2021 Men's NCAA Tournament Bracket: Latest Projection of the Field of 68
Gonzaga improved to 14-0 this week and extended its streak of wins by double digits to 11 games, further cementing its spot as the projected No. 1 overall seed for the 2021 men's NCAA tournament. Joining the Zags on the top seed line are Baylor, Villanova and Iowa.
Beyond the top line, we're starting to see some interesting consequences of the shorter season.
The big one is that single games are having a much bigger impact than they normally would in mid-January. Instead of having 16 to 18 games on the resume by now, many teams are still sitting in the 8-to-10 range. With each game more important, one blowout win or loss can launch a team several projected seed lines overnight.
The other is that we might see more mid-majors in the tournament than usual. We currently have three Mountain West teams, two Atlantic 10 teams and two West Coast Conference teams in the field, and there are several others from the A-10, Mountain West and Missouri Valley on the cusp.
There were eight major-conference teams who got into the 2019 NCAA tournament with .500 or worse records in conference play, but those teams had a combined nonconference record of 83-14 while playing 11 to 13 nonconference games each. Not only did they get to pad their records in nonconference play, but those wins helped them out in the NET and KenPom because of their margins of victory.
But this year, teams who go 8-10 in league play may wind up going 13-11 overall and missing the cut. It'll be most intriguing to monitor in the Big Ten, which has a dozen tournament-caliber teams, but only seven that are projected to go .500 or better in conference.
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. 18.
Last Five In
Last Team In: Utah State Aggies (10-3, NET: 45, KenPom: 48)
Nothing like a sweep of San Diego State to storm into the projected field. Per usual, the Aggies did it primarily with tough interior defense. On Thursday, they held the Aztecs to 45 points and just 36.4 percent shooting from inside the arc. San Diego State was able to accomplish a little more in Saturday's loss, but still sputtered to 59 points and 46 percent on two-point attempts.
USU big man Neemias Queta had a double-double in each contest as the Aggies extended their winning streak to nine games. (Ten if you count the D-II game against College of Idaho.) Prior to this week, all of those wins came against Quadrant 3 or Quadrant 4 opponents. Two wins over the still-projected-to-dance Aztecs was massive. Let's see if they can back it up this week at home against Colorado State.
Second-to-Last In: Indiana Hoosiers (8-6, NET: 58, KenPom: 33)
Archie Miller's seat is getting hotter by the hour as Indiana dropped to 8-6 overall with a 12-point home loss to Purdue on Thursday.
Most of those six losses were of the "firmly Quadrant 1" variety, which is why the Hoosiers were able to avoid too much bubble scrutiny up until this point. But speaking of getting worse by the hour, Indiana's home loss to Northwestern stinks out loud now that the Wildcats have lost five straight by double digits.
Worse yet, the Hoosiers' only win over a projected tournament team was at home against Maryland, which, as you'll see in a moment, isn't all that comfortably in the field. They better beat Rutgers on Sunday if they want to stay in the hunt for a bid.
Third-to-Last In: Maryland Terrapins (8-6, NET: 42, KenPom: 45)
Maryland's only game in the past week was against D-II school Wingate—a matchup the Terrapins scheduled when Nebraska postponed on them. But Maryland benefited from bubble teams Syracuse, NC State, Stanford and Florida all crashing and burning in the past seven days. As a result, the Terps slid from second team out to third-to-last team in.
Their staying power will be immediately put to the test. Maryland plays at Michigan on Tuesday and at Minnesota on Saturday. Road teams are 0-20 at those two venues this season, so best of luck.
Fourth-to-Last In: Richmond Spiders (9-3, NET: 54, KenPom: 50)
Richmond entered a COVID-19 pause this past Tuesday and is not expected to play again until at least Jan. 23. But Kentucky did the Spiders no favors this week. A road win over the Wildcats in November was arguably this team's best win of the season, but the Wildcats dropped to 4-8 with losses to Alabama and Auburn in the last seven days.
