Photo courtesy of Patrick Smith/Getty Images/TNS _______________________________________________________________
By Ben Cooper and Dan Gutenberg _______________________________________________________________
One year ago, the sports world abruptly stopped. And leading this long pause from major sports events was the NCAA, when on March 12, 2020, they announced that the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament would be canceled.
One year later, long-awaited March Madness returns. The 2021 tournament officially kicks off on Thursday, March 18. But before then, there is a lot to review. An unprecedented year shook things up in the collegiate basketball world, and the current standing of college basketball looks much different than it did last time teams were in action.
Most notably, Duke and Kentucky won’t appear in the tournament this year. The last time both teams failed to make it March in the same year was 44 years ago in 1976. Kentucky’s absence was less surprising after a constant season of falling short, but a positive Covid-19 test is what forced Duke to drop out of the ACC tournament — erasing any and all hopes of making the tournament.
But part of the excitement of an interrupted year is the new teams that have found themselves as top seeds, replacing former powerhouses. Baylor, for instance, represents the one seed in the South for the very first time in school history. Illinois secured their first tournament bid since 2013 and have earned themselves a one seed for the first time in 16 years. Similarly, Michigan is the last one seed in the East, and their last appearance in this position was 28 years ago, coincidentally when current head coach Juwan Howard was a member of the team in 1993.
With countless other talented teams hoping to be crowned national champions, the return of this year’s tournament will be special. However, March Madness wouldn’t be the same without the decade-long tradition of avid college basketball fans filling out their brackets, attempting to correctly pick the outcome of all 63 games.
Preparation is key, so we’ve laid out our best insights for this year’s action, region by region. Scroll below to read our predicted upsets, potential Cinderella Stories, players to watch and the most likely team to make it out of each individual region. At the end, find which teams we think make it to the championship game and will eventually be crowned national champions. Good luck bracket-filling!
Most likely upset
(10) VCU over (7) Oregon
Despite their loss in the A-10 championship, the VCU Rams are our pick to upset the Oregon Ducks. It’s a classically great offense versus a great defense, as the Ducks are ranked 16th in offensive efficiency while the Rams rank tenth in defense. The difference maker in this game will be sophomore phenom Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland, who is averaging 19.7 points per game on 37% shooting in the guard’s second collegiate season. In a game that we expect to go down to the wire, we’ll pick the A-10 player of the year to propel the Rams to the Round of 32.
Although they are a mere 13-seed, the Ohio Bobcats are led by NBA Prospect Jason Preston — whose play this season has been almost as extraordinary as his journey. Following his high school senior season in which he averaged two points, Preston attended UCF as a regular student. After joining an AAU team, he was recruited to a prep school where he edited his own highlight tape. Remarkably, Ohio saw the post via twitter, and now Preston is averaging 18 points and 7.6 assists on a very explosive top-30 offense. Preston and the rest of the Bobcats are not only legit, but their path is relatively easy with Virginia having recent covid struggles and Creighton coming off a 25-point loss to Georgetown. We think this has all the ingredients of a Cinderella story, so make sure to think twice before eliminating the Bobcats.
Player to watch
Evan Mobley, USC
With expected first overall draft pick Cade Cunningham demanding so much attention, USC’s Evan Mobley hasn’t received the national recognition he deserves. The 19-year-old dominated the Conference of Champions this year, averaging 16.8 points, three blocks and eight-and half boards a game. This tremendous freshman year earned the projected lottery pick the Pac-12 Player of the Year, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. What more is there to say? Don’t miss out on watching this potential NBA superstar in action before his collegiate career comes to an end.
(1) Gonzaga vs (2) Iowa
In a game that features the widely considered national player of the year, Luka Garza, and the top ranked and undefeated Gonzaga Bulldogs, this matchup will be quite the spectacle. Coming from the best conference in the country, the Big Ten Iowa Hawkeyes have been battling night in and night out. The Zags on the other hand, play in the WCC, a mid tier conference that doesn’t contain a single other tournament-caliber team. Don’t let this fool you as the Zags are the favorites to win it all for a reason, as they beat their non-conference ranked opponents by over 12 points a game, including an 11 point win against Iowa earlier this season. Although Iowa is not the same team they were in December, the Zags will capitalize on Iowa’s defensive struggles and reach the Final Four.
Most likely upset
(12) Winthrop over (5) Villanova
No disrespect to the Winthrop Eagles, but this upset has a lot more to do with their opponent. The combination of a covid shutdown and a season-ending MCL tear to Senior Captain Colin Gillespie, the Villanova Wildcats have lost back-to-back games against unranked teams to finish off the regular season. Although you should never count out two-time champion Jay Wright, the Wildcats are playing their worst basketball of the year at the wrong time. And going against a 23-1 Eagles team who just won the Big South tournament in blowout fashion does not help the Wildcats, as we expect them to go down in the first round.
