NCAA Tournament 2021: Power Ranking All 68 Teams
Selection Sunday has finally arrived, and with it the 2021 NCAA men's basketball tournament field has been set.
After months of arguing about NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings, KenPom.com ratings, quadrant-based records, strengths of schedule and the like, none of that junk matters anymore. There will, of course, be a few more hours or days of complaining about who got left out or unfairly seeded, but too bad, so sad. We've got our field, and it's time to move on to the real fun: picking the brackets.
Based on a combination of efficiency ratings, player talent, current roster health, regular-season success, biggest strengths, biggest weaknesses and gut feeling, we have ranked all 68 NCAA tournament teams.
Generally speaking, if you're trying to decide which team to pick in a particular matchup, the higher-ranked team would be our suggestion. There are certainly matchup-based exceptions, but the teams at the top of the list are the ones with the least troubling Achilles' heels. Thus, they are the ones most likely to reach the Final Four.
Before we dive in, a thank you must be extended to Joel Reuter. B/R's MLB power rankings guru was a huge help and contributed to this piece. He now knows more about the Cinderella candidates than 99 percent of the population. So if he tweets out a recommendation on a potential No. 14 over No. 3 upset, you might want to take it seriously.
68. Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers
Record: 12-10, 9-7 in NEC
How They Got Here: The Mountaineers are in the NCAA tournament field for the first time since 2017 and the sixth time in 33 years at the D-l level. The No. 4 seed in the NEC tournament, they had to go through No. 1 Wagner (66-60) and No. 2 Bryant (73-68) to secure the automatic bid, and it took handing Bryant its first home loss in the title game to secure their spot.
Reason to Believe: With an exasperatingly slow tempo and strong team defense, the Mountaineers held opponents to 61 or fewer points in 13 of their 22 games. No one scored 80 against them all year, including a tournament-bound Maryland team. Nana Opoku (10.3 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 2.0 BPG) won Defensive Player of the Year in the NEC, and he's blocked 143 shots in three seasons. It will be up to their defense to keep things within striking distance.
Reason to Worry: Slowing down the tempo might work in the NEC, but it's not going to work against a major conference opponent. They held Maryland below 80 points, but just barely in a 79-61 loss that was lopsided from the start. With seven Quad 3 and Quad 4 losses, including five to teams ranked outside the top 200 in NET, this looks an awful lot like an average team from a one-bid league. Do they have the offensive firepower to keep from getting blown out?
March Madness Ceiling: The Mountaineers have gone one-and-done in each of their first five tournament appearances, all of which have come as a No. 16 seed. Expect more of the same.
67. Texas Southern Tigers
Record: 16-8, 10-3 in SWAC
How They Got Here: After a three-point overtime win against Jackson State in the semifinals, Texas Southern left zero doubt Saturday in an 80-61 victory over No. 1 seed Prairie View A&M to close out the SWAC tournament. The Tigers are in the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in eight years and the first time under coach Johnny Jones.
Reason to Believe: Not many teams from a one-bid league played a nonconference schedule that included Oklahoma State, BYU, Auburn and Saint Mary's. The Tigers took their licks early, no question, but they have rattled off a 14-1 record in their last 15 games to enter March Madness on a roll. The Tigers are a strong defensive team that rebounds the ball extremely well, and they have an eight-man rotation made up entirely of upperclassmen.
Reason to Worry: Playing quality teams was a great way to gain some valuable experience, but there's no ignoring the fact that the Tigers lost by an average of 16 points in those four high-profile matchups. This is also one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country at just 27.9 percent on the year. They have a lot of big bodies and have dominated on the interior during conference play as a result, but that approach doesn't translate against a more talented opponent.
March Madness Ceiling: The Tigers lost big to No. 1 seed North Carolina (103-64) in 2017 and No. 1 seed Xavier (102-83) in 2018. Despite their momentum, a similar fate likely awaits them in this year's tournament.
