2021 Men's NCAA Tournament Bracket: Latest Projection of the Field of 68
With a new calendar year on the horizon, it's finally time for our first in-season projection for the 2021 men's NCAA tournament bracket. And if you've seen the latest AP rankings, it should come as no surprise that Gonzaga, Baylor, Kansas and Villanova are our four No. 1 seeds.
At this point in a most unusual season, projected seeding is still based primarily on preseason expectations as opposed to actual results from the first five weeks. After all, the first NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings won't come out until Jan. 4, and KenPom.com data still has a lot of preseason modeling baked into the numbers.
That said, we're not just going to ignore what has happened thus far.
Teams like Kentucky, Arizona State and Memphis were projected tournament teams in mid-November, but they have all disappointed enough to drop out of the conversation. Conversely, teams like Missouri, Xavier and SMU have surged from afterthoughts to likely holders of tournament positions.
One other note: With the 2021 NCAA tournament expected to be held in one location (probably Indianapolis), regional and sub-regional locations simply aren't a bracketology consideration this year. We'll still call them the East, Midwest, South and West regions unless/until there's a new official nomenclature for them.
For each of the four regions, we'll discuss one team in much better shape than it was at the start of the season and another that—though still in position to dance—isn't as good as we once thought.
Before that, we'll start with the bubble, like we always do. And after the region-by-region breakdown, there will be an explanation of why the No. 1 seeds are ranked in the order they are. At the end is a list of overall seeds by conference as a handy reference guide.
Last Five In
Last Team In: Northwestern Wildcats (6-2, KenPom: 55)
Here's a fun factoid about Northwestern that Heat Check CBB pointed out on Twitter and I simply must pass along.
Heading into play on Tuesday, Northwestern was:
- In sole possession of first place in the Big Ten with a 3-0 record
- Ranked 19th in the AP poll
- Projected by KenPom to lose each of its next 15 games
Granted, in most of those games, the Wildcats are given a 30-49 percent chance of victory. Their actual expected record from that gauntlet was 5.1 wins and 9.9 losses. But if you're wondering why no one is yet penciling Northwestern in for the No. 1 seed that will likely go to whoever wins the Big Ten this year, there you go.
Having said that, it's hard to argue with a team that already boasts wins over Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State and would have started 7-0 were it not for the catastrophic collapse in the final 40 seconds of the loss to Pittsburgh. KenPom isn't much buying the Wildcats as a true contender, but they did much more in the first five weeks of the regular season than a lot of other teams in the projected field.
Second-to-Last In: Stanford Cardinal (5-2, KenPom: 35)
Stanford almost defeated North Carolina in the semifinals of the Maui Invitational (in Asheville, North Carolina), and the Cardinal did already win games against Alabama and Arizona. Star freshman Ziaire Williams is still figuring things out at this level, but it doesn't seem like it'll be much longer before he's taking over games. Stanford might win the Pac-12 when he does.
Third-to-Last In: Connecticut Huskies (3-1, KenPom: 46)
There's not a whole lot to go on thus far for Connecticut. The Huskies eked out a neutral-site victory over USC, subsequently sat out more than two weeks while on a COVID-19 pause and then lost an overtime game to Creighton in which James Bouknight channeling his inner Kemba Walker for 40 points wasn't quite enough to get the win.
UConn might be the third-best team in the Big East, but it's too soon to tell. Thus far, though, I'm loving Isaiah Whaley as the three-inches-shorter version of Amida Brimah.
Fourth-to-Last In: Maryland Terrapins (6-3, KenPom: 37)
When I started putting this projection together Monday afternoon, Maryland was barely even on the radar, sitting at 0-2 in Big Ten play in addition to a blowout loss to Clemson. But the road win over Wisconsin on Monday night was perhaps the most impressive margin-excluded victory any team has gotten this season.
Where things go from here in the loaded Big Ten remains to be seen, but we've got to throw the Terrapins a bone for now.
Fifth-to-Last In: USC Trojans (5-1, KenPom: 26)
Unlike Stanford's likely one-and-done phenom, USC's Evan Mobley has been sensational from the outset, averaging 17.5 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks. It's a shame he was the only Trojan to show up for the loss to Connecticut, or else they'd be more comfortably in the field right now.