It would be nice if Kentucky could make that win look more respectable to help Richmond offset its ugly Quadrant 4 loss to Hofstra. The Spiders are the only at-large team in our projected field with a Quadrant 4 loss, which makes it stand out like an eyesore.
Fifth-to-Last In: BYU Cougars (10-3, NET: 32, KenPom: 52)
It was a huge week for the Cougars, who picked up road wins over both Saint Mary's and San Francisco—arguably the third-best and fourth-best teams in the West Coast Conference. If they continue taking care of business against the non-Gonzaga teams in the WCC, that might be enough for a bid.
They didn't make it easy on themselves, though. Against Saint Mary's, BYU trailed 48-40 before closing the game on a 22-4 run. The Cougars were in a similar predicament midway through the second half against San Francisco before a 24-4 spurt turned a three-point deficit into a 17-point lead.
The end result is it looks like two comfortable road victories over respectable opponents.
First Five Out
First Team Out: Florida Gators (6-4, NET: 47, KenPom: 38)
Florida plummeted to a No. 10 seed in last week's projection following blowout losses to Alabama and Kentucky, and the loss to Mississippi State on Saturday pushed the Gators over the edge.
It bears mentioning that they have been painfully understaffed. Keyontae Johnson is out for the year and Scottie Lewis (COVID-19 protocol) missed both games this past week. Freshman Samson Ruzhentsev played a season-high 13 minutes against Ole Miss on Tuesday and then set a new season high of 16 minutes on Saturday out of sheer necessity. The committee might be willing to overlook that loss to Mississippi State if the Gators can get back on the right track once Lewis returns.
For the time being, though, they need to play their way back into the field. Tuesday night's home game against Tennessee is a massive opportunity to do just that.
Second Team Out: Pittsburgh Panthers (7-2, NET: 51, KenPom: 66)
By no means am I trying to spin a COVID-19 pause as a good thing, but Pittsburgh certainly appears to have benefited from the timing of its hiatus.
Star big man Justin Champagnie—who had back-to-back 20-point, 20-rebound double-doubles earlier this season—suffered a knee injury in a Dec. 16 game against Miami. He missed a month of action because of that injury, but that turned out to only be two games. And in his return to the floor against Syracuse on Saturday, he racked up 24 points and 16 rebounds in a 20-point victory.
Pittsburgh does have a no-good, very-bad home loss to St. Francis PA on its resume, and even its best wins (at Northwestern; at Syracuse; at Miami) came against teams not currently projected to make the tournament. But we can't exactly disregard an almost top-50 team in the NET with just two losses. Upcoming home games against Duke (Jan. 19) and North Carolina (Jan. 26) loom large.
Third Team Out: Marquette Golden Eagles (8-6, NET: 65, KenPom: 53)
Marquette beat Providence last Tuesday and eked out a road win over St. John's over the weekend to improve to 8-6. Those victories didn't do much to change this resume, but it does keep a team with wins over Wisconsin and Creighton in the mix for a bid.
All six of the Golden Eagles' losses were against projected tournament teams, which means there's nothing too unsightly on their ledger. But they might need to run up the score in these next three games against DePaul, Providence and Butler to get the margin-of-victory-based analytics on their side.
Fourth Team Out: Colorado State Rams (9-2, NET: 53, KenPom: 78)
Not only are Boise State, San Diego State and Utah State all in the projected field, but there's a fourth Mountain West team knocking at the at-large door.
KenPom doesn't have much interest in Colorado State, which has one road win over San Diego State and not much else on its resume. But the Rams are just outside the NET Top 50 with a solid record and no terrible losses.
The next two weeks could make or break Colorado State: two games at Utah State this coming week, two home games against Boise State the following week. The Rams probably need to win at least two of those games to have any realistic hope heading into February.
Fifth Team Out: Stanford Cardinal (8-5, NET: 61, KenPom: 46)
Stanford was looking good for a bid until it went on the road and got waxed by both Utah and Colorado this past week.