66. Norfolk State Spartans
Record: 16-7, 8-4 in MEAC
How They Got Here: With only six teams in action for the MEAC tournament, wins over North Carolina Central (87-58) and Morgan State (71-63) were all it took for Norfolk State to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament field. The Spartans are dancing for the first time since 2012 when they pulled off an improbable upset and beat No. 2 seed Missouri.
Reason to Believe: The Spartans shoot a respectable 37.1 percent from three and average 75.1 points per game, so they are capable of putting points on the board. Sophomore guard Devante Carter (15.6 PPG) has been a consistent source of offense with double-digit points in 21 of 22 games, and there are eight different players averaging five points per game for a well-rounded offensive attack.
Reason to Worry: With five Quad 4 defeats and a 17-point blowout loss to the only NCAA tournament team they faced in UNC Greensboro, the Spartans undoubtedly have one of the worst resumes in the field. They are undersized with just one player over 6'6" in the regular rotation, and a 43.6 percent shooting percentage from the floor doesn't paint them as an efficient offensive squad.
March Madness Ceiling: The 2012 Norfolk State squad had a future NBA player to lean on in Kyle O'Quinn. This team doesn’t have that. Even if a lot goes right, it's hard to envision them pulling off a similar upset.
65. Hartford Hawks
Record: 15-8, 8-6 in AEC
How They Got Here: Despite the fact that the top-seeded teams in the America East tournament earn an automatic spot in the semifinals, it was No. 4 seed Hartford against No. 6 seed UMass Lowell facing off in Saturday's title game after a pair of upsets. Hartford came out on top with a 64-50 victory, earning its first-ever trip to the Big Dance in 37 years at the D-l level.
Reason to Believe: The Hawks managed to hold James Bouknight to 18 points on 7-of-15 shooting in 33 minutes of action in a season-opening 69-57 loss to Connecticut. That might not sound like much, but it's more than a lot of Big East teams were able to do this year. Opponents have shot just 29.3 percent from beyond the arc against them, good for the 14th-lowest mark in the nation, and that ability to close out on shooters could help them keep things close.
Reason to Worry: Credit the Hawks for mostly taking care of business against bottom-of-the-barrel opponents with an 11-1 record in Quad 4 games. However, the other end of that is just two wins against teams ranked inside the NET top 200. It's hard to see how they'll score enough to run with an elite team.
March Madness Ceiling: The long-awaited tournament berth is always a nice story, but their tournament stay is likely to be short-lived.
64. Appalachian State Mountaineers
Record: 17-11, 7-8 in Sun Belt
How They Got Here: Appalachian State won four games in four days in the Sun Belt tournament after not winning four games in a row at any point during the regular season. It took back-to-back overtime victories to get to the title game, and now the Mountaineers are going to the NCAA tournament.
Reason to Believe: The Mountaineers played Auburn tough back in December, trailing by just three points at halftime in a 67-53 loss. With six players on the team averaging at least eight points per game, they have a well-rounded offensive attack. Guard Michael Almonacy has been shouldering the load of late, averaging 19.1 points per game in his last seven and tallying a career-high 32 points in the conference championship game.
Reason to Worry: A 6-6 record in Quad 4 games is impossible to ignore, and three of those losses came during the month of February. The Mountaineers also only played one tournament-bound team this year, and it was a 41-point blowout loss to Tennessee on Dec. 15. They shoot just 32.4 percent from beyond the arc, which could make it difficult to keep things close against a more athletic opponent.
March Madness Ceiling: The Mountaineers may have made the dance for the first time since 2000, but the wait will continue for that first March Madness victory.
63. Eastern Washington Eagles
Record: 16-7, 12-3 in Big Sky
How They Got Here: Eastern Washington opened the season with three road games against Pac-12 foes and darn near upset both Washington State and Arizona. The Eagles also nearly won at Saint Mary's. And after starting out 3-6 against the tougher portion of the schedule, they closed strong with wins in 13 of their final 14 contests.
