2021 Men's NCAA Tournament Bracket: Latest Projection of the Field of 68
With less than five weeks remaining until Selection Sunday, undefeated Baylor has overtaken undefeated Gonzaga for the projected No. 1 overall seed in the 2021 men's NCAA tournament. Joining the Bears and Zags on this week's No. 1 seed line are the Big Ten's Michigan and Illinois.
In addition to the two projected No. 1 seeds, the Big Ten has a grand total of 10 teams projected to dance, plus an 11th (Penn State) that would have a fantastic case for a bid if it didn't have a losing record.
Despite all those Big Ten teams, it's looking likely that the Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley, Mountain West and West Coast Conferences will each send at least two teams to the tournament. Both the A-10 and MWC have four teams in the mix, so there should be an atypical amount of mid-major bubble drama over the course of the next month.
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 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 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. 8.
Last Five In
Last Team In: Richmond Spiders
10-4, NET: 51, KenPom: 53
Richmond hasn't played since Jan. 26, and the Spiders were our second team out one week ago. But someone had to end up in this spot. With Boise State getting swept by Nevada and Syracuse (last team in one week ago) getting blown out by Clemson, congrats to Richmond, which has a neutral-court victory over Loyola-Chicago and road wins over Kentucky and Davidson. Home losses to La Salle and Hofstra are problematic to say the least, but those quality wins are better than most teams on the bubble can boast.
Second-to-Last In: St. Bonaventure Bonnies
9-2, NET: 40, KenPom: 51
The Bonnies blew a huge opportunity at Saint Louis this past weekend. It was a one-point game with eight minutes remaining, but they ended up losing by 11. With just two losses and solid wins over Richmond and VCU, though, they're still in solid bubble shape. They have a big road game against VCU coming up Friday. The winner of that game will be in decent-to-good position for an at-large bid, but the loser might need to earn the A-10's automatic bid.
Third-to-Last In: LSU Tigers
11-6, NET: 42, KenPom: 43
After a 10-2 start, LSU has lost four of its last five games and doesn't have a signature victory on its resume—unless you mistakenly think a home win over Arkansas or a road win over Ole Miss is a signature victory. Assuming the six remaining games on their schedule get played, the Tigers probably need to go 5-1 the rest of the way in order to have a realistic argument for a bid.
Fourth-to-Last In: Colorado State Rams
13-4, NET: 47, KenPom: 70
KenPom clearly isn't a fan of the Rams, but they went 1-1 against each of the Mountain West's other three contenders (Boise State, San Diego State and Utah State) and haven't suffered anything close to a bad loss. As long as they can keep the latter half of that true, that's probably good enough this year. They could maybe survive losing one of their two road games against Nevada later this month, though I wouldn't recommend it.
Fifth-to-Last In: Seton Hall Pirates
11-8, NET: 45, KenPom: 32
'Twas a huge week for the Pirates, who picked up road wins over both Providence and Connecticut to move a bit further away from .500 overall. Now, can they finish the fight? Their five remaining scheduled games—vs. Marquette, vs. DePaul, at Georgetown, vs. Connecticut, at St. John's—are all games they should win. A 4-1 record in those matchups to enter the Big East tournament 15-9 overall would probably do the trick.
First Five Out
First Team Out: Penn State Nittany Lions
7-8, NET: 28, KenPom: 30
Lather, rinse and repeat the message from one week ago: Penn State would be in the field based on its predictive analytics...if sub-.500 teams were allowed to receive at-large bids. The Nittany Lions lost at Wisconsin on Tuesday night before a home win over Maryland on Friday to remain just below .500. They are now a respectable 3-7 in Quadrant 1 games, but playing 13 out of 15 games against teams in the NET Top 50 has been quite the challenge.
Their next two games (at Michigan State; vs. Nebraska) are pretty much must-win affairs, or else they would need to get hot against a tough closing stretch just to enter the Big Ten tournament at 11-11 overall.
Second Team Out: Stanford Cardinal
12-7, NET: 57, KenPom: 49
Stanford suffered a heartbreaking loss to USC last Tuesday, blowing a game in which it led for most of the night despite playing without one star (Ziaire Williams) and getting a lackluster performance from its other (Oscar da Silva). That loss dropped the Cardinal to 2-5 against Quadrant 1 and just 10-7 overall.
Fortunately, one of those two wins was an 18-point neutral-site victory over Alabama, none of the seven losses was particularly bad and at least they bounced back with two consecutive wins over California. Big one coming up against Colorado this Thursday. Win that home game against the Buffaloes, and Stanford will very likely slide into next week's projected field.
