2021 Men's NCAA Tournament Bracket: Latest Projection of the Field of 68

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJanuary 6, 2021

2021 Men's NCAA Tournament Bracket: Latest Projection of the Field of 68

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    Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs
    Gonzaga's Jalen SuggsYoung Kwak/Associated Press

    Gonzaga, Baylor and Villanova remain head and shoulders ahead of the field in the race for the No. 1 seed line in the 2021 men's NCAA tournament, but that last spot is quite the toss up after Texas dismantled Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse over the weekend.

    For the first time this season, we have the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings to utilize. The first iteration of those rankings came out Monday morning with all sorts of interesting/bizarre data points.

    Perhaps most noteworthy: Duke is more than 100 spots lower in the NET rankings (117) than it is in the KenPom.com rankings (11). We've adjusted the Blue Devils' seed to at least somewhat factor in their standing in the selection committee's primary sorting metric, though their true ranking figures to land much closer to 11 than 117 once they've played more than five games.

    Elsewhere, Saint Louis and Boise State debuted at Nos. 12 and 13, respectively. In Dayton and San Diego State, the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West were in the mix for No. 1 seeds last year. How high could the 7-1 Billikens and 8-1 Broncos potentially climb?

    One other note: With the 2021 NCAA tournament expected to be held entirely in Indianapolis, regional and sub-regional locations 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 those four regions, we'll discuss one team in much better shape than it was in last week's projection and another thatthough still in position to danceisn't sitting quite so pretty anymore.

    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.

    All NET and KenPom data current through the morning of Jan. 5.     

Last Five In

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    Seton Hall's Sandro Mamukelashvili
    Seton Hall's Sandro MamukelashviliKayla Wolf/Associated Press

    Last Team In: Purdue Boilermakers (7-5, NET: 45, KenPom: 37)

    Purdue set up permanent residence on the bubble last season, finishing in the KenPom Top 25 with a 16-15 record. Evidently, the Boilermakers enjoyed that experience so much they're going to do it again.

    Recent losses to Rutgers and Illinois dropped Purdue to 7-5. But four of the team's five losses came away from home against squads currently projected for a No. 4 seed or better, so it's hard to hold that record against the Boilermakers. At some point, though, they'll need to pick up a few more quality wins. There are plenty of opportunities for that in the Big Ten.


    Second-to-Last In: Northwestern Wildcats (5-3, NET: 55, KenPom: 56)

    Speaking of Big Ten bubble teams on a two-game losing streak, Northwestern got smashed at Iowa and at Michigan in the past eight dayswhich sort of balances out the Wildcats' unexpected 3-0 start in conference play against Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State.

    Back in 2014-15, DePaul shockingly started out 3-0 in Big East play before losing 13 of their final 16. While I believe this Northwestern team is significantly better than that DePaul team was, it wouldn't be shocking if a similar fate awaits the Wildcats in this loaded conference. They have a big game coming up on Thursday against Illinois to potentially make me eat those words.


    Third-to-Last In: Seton Hall Pirates (8-4, NET: 41, KenPom: 35)

    "Second half of the first half" Seton Hall was a juggernaut this week. During that section of the road game against Xavier, they outscored the Musketeers 24-8. It was a nearly identical story in the home game against Butler, as they blitzed the Bulldogs 23-7 in the final 10 minutes before halftime. They went on to win both games and have now won seven of their last eight. If they can keep the good times rolling with a road win over Creighton on Wednesday night, that would be massive.


    Fourth-to-Last In: Connecticut Huskies (5-1, NET: 49, KenPom: 38)

    Early on in Tuesday night's game at Marquette, it looked like we were going to need to drop Connecticut out of the projected field. The Huskies trailed 43-25 at the first media timeout of the second half. But that's when the Golden Eagles went ice cold and Tyler Polley lost his mother-loving mind. In the final 15 minutes, Marquette scored 11 points while Polley exploded for 23. Connecticut rallied from 18 down to win by 11.

    The NET didn't initially care for UConn, which contributed to the Huskies landing squarely on the bubble. But an 11-point road win over a respectable foe should give them a big boost in the next NET refresh.


    Fifth-to-Last In: BYU Cougars (9-2, NET: 51, KenPom: 67)

    Don't stress too much over BYU's NET and KenPom subpar rankings. A lot of that can be attributed to the 26-point loss to USC back on Dec. 1. Since then, the Cougars are 6-1 with four wins (three away from home) against the KenPom Top 100.