First Five Out
First Team Out: Oklahoma State Cowboys (6-2, KenPom: 47)
It's unclear at this point if Cade Cunningham and Co. will be eligible for the NCAA tournament. The Cowboys were hit with a postseason ban (among other sanctions) in early June, which they almost immediately appealed. And while it's under appeal, we should probably assume they are eligible until we hear otherwise.
But it's also unclear at this point whether it will even matter.
Oklahoma State started out 6-0 in nonconference play with an impressive road win over Marquette and not a whole lot else. (The three-point victory at Wichita State might look respectable in the long run, but that is a modest second-best win as things currently stand.) The Cowboys played well in their first two Big 12 games, but they blew a late eight-point lead in a home loss to TCU and couldn't quite come from behind in what was a massive opportunity at Texas.
The loss to TCU was the killer. You simply can't drop a home game against what is probably the third-worst team in the conference and expect to go dancing. The Cowboys will need to beat someone in the top half of the Big 12 to get back in the mix.
Second Team Out: Ole Miss Rebels (5-2, KenPom: 43)
KenPom loves the Rebels, though I'm not sure why. This team finished outside the Top 100 last year while putting together a losing record. It has played fantastic defense thus far this season, albeit mostly against teams going nowhere fast. It is 0-2 against teams in the Top 175 on KenPom, and those losses to Dayton and Alabama weren't even that forgivable. Ole Miss better do something impressive in SEC play.
Third Team Out: Seton Hall Pirates (6-4, KenPom: 50)
Kudos to Seton Hall for already getting in 10 games this season, but those early returns were a mixed bag: nice road wins over Penn State and Marquette, heartbreaking losses to Louisville and Providence and a disappointing no-show in a 13-point loss to Rhode Island. A road win over Xavier on Wednesday night would be huge.
Fourth Team Out: Loyola-Chicago Ramblers (6-2, KenPom: 44)
Much like Ole Miss, Loyola-Chicago is winless against the Top 175 on KenPom. The Ramblers did give Richmond a run for its money on a neutral floor, but they have no wins worth mentioning. The MVC will most likely be a one-bid league, and for the time being, we're projecting 11-0 Drake for that auto bid.
Fifth Team Out: Oklahoma Sooners (5-2, KenPom: 42)
Oklahoma almost knocked off Texas Tech on Dec. 22, but almosts don't do you much good with the selection committee. The Sooners do have a road win over TCU under their belt, but they immediately followed up that best victory of the season with a 22-point loss to Xavier. The upcoming three-game gauntlet—vs. West Virginia, at Baylor, at Kansas—should provide a much better sense of whether there's a tournament pulse in Norman.
No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 16 Colgate
No. 8 Indiana vs. No. 9 UCLA
No. 4 Michigan vs. No. 13 Wright State
No. 5 Virginia vs. No. 12 Western Kentucky
No. 3 West Virginia vs. No. 14 Georgia State
No. 6 Missouri vs. No. 11 BYU
No. 2 Iowa vs. No. 15 UC Santa Barbara
No. 7 Colorado vs. No. 10 Virginia Tech
Stock Up: Missouri Tigers (6-0, KenPom: 40)
Missouri hasn't exactly been dominating the competition. Its five most recent wins came by an average of 6.2 points, and the Tigers had to rally from a five-point deficit in the final two minutes to win the home game against Bradley.
But they just keep winning all the same, and they've done so against a rather formidable schedule.
They beat Oregon on a neutral court. They won the rivalry game against Illinois. And while Wichita State, Liberty and Bradley aren't likely tournament teams, they do each currently reside in the Top 125 on KenPom.
That's quite the improvement from last year when Missouri started out 4-4, suffered a horrific home loss to Charleston Southern and didn't get its fifth Top 125 victory until its 23rd game of the season. This might be the second-best team in the SEC, and the Wednesday night home game against Tennessee is a golden opportunity to prove it.
Stock Down: Virginia Cavaliers (4-2, KenPom: 20)
Since there was no tournament last March, Virginia is still the reigning national champion.