Reason to Believe: The little things are important in March, and Eastern Washington does a lot of the little things. This is a great free-throw shooting team, it rarely has shots blocked, it rarely commits turnovers or fouls and it does a good job on the defensive glass. And the Eagles do it all at a fast pace.
Reason to Worry: Eastern Washington was much more successful over the latter 60 percent of the season, but it also didn't face anyone in the KenPom Top 200 during that time. Will the little things against the Idahos and the Montanas actually translate against major-conference foes?
March Madness Ceiling: There have been many years when it felt like the Big Sky champ was a threat to reach the Sweet 16, but it never amounted to anything. So even though we could squint a little and see some Cinderella potential, an immediate exit is the most likely outcome, by far.
62. Cleveland State Vikings
Record: 19-7, 16-4 in Horizon
How They Got Here: The No. 1 seed in the Horizon League tournament, Cleveland State survived triple-overtime against Purdue Fort Wayne before knocking off Milwaukee and Oakland to punch their ticket to March Madness. It's their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2009, when they beat No. 4 seed Wake Forest by 15 points in the First Round.
Reason to Believe: The Vikings only lost by six points against Ohio State back on Dec. 13, and they fell by nine points to a solid Toledo squad (NET: 64) in their season opener. Yes, they were both losses, but it's a good indication they won't be completely outclassed in the tournament. Guard D'Moi Hodge poured in 46 points while burying 10 threes in a game earlier this year, and he's not even the team's leading scorer, so they do have some weapons offensively.
Reason to Worry: They may have some close calls against good teams and a Quad 1 win on the road against Wright State, but the Vikings were also demolished by Wright State (85-49) and Ohio (101-46) in their only other games above the Quad 3 level. It's also worth mentioning that leading scorer E.J. Liddell did not play in that early game against Ohio State. They also have a tendency to get into foul trouble as a team and can't afford to not have their best players on the floor for extended periods of time.
March Madness Ceiling: The Vikings have never lost their opening game in the NCAA tournament. Aside from the Wake Forest upset in '09, they also beat Bobby Knight and Indiana as a No. 14 seed in their only other trip to the dance in 1986. That trend is unlikely to continue in 2021.
61. Iona Gaels
Record: 12-5, 6-3 in MAAC
How They Got Here: The Gales didn't play a single game in the month of January, enduring a 51-day layoff because of a COVID-19 outbreak. As a result, they ended up with the No. 9 seed in the MAAC tournament, which meant four games in five days in the conference tournament. A 60-51 victory over No. 7 seed Fairfield in the title game earned them a trip to the NCAA tournament for the sixth time in 10 years.
Reason to Believe: After a 12-17 season last year, the Gaels have bounced back in a big way under new coach Rick Pitino, who is now just the third coach in history to lead five different teams to the NCAA tournament. Senior guard Isaiah Ross leads the way with 18.4 points per game and a 39.1 percent clip from beyond the arc, while the defense has limited opponents to 40.5 percent shooting from the field. The Gales also have good size and rank 33rd in the nation in rebounding margin.
Reason to Worry: Most teams are still searching for their identity 17 games into the season. That's all the experience this group will have under its belt heading into the NCAA tournament. Prior to their current six-game winning streak, the Gaels suffered back-to-back losses to Manhattan (NET: 280) and Quinnipiac (NET: 253), and they have two other Quad 4 losses on their resume. They lost by 22 points to Seton Hall in their only game above the Quad 3 level.
March Madness Ceiling: Never underestimate a Pitino squad, but this year's Iona team is not going to be confused with his mid-1990s Kentucky powerhouses any time soon.
60. Grand Canyon Antelopes
Record: 17-6, 9-3 in WAC
How They Got Here: In mid-December, Grand Canyon beat Nevada and almost won games against Arizona State, San Francisco and Colorado. Prior to a late swoon with three losses in four games, the Antelopes were surging as a potential Cinderella team. They may have recaptured that mojo in the WAC tournament, beating New Mexico State in that event.
