2021 Men's NCAA Tournament Bracket: Latest Projection of the Field of 68
For the college football fans who only turn their attention to men's college hoops once the former's season is done, welcome to a world where Gonzaga is the clear-cut best team in the country, Kansas is only the third-best team in the Big 12 and it's not clear yet whether Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State or North Carolina will make the NCAA tournament.
At least Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State are in the top 100 of the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings now. That wasn't the case a week ago.
Translation: It's been a weird season thus far.
But when the blue bloods struggle, it opens the door for teams like Baylor, Clemson and Iowa to shine. We'll see how much longer that lasts, but with barely two months remaining until Selection Sunday, that's where we're at.
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 that—though still in position to dance—isn'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. 11.
Last 5 In
Last Team In: North Carolina State Wolfpack (6-3, NET: 54, KenPom: 49)
The Wolfpack were outscored 19-8 over the final six minutes of Saturday's home loss to Miami, this coming four days after blowing a late lead in a road loss to Clemson. The Wolfpack are now 1-3 against the KenPom Top 100, and even that 79-76 home win over North Carolina isn't that impressive.
Three of NC State's next four games are at Florida State, at Virginia and at North Carolina. This team is hanging on by a thread for now, and that thread might get irreparably severed over the next two weeks.
Second-to-Last In: Richmond Spiders (9-3, NET: 58, KenPom: 51)
The metrics are starting to buy into Richmond. The Spiders were 69th in the NET and No. 59 on KenPom less than a week ago, but those rankings have improved enough to warrant a spot in the field for now. That's partially a product of wins over Rhode Island and George Mason in the past week, but also the road win over Kentucky is gaining value by the day, as the Wildcats have vaulted about 60 spots in the NET.
An eventual win over Saint Louis would be huge for Richmond, but it's probably not mandatory. That might change if the Spiders start dropping other games, though.
Third-to-Last In: Stanford Cardinal (8-3, NET: 47, KenPom: 36)
Stanford took care of business this week in "home" games against the Washington schools. (Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Stanford's home games are being played in Santa Cruz instead of Palo Alto, which is about an hour away.) The Cardinal have now won seven of their last eight games.
Six of those seven wins came against teams outside the KenPom Top 100, so they're not gaining much ground. What they are gaining, though, is experience for super freshman Ziaire Williams, who put together a triple-double (12 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) in the win over Washington. Senior Oscar da Silva has also been great with three consecutive double-doubles.
Fourth-to-Last In: Seton Hall Pirates (9-5, NET: 49, KenPom: 46)
In the past week, Seton Hall was absolutely annihilated at Creighton and then picked up a road win over DePaul to improve to 6-2 in the Big East. The Pirates currently have three Quadrant 1 wins, but road victories over Penn State (not in the field), Marquette (not in the field) and Xavier (projected No. 11 seed) aren't all that impressive. They have another game against Xavier scheduled for Saturday. That might be a "Winner gets a No. 10 seed; loser drops out of the field" sort of game.
Fifth-to-Last In: Purdue Boilermakers (8-5, NET: 39, KenPom: 35)
Purdue stole a win from Michigan State this past Friday. At halftime, the Boilermakers were down 31-16 and had yet to make a "real" shot. Their points came from six layups and four free throws. But with big man Trevion Williams leading the way with 26 points and enough of a presence in the paint to keep the Spartans from doing much scoring of their own, Purdue clawed all the way back for a 55-54 victory.
They're still merely 8-5 and they still have a rough remaining slate in the Big Ten. But that was a massive road win that is probably only going to get better with age. (It's currently not even a Quadrant 1 win because Michigan State is No. 84 in the NET.)
First 5 Out
First Team Out: Oklahoma Sooners (6-4, NET: 45, KenPom: 42)
Oklahoma went 0-2 this week, but its resume somehow improved enough to slide up one spot on the overall seed list. Those losses were at Baylor and at Kansas, and those losses were to be expected. But by playing the Jayhawks right to the wire in a 63-59 game, Oklahoma moved up four spots in the NET and one spot on KenPom since our last projection.