And that means the most recent team to win a title is currently 0-2 against the West Coast Conference this season.
The Cavaliers suffered that surprising loss to San Francisco on the third day of the regular season, and then they got absolutely smashed by Gonzaga on Saturday. As a result, they enter ACC play with a 4-2 record and nothing better than a home win over Kent State on their resume—and they even needed overtime to get that victory.
Needless to say, Virginia's spot as a projected No. 5 seed is a product of preseason expectations as opposed to anything accomplished this season. If you put "Wake Forest" at the top of this schedule instead of "Virginia," there's no chance in hell we're even discussing this resume.
The good news is the Cavaliers should win at least seven of their first eight ACC games. Then again, they should have beaten San Francisco.
No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 16 Drexel
No. 8 Minnesota vs. No. 9 SMU
No. 4 Duke vs. No. 13 South Dakota State
No. 5 San Diego State vs. No. 12 Furman
No. 3 Creighton vs. No. 14 Vermont
No. 6 Louisville vs. No. 11 Richmond
No. 2 Wisconsin vs. No. 15 Eastern Washington
No. 7 Saint Louis vs. No. 10 North Carolina State
Stock Up: San Diego State Aztecs (6-1, KenPom: 24)
San Diego State was outstanding last year, starting out 26-0 while getting comfortably into the mix for a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
But I didn't think there was any chance the Aztecs could carry some of that momentum into this season while losing three of their biggest stars in Malachi Flynn, Yanni Wetzell and KJ Feagin.
Yet here they are, knocking on the door of the AP Top 25 after impressive early wins over UCLA, Arizona State and Saint Mary's—each one by double digits.
Despite the home loss to BYU that serves as the lone blemish thus far, the Aztecs are the clear cream of the crop in the Mountain West Conference. They could mess around and go undefeated in league play, which would mean a 24-1 record if all games get played. And if that happens, they'll be back in that No. 1 seed conversation before you know it.
Stock Down: Duke Blue Devils (3-2, KenPom: 13)
Is Duke a good team that occasionally can't buy a bucket, a bad team that had one good night at Notre Dame or simply a young team still figuring out what works and what doesn't?
It's probably Option C, though shooting a combined 10-of-45 (22.2 percent) from three-point range in the home losses to Michigan State and Illinois was not a great look for the Blue Devils in their only two nonconference games of any consequence.
We simply haven't seen enough of Duke to have any clue where this team is headed. There's plenty of raw talent, and they do at least have some give-a-darn on the defensive end. To date, though, their second-best win came against Bellarmine. We can't just give this team a spot in the overall top 10 because it's Duke.
Let's see what happens at Florida State on Saturday. The Seminoles are the type of team that can eviscerate a soft, sloppy, ill-prepared opponent. If Duke lays an egg in that one to drop to 3-3, it might really start to freefall in the seeding.
No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 16 Bryant/Saint Peter's
No. 8 Xavier vs. No. 9 Arkansas
No. 4 Ohio State vs. No. 13 Winthrop
No. 5 Oregon vs. No. 12 Drake
No. 3 Illinois vs. No. 14 Liberty
No. 6 Florida vs. No. 11 Maryland/Connecticut
No. 2 Houston vs. No. 15 Belmont
No. 7 North Carolina vs. No. 10 LSU
Stock Up: Houston Cougars (7-1, KenPom: 8)
Very similar to what Chris Beard has built at Texas Tech, Kelvin Sampson has turned Houston into a transfer portal all-star team of guys who are fully invested on defense.
Five of the eight players who lead Houston in minutes played began their college careers elsewhere. Former Kansas transfer Quentin Grimes is the biggest star of the bunch, but there's also DeJon Jarreau and Brison Gresham from Massachusetts, Justin Gorham from Towson and Reggie Chaney from Arkansas. All five play a key role for an aggressive defense allowing 55.9 points per game.
And Sampson's guys did it even better than Beard's when they went head-to-head in late November. Houston racked up 11 steals in that game and led by as many as 20 points in the second half before the Red Raiders at least made things a little respectable down the stretch.