Reason to Believe: Bryce Drew knows a thing or two about coaching, and in just his first year with this program, he has completely overhauled the defense. The 'Lopes couldn't stop anyone last year, but now their defensive field-goal and rebounding percentages rank among the best in the nation. Big men Asbjorn Midtgaard and Alessandro Lever also anchor a solid interior offense.
Reason to Worry: Turnover margin has been a major issue for Grand Canyon. In the loss to Colorado, they were minus-10 in that department. Same goes for the recent loss to Seattle. And their three-point shooting is not good.
March Madness Ceiling: There's a lot of solid tournament history in the WAC from a long time ago, but the last time a WAC representative won a game in the NCAA tournament was back in 2007. Maybe Grand Canyon can be the team to break that drought, but don't bet on it.
59. Drexel Dragons
Record: 12-7, 4-5 in Colonial
How They Got Here: It was No. 6 seed Drexel against No. 8 seed Elon in the CAA title game. The Dragons upset No. 3 seed Charleston and No. 2 seed Northeastern to get there and came out on top in a 63-56 victory. That clinched their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1996, when a group led by future NBA player Malik Rose knocked off No. 5 seed Memphis in the first round.
Reason to Believe: The Dragons' seven losses came by an average of 6.3 points, and none were by more than 10 points. There's something to be said for a team that has experience fighting and clawing down the stretch in a close game. Junior guard Camren Wynter averages 16.8 points and 5.3 assists per game while shooting 42.5 percent from beyond the arc, and he's one of four players averaging in double figures on the year.
Reason to Worry: With four Quad 3 losses and two Quad 4 losses, the Dragons have the resume of a team that snuck into the NCAA tournament by getting hot at the right time. They like to play at a slow, methodical pace, but they don't have the talent to force a superior opponent to play their game. If they are forced to run, things could go south quickly, especially considering how many minutes their starters generally play.
March Madness Ceiling: A nine-point loss to Pittsburgh at the start of the season showed that Drexel can at least keep things close against a major conference foe. Still, it's hard to see them being anything besides a one-and-done in the NCAA tournament.
58. Morehead State Eagles
Record: 23-7, 17-3 in Ohio Valley
How They Got Here: The Eagles snuck past Southeast Missouri State and Eastern Kentucky by a combined 10 points in the first two rounds of the Ohio Valley tournament before a convincing 15-point win over No. 1 seed Belmont in the title game. They last made the NCAA tournament in 2011 when a group led by future NBA player Kenneth Faried upset No. 3 seed Louisville.
Reason to Believe: Freshman Johni Broome can present a serious matchup problem inside for a smaller opponent. The 6'10", 235-pound big man won Ohio Valley Freshman of the Year by averaging 13.9 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game, and he hung a season-high 27 points on Belmont in the OVC title game.
Reason to Worry: The Eagles were dismantled by Kentucky (81-45) and Ohio State (77-44) during a shaky 4-6 start to the season, shooting a combined 29.4 percent from the field in those two losses. That's not a promising indicator of how they stack up against teams with superior athletes. The lack of consistent guard play will be their undoing in the NCAA tournament, as it will be too easy for deeper teams to game-plan around stopping Broome inside.
March Madness Ceiling: Momentum is a valuable thing heading into March Madness, and the Eagles have gone 19-1 in their last 20 games. They haven't shown the ability to hang with quality teams, though.
57. Oral Roberts Golden Eagles
Record: 16-10, 10-5 in Summit
How They Got Here: It took knocking off North Dakota (76-65), South Dakota State (90-88) and North Dakota State (75-72) for Oral Roberts to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008. They split two games with each of those teams during the regular season, so it was a well-earned automatic bid from a mid-major that lacked a dominant top team.
Reason to Believe: The Golden Eagles played a grueling non-conference schedule, squaring off against Missouri, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Wichita State and Arkansas. They lost all five of those games, but three were by fewer than 10 points, and the experience gained from taking on top-tier competition is invaluable. Sophomore guard Max Abmas leads the nation in scoring at 24.2 points per game. He shoots a blistering 43.3 percent from deep, and they shoot 39.0 percent as a team from long range.