    Do stress over the Jan. 14 and Jan. 16 road games against Saint Mary's and San Francisco, though. Win both of those games, and the Cougars will be in excellent shape. Lose them both, however, and they'll be in the all-too-familiar position of needing at least one win against an extremely good Gonzaga.    

First Five Out

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    Richmond's Blake Francis
    Richmond's Blake FrancisJohn Amis/Associated Press

    First Team Out: Richmond Spiders (7-3, NET: 69, KenPom: 59) 

    Richmond has wins away from home over Kentucky, Loyola of Chicago and Davidson, but it also recently suffered home losses to Hofstra and St. Bonaventure. Tough call, but we've got them just out for now. It would be nice for the Spiders if Kentucky decides to amount to something over the next two months, as that November win at Rupp Arena currently registers as a Quadrant 3 result for Richmond.


    Second Team Out: Oklahoma Sooners (6-2, NET: 47, KenPom: 44)

    The Sooners took a big step forward with a home win over West Virginia this past Saturday. They entered that game with a close loss to Texas Tech, a not-so-close loss to Xavier, a respectable road win over TCU and four relatively meaningless home wins. Just a classic early-season bubble resume right here. Opportunities abound this week, though. Oklahoma plays at Baylor on Wednesday and at Kansas on Saturday.


    Third Team Out: SMU Mustangs (6-1, NET: 48, KenPom: 53)

    SMU let a huge opportunity slip away Sunday. Playing at home against AAC front-runner Houston, the Mustangs led at halftime before losing by 14. If they also lose the road game against Houston (scheduled for Jan. 31), the big question is: How many (if any) other regular-season losses could SMU suffer and still realistically make the tournament? It might be able to find a few borderline Quadrant 1 wins in AAC play, but games against Houston are the only chance to impress the selection committee with a single result in this league.


    Fourth Team Out: VCU Rams (8-2, NET: 28, KenPom: 55)

    VCU has won six straight, mostly in blowout fashion. However, we're talking about four Quadrant 4 and two Quadrant 3 wins so not exactly moving the needle there. The only game VCU has played thus far against a projected tournament team was a 12-point loss to West Virginia. But games against the likes of Richmond, Rhode Island, St. Bonaventure and, most notably, Saint Louis in A-10 play will eventually serve as great litmus tests for the Rams.


    Fifth Team Out: Maryland Terrapins (6-5, NET: 32, KenPom: 46)

    Maryland stormed into the projected field with a road win over Wisconsin on Dec. 28, but it subsequently went through lethal cold spells in the second halves of their losses to Michigan and Indiana. Three of the Terrapins' next four games are against Iowa, Illinois and Michigan, so that 6-3 record after beating the Badgers could turn into 7-8 in a hurry. Conversely, if they win one of those three, they'll be right back in the thick of the tournament conversation.      

'East' Region

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    Michigan's Hunter Dickinson
    Michigan's Hunter DickinsonPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 16 Hofstra
    No. 8 Syracuse vs. No. 9 UCLA

    No. 4 Clemson vs. No. 13 UAB
    No. 5 Texas Tech vs. No. 12 Furman

    No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 14 South Dakota State
    No. 6 Florida vs. No. 11 USC

    No. 2 Kansas vs. No. 15 Colgate
    No. 7 Duke vs. No. 10 LSU


    Stock Up: Michigan Wolverines (Up One Seed Line)
    9-0, NET: 5, KenPom: 10

    Michigan isn't just winning games.

    It's laying the smack down on the Big Ten.

    Within the past week, the Wolverines won at Maryland by 11 and crushed Northwestern by 19 at home. Freshman center Hunter Dickinson led all players in scoring in each of those gamesincluding a career-high 26 points against the Terrapinsand has scored in double figures in all nine contests.

    And it's not just his scoring. He's making a huge impact (both literally and figuratively) on the defensive end of the floor. No opponent has shot better than 46.7 percent from inside the arc against the Wolverines, who rank fifth in the nation in defensive two-point percentage.

    It's a crying shame that we need to wait until mid-February to watch Dickinson take on Illinois' Kofi Cockburn and that we're not scheduled to get a Dickinson vs. Luka Garza clash until March 4. Those will be epic battles.


    Stock Down: Duke Blue Devils (Down Three Seed Lines)
    3-2, NET: 117, KenPom: 11

    Duke hasn't played since last week's bracket projection. In fact, Duke hasn't played since Dec. 16. So it's a little weird for the Blue Devils to plummet 10 spots on the overall seed list.

    But that initial NET ranking is some kind of awful.