Now it's time to start winning. In the next 10 days, Oklahoma has home games against TCU and Kansas State that it almost has to win to remain in the hunt for a bid. In between those contests, the Sooners have a road game against Oklahoma State that will be big for the victor.
Second Team Out: Maryland Terrapins (7-6, NET: 35, KenPom: 45)
Maryland is Al Pacino in The Godfather: Part III. "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!"
The Terrapins weren't all that close to the at-large mix before they won at Wisconsin on Dec. 28. After three consecutive losses to Michigan, Indiana and Iowa, they dropped back beyond the outskirts of the bubble, only to win a road game against Illinois on Sunday and storm back into the conversation.
Aside from those two wins, Maryland hasn't done anything noteworthy, and the six total losses are concerning. All the same, we're talking about a resume with two really solid Quadrant 1 wins and no terrible losses. As long as they don't lose the home game against Nebraska next weekend, the Terps are going to at least have a case for a bid for the foreseeable future.
Third Team Out: Northwestern Wildcats (5-4, NET: 57, KenPom: 59)
After starting 3-0 in Big Ten play, Northwestern has lost three straight to Iowa, Michigan and Illinois by a combined margin of 59 points. The home loss to Illinois this past week was the most troubling by far. The Wildcats led by 15 at halftime, but Illinois dominated the second half by a score of 53-13.
This may just be the beginning of an extended losing skid, too. Northwestern's next four games are at Ohio State, vs. Iowa, at Penn State and at Wisconsin.
Fourth Team Out: BYU Cougars (8-3, NET: 41, KenPom: 67)
Playing for the first time in more than two weeks, BYU got blitzed by Gonzaga. Just seven minutes into the game, the Cougars trailed 23-2. While there's no shame in losing on the road against the Zags, that result did at least temporarily push BYU onto the wrong side of the bubble. Forthcoming road games against Saint Mary's and San Francisco will determine whether the Cougars remain in the hunt for a bid. It's still a bit early in the year for "must win" games, but BYU darn well better win at least one of those two.
Fifth Team Out: Kentucky Wildcats (4-6, NET: 88, KenPom: 43)
There are slightly more deserving teams for this spot, like VCU, SMU or St. Bonaventure. But let's use this space to mention that Kentucky might be turning a corner. After that atrocious 1-6 start, the Wildcats have opened SEC play with three consecutive wins, including an 18-point road blowout of Florida this past weekend.
John Calipari's guys are still figuring things out on offense, but at least the defense has arrived. Kentucky has averaged 8.7 blocks and 8.7 steals during this three-game winning streak. Up next: a home game against Alabama, which just allowed nine steals and 10 blocks in a close call against Auburn.
No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 16 Bryant / Hofstra
No. 8 LSU vs. No. 9 Michigan State
No. 4 West Virginia vs. No. 13 UAB
No. 5 Virginia vs. No. 12 Winthrop
No. 3 Houston vs. No. 14 Georgia State
No. 6 Arkansas vs. No. 11 Xavier
No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 15 Abilene Christian
No. 7 Saint Louis vs. No. 10 Florida
Stock Up: Michigan Wolverines (Up One Seed Line)
10-0, NET: 4, KenPom: 7
Not a huge jump for Michigan from a No. 3 seed to a No. 2 seed. LSU's move to a No. 8 seed was actually a bigger climb.
But it bears mentioning that undefeated Michigan is knocking even louder on the door of a No. 1 seed after its 82-57 beatdown of Minnesota this past Wednesday.
That's a 25-point win, but the Wolverines were up by 37 points (71-34) before taking their foot off the gas for the final eight minutes. There are some very good teams in the Big Ten, but Michigan has surged to the head of that loaded class.
At least it looks that way at the moment. Michigan still has not faced Illinois, Iowa or Wisconsin, each of which entered play on Monday ranked in the top 10 both in the NET and on KenPom. Michigan will host the Badgers Tuesday night for a chance to show exactly where it belongs in the Big Ten's top tier.
Stock Down: Florida Gators (Down Four Seed Lines)
5-3, NET: 55, KenPom: 40
Heading into last Tuesday night's game against Alabama, I had Florida projected for a No. 5 seed. The Gators were No. 22 in the NET and No. 21 on KenPom and were fresh off their best win of the year to date (vs. LSU).