Third Team Out: Boise State Broncos
13-4, NET: 36, KenPom: 63
The Broncos are imploding. After a 12-1 start, they split a two-game series with Colorado State and then were swept at Nevada last weekend. In both losses to the Wolf Pack, it seemed like they were either in control or starting to gain control midway through the second half, only to fall apart down the stretch. Boise State now has just a 2-4 record against the top two quadrants and needs to finish strong to have any hope of dancing.
Fourth Team Out: Utah State Aggies
13-5, NET: 49, KenPom: 47
Part of Boise State's mandatory strong finish includes two home games against Utah State on Feb. 17 and 19. The Aggies are desperately clinging to at-large hopes that took a huge hit in that loss to UNLV two weeks ago. One road win over Boise State would at least keep them in the mix for a bid. A road sweep of the Broncos would be massive. They need to first survive two home games against Wyoming this week, though.
Fifth Team Out: VCU Rams
13-4, NET: 41, KenPom: 57
The Rams narrowly eked out a one-point win at Rhode Island last week, which was their best victory since beating both Utah State and Memphis in the Bad Boy Mowers Classic back in November. That win also somewhat made up for a 15-point home loss to Rhode Island last month, which was the only remotely bad loss VCU has suffered this season.
The A-10 is where the bubble action is at this season. Saint Louis is hovering at a No. 10 seed, Richmond and St. Bonaventure are among our last teams in and here's VCU just a few spots outside the cut line. It should be an intriguing finish, particularly with VCU scheduled to face each of the other three within the next two weeks.
No. 1 Illinois vs. No. 16 Weber State
No. 8 North Carolina vs. No. 9 Florida
No. 4 Texas Tech 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 Villanova vs. No. 15 Grand Canyon
No. 7 Loyola-Chicago vs. No. 10 Maryland
Stock Up: Loyola-Chicago Ramblers (Up Four Seed Lines)
15-3, NET: 14, KenPom: 14
As far as the metrics are concerned, Loyola-Chicago is every bit as good as Villanova, Tennessee and Texas Tech. But as far as quality wins are concerned, the Ramblers are a bubble team, at best.
Up until now, I've defaulted to the latter, assuming that, eventually, with enough data points, Loyola-Chicago would slide backward in both NET and KenPom. After all, this team has only played one Quadrant 1 game, and it was a 14-point loss at Wisconsin.
Yet, here we are with nearly a full season's worth of data points and the predictive analytics still say this is a top-15 team.
Let's split the difference between "top 15" and "bubble" and call the Ramblers a No. 7 seed for now, and congratulate them on a season full of blowout wins.
All but two of Loyola-Chicago's wins were by double digits, and even the exceptions were victories by at least three possessions (65-58 at Bradley; 57-49 vs. North Texas). The Ramblers' current 10-game winning streak has come by a combined margin of 193 points.
And now they finally get a chance to prove how good they are with a two-game set at 18-1 Drake over Valentine's Day weekend. A split of that series would leave the Ramblers in good shape for an at-large bid.
Stock Down: Florida Gators (Down Three Seed Lines)
10-5, NET: 30, KenPom: 29
Florida's last six games have made no sense.
Three days after a bad loss to Mississippi State, the Gators pummeled Tennessee 75-49. Factoring in margin, it was perhaps one of the 10 most impressive wins in this entire season. Then after relatively close calls against Georgia and Vanderbilt, the Gators went on the road and picked up a stunning win over West Virginia. But then they came back home and lost to South Carolina.
The overall impact of those six games is a slight positive, so they are in better shape today (No. 33 overall) than they were at the start of that journey (No. 40 overall). However, the only leg of that sextet played in the past seven days was the Quadrant 3 loss to South Carolina, so Florida's stock is way down since the last projection.
I would assume they'll win the home game against Texas A&M this coming Saturday to wind up in a similar position next week. Then again, I assumed they would lose to West Virginia and beat South Carolina, so who knows?
Dream First-Round Matchup: Loyola-Chicago vs. Maryland
Fourteen of Maryland's games have been of the Quadrant 1 variety, in which the Terrapins have a 4-10 record. And then there's Loyola-Chicago, whose best wins of the season were against NET No. 110 Missouri State. Would be fun to have the "beloved in the metrics because it consistently blows out bad teams" Ramblers immediately square off with one of the most battle-tested teams in the nation.
