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2021 NCAA Tournament Breakdown: Best Picks, Worst Draws, and Fun Facts for Each Region

Can anyone beat Gonzaga? Is Loyola-Chicago primed for another Cinderella run? And is Rutgers … good at basketball now?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The men’s NCAA tournament bracket is one of the toughest documents in sports to parse: It features 68 teams, most of which you haven’t watched all season, seeded via a process that is needlessly complex. The system is so complicated that ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has to live in an underground bunker for months on end to figure it out.

How can you possibly win your office bracket pool besides randomly guessing, like the person who somehow wins it every year? Glad you asked. Here’s a region-by-region look at the good, bad, and bizarre in this year’s field to help you make sense of it all.

West

The Final Four Pick: Gonzaga

Simply put, this Gonzaga squad is one of the best men’s college basketball teams ever—and it’s been given one of the most unusual draws ever by the NCAA selection committee.

The Zags went 26-0 this regular season, with 25 double-digit wins. They have one of the best NBA prospects in the country in superstar point guard Jalen Suggs, and another likely lottery pick in shooter extraordinaire Corey Kispert. Their high-tempo, incredibly efficient offense made them the first college team in over a decade to average 90-plus points per game. They are a juggernaut, and more fun to watch than your average juggernaut. They really seem to enjoy explosions.

I know what you’re going to say next: But Gonzaga plays in a terrible conference! What’s going to happen when it plays top-tier competition in the NCAA tournament? In this case, though, that hypothetical already has been answered, thanks to a truly strange bracket-making decision by the selection committee. The Bulldogs already have played the West’s no. 2, 3, and 4 seeds in neutral-site games this season, and beat them all handily. They rolled Iowa 99-88, they defeated Kansas 102-90, and they dominated Virginia 98-75. (It’s also worth mentioning that Kansas and Virginia were the only two teams to make the NCAA tournament after withdrawing from their respective conference tournaments due to positive COVID-19 tests. If they’re unable to play this weekend, they would be replaced by one of the four teams that just missed the cut, each of which has been told to remain on standby.)

I can’t remember anything like this! Why did the selection committee put Gonzaga in a region with many teams it played earlier—especially during a year when there are no geographic restrictions? Maybe the Hawkeyes, Jayhawks, and Cavaliers learned a lot from those first matchups, but we know the Zags can beat them easily. They’ve already done it.

Worst Draw: Virginia

The good news for the Hoos is that they’re technically still the reigning national champions. The bad news is they probably won’t hold that title for much longer. Virginia has a particularly tough first-round matchup: It faces no. 13 seed Ohio, the MAC champion that nearly took down no. 1 seed Illinois in a November clash. The Cavaliers will have their hands full with Jason Preston, who rose from high school anonymity to fringe NBA prospect status. Preston had 31 points and eight assists in that game against Illinois and hit a shot to give the Bobcats a lead with seven seconds left. Ohio is a lot better than UMBC.

Even if the Hoos avoid that upset, their best-case scenario is a Sweet 16 matchup with Gonzaga, who beat them by 23 in December.

Matchup You Should Root for: Interstate Hate

You probably think Kansas’s claim to being the best college basketball program in its own state is pretty strong. You know, because the Jayhawks have five national championships, more conference titles than any other program in the nation, and the longest streak of consecutive NCAA tournament berths. Plus James Naismith coached there, and he invented the sport!

But how can Kansas claim such a title if it’s never beaten Wichita State in the tourney? The Jayhawks are 0-2 all time against the Shockers in March, losing 66-65 to an Antoine Carr–led team in the 1981 regional finals and falling 78-65 to a Fred VanVleet–led squad in the 2015 round of 32.

Wichita State could soon have the chance to improve that record to 3-0. First it has to beat Drake in the play-in game; if the selection committee is going to give at-large bids to non-major-conference programs, it apparently wants those programs to battle it out first, like the Joker tossing a pool cue in front of a bunch of criminals before saying that he has a job for exactly one henchman. Then the Shockers have to get past Evan Mobley and USC in the round of 64. And then it could be time for Interstate Hate.

Fun Fact to Inform Your Bracket: Grand Canyon’s First Dance

Two teams are playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time this year: the Hartford Hawks and Grand Canyon Antelopes. With all due respect to Vin Baker, you probably yawned when reading “Hartford Hawks” and were intrigued when reading “Grand Canyon Antelopes.” Maybe you pictured some fancy deer jumping across the Colorado River gorge on motorcycles like tiny Evel Knievels.