    For the time being, I'm much more interested in where teams are ranked in KenPom than where they're ranked in the NET because there are some wonky, early-season things going on with the NET. (Colgate debuted at No. 16 with a 1-1 record, for instance.) As the season wears on, NET will gradually take over as the primary metric worth monitoring.

    That said, we can't just disregard the NET, as it does at least imply that the Blue Devils have a lot of work to do. And that checks out, since their second-best win of the season was a home game against Bellarmine.

    Duke should make a meteoric rise in the NET within the next week, though, as they have home games against Boston College and Wake Forest that should result in comfortable victories. If that happens and the Blue Devils subsequently vault into the NET Top 50, they'll probably jump back up a couple of seed lines.

'Midwest' Region

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    Oregon's Chris Duarte
    Oregon's Chris DuarteAndy Nelson/Associated Press

    No. 1 Texas vs. No. 16 UC Riverside
    No. 8 Arkansas vs. No. 9 Michigan State

    No. 4 Oregon vs. No. 13 Winthrop
    No. 5 Louisville vs. No. 12 Toledo

    No. 3 Houston vs. No. 14 Georgia State
    No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 11 BYU

    No. 2 Iowa vs. No. 15 Eastern Washington
    No. 7 Missouri vs. No. 10 North Carolina State


    Stock Up: Oregon Ducks (Up One Seed Line)
    8-1, NET: 18, KenPom: 16

    Since losing the season opener against Missouri, Oregon has reeled off eight consecutive winsseven of them by double digits. That includes convincing victories over both Cal and Stanford within the past week.

    Losing N'Faly Dante to a torn ACL in mid-December figured to be a big problem for the Ducks, considering he was their best shot blocker and top offensive rebounder by a long shot. It hasn't affected them yet, though.

    In Dante's stead, Oregon has become a positionless pain in the butt for opposing teams.

    Alongside point guard Amauri Hardy, the Ducks have four starters (Eugene Omoruyi, Chris Duarte, Eric Williams and LJ Figueroa) who are all listed at 6'6" and averaging at least 9.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.6 blocks and 3.4 three-point attempts per game. It's all reminiscent of the 2017-18 Nevada team that felt like a Final Four threat up until its point guard suffered a season-ending injury.


    Stock Down: Ohio State Buckeyes (Down Three Seed Lines)
    8-3, NET: 36, KenPom: 20

    It was a mixed bag of a week for Ohio State.

    The Buckeyes demolished Nebraska by a final score of 90-54. That 36-point margin of victory was Ohio State's largest against a Big Ten foe since a 102-62 win over Northwestern on Jan. 10, 1991.

    Even if the Buckeyes had won that game by 60, though, it still just goes down as a home win over Nebraska, which is as easy as it gets in this conference. And, unfortunately for their projected seed, they lost by 17 to Minnesota a few days later.

    As has been the case often this season, the Buckeyeswho typically don't play anyone taller than 6'8"had trouble with their opponent's primary frontcourt presence. Liam Robbins (7'0") went off for 27 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks.

    In a previous loss to Purdue, Ohio State let Trevion Williams (6'10") rack up 16 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. Forthcoming games against Illinois (two), Iowa (two) and Michigan (one) will be trouble if that problem persists.    

'South' Region

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    Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham
    Oklahoma State's Cade CunninghamBrad Tollefson/Associated Press

    No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 16 Siena / Bryant
    No. 8 Virginia Tech vs. No. 9 Xavier

    No. 4 Rutgers vs. No. 13 Wright State
    No. 5 Virginia vs. No. 12 Drake

    No. 3 Illinois vs. No. 14 Belmont
    No. 6 Colorado vs. No. 11 Seton Hall / Northwestern

    No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 15 New Mexico State
    No. 7 Florida State vs. No. 10 Oklahoma State


    Stock Up: Oklahoma State Cowboys (New to the Field)
    7-3, NET: 40, KenPom: 41

    Here's your weekly reminder that while Oklahoma State was ruled ineligible for this postseason in June, the Cowboys appealed that ruling and are technically eligible until we find out the result of that appeal.

    And after Saturday's road win over Texas Tech, Oklahoma State is in pretty good shape for a bid.

    The Cowboys opened Big 12 play with back-to-back losses by one possession, and it looked like they were headed for a similar fate against the Red Raiders. But Cade Cunningham hit three clutch free throws with less than 30 seconds remaining to tie the game, followed by a Texas Tech illegal screen that helped send the game to overtime. Even though Cunningham fouled out early in the extra period, the Cowboys were able to get the W.

    The most impressive part of that game was Oklahoma State out-defending Texas Tech. The Cowboys had 12 steals that they turned into 14 points. That's usually the Red Raiders' M.O., but they only managed three steals in that game.

