2021 NCAA Tournament Bracket: Latest Projection of the Field of 68
Gonzaga and Baylor both remain undefeated and way ahead of the field, jostling with each other for the No. 1 overall seed in the men's 2021 NCAA tournament. Joining the Zags and Bears on our projected top line this week are Villanova (just ended a lengthy COVID-19 pause) and Michigan (just started what will be a lengthy pause).
In most seasons, late January is when the bubble starts to take shape because in most seasons, teams would have played roughly 20 of their 31 games by now.
But this year, between the late start and the frequent pauses, Duke is on the bubble with 10 games played, St. Bonaventure is surging with nine games played, and there's just no telling how many more data points any team will be able to add to its resume before Selection Sunday.
Because the sample sizes are smaller than usual, individual outcomes are resulting in much greater fluctuation in projected seeding than usual.
In other words, if you're upset with where your favorite team is in the bracket, wait a week and it might change drastically.
Heck, even 5-9 Kentucky could come flying back into the conversation if it goes 2-0 against Alabama and Texas this coming week.
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.
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. 25.
Last Five In
Last Team In: Duke Blue Devils (5-5, NET: 90, KenPom: 33)
Duke is in a world of trouble following three consecutive road losses to Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh and Louisville. The Blue Devils were close in all three games, which is why they haven't lost much ground in the KenPom rankings yet.
At some point, though, they need to actually win some games. I know, that's a novel concept. But if they don't win both of their home games against Georgia Tech and Clemson in the next week, they will almost certainly be on the outside looking in on our next projection.
Second-to-Last In: Indiana Hoosiers (9-7, NET: 47, KenPom: 24)
Trying to make any sense of Indiana has been such a headache, and this past week was the most migraine-inducing of all. After a stunning, come-from-behind road win over Iowa, the Hoosiers turned around and lost a home game to Rutgers—despite shooting 62.5 percent from three-point range.
The Hoosiers have neither a three-game winning streak nor three-game losing streak yet this season, and that back-and-forth dance has already resulted in seven losses.
They were supposed to face Michigan this coming Saturday, but that game has been postponed. Unless something gets rescheduled, they'll be off until Feb. 2 and will be right back in this general vicinity next week.
Third-to-Last In: Loyola-Chicago Ramblers (11-3, NET: 29, KenPom: 21)
This is our first time putting Loyola-Chicago in the field this season. After five consecutive wins by double digits, the Ramblers have simply climbed too high in both metrics to ignore any longer.
They still don't have anything close to a great win, and they lost to Wisconsin and Richmond in their only two opportunities to really prove something. Eventually, they will face still-undefeated Drake, possibly three times. Once those results are tallied, we'll see if the Missouri Valley has much of a case for multiple bids. With the way the total number of bids in the Big Ten and Pac-12 has been trending, though, you've got to like the Valley's chances.
Fourth-to-Last In: Seton Hall Pirates (9-6, NET: 54, KenPom: 43)
Seton Hall missed out on a massive opportunity last week, losing by two at Villanova. Had the Pirates been able to pull that one off, they would be pretty safely in the field, perhaps as a No. 8 seed. Instead, they fell to 9-6 overall with a bunch of tough games on the horizon.
They'll host Creighton and Villanova this coming week, followed by road games against Providence and Connecticut. They might lose all four, but they likely need to win at least two of those games to have any realistic hope moving forward.
Fifth-to-Last In: San Diego State Aztecs (9-4, NET: 31, KenPom: 31)
After back-to-back losses to Utah State, San Diego State was blessed with two games against Air Force to get back on the right track. And that two-game winning streak should turn into eight in a hurry with two games each against Wyoming, New Mexico and San Jose State on deck. None of those teams has a single Quadrant 1 or Quadrant 2 win yet this season.