With a starting lineup that has an average age of 22.6, the Wisconsin Badgers have no shortage of experience. 17-12 doesn’t jump off the page, but in the Big Ten, a 50% in-conference winning percentage is nothing to sneeze at. The Badgers play a UNC team that struggles from the free throw line and are led by young guards that the Badgers can take advantage of, advancing them on to the round of 32. Unless Baylor shockingly falls in the first round, Wisconsin will play the Bears in a game that could potentially shock the world — leading Wisconsin to knock off the first number one seed in this year’s tournament. The Bears aren’t the same team they were prior to their Covid shutdown, as they have lost two of their last six games after a historic 18-0 start. The Bears haven’t made the Final Four since 1950, and we believe Wisconsin’s experience, accompanied by their one-day break between games, will result in the Badgers pulling off the upset.
Player to watch
Mac McClung, Texas Tech
Although he rose to fame from acrobatic dunks, the Texas Tech Guard is no longer known for his finishes. Don’t get it twisted, McClung is still a freakish athlete, but the former three-star has now led the Red Raiders to a six seed in the tournament. Texas Tech is coming off a Final Four season and with McClung being the streaky player that he is, keep an eye on him and the rest of the Red Raiders. A game against the Utah State Aggies may not be especially exciting at first glance, but McClung’s ability to both stretch the floor and posterize opponents could make this game a thrilling first-round matchup.
(3) Arkansas vs (4) Purdue
Yes, you read that correctly. We believe that the four-seed Purdue Boilermakers will face off against the three-seed Arkansas Razorbacks this season in a game that is sure to be a low scoring affair. Similar to Wisconsin, playing in the Big Ten has made many people overlook this 18-9 Purdue team. Led by Trevion Williams, the Boilermakers have won five of the last six. Unfortunately for them, they’re not as hot as the Razorbacks who have won 12 out of their last 13 and are elite on both ends of the court. In the end, the Razorbacks offensive firepower in Moses Moody, JD Notae, and Justin smith will prove to be too much, and the Razorbacks will reach their first Final Four since 1995.
Most likely upset
(12) Georgetown over (5) Colorado
Representing our staple 12-5 upset are the Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown Hoyas. Coming off an impressive 73-48 win against No. 17 Creighton in the Big East tournament final, the Hoyas are in their best form all season. And combining for just over half their points in the conference final game, seniors Chudier Bile and Jahvon Blair have been putting the team on their backs. If they continue to rain in the threes, it’s plausible they stir the pot against a largely unchallenged Colorado team — in what should be an exciting first round contest.
UConn sophomore James Bouknight put it best: “UConn is built for March, this is where we belong.” The last time UConn was the seven seed in the East, they won it all. And assuming they take down 10-seed Maryland, beware of a potential upset against two-seed Alabama. UConn has played only 22 games this season, yielding only one more loss than Alabama. A second-round win could set the stage for a Final Four run, as Texas and Michigan could be the only teams standing in their way. Keep your eyes out for UConn.
Player to watch
Hunter Dickinson, Michigan
The 7’1” Big Ten Freshman of the Year is the reason why Michigan sits atop the East. Averaging 14.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, the freshman center has dominated the paint all season long. It’s not very often you see a seven-foot-one, 255 lb center as nimble as Dickinson, and his contribution to this Michigan squad has been invaluable. Assuming he stays healthy and avoids foul trouble, teams will have to focus extra energy on shutting down the freshman. This opens up the rest of the court for Michigan, but don’t be fooled: Hunter Dickinson is the one to watch in the East.
(1) Michigan vs (3) Texas
Although we’ve boasted about a potential UConn run above, we predict Michigan will face Texas in the Elite Eight. Whether they do face Alabama or UConn, Texas has proven themselves to be one of the best teams this year after their impressive win over Cade Cunningham and the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the Big 12 Tournament final. And as a one seed, Michigan’s path to the regional final almost looks too easy. In what we predict to be an intense battle for a spot in the Final Four, we have Michigan advancing out of the East. Considering all of the top 25 ranked teams they’ve beaten this year, their résumé is just too impressive to ignore.
Most likely upset
(9) Georgia Tech over (8) Loyola Chicago
Yes, a 9-8 upset isn’t the most exciting pick, but we believe it’s far and away the most conceivable upset to occur. Closing out the season 17-8 with an eight-game winning streak is exactly how you want to be entering the tournament on Thursday, and being led by senior forward Moses Wright, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets are in a great position to keep things rolling. They have already upset No. 16 Virginia Tech and went on to win the ACC tournament, with an upset win over No. 15 Florida State on Sunday. And after just narrowly falling to Virgina 60-62 earlier this season, the Yellow Jackets have certainly shown that they can hang with some of the top teams in the country. No disrespect to the Loyola Chicago Ramblers — we know what they can do at the Big Dance — but their schedule was undeniably less challenging. They also lost handedly to the only ranked team they’ve faced this season in the previous No. 12 Wisconsin, so beware of a 9-8 upset in this first round matchup of the Midwest.