    Oklahoma State blew a 19-point second-half lead in a loss to West Virginia two nights later, but any 1-1 week in which you beat one of the five best teams in the Big 12 and darn near beat a second one is both a net positive and a NET positive.

    Here's hoping Oklahoma State either wins its appeal or the NCAA doesn't make a ruling until it's too late, because the Big Dance would be better with Cunningham in it.


    Stock Down: Xavier Musketeers (Down One Seed Line)
    8-2, NET: 43, KenPom: 54

    Not a huge drop for Xavier, but the 8-0 start to the season feels like a distant memory after back-to-back losses to Creighton and Seton Hall. And that home game against the Pirates got out of hand in a hurry. Xavier had to close the game on a 12-2 run just to lose by 17.

    The Musketeers have now played 10 games, and I have no earthly idea what this team's identity is. Some nights they're super physical, drawing a bunch of fouls, putting in work on the offensive glass and getting a bunch of steals. Other nights, they seem content with firing up threes instead of working for shots or just look uninterested on defense.

    What I do know is the metrics are rather unenthused with the X-Men. They had an impressive 22-point win over Oklahoma. However, half of their victories were by one possession, and the blowout loss to Seton Hall basically undid all of the collective good from those close wins.

    They better take care of business at home against St. John's and Providence this week, or else there will be a huge drop soon.                       

'West' Region

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    Minnesota's Marcus Carr
    Minnesota's Marcus CarrJim Mone/Associated Press

    No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 Texas Southern / Norfolk State
    No. 8 Indiana vs. No. 9 North Carolina

    No. 4 West Virginia vs. No. 13 Liberty
    No. 5 Minnesota vs. No. 12 Boise State

    No. 3 Creighton vs. No. 14 Abilene Christian
    No. 6 Saint Louis vs. No. 11 Connecticut / Purdue

    No. 2 Wisconsin vs. No. 15 Vermont
    No. 7 San Diego State vs. No. 10 Alabama


    Stock Up: Minnesota Golden Gophers (Up Three Seed Lines)
    10-2, NET: 31, KenPom: 24

    Minnesota is two-thirds of the way through just a ridiculous nine-game gauntlet that consists of two games against Iowa, two games against Michigan, road games against Illinois and Wisconsin and home games against Saint Louis, Michigan State and Ohio State.

    Based on this projection, that's three games against No. 2 seeds, three games against No. 3 seeds, two games against No. 6 seeds and one against a No. 9 seed.


    But the Golden Gophers have gone 4-2 thus far on that arduous journey, including steamrolling Michigan State by 25 and easily defeating Ohio State by 17 this past weekend.

    The incredible part about the win over the Buckeyes is that Minnesota star Marcus Carr didn't have much of an impact. He finished with 15 points and three assists, well below his season averages of 22.1 and 5.9, respectively.

    Beating AP Top 25 teams isn't supposed to be that effortless, particularly while getting a lackluster outing from your best player. Nevertheless, head coach Richard Pitino has something brewing with these Gophers.


    Stock Down: San Diego State Aztecs (Down Two Seed Lines)
    7-2, NET: 38, KenPom: 29

    It was almost inevitable that San Diego State would eventually lose a game in Mountain West Conference play, even though KenPom had the Aztecs favored in all 18 of them.

    We didn't expect that loss to come in their first league game at home against Colorado State, though. And we definitely didn't think that possibility was on the table when the Aztecs jumped out to a 33-7 lead less than 11 minutes into that game.

    Lo and behold, Colorado State outscored San Diego State 63-34 the rest of the way for a shocking come-from-behind victory.

    The Aztecs did bounce back to actually hold on to a huge early lead against the Rams on Monday; however, the damage was already done. They're still in great shape for an at-large bid (if necessary), but they might need to win each of their next 14 games just to climb back into the mix for a No. 4 seed.    

Ranking the No. 1 Seeds

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    Baylor's MaCio Teague
    Baylor's MaCio TeagueCharlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    No. 4 Texas Longhorns (9-1, NET: 9, KenPom: 6)

    So much for Shaka Smart being on the hot seat, eh?

    Texas already had a 22-point win over Indiana and a "neutral" site victory over North Carolina in Asheville, North Carolina. It also played a great game against Villanova, falling just short of knocking off that annual title contender.

    This week, though, the Longhorns vault from a projected No. 3 seed to a projected No. 1 seed following an 84-59 road win over Kansas. In every way, shape and form, they pummeled the Jayhawks. And they even did it on what was an off night for freshman phenom Greg Brown (five points, five rebounds, four turnovers).