The Aztecs are currently scheduled to finish the regular season with two games against Boise State. Much like Loyola-Chicago and Drake in the Missouri Valley, we'll likely need to wait until those games are played to have a proper sense of whether the Mountain West could get multiple invitations to the dance.
First Five Out
First Team Out: Syracuse Orange (9-5, NET: 40, KenPom: 36)
Had Syracuse been able to upset Virginia on Monday night, it absolutely would have stormed into the projected field. Because that would have been one heck of a cherry on a week-long sundae that included blowout wins over Miami and Virginia Tech.
As is, the Orange fell to 0-4 in Quadrant 1 games and have one of those classic "no great wins, no horrible losses" bubble resumes. And prior to that win over the Hokies on Saturday, it was more of a "not even any good wins" resume.
(I'm well aware that Duke is in a similar boat and that Syracuse fans will probably be livid about the order in which I've slotted those two teams, given the massive difference in their NET rankings. But Duke has merely adopted the bubble. Syracuse was born in it, molded by it. After the past five years, it's practically an annual tradition for the Orange to close out January in this exact spot.)
Second Team Out: Colorado State Rams (10-3, NET: 55, KenPom: 74)
Third Team Out: Utah State Aggies (11-5, NET: 50, KenPom: 49)
The Rams and Aggies split a two-game set this week, with Colorado State coming out slightly ahead because those games were played in Utah.
The Rams are now 2-3 against Quadrant 1 with no losses outside that group. Unfortunately, their cumulative scoring margin in those five games was negative-41. They also had a pair of close calls at home against UNLV, which is why their NET and KenPom rankings leave much to be desired.
For Utah State, the loss on Thursday snapped a 10-game winning streak against FBS opponents, most of which were not competitive. But most of those wins didn't much matter, as the Aggies are 0-2 against Quadrant 1 and 3-5 overall against the top three Quadrants. This is clearly a solid team anchored by Neemias Queta in the post, but they probably need to go at least 8-1 the rest of the way just to add a little meat to this resume.
Fourth Team Out: St. Bonaventure Bonnies (8-1, NET: 43, KenPom: 54)
Don't look now, but after not starting its season until Dec. 15, St. Bonaventure jumped onto the at-large radar with a 70-54 win over VCU this past Wednesday. The Bonnies followed that up with a road win over Duquesne on Saturday.
Prior to this week, their only results of note were a three-point road win over Richmond and a six-point road loss to Rhode Island, so this was a major step in the right direction. If they can improve to 9-1 with a road win over Davidson this coming Saturday, that should push them into the projected field.
Fifth Team Out: Stanford Cardinal (9-5, NET: 59, KenPom: 48)
Despite playing without star freshman Ziaire Williams and veterans Daejon Davis and Bryce Wills, Stanford pulled off a rather stunning home win over UCLA, emerging victorious when Oscar da Silva made a do-or-die bucket at the buzzer in overtime. That result kept the Cardinal in the mix for a bid.
But of the five viable NCAA tournament candidates from the Pac-12, Stanford was the only one not to suffer a loss in the past week—and this UCLA-Stanford game was the only head-to-head battle. Because of that, the league looks a little bit less impressive as a whole. At least Stanford was able to hold steady as the fifth team out. The other four all lost some ground in the projected seeding.
No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 16 Bryant
No. 8 Minnesota vs. No. 9 BYU
No. 4 Missouri vs. No. 13 Western Kentucky
No. 5 Kansas vs. No. 12 Duke/Indiana
No. 3 Virginia vs. No. 14 Liberty
No. 6 USC vs. No. 11 LSU
No. 2 Iowa vs. No. 15 South Dakota State
No. 7 Oklahoma State vs. No. 10 Drake
Stock Up: Missouri Tigers (Up Five Seed Lines)
10-2, NET: 23, KenPom: 32
Heading into the start of play on Sunday, here was the full list of teams with at least five Quadrant wins: No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga, No. 2 overall seed Baylor and Missouri.
