2021 Men's NCAA Tournament Bracket: Latest Projection of the Field of 68
Gonzaga and Baylor were ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the preseason AP Top 25, and here we are 10 weeks later and that hasn't changed for a moment. It's still too early to say they are locked in as No. 1 seeds for the 2021 men's NCAA tournament, but it sure feels that way, doesn't it? They are jostling with each other atop the seed list with Michigan and Villanova also on this week's projected top line.
And regardless of whether Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow on this Groundhog Day, we're down to less than six weeks left until Selection Sunday.
Which teams are gearing up to seize their remaining opportunities and enter the Big Dance on a hot streak, and which ones are on the verge of imploding in spectacular fashion?
Unfortunately, I don't have a crystal ball, but I can tell you which teams did the most to help or hurt their projected seeding in the past seven days.
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. And as a new twist, we'll also briefly discuss which first-round matchup in each region would be most entertaining.
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 Feb. 1.
Last Five In
Last Team In: Syracuse Orange
10-5, NET: 51, KenPom: 47
North Carolina State was without its two leading scorers (Devon Daniels and DJ Funderburk) for its Sunday night trip to Syracuse, yet the home team darn near suffered what would have been a devastating loss.
Instead, the Orange got just their second win of the season against a NET Top 100 opponent. (The other was a home game against Virginia Tech a little over a week ago.) They are firmly in the "no great wins; no terrible losses" bubble demographic, and without any scheduled games remaining against Virginia or Florida State, the "no great wins" part isn't changing any time soon.
There are plenty of chances to add some good wins, though, starting this week against Louisville and at Clemson. Even a split of those two games might be enough for Syracuse to remain barely in next week's bracket.
Second-to-Last In: Colorado State Rams
11-4, NET: 44, KenPom: 68
For the second consecutive week, Colorado State went 1-1 in its Quadrant 1 opportunities. After splitting the road series with Utah State, the Rams came back home and won the first game against Boise State by 22 points and lost the second by eight. Despite the loss, that's an overall positive step for a team devoid of bad losses.
Now we see if they can continue that tightrope walk.
The Rams are 9-0 against teams outside the NET Top 75, and they have nine such games remaining on their schedule. Win them all and they should be in good-to-great shape for an at-large bid. Lose even one and it might be auto bid or bust.
Third-to-Last In: St. Bonaventure Bonnies
9-1, NET: 35, KenPom: 48
The Bonnies were supposed to play at Davidson this past weekend. Instead, that Quadrant 1 game was postponed and replaced with a Quadrant 4 home game against George Mason. A missed opportunity perhaps, but at least the Bonnies won that game by 17 and benefited from losses by other teams on the bubble like Duke, Michigan State, Seton Hall, Stanford and Utah State.
If this coming week's schedule holds, there will be a huge A-10 showdown on Saturday when the Bonnies visit Saint Louis. Winner of that game will have a significant leg up the rest of the way in a league that isn't in great shape to produce multiple at-large bids.
Fourth-to-Last In: Indiana Hoosiers
9-7, NET: 47, KenPom: 27
Indiana had the week off after a loss to Rutgers last Sunday, but now the Hoosiers jump right back into the Big Ten grind with home games against Illinois and Iowa in the next seven days. A win in either game would be big. Winning both would be absolutely massive. But an 0-2 week would drop them to .500 overall and most likely out of the projected field.
Fifth-to-Last In: BYU Cougars
3-4, NET: 38, KenPom: 49
BYU was sitting pretty as our top No. 9 seed just one week ago. All the Cougars had to do was avoid a bad loss over the final month of the WCC season and they would have been in the NCAA tournament with plenty of room to spare.
Instead, they lost at Pepperdine this past Wednesday and barely avoided a second disaster, escaping with a double-overtime home victory over Pacific on Saturday night. As a result, they dropped a dozen spots in the NET rankings while adding a Quadrant 3 loss to their resume.
They're still in the field, but even if they win each of their next seven games before losing the regular-season finale to Gonzaga, this could be a photo finish.
First Five Out
First Team Out: Penn State Nittany Lions
6-7, NET: 29, KenPom: 35
I'm not sure if sub-.500 teams are even eligible for at-large consideration, since it's not something that comes up during a normal year. Penn State is doing its best to force us to find out, though, as the 6-7 Nittany Lions have tournament-worthy metrics following their 10-point win over Wisconsin on Saturday.