The Colorado loss was forgivable, but losing by 14 to Utah—which is otherwise 0-5 against the KenPom Top 100—was not. And those were the Cardinal's third and fourth losses by double digits this season. (They were previously soundly beaten by both Indiana and Oregon.)
The season-opening 18-point win over Alabama looks great, but Stanford needs to reharness some of that mojo. Five of its next seven scheduled games are against USC (two), UCLA, Arizona and Colorado. "8-5 and on the bubble" could turn into "10-10 and not worth a second glance" in a hurry.
No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 16 Eastern Washington
No. 8 Louisville vs. No. 9 Missouri
No. 4 Ohio State vs. No. 13 Colgate
No. 5 Kansas vs. No. 12 Winthrop
No. 3 Virginia vs. No. 14 South Dakota State
No. 6 LSU vs. No. 11 Boise State
No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 15 Vermont
No. 7 Oklahoma State vs. No. 10 North Carolina
Stock Up: Virginia Cavaliers (Up Two Seed Lines)
9-2, NET: 10, KenPom: 7
I wasn't sure if we'd see a single result this season as impressive as Texas' 82-57 win at Kansas in early January, but Virginia "has entered the chat" with its 85-50 dismantling of a pretty good Clemson team.
Clemson was fresh off a COVID-19 pause that caused the Tigers to go 11 days between games, and they looked all sorts of rusty. Virginia jumped out to a 29-5 lead and never relented. The Cavaliers had more assists (22) than Clemson had field goals (21) and shot 15-of-27 from three-point range.
Prior to that game Virginia's best wins of the season were against Notre Dame and Boston College, neither of which has any hope of an at-large bid. Just winning at Clemson would have been huge for the Cavaliers. But winning in an absolute rout was so big for their metrics.
Two weeks ago, Virginia was No. 45 in the NET and No. 17 on KenPom. The Wahoos were a projected No. 5 seed on faith more than anything else. But just like that, they're on the brink of a No. 2 seed and have become the clear-cut favorite to win the ACC.
Stock Down: Louisville Cardinals (Down Four Seed Lines)
9-3, NET: 37, KenPom: 39
Louisville's three best wins (vs. Virginia Tech, vs. Seton Hall, vs. Kentucky) were by a combined six points, and its lone loss before Saturday was an 85-48 embarrassment at Wisconsin.
Based purely on wins and losses, the Cardinals looked like a No. 4 seed one week ago. Factor in the margins of those wins and losses, though, and they were ranked outside the Top 25 in both NET and KenPom back when they were 8-1.
Now that they're 9-3 with the additions of a not-great loss at Miami and a 13-point home loss to Florida State—which hasn't been factored into the NET yet, since that game just happened Monday night—the Cardinals are hurtling toward the bubble.
Their next game is Saturday at home against Duke, which is going through some tough times of its own. The winner of that game will be able to breathe easily for at least a few days, but the loser—especially if the score is lopsided—will be in bubble trouble.
No. 1 Iowa vs. No. 16 Bryant
No. 8 Duke vs. No. 9 Xavier
No. 4 Texas Tech vs. No. 13 Belmont
No. 5 Minnesota vs. No. 12 Furman
No. 3 Colorado vs. No. 14 Western Kentucky
No. 6 Connecticut vs. No. 11 BYU
No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 15 Siena
No. 7 Florida State vs. No. 10 Drake
Stock Up: Colorado Buffaloes (Up Three Seed Lines)
11-3, NET: 7, KenPom: 13
Colorado has one of the more befuddling tournament resumes in the country.
The metrics love the Buffaloes, and it's largely because they often win games in blowout fashion.
They have two nice wins over Oregon and USC, but more importantly, they have wins by margins of 13, 18, 23 (twice), 29, 36 and 42 points. Two of those wins came this past week as they cruised to victories over California and Stanford, climbing up to No. 7 in the NET rankings as a result.