After that 15-point loss to the Crimson Tide, though, I really should have dropped Florida more than one seed line. But now that the Gators followed it up with an 18-point home loss to Kentucky, it was time for a proper recalibration.
In the past seven days, Florida has plummeted 33 spots in the NET and 19 spots on KenPom, and its new projected seed reflects that precipitous drop. The Gators need to correct things in a hurry, because a home loss to Ole Miss or a road loss to Mississippi State this week would probably knock them out of the projected field.
No. 1 Texas vs. No. 16 Vermont
No. 8 Alabama vs. No. 9 Rutgers
No. 4 Clemson vs. No. 13 Liberty
No. 5 Minnesota vs. No. 12 Drake
No. 3 Creighton vs. No. 14 Colgate
No. 6 Colorado vs. No. 11 Purdue
No. 2 Iowa vs. No. 15 Siena
No. 7 Missouri vs. No. 10 North Carolina
Stock Up: Alabama Crimson Tide (Up Two Seed Lines)
9-3, NET: 29, KenPom: 27
The NCAA finally allowed Auburn freshman Sharife Cooper to make his collegiate debut this past weekend, and he immediately impressed to the tune of 26 points and nine assists. But while everyone was marveling over his individual performance, Auburn still lost that home game to Alabama—which has had to play its last two games without point guard Jahvon Quinerly.
The win was Alabama's fifth in a row. That hot streak also included a colossal road win over otherwise unbeaten Tennessee and the aforementioned 15-point victory over Florida.
Just like we didn't penalize Florida enough for losing by 15 to Alabama on Tuesday, we didn't reward the Crimson Tide enough for that victory. The Crimson Tide already should have been in the No. 8 or No. 9 seed range, but better late than never, right?
Now that the Crimson Tide are comfortably in the field, it's time to test their staying power. Seven of their next eight games are against teams either in the projected field or just outside it: two each against Kentucky and LSU, road games against Missouri and Oklahoma and a home game against Arkansas. They'll kick off that difficult 3.5-week stretch with perhaps the toughest game of the bunch, on the road Tuesday night against a suddenly surging Kentucky.
Stock Down: Rutgers Scarlet Knights (Down Five Seed Lines)
7-4, NET: 44, KenPom: 38
Thus far, 2021 has not been kind to Rutgers.
The Scarlet Knights opened the new calendar year with a tough-luck home loss to Iowa. They went back and forth and back again in the final seven minutes, but time ran out with the Hawkeyes up by a deuce.
Subsequent losses to Michigan State and Ohio State were decidedly less competitive.
Rutgers simply could not buy a bucket against the Spartans, and then it couldn't get any stops against the Buckeyes. In both of those games—and in their previous loss to Ohio State—the Scarlet Knights got destroyed on the glass. The overall rebounding margin between those three games against Michigan State and Ohio State was minus-54.
And if you can't rebound in a Big Ten loaded with forces of nature in the frontcourt, you're going to have some problems.
Things are likely going to get worse for Rutgers before they get better, too, as the next two games on the docket are against Wisconsin and Indiana.
No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 16 Grand Canyon
No. 8 UCLA vs. No. 9 Virginia Tech
No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 13 Toledo
No. 5 Ohio State vs. No. 12 Furman
No. 3 Wisconsin vs. No. 14 South Dakota State
No. 6 USC vs. No. 11 Richmond / NC State
No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 15 UC Santa Barbara
No. 7 Florida State vs. No. 10 San Diego State
Stock Up: USC Trojans (Up Five Seed Lines)
8-2, NET: 16, KenPom: 16
The best way to make a big leap in bracket projections? Go on the road and handle your business against competent opponents.
USC did that this week, beating Arizona by 14 and Arizona State by nine.
Both games were tight late before the Trojans closed strong. They outscored Arizona 15-5 in the final five minutes and finished on an 11-3 run in the final two minutes against Arizona State. And that is a night-and-day change from their earlier losses to Connecticut and Colorado. They scored just four points in the final eight minutes against the Huskies and were held to four points in the final seven minutes against the Buffaloes.