They previously had a 20-point road win over Virginia Tech, and they only have one loss outside of Quadrant 1—an overtime game against Seton Hall in which they blew an eight-point lead in the final two minutes of regulation. This is clearly a respectable team that is reeling from playing the most difficult schedule in the country. If they can split the upcoming week's games against Wisconsin and Maryland, I might have to put them in the subsequent projected field.
Second Team Out: Richmond Spiders
10-4, NET: 52, KenPom: 54
Now that Kentucky has crept up into the NET Top 75, Richmond's road win over the Wildcats registers as a Quadrant 1 result. So does the neutral-site victory over NET No. 16 Loyola-Chicago. Throw in the road win over Davidson and the Spiders are currently the only team outside our projected field with at least three Quadrant 1 wins.
They're close, though. The 23-point win at Saint Joseph's this past Tuesday gave them a little boost in the metrics, and they have three road games left against Dayton (Feb. 5), VCU (Feb. 12) and Saint Louis (Feb. 26) to possibly further help their case.
Third Team Out: Seton Hall Pirates
9-8, NET: 58, KenPom: 46
The past few weeks have been nothing but missed opportunities for Seton Hall. The Pirates had a chance to win at the buzzer at Villanova on Jan. 19, but they blew it. They had a 13-point lead over Creighton midway through the second half this past Wednesday, but they blew it. And in Saturday's home game against Villanova, they never led once in the process of falling to 9-8 overall.
The good news is they are a perfect 6-0 against the bottom two Quadrants, so there aren't any millstone losses weighing them down. But if they don't win both road games against Providence and Connecticut this week, they might be toast.
Fourth Team Out: Michigan State Spartans
8-6, NET: 95, KenPom: 62
I was willing to give Michigan State the benefit of the doubt until this past week. I know the Spartans were coming off a lengthy COVID-19 pause, but the 30-point loss at Rutgers followed by a 17-point loss at Ohio State was the final straw. Sparty is now in 13th place in the Big Ten standings, only ahead of winless Nebraska.
Michigan State could turn things around in a hurry with a road win over Iowa on Tuesday night, but given how the Spartans played in the past week, I'm not holding my breath for that upset.
Fifth Team Out: Duke Blue Devils
7-6, NET: 62, KenPom: 34
Just when it looked like the Blue Devils were starting to turn things around with a blowout win over Clemson, they suffered a horrendous loss to Miami on Monday night. That win over the Tigers did wonders for Duke's NET ranking, but it's going to take a major hit once that loss to the Hurricanes gets factored in.
Duke is now 7-6 overall with no wins against the NET/KenPom Top 50. At this point, it's almost mandatory that the Blue Devils win the home game against North Carolina this coming Saturday just to remain in the conversation for an at-large bid.
No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 16 Siena
No. 8 Oregon vs. No. 9 Saint Louis
No. 4 West Virginia vs. No. 13 Belmont
No. 5 Purdue vs. No. 12 Toledo
No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 14 Furman
No. 6 Florida vs. No. 11 Loyola-Chicago
No. 2 Houston vs. No. 15 South Dakota State
No. 7 Virginia Tech vs. No. 10 Arkansas
Stock Up: Virginia Tech Hokies (Up Three Seed Lines)
13-3, NET: 31, KenPom: 29
Virginia Tech took a bit of a nosedive in last week's projection following an 18-point road loss to Syracuse, but the Hokies are right back in great standing thanks to a rare destroy-from-behind victory over Virginia.
Over and over for the past few years, we've heard color commentators regurgitate the refrain that a 10-point deficit against Virginia feels like a 30-point deficit against anyone else, on account of how tough it is to score against the Cavaliers. But this past Saturday, the Hokies trailed the Wahoos 39-29 in the second half before closing the game on a 36-12 run.
It was reminiscent of that preposterous 25-4 run Syracuse had against Virginia in the 2016 Elite Eight. Or, more recently, Virginia Tech coming back from 12 down in the final 10 minutes of regulation for an eight-point overtime win over Villanova in November.
The Hokies now boast two excellent victories and look to be well on their way to the NCAA tournament. Then again, they were 13-4 in mid-January last year before losing 12 of their final 15 games, so they won't be counting their chickens just yet in Blacksburg.
Stock Down: Saint Louis Billikens (Down Three Seed Lines)
7-2, NET: 36, KenPom: 42
Playing for the first time in more than a month—in their first A-10 game of the year—the Billikens lost at home to Dayton this past Tuesday.
