fans’ attention when they see his big frame dropping twenty on someone’s head in the tournament. Not only will he likely get a lot of positive attention from fans, but he has also skyrocketed onto the scene this year and started to move up draft boards. If Colorado State can go on a run from the six seed or even see him put up 30 points in a game, could he bring himself to the first round?
- The Tennessee Volunteers are already one of the biggest stories of the tournament after only receiving a three seed following their dominant SEC tournament win and having one of the more impressive résumés in the country. As I stated earlier, this is one of the weakest guard classes in recent history, and that is something that Kennedy Chandler can take advantage of. Mostly projected in the late first, Chandler has nowhere to go but up and if Tennessee continues their hot play of late, he might be able to bring himself up to closer to the lottery, where many members of draft twitter have always projected him.
- Ohio State has a pair of very interesting prospects in EJ Liddell and Malaki Branham. Both Buckeyes are highly efficient two-way players and can look to make a splash in the tournament. Ohio State has not been the trendiest team this year and has not garnered too much attention from the mainstream college basketball world, but that could change in the next few weeks.
The Midwest Region
Key Prospects: Ochai Agbaji, Keegan Murray, Johnny Davis, Tari Eason, Jabari Smith Jr, Walker Kessler
Other Prospects: Alex Fudge, Christian Braun, Isaiah Mobley, Tyrese Hunter
- Johnny Davis struggled in his one game in the Big Ten tournament and has been battling injuries as of late. He will be a player to watch for as he has been one of the most productive players in college basketball the entire year. Wisconsin’s success has been solely predicated on what Davis could do offensively. While it is a lot to ask of the sophomore guard, it will certainly be fun to watch in the big dance, and the Badger pathway includes some incredible potential matchups. Tari Eason is one of the best defensive prospects we have seen in years putting up numbers only comparable to Matisse Thybulle. Watching him potentially match up with Johnny Davis in the second round will be an absolute treat. Likewise, a battle between Jabari Smith Jr. and Johnny Davis in the Sweet Sixteen will be every scout’s dream. Davis is another one of those prospects in the fight for the fifth spot in this draft, and certainly someone for whom Knicks fans should be looking out.
- Jabari Smith Jr. is similar to Paolo and Chet in the battle for the top spot in this year’s draft and will have a chance to prove that with his tough shot-making ability for the Auburn Tigers. Unlike his competition for the number one pick, Jabari does not get the bulk of the offense run through him and has to share the ball with high-volume guards. How he is utilized in this tournament will be an interesting test for the 6’10” shot creator.
- Auburn is more than just Jabari Smith, sophomore big Walker Kessler also has a lot to prove and has shown that all year. The Georgia native has had a remarkable return to grace after transferring from a disappointing freshman year at North Carolina. This tournament will give the elite rim protector a chance to prove how he can defend on the perimeter and match up against more stretch big men such as USC’s Isaiah Mobley. For a player that has absolutely skyrocketed up the boards and is trending towards the lottery according to most experts, that will be of the utmost importance to show how he can compete against less traditional bigs which will be an important tool at the next level.
- Another Big Ten prospect that has been the whole kit and kaboodle for his team this year is Iowa’s Keegan Murray. The do-it-all wing took over in production where Luka Garza left off last year and has made himself a Naismith Player of the Year semi-finalist. Murray is fourth in the country in scoring with 23.6 points per game and will look to put on a show with his scoring from all over the court. He is another player that is vying for the fifth spot in this draft and will look to impress the masses with his scoring.
- I would be remiss not to mention Kansas’ Ochai Agbaji as a player to watch in the tournament. The 21-year-old Jayhawk will be one of the older players taken in the lottery in June but that makes him even more poised and ready for the moment in this tournament. As a one seed, the expectations will be high but not only will Agbaji potentially have to compete with the other stars in the region such as Keegan Murray and Jabari Smith Jr, but he could end up with an extremely stout San Diego State defense in the second round.
The brilliance of march madness as always is that you never know what is going to happen. The chaos and spontaneity are what make this event the best postseason in all of sports. The potential matchups are so enticing, but they do not compare to what we will actually get when it comes to upsets and buzzer-beaters.
Not only will we see the biggest names in college basketball try to bring themselves to the top of the list, but we will also see Cinderella teams trying to dethrone them. No matter how it plays out, we know that as the viewers, we will be the real winners. With this year’s slate filled with elite prospects and so much uncertainty in both the draft world—and the tournament itself—it is sure to exceed our wildest expectations.
»READ: Analyzing the disappointing guard class of the 2022 NBA Draft
»READ: Examining the big men of the 2022 NBA Draft class