It's all very similar to Texas Tech's resume, which came under a lot of scrutiny earlier this month when the Red Raiders were held in high regard by both NET and KenPom despite a 1-3 record against Top 100 opponents. Four of TTU's first five games were wins by at least 32 points, and we have long known that blowing out bad teams early in the season is a great way to make KenPom think that you're a title contender. (Cincinnati used to pull that trick all the time.)
I'm still far from convinced that Colorado is a top-10 team. As far as the AP voters are concerned, the Buffaloes weren't even a Top 25 team last Monday. But I'll default to the NET and KenPom rankings for now, as it's not like anyone outside the top 12 teams is making a serious case for a No. 3 seed.
Stock Down: Duke Blue Devils (Down Two Seed Lines)
5-3, NET: 92, KenPom: 25
Duke is still very much figuring things out, and it's continuing to cost the Blue Devils in the projected seeding conversation.
Matthew Hurt is clearly the star of this team, and freshman guards DJ Steward and Jeremy Roach have each scored at least a dozen points in each of Duke's last five games.
Beyond that trio, though, there's no telling what the Blue Devils are going to get on any given night. That was abundantly clear in last Tuesday's loss to Virginia Tech, in which no one outside of Hurt, Steward and Roach scored more than four points.
That sort of "Just Feed the Three Best Guys" approach worked fine in the year with Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish, but these three guys are decidedly not those three guys. This year's Blue Devils need Jalen Johnson to get healthy, and they need Wendell Moore Jr. to show up more than once in a blue moon.
As things currently stand, Duke is in legitimate danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995. It had better win at least one of the road games this coming week against Pittsburgh and Louisville.
No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 16 Southern / Grand Canyon
No. 8 Purdue vs. No. 9 Arkansas
No. 4 Creighton vs. No. 13 Wright State
No. 5 Oregon vs. No. 12 Maryland / Richmond
No. 3 Wisconsin vs. No. 14 Liberty
No. 6 Saint Louis vs. No. 11 San Diego State
No. 2 Houston vs. No. 15 Abilene Christian
No. 7 UCLA vs. No. 10 Oklahoma
Stock Up: Purdue Boilermakers (Up Three Seed Lines)
10-5, NET: 33, KenPom: 27
Two weeks ago, Purdue was 7-5 and was our last team in the projected field. The Boilermakers were in good shape in the various metrics, though it seemed like it would only be a matter of time before the Big Ten chewed them up and spit them out—in part because they were 0-4 in road games at that point.
Since then, road wins over Michigan State and Indiana and a home win over Penn State have propelled Purdue up to "in with some room to spare" territory.
Big man Trevion Williams averaged 20.3 points and 10.0 rebounds in those three victories. His most impressive performance came against Indiana (22 points and 10 rebounds), since the Hoosiers have an impressive big man of their own (Trayce Jackson-Davis) and otherwise held Purdue to just 5-of-15 shooting from inside the arc. (Too bad Indiana couldn't keep the non-Williams Boilermakers from shooting 65 percent from three-point range.)
In Sunday's win over Penn State, all five starters scored at least a dozen points. That's a noteworthy development in advance of the next three games against Ohio State, Michigan and Minnesota. A one-man show won't be enough to beat any of those teams, but Purdue could make a major surge up the Big Ten standings if freshmen Mason Gillis and Brandon Newman continue to contribute like they did against the Nittany Lions.
Stock Down: Arkansas Razorbacks (Down Three Seed Lines)
10-4, NET: 35, KenPom: 42
I don't know what pregame routine Arkansas was adhering to before its road games against LSU and Alabama this week, but hopefully the Razorbacks threw that garbage out the window on their way back to Fayetteville.
LSU started Wednesday's game on a 44-13 run. Arkansas did outscore the Tigers by 15 the rest of the way, but that game was over by halftime.