But the actual Grand Canyon University—located in Phoenix, more than 200 miles from the actual Grand Canyon—might be even more intriguing than those imaginary motorcycle deer. Perhaps more than any other school in the country, it seems to grasp how useful a buzzy basketball team can be for drawing attention to an institution. The Antelopes were a Division 2 program until 2013, when they moved up and became the only for-profit college in Division 1. (They’re in a lawsuit about this.) Here’s a look at their extremely raucous student section, which has been the subject of plenty of articles about how fun it looks to be a student at Grand Canyon:

Grand Canyon’s first Division I head coach was Dan Majerle, who quickly reeled off four straight 20-win seasons. Unfortunately, schools that ascend to college basketball’s top level must complete a four-season transition phase before they’re given full membership status, during which they’re ineligible to compete in the NCAA tournament. So a bunch of really talented Lopes teams missed out on March Madness. Majerle had his first losing season last year, and the school immediately fired him—there’s a lawsuit about this too—before hiring former March hero Bryce Drew as their head coach. In his first season, Drew led the Lopes to their first tourney. Unfortunately, the student section can’t come.

East

The Final Four Pick: Alabama

I regret to inform you that Alabama is good at every sport now. The Crimson Tide just won their sixth football national championship in the past 12 years; they’re ranked fourth in softball and eighth in gymnastics; they won the women’s wheelchair basketball championship and finished second in men’s; and they just won the SEC title in men’s hoops for the first time in 30 years. Michigan looked shaky down the stretch, losing three of its final five games. I’m rolling with the Tide to win this region.

Somehow nobody hired Nate Oats after he led the University at Buffalo to a first-round win in the 2018 NCAA tournament, but Alabama pounced after he helped the Bulls to another tourney win in 2019. Oats has transformed Bama into a defensive powerhouse ranked second in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Tide are a miracle of a team that gets out on the fast break, shoots a ton of 3s, and still manages to maintain its defensive composure.

Worst Draw: Michigan State and UCLA

It’s not hugely unfair that Michigan State and UCLA were put in the play-in game. UCLA has a higher KenPom rating than three teams that made the field straight up (VCU, Virginia Tech, and Missouri), and Michigan State seemed likely to avoid the First Four based on most projections, but both entered Selection Sunday squarely on the bubble.

Still, I can’t help but shake the feeling that the selection committee threw two of college basketball’s most prestigious programs against each other to draw some attention to the First Four on Thursday night. Fight! Fight for our amusement!

Matchup You Should Root for: Michigan vs. Florida State

These two programs faced off in the 2018 Elite Eight. Since then, both have actually improved: Michigan’s transition to head coach Juwan Howard has gone smoothly, as the Wolverines recently took home their first Big Ten regular-season title since 2014. Florida State won the ACC regular-season title last year and made the conference championship game this year. If these programs meet again in the 2021 tournament, however, it’ll come in the Sweet 16.

In some ways, these teams are carbon copies. Both have great offenses (Michigan ranks sixth in adjusted offensive efficiency; Florida State is 10th), shoot well from beyond the arc (Michigan ranks 12th in 3-point shooting; Florida State is ninth), and defend effectively inside (Michigan ranks third in 2-point shooting percentage allowed; Florida State is 11th). The biggest difference between the two is Michigan’s 7-foot-1 center, Hunter Dickinson, has a beard. Florida State’s 7-foot-1 center, Balsa Koprivica, does not.

Fun Fact to Inform Your Bracket: Look, It’s Rick Pitino

College basketball’s favorite scumbag is back! Rick Pitino is the head coach of the Iona Gaels, the fifth team he has coached to the NCAA tournament. Now you may be thinking, “Hey, isn’t Rick Pitino way too famous to be head coach of the Iona Gaels?” Well, perhaps ... but in 2017 Pitino was one of the dozens of coaches involved in the FBI investigation alleging widespread corruption in college hoops. Pretty much everybody involved kept their jobs—except for Pitino. That’s not because he was more at fault than, say, Bill Self or Sean Miller. It’s because Louisville got fed up with having to deal with a new Pitino scandal every two or three years.