It wasn't a horrendous individual outcome. Dayton is a far cry from what it was last year, but the Flyers are a veteran team that also has victories over Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Davidson and Rhode Island. However, for a team that has only played nine games this season, that Quadrant 3 loss was bad enough to do serious damage to Saint Louis' at-large case.
It's the only remotely bad loss the Billikens have suffered, and the home wins over LSU and NC State are keeping them in good shape. They have now lost just about all of their bubble cushion, though.
Dream First-Round Matchup: Florida vs. Loyola-Chicago
Four months before the Ramblers went on their incredible run to the 2018 Final Four, they picked up a marquee road win over Florida in the only game they played against a KenPom Top 50 opponent. That win gave them the confidence needed to take down four other quality opponents in the tournament. Could this potential matchup have a similar effect on the Ramblers, or would the Gators have their revenge?
No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 16 Weber State
No. 8 Louisville vs. No. 9 Boise State
No. 4 Oklahoma vs. No. 13 Colgate
No. 5 Creighton vs. No. 12 Syracuse / Indiana
No. 3 Virginia vs. No. 14 Liberty
No. 6 Kansas vs. No. 11 Maryland
No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 15 Grand Canyon
No. 7 UCLA vs. No. 10 North Carolina
Stock Up: Oklahoma Sooners (Up Two Seed Lines)
11-4, NET: 17, KenPom: 20
Even with the road loss to Texas Tech on Monday night, Oklahoma had a fantastic week, picking up a road win over Texas and a home win over Alabama—and they had to play that Alabama game without starters Austin Reaves and Alondes Williams.
The Sooners were already one of the biggest risers in last week's projection thanks to a win over Kansas. Up until that point, their resume consisted of a nice, narrow home victory over West Virginia (playing its first game without Oscar Tshiebwe) and little else.
In the span of eight days, though, Oklahoma added three Quadrant 1 wins to a schedule devoid of bad losses.
Now the big question is: Can they avoid the second-half swoon for a change?
After the 2017-18 SEC/B12 challenge, Oklahoma was 15-5. Same goes for 2018-19. And the Sooners were 13-6 at that point in last season's schedule. But they went a collective 13-22 the rest of the way. With three games remaining against Iowa State (two) and Kansas State, a similar collapse could still put Oklahoma in bubble trouble. As things currently stand, though, the Sooners are surging as a Final Four threat.
Stock Down: Maryland Terrapins (Down Two Seed Lines)
9-8, NET: 42, KenPom: 44
Excluding the non-D-I game it scheduled at the last minute against Wingate a few weeks ago, Maryland has played nine consecutive Quadrant 1 games, and it has three more on deck before the schedule finally relents a bit.
Welcome to life in the 2020-21 Big Ten.
The Terrapins lost a home game to Wisconsin this past week to drop down to 9-8 overall and 3-7 in league play. Ole Miss is in a similar boat in the SEC, and the Rebels aren't even within shouting distance of the at-large picture. The difference for Maryland is that its three wins all came on the road against Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
That is one heck of a stockpile of top wins, but the overall record is certainly concerning. Pandemic or not, teams who go .500 or worse don't get at-large bids. The Terps almost have to win one of their games against Purdue and Penn State this coming week in order to remain in the mix, let alone in the projected field.
Dream First-Round Matchup: UCLA vs. North Carolina
North Carolina has been to more Final Fours (20) than any other school. UCLA (18) is second on that list and has the most national championships (11). But these iconic programs haven't met in the NCAA tournament since 1989.
No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 16 Northeastern / Bryant
No. 8 Drake vs. No. 9 Rutgers
No. 4 Wisconsin vs. No. 13 UC Santa Barbara
No. 5 Florida State vs. No. 12 Colorado State / St. Bonaventure
No. 3 Tennessee vs No. 14 Abilene Christian
No. 6 Oklahoma State vs. No. 11 BYU
No. 2 Illinois vs. No. 15 Georgia State
No. 7 Colorado vs. No. 10 Clemson
Stock Up: Illinois Fighting Illini (Up One Seed Line)
11-5, NET: 5, KenPom: 7
Thirteen of Illinois' 16 games have come against the top two Quadrants, including a 5-4 record against Quadrant 1. The most impressive of those five wins came this past Friday against Iowa.
It was a fantastic back-and-forth affair, bound to end with the winner entering February with a strong case for a No. 1 seed. The Illini did a great job of neutralizing Luka Garza (19 points on 18 shots with just four rebounds and four fouls) and got mighty fine performances from its "other" guys. Trent Frazier scored 24 points, Jacob Grandison got his first double-double with the Illini and freshman Andre Curbelo thrived off the bench with eight points and eight assists.