Similar story three days later with Alabama jumping out to a 22-5 lead. Except in that one, instead of Arkansas clawing back to make things look less embarrassing, the margin only got worse with Alabama cruising to a 31-point win.
Up until this past week, margin of victory had been a best friend to Arkansas. Each of their 10 wins was by double digits, including a 30-point win over Georgia and an 80-point victory over Mississippi Valley State. But landing on the wrong side of back-to-back blowouts caused the Razorbacks to plummet in the rankings. They were 19th in the NET and 25th in KenPom one week ago. Now they have work to do.
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 Northeastern / Norfolk State
No. 8 Virginia Tech vs. No. 9 Michigan State
No. 4 Alabama vs. No. 13 Toledo
No. 5 West Virginia vs. No. 12 Indiana / Utah State
No. 3 Illinois vs. No. 14 Georgia State
No. 6 USC vs. No. 11 Seton Hall
No. 2 Texas vs. No. 15 UC Santa Barbara
No. 7 Clemson vs. No. 10 Rutgers
Stock Up: Alabama Crimson Tide (Up Four Seed Lines)
11-3, NET: 18, KenPom: 17
Hard to imagine a team having a better week than the one Alabama put together.
The Crimson Tide were already riding high with five consecutive victories and a football team that just won a national championship. And the basketball players channeled some of that pigskin dominance into a 20-point road win over Kentucky and a 31-point home win over Arkansas.
They weren't even close to full strength, either.
Jahvon Quinerly missed the game against Kentucky. Jordan Bruner suffered a knee injury against Kentucky and missed the game against Arkansas. Herbert Jones got hurt (finger) early against Kentucky, missed the rest of that game and only managed four shots against Arkansas.
Yet they dismantled a Wildcats team that entered the night on a three-game winning streak and blasted a respectable Razorbacks squad.
If Alabama manages to win at LSU on Tuesday night, it's hard to see anyone stopping the Crimson Tide from winning the SEC.
Stock Down: Clemson Tigers (Down Three Seed Lines)
9-2, NET: 30, KenPom: 36
As previously mentioned, Clemson got slaughtered in its first game after a brief COVID-19 pause. And despite previous wins over Alabama, Florida State, Purdue and Maryland, that one horrible performance sent the Tigers free-falling down the rankings.
One week ago, the Tigers were 17th in the NET and 18th on KenPom, they were No. 12 in the AP poll and they were our highest-seeded team out of the ACC.
The big question is: How will Clemson respond?
Seven years ago, Virginia was on the opposite side of a 35-point shellacking. The Cavaliers ended the nonconference portion of their 2013-14 season with an 87-52 loss to Tennessee—a single result which caused them to drop 20 spots in the KenPom rankings. But they won 19 of their next 21 games to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Tigers entered Saturday's nightmare with the best adjusted defensive efficiency in the country. If they lean on that to bounce back with road wins over Georgia Tech and Florida State this coming week, they'll be back in the mix for a No. 4 or No. 5 seed in no time.
Ranking the No. 1 Seeds
No. 4 Iowa Hawkeyes
11-2, NET: 3, KenPom: 3
Texas was our fourth No. 1 seed one week ago, but the Longhorns dropped a home game to Texas Tech on Wednesday.
Michigan was in line to take Texas' spot, but the Wolverines lost by 18 at Minnesota on Saturday.
Thus, welcome back, Iowa.
Since giving away a game at Minnesota in which they led by seven in the final minute of regulation, the Hawkeyes have won five in a row, four of them by at least 15 points. The most recent of those victories was a 96-73 road drubbing of Northwestern on Sunday.
As a vivid reminder of what this team can do when things are clicking, Iowa turned a one-point deficit into a 23-point lead in less than 13 minutes of game time—and NPOY favorite Luka Garza didn't even have that good of a game, finishing with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
The Hawkeyes will host Indiana this Thursday for a chance to both remain on the top line and knock the Hoosiers out of the projected field.