No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 16 Hofstra
No. 8 UCLA vs. No. 9 Arkansas
No. 4 Missouri vs. No. 13 Toledo
No. 5 Iowa vs. No. 12 Western Kentucky
No. 3 West Virginia vs. No. 14 Furman
No. 6 Creighton vs. No. 11 Indiana
No. 2 Houston vs. No. 15 South Dakota State
No. 7 Louisville vs. No. 10 Saint Louis
Stock Up: Arkansas Razorbacks (Up One Seed Line)
14-5, NET: 29, KenPom: 26
Arkansas only played one game in the past seven days, and it was a rather inconsequential home win over Mississippi State. But the Razorbacks benefited from losses by a bunch of teams who were previously in the Nos. 8-10 seed range. Connecticut, Oregon and Boise State plummeted. Minnesota and Saint Louis slipped a little bit. That paved the way for a nice bump to Arkansas' seed.
Though they're on the rise this week, it bears mentioning that the Razorbacks remain prone to major swings moving forward because of a resume devoid of both good wins and bad losses.
Their metrics are solid, and their worst loss was a road game against current bubble team LSU. However, their best win of the season was a road game against Auburn 10 days before star freshman Sharife Cooper was ruled eligible for the Tigers.
Arkansas has road games against Kentucky and Missouri this coming week. Win both of those contests could see them vaulting up to a No. 6 seed in our next projection. Lose them both, though, and the Hogs might drop out of the field altogether.
If you like to see the best players in the NCAA tournament, root for the former. Moses Moody is a consensus projected lottery pick, and it would be fun to see him on the sport's biggest stage before he leaves.
Stock Down: Iowa Hawkeyes (Down Two Seed Lines)
13-6, NET: 9, KenPom: 5
It wasn't a terrible week for the Hawkeyes. In fact, they broke even in total points, beating Michigan State by six before losing to Ohio State and Indiana by four and two, respectively.
But it has gotten to the point where we have to ask: What has this team actually accomplished this season?
Iowa eked out a road win over Rutgers, and that's about as good as it gets. Luka Garza and Co. weren't all that close in their big opportunity against Gonzaga, and they were outplayed down the stretch in their chances against Illinois and Ohio State. Throw in a season sweep at the hands of Indiana and the overtime loss at Minnesota on Christmas, and it's hard to argue they deserve a spot on the top four seed lines, regardless of how good the metrics are.
Iowa still has road games remaining against Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin, too, so this super-efficient offense could wind up as a No. 7 seed with nine or 10 losses.
Dream First-Round Matchup: UCLA vs. Arkansas
You would think at some point in the past quarter-century, these programs would have crossed paths. But you would be wrong. UCLA and Arkansas haven't squared off since the O'Bannon brothers and the Bruins defeated Corliss Williamson and the Razorbacks in the 1995 national championship.
No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 16 Morgan State / Prairie View A&M
No. 8 Clemson vs. No. 9 Minnesota
No. 4 Wisconsin vs. No. 13 Colgate
No. 5 USC vs. No. 12 Wright State
No. 3 Virginia vs. No. 14 Liberty
No. 6 Kansas vs. No. 11 Oregon
No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 15 Vermont
No. 7 Xavier vs. No. 10 San Diego State
Stock Up: Clemson Tigers (Up Two Seed Lines)
12-5, NET: 46, KenPom: 46
Fun fact: Six of Clemson's last seven games have been decided by at least 13 points.
The first four of those games were blowout losses, which sent the Tigers free-falling from 19th to 61st in the KenPom rankings in the space of just 15 days. But in the past week, they have turned things around in a big way with a 13-point win over North Carolina and a 17-point victory over Syracuse.
In the first, they held the Tar Heels to just 50 points, which is basically unheard of. UNC had scored at least 66 points in every other game this season, and then it turned around and dropped 91 on Duke over the weekend. But defense was Clemson's calling card for the first 10 games of the season, and it was nice to see things clicking on that end of the floor again.
In the second game, they had a -12 turnover margin yet still managed to blow out the Orange. Clemson shot 43.5 percent from three-point range, while Syracuse shot just 32.5 percent inside the arc. Clemson also grabbed almost 50 percent of possible offensive rebounds. That's one way to make up for sloppy ball-handling.
The Tigers are now 3-5 against Quadrant 1 and 5-0 against Quadrant 2. If their metrics weren't still hovering in the 50 range, their seed would be much better. But at least they're on the mend.
For what it's worth, Clemson entered Sunday at No. 9 in the no-longer-relevant RPI. All eight teams with a better RPI are No. 4 seeds or better.
Stock Down: Oregon Ducks (Down Three Seed Lines)
10-4, NET: 58, KenPom: 42
Washington State entered Thursday's road game against Oregon with an 0-7 record against teams in the KenPom Top 100. With the exception of a double-overtime home game against Arizona—when the Cougars were 8-0 and the Wildcats had just self-imposed a postseason ban—none of those matchups was even close.
