2022 March Madness Bracket Predictions: East Region
It happens every year. Every year, despite the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee’s best attempt, there is always an imbalance somewhere in the field of 68. There always ends up being one region that is softer than the others and one that is an absolute gauntlet.
Last year the East was easily the worst bracket on the board – which I pointed out in my regional preview – and the result was a No. 11 seed and First Four participant running the table.
This year the pendulum has swung the other way, and the East looks like the Group of Death.
Baylor is the defending National Champion. UCLA was a Final Four participant in last year’s tournament. College hoops royalty like Kentucky, North Carolina and Indiana also dot the bracket, along with historic giant killers like St. Mary’s, Akron and Murray State. Toss in the current ACC champion (Virginia Tech), and their first-round opponent, preseason No. 5 Texas, and this bracket is armed to the teeth.
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Here are Doc’s Sports March Madness bracket predictions for the East Region:
No. 1 Seed: Baylor Bears (+250 to win East Region)
The defending champs have been slowly but surely trending downward since a dominating 15-0 start. Injuries to their two top bench players have shortened Baylor’s eight-man rotation down to a tight six. The result has been a less versatile, more vulnerable Bears group that may not have the stamina for a deep run. That’s not to say that these guys are ready to roll over and play dead. Baylor is still, after all, a No. 1 seed. The Bears are a dominating defensive team, allowing just 63.4 points per game and holding opponents to 29.2 percent 3-point shooting. If they do have an Achilles heel, it could be their free throw shooting. Baylor makes just 69 percent from the charity stripe, and that could kill them in a close game.
Baylor NCAA Tournament Predictions: There hasn’t been a repeat national champion since Florida in 2006-2007. Prior to that, a team hadn’t gone back-to-back since 1961-1962. We won’t have a repeat champion this year, either. And I will be surprised if the Bears survive until the Elite Eight.
No. 2 Seed: Kentucky Wildcats (+150)
Kentucky rebounded from last year’s disastrous 9-16 COVID season to go 26-7 this year in one of the nation’s top conferences. Kentucky’s solution last offseason was simple: get older. Coach Cal brought in veteran transfers Oscar Tshiebwe, Sahvir Wheeler and Kellan Grady, and the difference has been obvious. Kentucky hasn’t lost to a team outside of the NCAA Tournament field, and only two teams (Tennessee and Arkansas) have been able to slay the Wildcats since Jan. 23. Kentucky’s offense is one of the most efficient in the country. Not coincidentally, this team has adopted more of an old school approach, shooting the ninth-fewest 3-pointers (as a percentage of their total shots) in the country. Instead, Kentucky attacks the basket relentlessly and pounds teams into submission in the paint. That’s exactly what they did in blowout wins over UNC (by 29), Tennessee (by 28) and at Kansas (by 18). And that approach has Kentucky on the short list of national title contenders.
Kentucky NCAA Tournament Predictions: This team isn’t going to beat itself. If Kentucky falls, it will be because another high-end team beats them, not because the Wildcats don’t come to play. Kentucky is rock solid on both ends of the court, and they have a favorable draw at the bottom of this bracket. I think Kentucky will hammer its way into the Final Four.
No. 3 Seed: Purdue Boilermakers (+300)
It must be said: Matt Painter has to be one of the weakest NCAA Tournament coaches in the country. Painter has turned 12 tournament bids into just one Elite Eight appearance. Last year’s first round flop, losing to No. 14 North Texas, was the fourth time he’s failed to make it out of the opening weekend while seeded No. 6 or better. Purdue is easily one of the 15 best teams in the country. Will they actually show up, though, after losing Sunday in the Big Ten title game? Jaden Ivey is a future NBA All-Star, and Trevion Williams and Zach Edey comprise one of the best frontcourts in the nation. Yet, this team is a perpetual March underachiever, and that makes them difficult to trust heading into The Dance.
Purdue NCAA Tournament Predictions: The Boilermakers are 0-10 against the spread in their last 10 games. Maybe these guys aren’t as good as I think they are. This team has Final Four talent. However, there is no way I’m banking on Painter this time of the year.
No. 4 Seed: UCLA Bruins (+350)
UCLA barnstormed its way to the Final Four last season as a No. 11 seed, beating Michigan State in the First Four and not losing until they fell to Gonzaga in overtime in Indianapolis. All five starters are back from that group, along with superb transfer Myles Johnson, and the Bruins enter The Big Dance with some unfinished business. UCLA is in the Top 50 in both points scored and points allowed. They desperately need Johnny Juzang to find his form. Juzang has battled injuries while shooting just 25-for-68 (37%) from 2-point range and 7-for-21 (33%) from 3-point range over UCLA’s last 11 games (with three DNPs). Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez have been picking up the slack, but UCLA can’t make a run without Juzang making a positive impact.
UCLA NCAA Tournament Predictions: This team has the talent, the experience and the confidence to make another tournament run. If they do, they will have earned it, with St. Mary’s, Indiana, North Carolina and Baylor all potentially standing in the way of the Bruins and the Elite Eight.
No. 5 Seed: St. Mary’s Gaels (+1900)
St. Mary’s has finally moved up into the big time, earning its highest-ever seed in 21 years under Randy Bennett. The Gaels have been one of the best mid-major programs in the country over the last decade – with very little to show for it. Their reputation basically boils down to being “Gonzaga’s little brother” in the WCC. The Gaels haven’t survived the opening weekend since 2010, and have just one tournament win (2017) since that 2010 Sweet 16 run. This year’s Gaels squad has wins over Notre Dame, Oregon and Gonzaga. They have been one of the best bets in college hoops this year, going 20-9 ATS. And if they want to prove they belong with the big boys, they will have to prove it by taking some more scalps from major conference opponents.