No. 3 Villanova Wildcats
8-1, NET: 8, KenPom: 4
Remember these guys?
Villanova hasn't played since Dec. 23, but it should finally be returning to action on Tuesday night against Seton Hall—a tournament-caliber team squarely on the bubble and in dire need of a marquee victory. Wouldn't be surprising if the Wildcats let that one slip away while getting back up to speed, but they did have the most turnover-averse offense in the country back when they were regularly playing games.
No. 2 Baylor Bears
13-0, NET: 1, KenPom: 2
It was tempting to push Baylor up to No. 1 overall after a week in which it won by eight at Texas Tech and somewhat easily took care of business at home against Kansas.
But let's make sure not to get too caught up in the moment. After all, Baylor entered this week with just one Quadrant 1 win compared to Gonzaga's four—each of which were on neutral courts against teams in the top 20 on our overall seed list.
It's a debate that doesn't really matter since Baylor and Gonzaga wouldn't face each other until the national championship regardless. And there's no point in losing sleep over it right now when Baylor still has road games remaining against Texas, West Virginia and Kansas.
Because of that remaining schedule, if both teams go undefeated, the Bears would almost certainly get the No. 1 overall seed ahead of the Zags.
The moral of the story, though, is that Baylor and Gonzaga are on a tier by themselves. Even if Baylor had lost to Kansas on Monday night, it likely still would have remained our No. 2 overall seed.
No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs
14-0, NET: 2, KenPom: 1
For the first time in a while, Gonzaga looked mortal this week.
The Zags would eventually win the game by 25, but they only led Pepperdine by four at halftime on Thursday. Two days later, they trailed Saint Mary's by 10 midway through the first half prior to entering the break on a 20-3 run and ultimately winning by 14.
That 73-59 win over Saint Mary's was also the first time this season that Gonzaga was held below 85 points. Maybe the Bulldogs are subconsciously taking their foot off the gas a bit to save some fuel for March?
As long as they don't start playing games that come right down to the wire, though, Gonzaga will remain locked in as either the No. 1 or No. 2 overall seed. Baylor could definitely bypass the Bulldogs, but it feels like it would take a substantial development for any other team to do so.
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): 8. Houston
Atlantic 10 (2): 22. Saint Louis; 45. Richmond
Atlantic Coast (7): 9. Virginia; 25. Florida State; 27. Clemson; 29. Louisville; 31. Virginia Tech; 32. Duke; 39. North Carolina; 70. Pittsburgh
Big 12 (7): 2. Baylor; 7. Texas; 13. Texas Tech; 17. Kansas; 19. West Virginia; 28. Oklahoma State; 38. Oklahoma
Big East (5): 3. Villanova; 14. Creighton; 24. Connecticut; 36. Xavier; 42. Seton Hall; 71. Marquette
Big Ten (11): 4. Iowa; 6. Michigan; 10. Wisconsin; 12. Illinois; 16. Ohio State; 20. Minnesota; 30. Purdue; 35. Michigan State; 37. Rutgers; 46. Maryland; 47. Indiana
Mountain West (3): 41. Boise State; 43. San Diego State; 48. Utah State; 72. Colorado State
Pac-12 (4): 11. Colorado; 18. Oregon; 21. USC; 26. UCLA; 73. Stanford
Southeastern (5): 5. Tennessee; 15. Alabama; 23. LSU; 33. Missouri; 34. Arkansas; 69. Florida
West Coast (2): 1. Gonzaga; 44. BYU
Other (21): 40. Drake; 49. Winthrop; 50. Furman; 51. Toledo; 52. Colgate; 53. Wright State; 54. Belmont; 55. Georgia State; 56. Western Kentucky; 57. Liberty; 58. South Dakota State; 59. Abilene Christian; 60. UC Santa Barbara; 61. Vermont; 62. Siena; 63. Bryant; 64. Eastern Washington; 65. Grand Canyon; 66. Northeastern; 67. Norfolk State; 68. Southern
*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.