2021 March Madness Title Odds for Top Men's Contenders Entering March
It's been an unusual college basketball season, from dozens of COVID-19 cancellations to blue bloods like Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State all falling well short of expectations.
The result should be more parity than ever in this year's NCAA tournament, but there are still a handful of teams who have separated themselves from the pack as the clear favorites to contend for this year's national championship.
Baylor and Gonzaga sit atop the college basketball world with undefeated records and stacked rosters, followed closely by the Big Ten Conference trio of Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois. While it's up for debate who the best team in the country is beyond those five, Villanova is a worthy addition to the national title conversation as well.
Ahead you'll find our odds for those six teams and the field to win the 2021 NCAA tournament.
The Field (Odds: 4-1)
Before we get rolling on the leading individual contenders, the odds need to be set for the rest of the field.
The math worked out to roughly 4-1 odds, and that feels about right for a deep group of second-tier contenders capable of shaking things up.
Upstart Alabama under second-year coach Nate Oats, Iowa led by National Player of the Year candidate Luka Garza and a Houston Cougars team that started the year 15-1 before losing two of their last five are among the teams to watch as potential championship contenders.
There's also always a chance a high-major team like Kansas or Oklahoma could get hot at the right time or a Cinderella story like Loyola-Chicago could go on another improbable run.
Now let's move to the six teams we view as the top contenders for the 2021 title.
Villanova Wildcats (Odds: 15-1)
Record: 15-3 (10-2 in the Big East)
With Villanova and Creighton as the only NCAA tournament locks while Xavier, Seton Hall and UConn are all squarely on the bubble, it's been a down year for the Big East.
That could hurt Villanova's case for a No. 1 seed since they've played just three Quadrant 1 games, one of which was a loss to Creighton on the road.
However, it doesn't take away from their profile as title contenders.
All five starters are averaging in double figures for the Wildcats, and while they are not the same elite three-point shooting team they were in 2016 or 2018, they are still knocking down almost 10 threes per game on 37.7 percent shooting.
Creighton exposed them a bit earlier this month in an 86-70 loss, shooting 59.3 percent from the field while limiting the Wildcats to just 10-of-32 from deep.
They will need to find another gear defensively and see their threes fall to have a shot, but there's enough talent for them to make another March Madness run.
Illinois Fighting Illini (Odds: 12-1)
Record: 17-6 (13-4 in the Big Ten)
The Illinois Fighting Illini will go as far as the superstar duo of Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn can carry them.
That's a double-edged sword, as we saw on Tuesday night.
With Dosunmu (6-of-18, 17 points) and Cockburn (5-of-11, 13 points) both having off nights on the offensive end, the Illini trailed by 10 at halftime against Michigan State and they were unable to close the gap in a nine-point loss.
Michigan State is better than its 7-9 conference record indicates, but the loss was still a jarring reminder of how susceptible the Illini will be to an upset if those two are not on their game.
Of course, the other side of that is that when those two are playing up to their potential, the Illini can look unstoppable at times, as they did during a seven-game winning streak leading up to the Michigan State loss.
Senior Trent Frazier stepped up and shouldered the scoring load against the Spartans with 22 points, and he's capable of being that third guy. Freshmen guards Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo and junior post Giorgi Bezhanishvili need to do their part for this team to reach the Final Four.
Note: Dosunmu missed Thursday's game against Nebraska with a facial injury suffered in the Michigan State game. These title odds are assuming he returns in time for the NCAA tournament.
Ohio State Buckeyes (Odds: 10-1)
Record: 18-6 (12-6 in the Big Ten)
The Ohio State Buckeyes entered Thursday having played a staggering 13 Quad 1 games this season, thanks in part to a stacked Big Ten, posting a 9-4 record with road wins against Illinois and Iowa to headline their resume.
Even in a loss to Michigan this past weekend, they made a statement by scoring 87 points, which stands as the season high for points allowed by a terrific Wolverines defense.