The problem for the Tigers has been that when they do lose, it gets ugly. They lost by 20 at home to Tennessee on Dec. 30. Six days later, they completely collapsed against Mississippi State, letting a 14-point second-half lead somehow turn into a 15-point Quadrant 2 loss.
That's why—in spite of an outstanding win over Illinois and three quality victories over Arkansas, Oregon and Wichita State—the Tigers were all the way down at a No. 9 seed one week ago.
But now that they've added a road win over Tennessee to their Q1 stockpile, it's time to slightly ignore the metrics that suggest "No. 7 seed" and give the Tigers their due.
In that key victory, Xavier Pinson scored a season-high 27 points, while backcourt mate Dru Smith matched his season high of 18 points. That duo combined for 32 of Missouri's 40 first-half points, making sure the Tigers never trailed.
Stock Down: LSU Tigers (Down Five Seed Lines)
10-4, NET: 35, KenPom: 40
'Twas a zero-sum week for SEC-based Tigers.
While Missouri skyrocketed, LSU imploded. And they didn't even face each other. LSU's struggles came against Alabama and Kentucky.
Plenty of teams have had issues with the Crimson Tide lately. They've been on a war path during their 8-0 start to SEC play. But they were especially ruthless against LSU, shooting 23-of-43 from three-point range. And as wild as that is, they were 21-of-31 and led by 43 with fewer than 11 minutes remaining.
Even though Alabama is rated very well, that 30-point home loss was a land mine for LSU's metrics.
The Tigers stepped on another one over the weekend, losing by 13 to then 4-9 Kentucky. The Wildcats didn't make anywhere near as many triples as Alabama did, but they did sink five of their first eight attempts, jumped out to an early 15-point lead and never looked back.
LSU's resume was already somewhat of a house of cards. The Tigers entered last week just 2-2 against the top two Quadrants with close losses at Saint Louis and Florida and mediocre best wins over Arkansas and Ole Miss. This was a significant gust of wind, and they might need to beat Texas Tech on Saturday to keep that house from collapsing.
No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 16 Northeastern
No. 8 Xavier vs. No. 9 Boise State
No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 13 Colgate
No. 5 Texas Tech vs. No. 12 Toledo
No. 3 Tennessee vs. No. 14 UC Santa Barbara
No. 6 Purdue vs. No. 11 North Carolina
No. 2 Texas vs. No. 15 Vermont
No. 7 UCLA vs. No. 10 Clemson
Stock Up: Florida State Seminoles (Up Three Seed Lines)
9-2, NET: 21, KenPom: 15
Last Monday, Florida State picked up an impressive 78-65 road win over Louisville. But because that was a Monday night game and we use data as of Monday morning, the Seminoles were not properly compensated for that victory.
Assuming it would be a close game, it was decided beforehand that the winner would enter Tuesday as the top No. 7 seed while the loser would occupy the spot atop the No. 8 seed line. Given the margin, though, we probably should have recalibrated a bit and bumped Florida State up to a No. 6 seed.
It would've been so easy, too, as the 'Noles were already in the same region as our bottom No. 6 seed, Connecticut. Sometimes a minor change can set off an avalanche of unintended consequences, but a quick switch of those two teams would've been all it took. Instead, I opted to take a wait-and-see approach, knowing Florida State had a rematch with Clemson coming up on Saturday.
What I waited and saw was a demolition derby.
Florida State won by a final margin of 19 points, but they were up 69-31 before going into cruise control / injury-prevention mode for the final 11 minutes. It was FSU's fifth win over a projected tournament team, and its most impressive one to date.
Stock Down: Clemson Tigers (Down Three Seed Lines)
9-4, NET: 53, KenPom: 52
What a difference two weeks can make.
Prior to getting smoked in three consecutive games against Virginia, Georgia Tech and Florida State, Clemson was ranked 17th in the NET and 18th on KenPom and was the ACC's projected automatic bid at No. 13 overall on the seed list. Now the Tigers are outside the top 50 in both metrics and have plummeted all the way to No. 37 on the seed list.