As we’ve said earlier, playing in the Big Ten this year gives you unique advantages. The competitive conference has the most teams in the field with nine this year, and teams like the Rutgers Scarlet Knights have been playing top 10 and top 25 teams all season long. Although they post a staggering 11 losses this season, they’ve gone toe-to-toe with No. 10 Iowa (75-77), and they actually beat the one seed in the Midwest earlier this year in a 91-88 win over Illinois. If the Ron Harper Jr.-led Scarlet Knights can manage a win over seven-seed Clemson in the first round, look for them to give Houston trouble next. Assuming they can pull off these wild wins, a rematch against Illinois — who just recently knocked them out of the Big Ten tournament — could happen during the Elite Eight stage.
Player to watch
Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State
In our clear pick as the player to watch in the Midwest, we have Oklahoma State freshman Cade Cunningham. The consensus number one pick predicted at this year’s NBA draft has led the Cowboys all season to an impressive 20-8 record. Averaging 20.2 points per game and shooting 41% from beyond the arc, the 6’8” freshman guard can seemingly do it all. And as arguably the best player in college basketball, his explosive play has won huge games for the Cowboys over ranked teams. Cunningham put up numbers in these wins against Texas Tech twice, Oklahoma twice, West Virginia twice, Kansas and most recently the South one-seed Baylor Bears. With a career high of 40 points, coming from an overtime win against Oklahoma, Cunningham can be the difference maker among close games. With tons of players to keep an eye on in the Midwest, Cade Cunningham is the one who should be watched most closely.
(2) Houston vs (4) Oklahoma State
Despite our potential Rutgers Cinderella run, we can’t see Houston falling so early. With only three losses all season, the Houston Cougars have been an unstoppable force in the AAC. Although usually known for their strong defense, the Cougars are averaging 77.6 points per game and blowing out teams in their way. Entering the tournament after a 91-54 win against Cincinnati in the AAC tournament final, we predict the Cougars will make it to the Elite Eight and go no further. Oklahoma State is our Final Four team in the Midwest. Although this means they’ll have to shut down Kofi Cockburn and the Fighting Illini, Oklahoma State is an underdog pick with the raw talent needed to take down both the one seed and two seed in their region.
Our Final Four
(1) Gonzaga vs (1) Michigan
Gonzaga versus. Michigan would be a battle of two powerhouse programs with all the draft picks, elite coaching and flashy players a fan could ask for. Both Juwan Howard and Mark Few are Naismith National Coach of the year finalists, and we believe their talents to be on full display if these teams end up battling it out for a spot in the championship. Although this is Howard’s first NCAA tournament as a coach, he has surrounded himself with two elite and experienced coaches in Phil Martelli and Saddi Washington. Unfortunately for Howard’s squad, they are going against the duo of Drew Timme and Corey Kispert, who could have a field day against the Wolverines — who will likely be without senior captain and second-team all Big Ten player Isaiah Livers. The Zags will prove to have too much star power, as they’ll advance on to the National Championship.
(3) Arkansas vs (4) Oklahoma State
Although this may not be the game many have expected to be in the Final Four, we believe this game could be one of the closest contests of the entire tournament. Oklahoma State is a team filled with players who can guard multiple positions, and this has allowed them to win while being a bit sloppy with the ball on offense. In the semi-final game, this will prove to be the Cowboys kryptonite, as the razorbacks will capitalize on Oklahoma State’s turnovers and get high percentage looks in transition. We expect Cade Cunningham to keep it close, but the Razorbacks will reach the title game.
(1) Gonzaga vs (3) Arkansas
Many might look at these two teams and expect a blowout, but we can’t see that happening. Although Gonzaga has been the consensus number one ranked team this year and the Razorbacks are a mere three seed, the one-day break between games will be extremely beneficial for Arkansas. The Razorbacks defense has caused trouble all year for young guards, and freshman Jalen Suggs could struggle early with turnovers. But unlike the vast majority of teams, Gonzaga has room for error, and their depth and outside shooting will allow them to stay in the game in the first half. Mark Few's coaching along with the senior leadership of Corey Kispert will have the Zags firing on all cylinders on both ends of the floor to start the second half — something we can’t see the Razorbacks being able to match. This will lead to the Gonzaga Bulldogs hoisting the trophy on April 5, bringing them their first national title in program history.
Congratulations if you've made it this far, and good luck with your bracket!