Nevertheless, they went into Eugene and handed the Ducks their second consecutive Quadrant 3 loss. And that's no bueno for a team whose best win of the year was a neutral-site game against Seton Hall.
The Ducks were in excellent shape in early January, but a 2-3 record since then leaves them with much work to do. They almost have to win at least two of the next three at Arizona State, at Arizona and vs. Colorado. If they don't, the Pac-12 might be a three-bid league this year.
Dream First-Round Matchup: Virginia vs. Liberty
Calling this a dream scenario might be a bit much, since these are annually two of the slowest-paced teams in the country. This legitimately could be a 50-possession affair. But I'm always a fan of master vs. apprentice sorts of affairs. Ritchie McKay had more than a decade of head-coaching experience when he left Liberty in 2009 to become Tony Bennett's associate head coach for six seasons. He then went back to Liberty with a better understanding of how to defend and force opponents to play at a slower pace. It would make for an intriguing chess match.
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 Bryant / Texas State
No. 8 Rutgers vs. No. 9 Drake
No. 4 Oklahoma vs. No. 13 Belmont
No. 5 Purdue vs. No. 12 LSU / Richmond
No. 3 Texas vs. No. 14 Winthrop
No. 6 Virginia Tech vs. No. 11 Seton Hall
No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 15 Siena
No. 7 Colorado vs. No. 10 Connecticut
Stock Up: Rutgers Scarlet Knights (Up One Seed Line)
11-6, NET: 25, KenPom: 24
Not many teams can sputter through a five-game losing streak and still make the NCAA tournament, but Rutgers has rallied from its brutal three-week start to January with a four-game winning streak. The Scarlet Knights now appear to be in with some room to spare.
The most recent win in that stretch was an impressive come-from-behind 76-72 victory over Minnesota. Myles Johnson filled up the box score (per usual) with 14 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks, two steals and two assists. The big man has quietly been the most valuable player for Rutgers, particularly on the defensive end of the floor.
If the Scarlet Knights expect to keep that winning streak alive, they'll need an extra special effort from Johnson during Wednesday night's road game against Iowa. The Hawkeyes have lost four of their last five games, but Luka Garza has scored at least 16 points in every game this season. That includes 25 points on just 11 field-goal attempts in Iowa's road win over Rutgers on Jan. 2.
A win in that game would be massive for the Scarlet Knights. But even if they can't pull it off, they'll be fine as long as they win the subsequent home game against Northwestern.
Stock Down: Connecticut Huskies (Down Two Seed Lines)
8-4, NET: 53, KenPom: 34
Less than a month ago, Connecticut was 7-1, had climbed into the AP Top 25 and appeared to be in good shape for a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Since then, home losses to St. John's and Seton Hall have caused major problems for a team with only 12 games played.
Worse yet, Connecticut's second-best win of the season (at Marquette) has lost a lot of value as the Golden Eagles have bottomed out over the past few weeks. At this point, the Huskies have a neutral-site victory over USC and little else to their credit.
The good news is they're finally getting healthy. Andre Jackson—the star of UConn's 2020 recruiting class—played on Saturday after missing the previous seven games. And the Huskies' biggest star, James Bouknight, should be back within the next week after being out since early January with an elbow injury.
The bad news is they have almost no margin for error. They have two remaining games scheduled against Providence, two against Georgetown and a home matchup against Marquette, each of which is just about a must-win proposition at this point. On top of that, they might need to win at least one of the remaining road games against Villanova, Xavier and Seton Hall.
Dream First-Round Matchup: Rutgers vs. Drake
Drake went to the Final Four in 1969. Rutgers got there in 1976. But in the past 37 years, they have a combined record of 0-3 in the NCAA tournament. (Rutgers made it in 1989 and 1991; Drake danced in 2008.) It would be pretty cool for one of those teams to end their drought for the right to face a No. 1 seed.
Ranking the No. 1 Seeds
No. 4 Illinois Fighting Illini (13-5, NET: 4, KenPom: 4)
It was quite the tumultuous week in the race for the fourth No. 1 seed. Villanova lost to St. John's. Houston lost to East Carolina. Alabama lost to Missouri. Texas lost to Oklahoma State. Tennessee lost to Ole Miss. Those teams were Nos. 4, 5, 7, 8 and 9, respectively on my overall seed list one week ago.
So, congratulations to last week's No. 6 overall seed, Illinois, for being the one team to actually survive the week.
Not only did the Illini hold serve, they added to their already impressive stockpile of Quadrant 1 wins with victories over Indiana and Wisconsin. Ayo Dosunmu struggled in the overtime game against the Hoosiers, but he bounced back in a massive way with 21 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists in the 15-point victory over the Badgers. Kofi Cockburn had a double-double in both games.