It is worth mentioning that Arizona State was without three key players (Remy Martin, Jalen Graham and Taeshon Cherry). Nevertheless, the Trojans have vaulted into the top 20 both in the NET and on KenPom and were clearly undervalued as a No. 11 seed one week ago.
Stock Down: San Diego State Aztecs (Down Three Seed Lines)
8-2, NET: 34, KenPom: 37
We previously mentioned the anomaly of Oklahoma gaining some ground during an 0-2 week.
Well, here we have San Diego State looking worse after a 2-0 week.
Up until this week, we were slightly ignoring the mediocre metrics for the Aztecs, because it looked like they were going to be head and shoulders ahead of everyone in the Mountain West Conference, save for maybe Boise State. Though they did lose their MWC opener at Colorado State, they stormed out to massive leads in both games against the Rams.
This week, though, they barely survived home games against Nevada, never leading by more than 10 points against a team that KenPom ranks below both 2-9 Boston College and 3-8 Georgetown.
The Aztecs could bounce back with statement wins at Utah State this week. But for now, it looks like it's time to accept that San Diego State belongs somewhere in the 30-40 range of the team rankings.
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 Norfolk State / Texas Southern
No. 8 Oklahoma State vs. No. 9 Syracuse
No. 4 Oregon vs. No. 13 Wright State
No. 5 Texas Tech vs. No. 12 Boise State
No. 3 Illinois vs. No. 14 Belmont
No. 6 Duke vs. No. 11 Seton Hall / Stanford
No. 2 Kansas vs. No. 15 Eastern Washington
No. 7 Connecticut vs. No. 10 Indiana
Stock Up: Connecticut Huskies (Up Four Seed Lines)
7-1, NET: 21, KenPom: 21
After Connecticut rallied from an 18-point second-half deficit to win by 11 at Marquette on Tuesday, I had the Huskies among the Last Five In while noting that the result should give them a huge boost in the next refresh of the NET rankings.
They were 48th before that game, and between that and the subsequent 12-point win at Butler, they're now up into the Top 25.
Not too shabby for their first year back in the Big East.
Tyler Polley was the key to both of those victories. Against Marquette, the senior forward scored each of his career-high 23 points during that second-half rally. And then with star player James Bouknight out for the game against Butler, Polley again rose to the occasion with a game-high 19 points off the bench. He shot a combined 10-of-16 from three-point range while pacing the Huskies to their new spot as a No. 7 seed.
Stock Down: Indiana Hoosiers (Down Two Seed Lines)
8-5, NET: 43, KenPom: 23
Indiana didn't have a terrible week. It lost in double overtime to Wisconsin and then won at Nebraska despite blowing a 15-point second-half lead.
But the Hoosiers were already starting to flirt with having too many "acceptable" losses. They're now 8-5 overall with just one Quadrant 1 win—a neutral-site victory over NET No. 47 Stanford that barely qualifies for the top Quadrant. They also lost a home game to Northwestern, which is looking less and less forgivable by the day.
Indiana is still in the projected field. It even has a bit of a cushion above the "play-in" games line. But it better change this trend of losing 80 percent of its games played against projected tournament teams, or else it has about 10 more losses coming its way.
Ranking the No. 1 Seeds
No. 4 Texas Longhorns
10-1, NET: 9, KenPom: 6
In case you thought that 25-point win at Kansas was a fluke, Texas extended its winning streak to six games on a last-second, game-winning Andrew Jones three-pointer at West Virginia on Saturday. Such an incredible moment for Jones on the three-year anniversary of his leukemia diagnosis.
Both Kansas and West Virginia are undefeated at home this season aside from their games against Texas. The Longhorns have also won games against Indiana, North Carolina and Oklahoma State already this season, and they will get the chance to add another victory over a potential tournament team when they host Texas Tech on Wednesday night.
If the Longhorns win that one, there's going to be a strong case for promoting them ahead of Villanova, and perhaps even a case for leapfrogging Baylor to No. 2 overall.