Recency bias will inevitably make a lot of you believe that Clemson does not belong anywhere near the tournament field.
However, the Tigers only have one loss to a team not currently projected to dance—Georgia Tech, which is surging in a big way, now ranked in the top 60 of both NET and KenPom in spite of season-opening home losses to Georgia State and Mercer. And Clemson has four wins over teams currently projected for a single-digit seed (No. 2 Alabama, No. 4 Florida State, No. 6 Purdue and No. 9 Maryland).
It's not because the Tigers are lacking in quality wins that they're now ranked outside the top 50. It's because those last three losses were by a combined 72 points and both NET and KenPom are deeply rooted in margin of victory.
Those blowout losses did push Clemson toward the bubble in a hurry, though. And within the next two weeks, the Tigers are scheduled to play three games against fellow bubble dwellers Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse. Desperate times ahead in the ACC.
No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 16 Grand Canyon / Weber State
No. 8 Oregon vs. No. 9 Michigan State
No. 4 Wisconsin vs. No. 13 Wright State
No. 5 Creighton vs. No. 12 Winthrop
No. 3 Illinois vs. No. 14 Furman
No. 6 Saint Louis vs. No. 11 Arkansas
No. 2 Houston vs. No. 15 Georgia State
No. 7 Florida vs. No. 10 Virginia Tech
Stock Up: Florida Gators (From First Team Out to a No. 7 Seed)
8-4, NET: 26, KenPom: 23
I don't think I've ever had a team move this much in one week this late in the season, but steamrolling Tennessee—which was my No. 5 overall seed one week ago—was one gigantic statement for a team that previously had a "blah" resume.
Prior to that 75-49 beatdown—played without key starters and defensive leaders Scottie Lewis and Colin Castleton, by the way—Florida's best win was a close call at home against LSU. Its second-best win was probably the nine-point victory at home against now 8-6 Ole Miss. Coupled with losses to Kentucky and Mississippi State, the Gators' resume seemed to be getting uglier by the day.
But they capitalized on a near must-win opportunity with aggressive defense. Omar Payne blocked five shots, and seven different Gators combined for 11 steals as they blitzed the normally efficient Volunteers right out of their comfort zone.
That defense was nowhere to be found a few days later at Georgia, but Florida scored almost at will for a 92-84 Quadrant 2 victory.
Big test coming up on Saturday when the Gators travel to West Virginia.
Stock Down: Oregon Ducks (Down Three Seed Lines)
9-3, NET: 46, KenPom: 28
Though most teams have played about as well as usual in their first action after a gap of at least 14 days between games, Oregon acquired a brutal 11-point home loss to Oregon State this past weekend.
Leading scorer Chris Duarte and fourth-leading scorer LJ Figueroa both missed that game, so the Ducks were playing with considerably less than a full deck. Making his first start of the year, Chandler Lawson played 23 minutes and finished with one point and one rebound. They dearly missed Duarte and Figueroa's combined average line of 28.5 points, 11.1 rebounds, 4.0 steals and 3.5 assists.
Given the circumstances, that game was clearly an outlier. However, the Ducks don't have any "Yeah, but look at all we've accomplished at full strength" data points to help them out. They're 0-2 against Quadrant 1, which makes them our second-highest-seeded team without a marquee win. (The highest is Saint Louis, which is 7-1 overall with a competitive loss at Minnesota.)
Opportunity is at Oregon's doorstep, though. The Ducks are scheduled to play at UCLA on Thursday, at USC on Saturday and at UCLA again on Monday. In the next week, they could improve to 3-2 against Quadrant 1 and soar right back up the seed list. Alternatively, they could fall to 0-5 against Quadrant 1 and drop out of the field altogether. Stay tuned.