Houston's dream of an undefeated season went up in flames in a last-second loss at Tulsa on Tuesday night. Actually, it was a last-tenth-of-a-second loss in a wild finish. But in spite of that heartbreaking result, the Cougars are still in good shape for what would be their highest tournament seed since 1984. We expected them to be the best team in the AAC, but we didn't think they'd be this good.
Stock Down: North Carolina Tar Heels (5-3, KenPom: 21)
That's right: three regions, three stock-down teams from the ACC. There have been a few pleasant surprises within the conference, but it's pretty shocking that the usual favorites are currently saddled with an overall record of 12-7.
While there's no question North Carolina is better than last year's disaster, this team is far from thriving, particularly along the perimeter.
The Tar Heels did recently defeat Kentucky in a mutual "can't hit the broad side of a barn" clash. But in their other five December games, they've gone 2-3, shot 23.8 percent from downtown, allowed their opponents to shoot 39.8 percent from distance and committed 29 more turnovers than they've forced.
As has usually been the case since Roy Williams arrived nearly two decades ago, North Carolina has been dominant on the glass and doesn't allow many easy buckets in the paint. But in the losses to Texas, Iowa and NC State—and in the close call against North Carolina Central—the Tar Heels showed that rebounding can only take you so far when you get destroyed in both the turnover and three-point battles.
If freshman point guard Caleb Love doesn't turn things around soon (4-of-34 from three, 30 assists to 27 turnovers), North Carolina is going to be in some trouble.
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 Norfolk State/Texas Southern
No. 8 Michigan State vs. No. 9 Syracuse
No. 4 Rutgers vs. No. 13 Toledo
No. 5 Texas Tech vs. No. 12 Stanford/Northwestern
No. 3 Texas vs. No. 14 New Mexico State
No. 6 Clemson vs. No. 11 USC
No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 15 Abilene Christian
No. 7 Florida State vs. No. 10 Purdue
Stock Up: Clemson Tigers (7-1, KenPom: 17)
After all that harping on what were supposed to be the three best teams in the ACC, let's be sure to take a moment to recognize what might actually be the top team in the conference: Clemson.
And no, I'm not mistakenly talking about football here.
Clemson's defense has typically been solid over the past few decades, but the Tigers have kicked it into a higher gear this year, forcing turnovers at an oppressive rate. Through eight games, Clemson's opponents are shooting 27.8 percent from three-point range and are committing turnovers on 27.6 percent of possessions. Those are the biggest contributing factors to a defense allowing just 55.1 points per game.
That isn't the product of some cupcake schedule, either. Clemson did face two creampuffs in South Carolina State and Morehead State, but their other six games were all against KenPom Top 100 foes.
Two things that Florida State, Maryland and Purdue all have in common: They're in our projected field and they lost to Clemson by double digits.
Stock Down: Michigan State Spartans (6-3, KenPom: 51)
The Spartans have opened Big Ten play in quite the downward spiral with three consecutive losses.
The last time they started 0-2 in league play was back in 2006-07. That team ended up getting a No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament—and whether it would dance at all was in serious doubt up until the home win over AP No. 1 Wisconsin in late February.
The last 0-3 start came in 2001-02, and that team had to close the regular season on a five-game winning streak just to secure a No. 10 seed.
This is unusual and unpromising territory for Michigan State. And, just to be clear, we're not talking about some hard-luck, almost-had-them-all sort of 0-3 start, either. MSU has been outscored by a staggering average of 16.0 points in those losses, most recently the 25-point blowout loss to Minnesota on Monday night.
It's still way too early to throw in the towel on Sparty, which did at least score a road win over Duke in the process of starting the season 6-0. But if they were to lose at Nebraska on Saturday, the Spartans would probably drop out of the tournament picture.
Ranking the No. 1 Seeds
No. 4 Villanova Wildcats (8-1, KenPom: 3)
Through nine games, Villanova has made 93 three-pointers and has committed just 70 turnovers. The Wildcats don't quite have the most efficient offense in the country, but there are frequent spurts during which the opposition looks completely helpless.