Reason to Worry: A classic live and die with the three-point shot team, Oral Roberts uncorks 29 attempts per game from beyond the arc, the seventh-highest rate in the nation. That could spell disaster if they're not finding open looks early against a more athletic opponent. And for all the valuable experience gained, this team is sorely lacking in a signature win. The neutral-site victory over South Dakota State (NET: 124) in the conference tournament sits atop their resume.
March Madness Ceiling: Not many mid-major teams have a player capable of going off for 40 points on any given night, so this team can't be overlooked entirely. This is going to be a tough draw, even for one of the nation's elite teams.
56. Abilene Christian Wildcats
Record: 23-4, 13-2 in Southland
How They Got Here: Abilene Christian only lost four games, two of which were on the road against what turned out to be very good major-conference teams (Texas Tech and Arkansas). Throughout most of Southland Conference play, the Wildcats won in blowout fashion. That was no different in the conference tournament, where they won the championship by 34 points.
Reason to Believe: Steals, steals and more steals. Abilene Christian forces turnovers at a higher rate than any other team in the country. And when those steals turn into fast-break buckets, this is such a difficult team to beat—reminiscent of those Stephen F. Austin and Arkansas-Little Rock teams who pulled off tournament upsets in recent years.
Reason to Worry: Withstand the constant pressure and Abilene Christian is more than beatable. This is a good three-point shooting team, but its overall offensive efficiency is mediocre. Same goes for its rebounding. And in their quest for steals, the Wildcats commit an awful lot of fouls.
March Madness Ceiling: Abilene Christian's ceiling is wherever it runs into a point guard who can't be easily flustered. That might be the first round. It might be the Sweet 16. These turnover-heavy teams are a proven danger in the tournament.
55. UC Santa Barbara Gauchos
Record: 22-4, 13-3 in Big West
How They Got Here: Save for one blip at UC Riverside in late February, UC Santa Barbara was unbeatable after New Year's Eve. The Gauchos started out 4-3, including getting swept at UC Irvine, but then won 18 of their next 19 games, punctuated by a 16-point victory over Irvine in the Big West championship game.
Reason to Believe: Former Oregon State transfer JaQuori McLaughlin has blossomed into a star in Santa Barbara. The fifth-year senior point guard averages 16 points and five assists per game. He's also one of the key cogs in a defense that creates a good number of steals.
Reason to Worry: Statistically, there's no cause for concern. This is a well-balanced, veteran team. But it does bear mentioning that the Gauchos did not face a single top 100 opponent all season. They could be in for a rude awakening when they run into a real challenge.
March Madness Ceiling: UCSB finished the season in the top 75 on KenPom, which is no small feat. Only two other Big West teams have done that in the past eight years: 2018-19 UC Irvine, which upset Kansas State in the NCAA tournament, and 2015-16 Hawaii, which upset California in the first round of the dance. A continuation of that trend is a strong possibility.
54. North Texas Mean Green
Record: 17-9, 9-5 in C-USA
How They Got Here: North Texas challenged itself early and often, playing road games against Arkansas, Mississippi State, West Virginia and Loyola-Chicago. Though it did not win any of those games, the Mean Green flexed their muscles on defense and carried that through the rest of the year. They ended the regular season on a three-game losing streak but snapped out of that in a big way to win the C-USA tournament.
Reason to Believe: North Texas held all four of its opponents in the C-USA tournament to 57 points or fewer, and that wasn't much of an outlier. The Mean Green have a great defense and play at a Virginia-like tempo on offense to keep points to a minimum. In those aforementioned nonconference tests, each loss was by 15 points or fewer.
Reason to Worry: The Mean Green can get a little sloppy in the turnover department, and they simply could not score in those games against Arkansas, West Virginia and Loyola-Chicago. It's great that they were able to hold those teams below 70 points, but they also failed to score 55 of their own in any of them. This is also a mediocre rebounding team.