With E.J. Liddell (15.9 PPG) and Duane Washington Jr. (15.6 PPG) headlining a well-balanced offense that is not overly reliant on the three ball, they are capable of putting up points on any team in the country.
The question is whether they can slow elite teams down defensively.
Despite their solid record, they entered Thursday allowing 74.5 points per game in Quad 1 matchups, with five of those opponents eclipsing the 80-point mark and Michigan pouring in a season-high 92 on Sunday.
It has gotten them this far, but the race to 80 points is a recipe for disaster, and they will need to buckle down on the defensive end to make a title push.
Michigan Wolverines (Odds: 7-1)
Record: 17-1 (12-1 in the Big Ten)
Despite the fact that freshman big man Hunter Dickinson is the team's leading scorer, the Michigan Wolverines are an experienced group with five seniors and one junior in a rotation of eight players who average at least 10 minutes per game.
The 7'1", 255-pound Dickinson is flourishing as a traditional post, averaging 15.0 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game while shooting 63.9 percent from the field.
He's joined in shouldering the offensive load by three-point marksman Isaiah Livers, who is shooting 42.9 percent from beyond the arc on 91 attempts and averaging 14.4 points per contest.
Sophomore Franz Wagner (12.4 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 3.0 APG) joins them in averaging double figures, and he is one of the finalists for Naismith Defensive Player of the Year honors.
As a team, the Wolverines are holding opponents to 38.5 percent shooting from the field, good for the fifth-lowest mark in the nation. They also hold one of the best rebounding margins in the country.
Those two major strengths will be the foundation of their NCAA tournament run.
Baylor Bears (Odds: 4-1)
Record: 18-0 (10-0 in Big 12)
Playing their first game in three weeks following a COVID-19 outbreak, the Baylor Bears nearly suffered the biggest upset of the college basketball season when they squeaked out a 77-72 victory over Iowa State (2-17) at home on Tuesday.
Assuming they can shake off the rust in the coming weeks, this team has shown the ability to contend for a title with a lights-out collection of shooters and a bona fide superstar in senior guard Jared Butler.
The Bears have four players in the regular rotation shooting at least 44.0 percent from beyond the arc, and their 43.2 percent clip as a team leads the nation. That alone makes them extremely dangerous in the NCAA tournament, as they are not overly reliant on one shooter.
Baylor has six Quad 1 wins, including a convincing 82-69 neutral-site victory over fellow title contender Illinois in December.
The Bears' most recent high-profile win came earlier this month when they beat a very good Texas team by 14 points on the road, knocking down 11 of 21 attempts from deep while forcing 15 turnovers on the defensive end.
They're not a good free-throw shooting team (.705) and they're a bit undersized, but those are nitpicky issues for a team with clear championship potential.
Gonzaga Bulldogs (Odds: 3-1)
Record: 23-0 (14-0 in WCC)
The Gonzaga Bulldogs can beat you in so many ways.
Sophomore forward Drew Timme is a handful in the post, using his 6'10" frame well to average 19.1 points and 7.1 rebounds per game while shooting an extremely efficient 64.9 percent from the field.
Senior forward Corey Kispert might be the best shooter in the country, connecting on 45.7 percent of his shots from beyond the arc on his way to 19.0 points per game.
Freshman Jalen Suggs was a 5-star recruit and the No. 11 overall player in the 2020 recruiting class, per 247Sports' composite, and he has shown the full toolbox of skills while averaging 14.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.0 steals per game.
Joel Ayayi (11.3 points, 3.2 assists) and Andrew Nembhard (9.4 points, 4.4 assists) are both smart ball-handlers with an assist-to-turnover ratio above 2.0 and the ability to score the basketball when needed.
They have seven Quad 1 wins and six of them have come by double figures, and they really haven't been tested since December. That speaks to their dominance, but the lack of competitive games recently could lead to a culture shock during the tournament.
This is the team to beat.
All stats courtesy of Sports Reference and accurate through Wednesday's games.