Against Georgetown, Villanova effortlessly turned an 18-point deficit into a 13-point victory. In its other two Big East games, it defeated Butler and Marquette by a combined 36 points behind 23 triples and a plus-21 turnover margin. The Wildcats also picked up a fantastic road win over Texas in spite of a mediocre shooting performance (6-of-19 from three).
Connecticut is back in the Big East after its seven-season hiatus to the AAC, but there's no question the league still runs through Philadelphia.
No. 3 Kansas Jayhawks (8-1, KenPom: 7)
Since opening the season with a 102-90 loss to Gonzaga, Kansas has reeled off eight consecutive victories.
In the process, the Jayhawks have already asserted their usual Big 12 dominance in a road win over Texas Tech and a 14-point home win over West Virginia. They also defeated both Creighton and Kentucky. It's hard to say how much nonconference strength of schedule is going to matter this season, but Kansas is definitely going to have one of the toughest once it plays the B12/SEC Challenge game at Tennessee.
Big man David McCormack struggled in the Gonzaga game and is still shooting just 34.7 percent from the field against D-I opponents, but he's starting to make a real impact in the paint with double-doubles in two of his last three games. If he becomes an even somewhat reliable frontcourt presence, Kansas might emerge as the favorite to win it all.
No. 2 Baylor Bears (7-0, KenPom: 2)
Baylor has made mincemeat of its early schedule, defeating six of seven opponents by at least 30 points. Two of those games (at Kansas State, vs. Washington in Las Vegas) were played away from home against major-conference opponents. Granted, those are two of the worst major-conference teams, but those are still ridiculous margins.
We'll see how well the numbers hold up once the schedule intensifies in Big 12 play, but Baylor is currently one of the best in the nation at three-point shooting, offensive rebounding and forcing turnovers.
No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs (9-0, KenPom: 1)
Given the way Gonzaga has performed thus far, everyone else is fighting for second-best.
The Zags already have neutral-site victories over Kansas, Iowa, West Virginia and Virginia by a combined 51 points. And against less noteworthy competition, games have been over by halftime, if not sooner.
Alabama's football team had three players finish in the top five of the Heisman vote this year. Gonzaga could be headed for similar three-headed recognition in the National Player of the Year race if Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs and Drew Timme keep playing this well.
Seeding by Conference
In case seeded regions aren't enough and you want to know where the top 68 teams stand in relation to one another, here is a list of each team's overall seed, broken down by conference. The first five out are italicized.
American Athletic (2): 8. Houston; 36. SMU
Atlantic 10 (2): 25. Saint Louis; 42. Richmond
Atlantic Coast (9): 16. Duke; 17. Virginia; 21. Louisville; 22. Clemson; 26. Florida State; 27. North Carolina; 34. Syracuse; 37. Virginia Tech; 38. North Carolina State
Big 12 (5): 2. Baylor; 3. Kansas; 9. Texas; 10. West Virginia; 18. Texas Tech; 69. Oklahoma State; 73. Oklahoma
Big East (4): 4. Villanova; 11. Creighton; 30. Xavier; 45. Connecticut; 71. Seton Hall
Big Ten (12): 5. Iowa; 7. Wisconsin; 12. Illinois; 13. Ohio State; 14. Rutgers; 15. Michigan; 29. Minnesota; 31. Indiana; 32. Michigan State; 39. Purdue; 44. Maryland; 47. Northwestern
Pac-12 (5): 19. Oregon; 28. Colorado; 33. UCLA; 43. USC; 46. Stanford
Southeastern (5): 6. Tennessee; 23. Missouri; 24. Florida; 35. Arkansas; 40. LSU; 70. Ole Miss
West Coast (2): 1. Gonzaga; 41. BYU
Other (22): 20. San Diego State; 48. Furman; 49. Western Kentucky; 50. Drake; 51. Toledo; 52. Wright State; 53. South Dakota State; 54. Winthrop; 55. Vermont; 56. Georgia State; 57. New Mexico State; 58. Liberty; 59. Belmont; 60. Abilene Christian; 61. UC Santa Barbara; 62. Eastern Washington; 63. Colgate; 64. Drexel; 65. Saint Peter's; 66. Bryant; 67. Texas Southern; 68. Norfolk State; 72. Loyola-Chicago
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.