    They followed up that hallmark win with a surprisingly close call at home against Iowa State on Tuesday night. But we probably should have seen that coming in the ultimate trap/letdown spot. Not only was Texas still riding that high from spanking Kansas, but it maybe got caught peeking ahead to the next two games against West Virginia and Texas Tech.

    Hopefully Texas and Baylor are able to make up the Dec. 13 game that got postponed. As things currently stand, they're only scheduled to square off once on Feb. 2. Far be it from us to ever write off Kansas, but that Longhorn State showdown might decide who wins the Big 12.


    No. 3 Villanova Wildcats (8-1, NET: 6, KenPom: 3)

    Villanova went on a COVID-19 pause shortly after Christmas, came back to practice Sunday and then went on another pause the following day. By the time the Wildcats are able to play again, it will have been at least three weeks since their last game.

    We knew there would be situations like this for various programs, but let's see how this projected No. 1 seed handles it. Baylor won each of its first two games by at least 30 points after needing to delay the start of its season, and Gonzaga didn't acquire any rust during its COVID-19 pause, dropping 99 points on Iowa in the first game that it played after a 17-day hiatus.

    As things stand, Villanova's next game will be at Connecticut on Jan. 15. It wouldn't be a surprise if the Huskieslooking to make an early statement in their first year back in the Big East—take advantage of a Wildcats squad that might be a bit out of rhythm.


    No. 2 Baylor Bears (9-0, NET: 2, KenPom: 2)

    The jury is still out on Baylor. The Bears have only played two games against KenPom Top 100 opponents, and they trailed in the second half of both of those games against Illinois and Iowa State.

    They went on to win both games by double digits, and that sort of result against Illinois is more than acceptable. The Illini are a legitimate Final Four contender. But struggling that much with the second-worst team in the Big 12even though it was a road gameis at least a little concerning.

    It was probably just a slow start/off night, though, because the Bears had been ridiculously efficient up until that game. They should get back on track this week against Oklahoma and TCU.


    No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs (10-0, NET: 1, KenPom: 1)

    New year, same Gonzaga.

    San Francisco kept things interesting against the Bulldogs until late in the first half this past Saturday, and then the Zags turned a three-point lead into a 23-point advantage in less than 10 minutes.

    The only unusual part is that someone actually held their own against Gonzaga for nearly 20 minutes. The average final score of Gonzaga's last six games is 95.5 to 66.2, and there's no good reason to assume Santa Clara or Portland will fare any better in the upcoming week. KenPom gives the Zags a 49.7 percent chance of finishing the regular season with an unbeaten record.    

Seeding by Conference

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    Clemson's Clyde Trapp
    Clemson's Clyde TrappMATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times/Associated Press

    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 (1): 10. Houston; 71. SMU

    Atlantic 10 (1): 24. Saint Louis; 69. Richmond; 72. VCU

    Atlantic Coast (9): 15. Clemson; 18. Louisville; 20. Virginia; 26. Duke; 27. Florida State; 29. Syracuse; 32. Virginia Tech; 35. North Carolina; 38. North Carolina State

    Big 12 (6): 2. Baylor; 4. Texas; 7. Kansas; 14. West Virginia; 19. Texas Tech; 37. Oklahoma State; 70. Oklahoma

    Big East (5): 3. Villanova; 12. Creighton; 36. Xavier; 43. Seton Hall; 44. Connecticut

    Big Ten (11): 5. Iowa; 8. Wisconsin; 9. Michigan; 11. Illinois; 16. Rutgers; 17. Minnesota; 22. Ohio State; 31. Indiana; 33. Michigan State; 45. Northwestern; 46. Purdue; 73. Maryland

    Mountain West (2): 25. San Diego State; 48. Boise State

    Pac-12 (4): 13. Oregon; 21. Colorado; 34. UCLA; 41. USC

    Southeastern (6): 6. Tennessee; 23. Florida; 28. Missouri; 30. Arkansas; 39. Alabama; 40. LSU

    West Coast (2): 1. Gonzaga; 42. BYU

    Other (21): 47. Drake; 49. Furman; 50. Toledo; 51. Wright State; 52. UAB; 53. Winthrop; 54. Liberty; 55. South Dakota State; 56. Georgia State; 57. Belmont; 58. Abilene Christian; 59. Colgate; 60. Eastern Washington; 61. New Mexico State; 62. Vermont; 63. Hofstra; 64. UC Riverside; 65. Siena; 66. Bryant; 67. Texas Southern; 68. Norfolk State


    Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.


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