Pitino thought he’d never coach a college team again—he took a job coaching Panathinaikos in Greece, where The Ringer’s John Gonzalez interviewed him in 2019—but then he landed the Iona job last March. He stepped into a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference dynasty, as Iona had been to the last four NCAA tournaments, but the team’s journey here has hardly been easy. Iona paused its season four times due to positive COVID tests, including a 51-day break from December to February. Still, the Gaels pulled through and dominated the MAAC tournament.

Don’t expect Iona to go far, though. The program has lost 13 consecutive tournament games dating back to 1980, and has to face newly dominant Alabama in the first round.

South

The Final Four Pick: Baylor

Baylor is perfectly calibrated to stave off an early March Madness upset. The Bears led Division I in 3-point shooting percentage this season, hitting 41.8 percent of their attempts from deep. They also grabbed 37.5 percent of their misses, the fourth-best offensive rebound rate in the country.

Baylor isn’t a “live by the 3, die by the 3” team. It’s a “live by the 3, but if we miss we’re still going to score because you can’t box us out” team. After the Bears went 13-1 in a tough Big 12 conference, it’s hard not to see them playing deep into March.

Worst Draw: Texas Tech

I love the way Texas Tech plays. In fact, I wouldn’t shut up about this in the 2019 NCAA tournament. But the Red Raiders drew a first-round opponent, 11th-seeded Utah State, that seems uniquely suited to bother them.

Texas Tech doesn’t really shoot 3s: It ranked 304th in Division I in 3-point rate, taking just 31.3 percent of its shots from behind the arc. It prefers to score inside despite lacking rotation players taller than 6-foot-7. And now it’s set to face off against Utah State, led by 7-foot shot-blocking machine Neemias Queta. Queta had nine blocks in the Mountain West Conference semifinals—and briefly injured his head when he hit it on the backboard while blocking a shot in the league championship game. None of the 6-foot-6 dudes on Texas Tech are going to have that problem.

The Aggies block 14.6 percent of opposing shots, seventh best in college hoops. They hold opponents to 42.9 percent shooting inside of the arc, fourth best. The Red Raiders’ strength is scoring inside with undersized players, and Utah State has gotten here primarily by swatting the hell out of undersized players. Texas Tech will have to hit shots from deep or else.

Matchup You Should Root for: Baylor vs. Ohio State

Let’s not mess around here: The third- and fourth-ranked teams in KenPom’s offensive efficiency are in the same region. If the Bears and Buckeyes meet, we could be treated to a scoring spectacular. It’ll be the type of game to show to your friend who insists that men’s college basketball is nothing but guys who brick 14-footers.

Fun Fact to Inform Your Bracket: Colgate Is the MYSTERY TEAM

The South is easily the deepest region in the tournament. Utah State has the highest KenPom ranking of any of the no. 11 seeds in the bracket. No. 12 seed Winthrop went 23-1 during the regular season. And no. 13 North Texas could have what it takes to upset Purdue.

But the team that intrigues me the most is 14th-seeded Colgate. Why? Because I have no idea how good the Raiders are! They went 14-1 this season with an average margin of victory of 18 points … but they played only five opponents as part of a heavily contracted schedule that featured no out-of-conference games. They went 5-0 against Boston University (including an 89-45 win on January 10), 4-0 against Holy Cross (including a 95-55 win on January 16), and 3-1 against Army (including a 101-57 win on January 2). They also beat Bucknell by 30 points in the Patriot League tournament and Loyola-Maryland by double digits in the conference title game. To be fair, those teams are probably bad—but we don’t even know that much, because only Army played a nonconference schedule. All this resulted in Colgate getting a top-10 rating in the NCAA’s top-secret NET ranking system.

It’s safe to bet that Colgate was boosted by its odd schedule, but it also was likely helped by shooting 40 percent from 3 as a team. Its sixth man, Jack Ferguson, shot 50.7 percent from deep. That’ll play against anybody.

Midwest

The Final Four Pick: Houston

Houston is a team built on second chances. It’s led by Kelvin Sampson, the former Oklahoma and Indiana head coach who was banned by the NCAA in 2008 for making phone calls. Not, like, Hugh Freeze phone callsjust regular phone calls to recruits, which were deemed impermissible at the time. He was forced to leave the college coaching ranks for five years, got hired by Houston almost as soon as his penalty expired, and has promptly turned the Cougars program around.