March Madness Ceiling: Most were expecting to see Charles Bassey and Western Kentucky secure this automatic bid and threaten to reach the Sweet 16, but North Texas might be even more dangerous. This team ranks in the top 75, per KenPom, in both three-point percentage and two-point percentage on both offense and defense. There's usually at least one team in the Nos. 11-14 seed range that reaches the Sweet 16. This could be the one.
53. Ohio Bobcats
Record: 16-7, 9-5 in Mid-American
How They Got Here: Ohio made waves early in the season by almost winning a road game against Illinois and subsequently going on a 40-0 run in a blowout victory over Cleveland State. The Bobcats struggled for a bit in December and January but won nine of their final 10 games on the shoulders of a potent offense and a star point guard.
Reason to Believe: Jason Preston is the truth. Ohio's point guard has averaged at least 16 points, seven assists and six rebounds in back-to-back seasons. He and Ayo Dosunmu basically exchanged haymakers for 40 minutes in that November game in Champaign. Good luck finding a better candidate to become this year's mid-major March Madness hero.
Reason to Worry: While the Preston-led offense is rock solid (five double-digit scorers), Ohio's defense is a major concern. In their seven losses, the Bobcats allowed an average of 85.9 points. They also lost the rebounding battle in those seven losses, often by an insurmountable margin.
March Madness Ceiling: The MAC has not produced an at-large bid since 1999, but this league almost always puts forth a team capable of winning a few games. In fact, the last time the Bobcats made the dance, they made it to the 2012 Sweet 16 before taking a No. 1 seed to overtime. No good reason to believe this team couldn't do something similar.
52. UNC Greensboro Spartans
Record: 21-8, 13-5 in Southern
How They Got Here: The top-seeded Spartans faced off against No. 7 seed Mercer in the SoCon title game after No. 2 seed Furman and No. 3 seed Wofford both lost their opening game. A 69-61 victory punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2018 and just the fourth time in school history.
Reason to Believe: Senior guard Isaiah Miller is among the most decorated players in SoCon history. The two-time Player of the Year and three-time Defensive Player of the Year averages 19.3 points, 6.9 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.6 steals per game, giving the team a go-to scorer to lean on. As a team, they alter a lot of possessions on the defensive end with their ability to rack up steals (7.5 per game) and blocks (3.9 per game).
Reason to Worry: This is one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country, and they are not shy about launching them, hitting just 30 percent of their 25.4 attempts per game. Add to that their general inability to get to the free-throw line and a low assist rate, and you have a puzzlingly inefficient offensive squad. They lost six games at the Quad 3 and Quad 4 level this year, and the best victory on their resume is a six-point win over Furman, who they had just lost to two nights earlier.
March Madness Ceiling: If they fall behind early, it's hard to see how the Spartans claw back into a game against a superior opponent. Never underestimate a team with a bona fide star, especially one who contributes on both ends of the floor, but an early exit seems likely.
51. Winthrop Eagles
Record: 23-1, 17-1 in Big South
How They Got Here: The Eagles were in a league of their own in the Big South this season, and that was abundantly clear when they outscored their three opponents by a combined 77 points as the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament to clinch the automatic bid. They last reached the NCAA tournament in 2017 as a No. 13 seed.
Reason to Believe: Chandler Vaudrin is one of the best mid-major players in the country. The Big South Player of the Year led the Eagles with 12.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game, making him one of just three players at the D-l level to average 12-6-6 on the year. They do a lot of little things right, ranking among the top 60 teams nationally in steals per game (7.8, 56th) and offensive rebounds per game (13.0, 12th). With a rotation that goes 11 deep, they won't get run out of the gym by a superior opponent.
Reason to Worry: The Eagles have played just four games above the Quad 4 line this season, and only two of their opponents currently rank among the top 100 in NET. Having not faced a major conference opponent all season, they could be in for a bit of a culture shock when they see one for the first time in the NCAA tournament. They're undersized with just one player over 6'7" in the rotation, and they don't shoot the deep ball particularly well. An ugly 68.6 percent clip from the free-throw line won't help their cause, either.