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 Morgan State / Alabama A&M
No. 8 Maryland vs. No. 9 Connecticut
No. 4 West Virginia vs. No. 13 Belmont
No. 5 Colorado vs. No. 12 Seton Hall / Loyola-Chicago
No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 14 Abilene Christian
No. 6 Oklahoma vs. No. 11 San Diego State
No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 15 Siena
No. 7 Louisville vs. No. 10 Rutgers
Stock Up: Oklahoma Sooners (Up Four Seed Lines)
9-4, NET: 25, KenPom: 22
Beating Kansas isn't quite the incredible accomplishment it used to be. The Jayhawks are currently just 4-4 in Big 12 play, and five of their 10 wins this season were by four points or fewer.
It's still a darn good win to have on the resume, though, and Oklahoma picked one up on Saturday. Sophomore De'Vion Harmon continued his recent hot stretch with a game-high 22 points. He is now 10-of-21 from three-point range and has averaged 20 points during Oklahoma's three-game winning streak.
The Sooners also smashed Kansas State earlier in the week, improving to 6-0 against Quadrants 3 and 4 with an average scoring margin of 27.5 points in those contests.
That game against Kansas was just the beginning of a serious trial by fire for the Sooners. Their next three games are at Texas, vs. Alabama and at Texas Tech. After a brief respite at home against Iowa State, it's right back to the meat grinder with a home game against Baylor, a trip to West Virginia and a home game against Texas. They're in a good spot at the moment, but that may change drastically over the course of the next three weeks.
Stock Down: Colorado Buffaloes (Down Two Seed Lines)
12-4, NET: 16, KenPom: 19
In begrudgingly promoting Colorado to a No. 3 seed one week ago, I noted that the Buffaloes didn't feel like a top-10 team. Their resume more or less consisted of one impressive win (at USC), three forgivable losses (at Tennessee, at Arizona, at UCLA) and a bunch of blowout wins over bad teams.
After convincing victories over Cal and Stanford, the NET had them at No. 7 and KenPom had them at No. 13. At a certain point, I just have to listen to the metrics, even though the AP voters didn't have Colorado in their consensus Top 25.
But a loss this past week at then 1-11 Washington brought the Buffaloes back to the pack a bit. They're now 1-3 vs. Quadrant 1 and 5-3 against the top two Quadrants with a disappointing Quadrant 3 loss. In that regard, Colorado is in just about the exact same boat as Florida, which was smack dab on the bubble coming into this past week.
The Buffaloes are still top 20 in both metrics, though, and will likely bounce back a bit in the next few weeks. Their next five games are all at home, and the only top 50 opponent in that bunch is Arizona. So don't be surprised if we wake up on Feb. 9 to find Colorado sitting at 17-4 and back on the No. 3 seed line.
Ranking the No. 1 Seeds
No. 4 Villanova Wildcats
10-1, NET: 6, KenPom: 5
Villanova returned from nearly a month-long COVID-19 pause with back-to-back home wins over Seton Hall and Providence.
They weren't exactly convincing wins, though, which contributed to this minor slip from No. 3 to No. 4 overall.
The Wildcats got lucky that Seton Hall's Sandro Mamukelashvili fumbled away a golden game-winning opportunity in the closing seconds, and then they got out to a slow start against the Friars before pulling away in the final 13 minutes.
Still, they are 10-1 overall, and that December road win over Texas is the gift that keeps on giving. The Longhorns are currently our No. 5 overall seed, but there's a significant gap between No. 4 and No. 5 because of that head-to-head result.
No. 3 Michigan Wolverines
13-1, NET: 3, KenPom: 3
On Tuesday night, the Wolverines had no difficulty in running away with an 87-63 victory over a Maryland team that now has road wins over Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota. Three days later, they waltzed into Mackey Arena and walked out with a 17-point victory.
Against the Terrapins, Michigan jumped out to an early 17-3 lead and never let them cut it to single digits. It was a similar story against the Boilermakers when a 14-4 lead eventually ballooned to 29-15 and it was a double-digit margin the rest of the way.