No. 3 Villanova Wildcats
8-1, NET: 7, KenPom: 4
Still nothing new on the Villanova front, as the Wildcats have not played since before Christmas. And according to C.J. Holmes of The Athletic, the scheduled game against Connecticut on January 15 has also been postponed. They're going to end up going nearly a full month between games at this point.
Prior to all these COVID-19 pauses, though, Villanova had, per usual, one of the most efficient offenses in the country. In each of their last three games, the Wildcats scored at least 85 points, committed fewer than 10 turnovers and made at least nine three-pointers. And before that, they scored a road win over Texas, which is something of a de facto tiebreaker in the present ranking of No. 1 seeds.
No. 2 Baylor Bears
11-0, NET: 2, KenPom: 2
Baylor had little difficulty defeating Oklahoma and TCU this past week, winning those games by a combined 33 points. In fact, the Bears have had little difficulty in any game, as each of their 11 victories came by double digits. (The 13-point win over Illinois was close until the final 10 minutes, but most of these games have been blowouts.)
If they continue winning with that much ease this week, they might move to No. 1 overall in our next projection. That's because between now and then, Baylor will face stiff tests in the form of Texas Tech and Kansas.
The Bears are currently just 1-0 in Quadrant 1 games, well behind Gonzaga's 4-0 record. But they could gain some ground on the Zags in a hurry. They're already neck-and-neck with Gonzaga as far as KenPom is concerned, but they would presumably surge ahead of the Bulldogs if they win these next two games by double digits.
Conversely, if they lose one of the two, they'll almost certainly remain a No. 1 seed. Lose them both, though, and you might see Michigan or Iowa on the top line next Tuesday.
No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs
12-0, NET: 1, KenPom: 1
Gonzaga is just toying with teams now.
The Zags were up 23-2 on BYU in the blink of an eye en route to an easy win. It took a little bit longer to pull away from Portland, but they still led by as many as 24 points before halftime. And by halftime, Joel Ayayi already had 12 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. He ended up posting the first triple-double in Gonzaga history in yet another blowout victory.
They do have a road game against Saint Mary's coming up on Saturday, which is probably the biggest test remaining on their schedule. So that means they'll probably win by 13 instead of by 30.
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 (1): 10. Houston
Atlantic 10 (2): 26. Saint Louis; 45. Richmond
Atlantic Coast (9): 13. Clemson; 16. Louisville; 18. Virginia; 24. Duke; 27. Florida State; 33. Syracuse; 36. Virginia Tech; 37. North Carolina; 46. North Carolina State
Big 12 (6): 2. Baylor; 4. Texas; 8. Kansas; 15. West Virginia; 17. Texas Tech; 32. Oklahoma State*; 69. Oklahoma
Big East (5): 3. Villanova; 11. Creighton; 25. Connecticut; 41. Xavier; 43. Seton Hall
Big Ten (10): 5. Michigan; 6. Iowa; 9. Wisconsin; 12. Illinois; 19. Ohio State; 20. Minnesota; 34. Michigan State; 35. Rutgers; 38. Indiana; 42. Purdue; 70. Maryland; 71. Northwestern
Mountain West (2): 39. San Diego State; 47. Boise State
Pac-12 (5): 14. Oregon; 21. USC; 22. Colorado; 31. UCLA; 44. Stanford
Southeastern (6): 7. Tennessee; 23. Arkansas; 28. Missouri; 29. Alabama; 30. LSU; 40. Florida; 73. Kentucky
West Coast (1): 1. Gonzaga; 72. BYU
Other (21): 48. Drake; 49. Winthrop; 50. Furman; 51. Toledo; 52. Wright State; 53. Liberty; 54. UAB; 55. Georgia State; 56. South Dakota State; 57. Colgate; 58. Belmont; 59. Abilene Christian; 60. Siena; 61. UC Santa Barbara; 62. Eastern Washington; 63. Vermont; 64. Grand Canyon; 65. Bryant; 66. Hofstra; 67. Texas Southern; 68. Norfolk State
*Oklahoma State is appealing a postseason ban. Until/unless that appeal is heard, the Cowboys are presumed to be eligible.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.