March Madness Ceiling: Regardless of the level of competition, a 23-1 record is going to impart a certain amount of confidence and swagger into a team. With that winning mindset and a talented senior leader in Vaudrin spearheading the offense, the Eagles are capable of pulling off a first-round upset.
50. Liberty Flames
Record: 23-5, 11-2 in Atlantic Sun
How They Got Here: The No. 1 seed in the Atlantic Sun tournament, Liberty won by double digits against Kennesaw State and Stetson before squeaking out a four-point win over North Alabama in the title game to secure the automatic bid. The Flames have tallied at least 20 victories in each of the last five seasons.
Reason to Believe: The Flames upset No. 5 seed Mississippi State in the first round of the 2019 NCAA tournament. Leading scorer Darius McGhee (15.6 PPG, 4.4 RPG) and starting forward Elijah Cuffee (9.6 PPG, 3.4 RPG) were both part of the rotation for that Cinderella team, so they've been there before. They hung around with Purdue (77-64) and Missouri (69-60) and beat Mississippi State (84-73), so they've cut their teeth against some major conference foes. They shoot a ton of threes (26.4 per game) and they make them at a 39.1 percent clip, which is good for eighth in the nation.
Reason to Worry: The conference losses to Lipscomb and Stetson—two teams ranked outside the top 200 in NET—are enough to raise an eyebrow. Not surprisingly, they struggled from beyond the arc in both of those games, and this can most definitely be described as a team that lives and dies by the three ball. That can be a recipe for success or disaster in the NCAA tournament.
March Madness Ceiling: The Flames have as much boom-or-bust potential as any mid-major team in the tournament. If the perimeter game is clicking, they can hang around with anyone, and the experience that McGhee and Cuffee bring to the table can't be understated. Don't be surprised if they make it out of the first round again.
49. Oregon State Beavers
Record: 17-12, 10-10 in Pac-12
How They Got Here: Oregon State's trip to the land of bid thievery was even more surprising than Georgetown's. The Beavers had won just two games all season against tournament-caliber opponents (USC and Oregon in January), but they needed three such wins in three days to storm into the field. They needed overtime to beat UCLA, had to survive a furious comeback from Oregon and could've lost at the buzzer to Colorado, but they survived and advanced and now they dance.
Reason to Believe: In stark contrast to regular-season numbers, Oregon State shot 43 percent from distance while allowing below 27 percent in the Pac-12 tournament. If the Beavers can carry that perimeter play from Las Vegas to Indiana, that's obviously a game-changer.
Reason to Worry: Even with those atypical three-point numbers, the Beavers barely won each of those three games. If those numbers come back to earth, things could get ugly. And one of the big reasons they needed the automatic bid to get in was a horrendous home loss to NET sub-300 Portland.
March Madness Ceiling: While it's not hard to see Georgetown going on a bit of a run after winning the Big East tournament, Oregon State's Pac-12 title will probably be the end of the road. But who knows? We didn't think the Beavers would get past UCLA.
48. Wichita State Shockers
Record: 16-5, 11-2 in American
How They Got Here: Michigan's Juwan Howard is most likely going to win it, but if you wanted to give National Coach of the Year to Wichita State's Isaac Brown, I couldn't argue against it. When long-tenured head coach Gregg Marshall resigned on Nov. 17 and the Shockers opened the season 1-2, it looked like we wouldn't be talking about them again in bracketology circles until next year. But Brown guided them to wins in 15 of their next 17 games, including the "give that man a long-term contract right now" victory over Houston in mid-February.
Reason to Believe: They aren't exactly making us forget about Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, but the backcourt tandem of Tyson Etienne and Connecticut transfer Alterique Gilbert is a force to be reckoned with. They combine for roughly 27 points, seven assists, six rebounds and 2.5 steals per game, and that seven-game winning streak to close out the regular season was largely a product of both guards playing well at the same time.