No rest for the weary, though. Six of the eight remaining games on Illinois' schedule are also Quadrant 1 affairs, beginning Tuesday night at Indiana. If the Illini can win three of those games (as well as the home games against Nebraska and Northwestern), they should be looking at no worse than a No. 2 seed on Selection Sunday.
Stock Down: Colorado Buffaloes (Down Two Seed Lines)
13-5, NET: 20, KenPom: 18
Colorado's fall from grace continued this week with a home loss to Utah in which the Buffaloes blew a 19-point lead in the final nine minutes.
It was Colorado's second Quadrant 3 loss in less than two weeks, pairing with an ugly mishap at NET No. 203 Washington on Jan. 20. And those two losses juxtaposed with a 1-3 record in Quadrant 1 games is not boding well for the Buffaloes' projected seed.
Their metrics are still impressive, because as we've noted in weeks past, Colorado has a lot of "bad" wins by "impressive" margins. Its six worst wins from a NET perspective were by a combined 171 points (28.5 per game), and 11 of its 13 wins have been by double digits. Who you've beaten (and lost to) is more important than the margins, though, and Colorado is lacking in that regard. A home sweep of the Arizona schools is a near-must if the Buffs want to stay in the mix for what would be the first No. 7 or better in program history.
Dream Second-Round Matchup: Baylor vs. Drake
Bending the rules a bit here by projecting into the second round, but come on. There has been nonstop clamoring for undefeated Baylor vs. undefeated Gonzaga for the national championship, yet there's Drake still sitting at 17-0, too. Granted, the Bulldogs would probably get something closer to a No. 4 seed if they actually enter the NCAA tournament with a perfect record intact. Even if both teams end up suffering a loss before then, though, would be fun to see a battle between two of the teams who made it into February with an unblemished record.
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 Morgan State / Prairie View A&M
No. 8 Connecticut vs. No. 9 Minnesota
No. 4 Missouri vs. No. 13 Western Kentucky
No. 5 Texas Tech vs. No. 12 Wright State
No. 3 Iowa vs. No. 14 Winthrop
No. 6 USC vs. No. 11 LSU
No. 2 Texas vs. No. 15 Vermont
No. 7 Xavier vs. No. 10 San Diego State
Stock Up: San Diego State Aztecs (Up One Seed Line)
12-4, NET: 28, KenPom: 25
Neither San Diego State's recent schedule (two games at Air Force; two games vs. Wyoming) nor its upcoming schedule (two games vs. New Mexico; two games vs. San Jose State) is impressing anyone. But at least the Aztecs have bounced back nicely from the poor offensive performances in their losses at Utah State.
Remember all those years under Steve Fisher when it often felt like the Aztecs couldn't hit water in the ocean on offense? SDSU's last four wins have come by an average score of 93.5 to 62.0, and it has four regulars shooting better than 40 percent from three-point range on the season. As a team, the Aztecs shot 49.5 percent (51-of-103) from distance in those four wins, as well as 59.7 percent (86-of-144) from inside the arc.
Again, the level of competition faced didn't do much to move the needle, but those four wins did bring the Aztecs slightly back from the bubble cliff. They had better win the next four in order to stay there.
Stock Down: Minnesota Golden Gophers (Down One Seed Line)
11-6, NET: 49, KenPom: 40
While teams like Colorado and San Diego State have inflated their metrics with blowout wins against no-name opponents, Minnesota has gone the opposite direction by getting repeatedly smoked by tournament-caliber foes.
It looked like the Golden Gophers were finally going to get their first road win of the season this past weekend. They jumped out to a 24-10 lead at Purdue and were still up by four just four minutes into the second half. Things got ugly in a hurry from there, as the Boilermakers quickly surged ahead by a dozen and went on to win by 19.
Each of Minnesota's six losses (at Michigan, at Illinois, at Iowa, at Wisconsin, at Purdue, vs. Maryland) was by at least 12 points. The combined scoring margin in those games was 112 points.
The Gophers are still in great shape to dance, since they have home wins over Michigan, Iowa, Ohio State and Saint Louis and since not one of their losses was particularly bad. (Bad margins, yes; bad boolean outcomes, no.) But if they remain incapable of winning away from home, they might end up somewhere in the No. 11 seed range.
Dream First-Round Matchup: Iowa vs. Winthrop
You like points? You want at least 200 of them? We could get something in that vicinity if Iowa (one of the most efficient offenses in the nation) draws Winthrop (one of the fastest-paced offenses in the nation) in a defense-optional first-round game. Granted, I would expect Iowa to score at least 110 of those 200 points in a somewhat comfortable victory, but this would be a fun shooting contest.