Business as usual during a dominant season.
Now we wait to see if they can maintain that momentum through a mandatory pause of at least 14 days that was announced on Saturday.
No. 2 Baylor Bears
14-0, NET: 1, KenPom: 2
In Saturday's game at Oklahoma State, Baylor got more of a test than anyone was expecting.
Had the Cowboys been at full strength, we definitely would have been anticipating a good game. But with star freshman Cade Cunningham and third-leading scorer Rondel Walker unavailable, a Baylor blowout seemed inevitable. Instead, Oklahoma State gave the Bears a real fight, and even led 50-48 with 12 minutes remaining.
That's when Baylor snapped awake and went on one of those "OK, time to quit messing around" surges that we saw on a regular basis from that Kentucky team that went 38-1 in 2014-15. In a span of less than five minutes, the Bears turned a two-point deficit into a 16-point lead—something they also did to a strong Illinois team earlier this season, although that run took about nine minutes instead of five.
It should easily win home games this week against Kansas State and Auburn, but Baylor's Feb. 2 game at Texas will be one of the biggest showdowns of this entire season. Win that one and we might have no choice but to push the Bears ahead of Gonzaga for the No. 1 overall seed.
No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs
15-0, NET: 2, KenPom: 1
Speaking of dominant runs, goodness gracious did Gonzaga annihilate Pacific in its only game of the past week. The Zags led 26-5, 38-10 and 69-25 en route to a 46-point victory over the Tigers.
The Zags have now won 12 consecutive games by double digits and currently have an average scoring margin of 23.8 points per game.
The West Coast Conference is simply helpless against this onslaught. Even with nine games remaining in the regular season, KenPom gives Gonzaga a 66.1 percent chance of entering the WCC tournament with an undefeated record, and there's roughly a 79 percent chance the Bulldogs reach their regular-season finale (at BYU) without a loss.
Pretty wild that there's only a 1-in-5 chance they lose a game within the next month.
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): 7. Houston
Atlantic 10 (1): 22. Saint Louis; 72. St. Bonaventure
Atlantic Coast (7): 9. Virginia; 15. Florida State; 27. Louisville; 37. Clemson; 40. Virginia Tech; 41. North Carolina; 48. Duke; 69. Syracuse
Big 12 (7): 2. Baylor; 5. Texas; 14. West Virginia; 18. Kansas; 19. Texas Tech; 21. Oklahoma; 26. Oklahoma State*
Big East (5): 4. Villanova; 17. Creighton; 30. Connecticut; 31. Xavier; 45. Seton Hall
Big Ten (11): 3. Michigan; 6. Iowa; 11. Ohio State; 12. Illinois; 13. Wisconsin; 24. Purdue; 29. Minnesota; 35. Maryland; 36. Michigan State; 39. Rutgers; 47. Indiana
Missouri Valley (2): 38. Drake; 46. Loyola-Chicago
Mountain West (2): 34. Boise State; 44. San Diego State; 70. Colorado State; 71. Utah State
Pac-12 (4): 20. Colorado; 23. USC; 28. UCLA; 32. Oregon; 73. Stanford
Southeastern (6): 8. Alabama; 10. Tennessee; 16. Missouri; 25. Florida; 42. Arkansas; 43. LSU
West Coast (2): 1. Gonzaga; 33. BYU
Other (20): 49. Winthrop; 50. Toledo; 51. Belmont; 52. Wright State; 53. Western Kentucky; 54. Colgate; 55. UC Santa Barbara; 56. Furman; 57. Abilene Christian; 58. Liberty; 59. South Dakota State; 60. Vermont; 61. Georgia State; 62. Siena; 63. Bryant; 64. Northeastern; 65. Grand Canyon; 66. Weber State; 67. Morgan State; 68. Alabama A&M
*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.