St. Mary’s NCAA Tournament Predictions: Composed mainly of foreign players, this team wins with defense, guile, and deliberate pace. That doesn’t make them a strong favorite, though, and I think they will have their hands full if they must face Indiana and/or UCLA.
No. 6 Seed: Texas Longhorns (+1000)
The Longhorns continue to be one of the most underachieving basketball programs in the country. And considering their current form – they’ve lost three straight games and are 5-6 straight up in their last 11 – I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a deep run this weekend. Texas, which is 11-21 ATS on the season, was screwed the moment that Tre Mitchell left the team after a mid-February loss to Baylor. Timmy Allen, Marcus Carr, Andrew Jones, Courtney Ramey and Jase Febres give the Longhorns five talented, experienced ball handlers. But the chemistry has just never developed within this group. And their lack of size – only one regular taller than 6-7 – holds them back.
Texas Tournament Predictions: Mercifully, this will be the last we will ever have to see of the weird Jones-Courtney backcourt dynamic. Chris Beard will be able to clear the decks after a short tournament stay and begin in earnest the full rebuild of the Longhorns program. I think getting a single win over Virginia Tech would be a major accomplishment.
Best first-round matchup: No. 7 Murray State (-1.5) vs. No. 10 San Francisco
Two of the best mid-major teams in the country will match up for the right to take on Kentucky in the second round. San Francisco was one of the surprising – and controversial – final additions to the field. This team, which has already beaten tourney squads Davidson and UAB, has new life and is playing with house money here. Their opponent, the Racers, are riding a 20-game winning streak and haven’t lost since Thanksgiving. Murray State hasn’t just beaten opponents this year – they pummeled them, winning by an average of nearly 20 points per game. These are two of the most efficient offensive teams in the country, and they should give us a back-and-forth, highly entertaining contest.
Best potential second-round matchup: No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 8 North Carolina
The Tar Heels have some pretty clear limitations on their roster. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t good enough to knock off the defending champs. North Carolina has won six of its last seven games, including a 13-point win at Duke in Coach K’s final home game and a 20-point blowout over Virginia in the ACC tournament. The Heels are capable, and Brady Manek and Armado Bacot are a solid post combination. It’s pretty simple for UNC: if Caleb Love and R.J. Davis play well, they can beat anyone. If they don’t, they can’t. Neither team has a very deep bench, so it should be the top six on each side lining up and getting after it for 40 minutes.
Upset Alert (first round): No. 6 Texas vs. No. 11 Virginia Tech
There aren’t many teams in the country hotter than the Hokies right now. They just won four games in four days to claim the ACC tournament title, and Tech is 13-2 in its last 15 games overall. This same group made the NCAA Tournament last year, losing in overtime in the first round, and they would love to keep their recent momentum going. Texas has been headed in the opposite direction, going just 9-9 in their last 18 games, and most analysts feel that these seeds could’ve been flipped and no one would have complained.
Upset Alert (second round): No. 4 UCLA vs. No. 12 Indiana
Obviously, Indiana has a lot of work to do in order to set this scenario up. The Hoosiers have to face Wyoming in the First Four and then take on a crafty, capable St. Mary’s team. However, no one needs to tell UCLA how quickly momentum can build for a First Four team. And if the Hoosiers, who have underperformed compared to their talent level this season, can get that first win under their belt, then it could start the ball rolling downhill. If you haven’t seen Trayce Jackson-Davis, he is worth the price of admission. And if the Hoosiers can take care of the ball and make better decisions on offense, they could be dangerous.
Dark Horse team: UCLA
The Bruins did it once. Can they do it again? UCLA has wins over Arizona and Villanova, two of the top eight seeded teams in the entire tournament. And after last year’s Final Four run, they know they can play with and beat anyone in the country. The Bruins also have a favorable potential path back to the Final Four. They could take on two mid-major teams before a Sweet 16 date with wounded Baylor. If the Bruins get to that point, last year’s muscle memory may start to take over.
Team That Makes Me Nervous: Baylor
The Bears were one of the best teams in the country through the first two months of the season and looked like they would have a legitimate opportunity to make it back to the Final Four and defend their title. Then they started to get banged up. And take some losses. And wear down. So, who should we expect to see here: the team that closed the regular season 5-0 with wins over TCU, Kansas, Texas and Iowa State (all tourney teams) or the one that lost outright as a nine-point favorite to Oklahoma in the Big 12 tournament? They are the weakest of the No. 1 seeds. But that doesn’t mean they are weak.
2022 East Region Predictions: I think that there are any number of permutations that could occur in this group, and it wouldn’t surprise me. Kentucky looks like the best team in this region heading into the tournament. Baylor can’t be counted out because of their pedigree. I actually think that Purdue and UCLA are the biggest contenders to the Wildcats, and both have high-end talent. Kentucky will get tested by whichever mid-major they face in round two. If they survive, then I think they will be too much for whomever they take on in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. I like Kentucky to survive.
Robert Ferringo is a member of the Basketball Writer's Association of America and a professional sports handicapper for Doc's Sports. He is considered one of the best college basketball handicappers in the country and has posted 12 of 15 winning seasons. He is looking for a monster March run and you can sign up for his college basketball picks and get more information here.
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