There’s the team’s star, Quentin Grimes, a Houston native who committed to Kansas as a five-star recruit out of high school, only to decide to come home after averaging 8.4 points per game for the Jayhawks in 2018-19. And there’s also the team’s playing style: Houston rebounds 39.6 percent of its missed shots, the second-best offensive rebound rate in the country.

Houston’s draw is exceptional. According to KenPom’s ratings, the Midwest has the worst no. 3 seed (West Virginia, ranked 27th), worst no. 4 seed (Oklahoma State, ranked 30th), worst no. 5 seed (Tennessee, ranked 21st), and worst no. 7 seed (Clemson, ranked 42nd) in the entire field. Plus, the no. 11 and 12 seeds (Syracuse and Oregon State) are hardly good enough to be in the tournament, so we can rule out any Cinderella shenanigans. Meanwhile, there’s a battle brewing in this region between the no. 1 seed and the no. 8 seed.

Worst Draw: Loyola-Chicago

There was no team that the selection committee treated more cruelly than the Ramblers. This Loyola-Chicago team is significantly better than the one that captured America’s hearts en route to the Final Four three years ago. That team was ranked 41st in KenPom’s ratings heading into the NCAA tournament; this team is ranked ninth. Ninth! In the whole country!

And yet the committee seeded Loyola eighth in its own region. When Loyola made the Final Four, I wrote about how the NCAA absolutely refuses to respect mid-major teams. The association doubled down on that disrespect by slotting Loyola as a no. 8 seed. It’s depressing, and shows how the powers that be haven’t learned from their mistakes.

But what makes this especially brutal is that, in a sense, the NCAA didn’t disrespect the Ramblers enough. Being the no. 8 seed is great if you want to win one NCAA tournament game; it’s terrible if you want to win more than one, because your second-round game is almost certain to come against the no. 1 seed. It sucks that a team as good as Loyola-Chicago will have to go against a team as spectacular as Illinois in the second round. That’s going to be a great game: I can’t wait to see the matchup between Loyola’s Cameron Krutwig—the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year who plays like a smaller Nikola Jokic—and Illinois center Kofi Cockburn. But neither team deserves to go out in the second round, and one will.

Matchup You Should Root for: Cade Cunningham vs. Tennessee

The Midwest might be the weakest region in the tournament, but that doesn’t matter to NBA scouts. If Oklahoma State and Tennessee both handle their business in the first round, we’ll get a game featuring three top draft prospects: Cade Cunningham, the top prospect in college hoops and the presumptive no. 1 pick in the 2021 draft, as well as Tennessee’s Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer.

Oklahoma State’s main strategy was to give the ball to Cunningham and let him make magic. Since he’s so outrageously talented, he often did; take his 40-point, 11-rebound performance in a overtime win over Oklahoma in February. Tennessee, meanwhile, is one of the best defensive teams in the country, ranking fourth in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. Springer, in particular, is an exceptional defensive prospect, although Johnson is likely to go higher in the draft.

This would be a showdown of strengths—Cunningham’s offensive brilliance against Tennessee’s defensive talent. Let’s hope we get to see it.

Fun Fact to Inform Your Bracket: Rutgers Is Good Now

I’ve spent most of my adult life making fun of Rutgers, which made the financially wise and athletically questionable decision to realign from the Big East to the Big Ten in 2014. A short list of Great Moments in Recent Rutgers Athletics History: The school fired its basketball coach after he got too rowdy at Rutgers baseball games; it hired his replacement in large part because he was a Rutgers alum, only to find out that he did not, in fact, ever graduate from Rutgers; its football coach unsuccessfully tried to lobby on behalf of a player who received an F in a dance appreciation course; its fans tried to start a football rivalry with Michigan before the Wolverines beat the Scarlet Knights 78-0 in 2016. The Rutgers basketball team finished dead last in league play in each of its first four years in the Big Ten, compiling a combined record of 9-63.

But the program has turned things around under head coach Steve Pikiell. It should have made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991 last season, but the tourney was canceled because of the pandemic. The Scarlet Knights have been just as good this season, going .500 in the toughest league in the sport. They even beat Illinois, the no. 1 seed in this region. They should be favored in their first-round matchup against Clemson. If they win, I promise not to make fun of Rutgers for at least 12 months. OK … a month.