Ranking the No. 1 Seeds
No. 4 Villanova Wildcats
11-1, NET: 7, KenPom: 6
Houston finished off a season sweep of SMU with a 22-point beatdown on Sunday afternoon, closing the gap behind Villanova for the final No. 1 seed. But because Villanova's best win (at Texas) is a little better than Houston's (Texas Tech on a neutral court) and because Villanova's loss (Virginia Tech on a neutral court) is a little more forgivable than Houston's (at Tulsa), we're sticking with the Wildcats for now.
Just know that with Alabama, Iowa, Texas and Virginia all suffering a loss in the past seven days, the Cougars have stepped into the on-deck circle for if and when a spot opens up.
As far as Villanova is concerned, the Wildcats looked like their pre-pause usual selves in making 10 triples in an 80-72 road win over Seton Hall this past weekend.
That had been an extremely difficult road trip for Villanova over the past six years. The Wildcats lost at Seton Hall in 2015 and 2019, won by two last year, won by one in 2016 and won by one in overtime in 2018. For them to never trail in an eight-point victory in Newark may have been the clearest sign yet that this team needs to be taken seriously as a title contender.
No. 3 Michigan Wolverines
13-1, NET: 3, KenPom: 3
Michigan is still in a COVID-19 pause and isn't expected to play its next game until (at the earliest) Feb. 11 against Illinois.
What a challenging return to action that would be for the Wolverines, but what a thrilling "Winner exits the game as a projected No. 1 seed" battle it would be for bracketology purposes. For Michigan's sake, here's hoping it's able to return from a pause as well as Villanova and Florida State did—or at least not as horrendously as Michigan State and Clemson did.
No. 2 Baylor Bears
16-0, NET: 1, KenPom: 2
No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs
17-0, NET: 2, KenPom: 1
The Bears are inching ever so close to taking the No. 1 overall seed away from the Zags.
From a bird's eye view, the resumes are close to identical at this point. Each team has five Quadrant 1 wins, two Quadrant 2 wins and four Quadrant 3 wins. Gonzaga's collection of top-notch victories is still slightly better than Baylor's, but it's only a matter of time before that changes if the Bears can keep that undefeated record intact for another couple weeks.
With regions and pods out of the equation this year, though, the order doesn't really matter. As long as they remain No. 1 and No. 2 (or No. 1 and No. 3) on the overall seed list, they'll still be on a national championship collision course. And considering they went 4-0 this week by a combined margin of 110 points, there's no good reason to assume that will change any time soon.
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 (2): 36. Saint Louis; 46. St. Bonaventure; 70. Richmond
Atlantic Coast (7): 12. Virginia; 18. Florida State; 25. Virginia Tech; 30. Louisville; 37. North Carolina; 38. Clemson; 48. Syracuse; 73. Duke
Big 12 (7): 2. Baylor; 8. Texas; 13. Oklahoma; 14. West Virginia; 17. Texas Tech; 21. Kansas; 24. Oklahoma State*
Big East (4): 4. Villanova; 19. Creighton; 28. Xavier; 29. Connecticut; 71. Seton Hall
Big Ten (10): 3. Michigan; 6. Illinois; 10. Ohio State; 11. Iowa; 15. Wisconsin; 20. Purdue; 34. Minnesota; 35. Rutgers; 41. Maryland; 45. Indiana; 69. Penn State; 72. Michigan State
Missouri Valley (2): 32. Drake; 43. Loyola-Chicago
Mountain West (3): 33. Boise State; 39. San Diego State; 47. Colorado State
Pac-12 (4): 23. USC; 26. Colorado; 27. UCLA; 31. Oregon
Southeastern (6): 7. Alabama; 9. Tennessee; 16. Missouri; 22. Florida; 40. Arkansas; 42. LSU
West Coast (2): 1. Gonzaga; 44. BYU
Other (20): 49. Toledo; 50. Wright State; 51. Western Kentucky; 52. Belmont; 53. Colgate; 54. UC Santa Barbara; 55. Furman; 56. Winthrop; 57. Abilene Christian; 58. Liberty; 59. Vermont; 60. South Dakota State; 61. Grand Canyon; 62. Georgia State; 63. Weber State; 64. Siena; 65 Northeastern; 66. Bryant; 67. Prairie View A&M; 68. Morgan 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.