The Illini are now 7-4 in Quadrant 1 games. The only other teams in the country with at least six such victories are Baylor, Gonzaga and Ohio State.
The Buckeyes do have a nation-best eight Quadrant 1 wins, including a road win over Illinois. That perhaps should have been enough to put them ahead of Illinois on the overall seed list. However, Baylor, Gonzaga, Michigan and Illinois are Nos. 1-4 in both NET and KenPom, so we'll just go with that for the time being.
No. 3 Michigan Wolverines (13-1, NET: 3, KenPom: 3)
Michigan has been in a COVID-19 pause for more than two weeks now, and by the time it plays its next scheduled game (at Wisconsin on Feb. 14), it will have been 23 days since its last game.
Some teams have come out of those lengthy pauses looking no worse for wear; others have been all out of sync on both ends of the floor. But the top-tier teams (Gonzaga, Villanova and Florida State, in particular) have landed in the former camp, and Michigan is definitely a top-tier team.
We'll see how the Wolverines respond, but let's be sure to note that there's minimal margin for error if they want to remain on the top line. Lengthy pause or not, there are several other Big Ten teams clamoring for this spot, including Michigan's Valentine's Day foe.
(Just to be clear, Wisconsin would not jump to a No. 1 seed by winning that game, but the Badgers could still end the season on the top line if they were to win out.)
No. 2 Gonzaga Bulldogs (19-0, NET: 2, KenPom: 1)
No. 1 Baylor Bears (17-0, NET: 1, KenPom: 2)
At long last, Baylor has overtaken Gonzaga for the No. 1 overall seed.
The mid-January road win over Texas Tech brought the Bears into the conversation. The 15-point road win over Oklahoma State one week later made it more of a toss-up. And the 14-point road win over Texas this past Tuesday pushed Baylor over the top.
Without question, Gonzaga put together the more arduous nonconference schedule, which is why the Zags were so far ahead of everyone about six weeks ago. But it was also inevitable that Baylor would bypass Gonzaga if both teams continued their winning ways. The Big 12 is loaded with quality wins, while the West Coast Conference is basically two months of hoping Gonzaga doesn't suffer a bad loss.
This race isn't over, of course. Baylor still has four brutal games remaining on its regular-season schedule (vs. Texas Tech, at Kansas, two games against West Virginia), and it would most likely only take one loss to re-open the door for Gonzaga to get the No. 1 overall seed.
But to reiterate a point I've been making for some time now: it doesn't matter. As long as Baylor and Gonzaga finish No. 1 and No. 2 (or No. 1 and No. 3) in some order, they wouldn't meet until the national championship. And with the entire tournament taking place in one city, it's not like one is fighting for a geographical advantage over the other. It's little more than a fun debate at this point.
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 (3): 38. Saint Louis; 47. St. Bonaventure; 48. Richmond; 73. VCU
Atlantic Coast (6): 9. Virginia; 19. Florida State; 23. Virginia Tech; 28. Louisville; 30. Clemson; 32. North Carolina
Big 12 (7): 1. Baylor; 11. West Virginia; 12. Texas; 13. Texas Tech; 15. Oklahoma; 22. Kansas; 24. Oklahoma State*
Big East (5): 6. Villanova; 21. Creighton; 26. Xavier; 37. Connecticut; 44. Seton Hall
Big Ten (10): 3. Michigan; 4. Illinois; 5. Ohio State; 16. Wisconsin; 17. Iowa; 20. Purdue; 29. Rutgers; 36. Minnesota; 40. Maryland; 41. Indiana; 69. Penn State
Missouri Valley (2): 27. Loyola-Chicago; 35. Drake
Mountain West (2): 39. San Diego State; 45. Colorado State; 71. Boise State; 72. Utah State
Pac-12 (4): 18. USC; 25. Colorado; 31. UCLA; 43. Oregon; 70. Stanford
Southeastern (6): 8. Alabama; 10. Tennessee; 14. Missouri; 33. Florida; 34. Arkansas; 46. LSU
West Coast (2): 2. Gonzaga; 42. BYU
Other (20): 49. Wright State; 50. Western Kentucky; 51. Belmont; 52. Toledo; 53. Colgate; 54. UC Santa Barbara; 55. Winthrop; 56. Abilene Christian; 57. Liberty; 58. Furman; 59. Vermont; 60. South Dakota State; 61. Grand Canyon; 62. Siena; 63. Weber State; 64. Hofstra; 65. Texas State; 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.