Reason to Worry: Neither NET nor KenPom ever painted Wichita State as a tournament team because it shoots poorly and doesn't play great defense. Take out the two non-D-I games against Emporia State and Newman and Wichita State entered the AAC tournament with an average scoring margin of just under plus-3.0 points per game—and with a 2-4 record against teams in the KenPom Top 75.
March Madness Ceiling: As far as KenPom is concerned, this is (by no small margin) the worst Wichita State team to reach the NCAA tournament in the past two decades. Usually, the Shockers feel like an under-seeded team capable of pulling off a few upsets en route to the Elite Eight. This feels more like a team that battled like mad for an unexpected spot in the field before bowing out in the first round.
47. Colgate Raiders
Record: 14-1, 11-1 in Patriot League
How They Got Here: Colgate did not play its first game of the year until early January and only managed to play 12 during the regular season. But what little the Raiders were able to do was impressive. They enter the NCAA tournament on a 13-game winning streak, and most of those victories came in blowout fashion.
Reason to Believe: The NET adores Colgate. The Raiders have been in the top 15 in that metric pretty much all season long. But while that seems laughably out of place, they have been super efficient on both offense and defense. They shoot about 40 percent from three-point range while holding opponents to around 26 percent. And this team does not hurt itself with turnovers or fouls.
Reason to Worry: Those percentages and efficiency rankings are outstanding, but why should we care? Colgate played four games each against Army, Boston and Holy Cross during the regular season, and that's it. The "Yeah, but who have your beaten?" narrative is annoying in college basketball, but, seriously, who have you beaten, Colgate? (This team also doesn't force many turnovers, and that three-point defense luck could run out in a hurry.)
March Madness Ceiling: Between the NET ranking and the inevitable toothpaste puns, we kind of chuckled at Colgate for the past couple of months. But this team definitely has Sweet 16 potential. Jordan Burns has been awesome running this offense, and the Raiders have had something percolating for three years now.
46. Syracuse Orange
Record: 16-9, 9-7 in ACC
How They Got Here: Syracuse just seems to enjoy hanging out on the bubble year after year. Early losses to Pittsburgh put the Orange on the wrong side of the cut line, but they clawed their way back with wins over Virginia Tech, North Carolina and a three-game sweep of NC State. The buzzer-beating loss to Virginia in the ACC quarterfinals left them to sweat for three days, but here they are as one of the last handful of teams into the field for the third time in six years.
Reason to Believe: Is anybody hotter right now than Buddy Boeheim? Over his last seven games, Boeheim has averaged 23.3 points while shooting 31-of-67 (46.3 percent) from three-point range. He is also one of the many lethal free-throw shooters on this roster, along with Alan Griffin and Marek Dolezaj. It's no fun playing the "foul and hope for the best" game in the closing moments against the Orange.
Reason to Worry: For the umpteenth consecutive year, Syracuse's zone defense means it allows a lot of three-point attempts and offensive rebounds. The Orange have made several Final Four runs over the years in spite of those shortcomings, but it is an ever-present concern. Syracuse also doesn't shoot all that well, inside or outside the arc.
March Madness Ceiling: If I've learned two things in the past six seasons, it's never eliminate Syracuse from the bubble conversation, and never write off the Orange as a team that will lose in the first weekend. They might lose their first game. You never know. You also never know when they'll draw a bunch of teams who wilt under the pressure of facing a zone defense. We'll put the ceiling at the Elite Eight and wish you the best of luck figuring out how far to actually take the Orange.
45. Drake Bulldogs
Record: 25-4, 15-3 in Missouri Valley
How They Got Here: Drake made it into early February with a zero in the loss column, starting out 18-0. However, bad losses to Valparaiso and Bradley turned the Bulldogs' hot start into a photo finish. Though they went just 1-2 in Quadrant 1 games (all against Loyola-Chicago), the overtime win over the Ramblers at home on Valentine's Day was just enough to do the trick.
Reason to Believe: Back in January, Drake was the best three-point shooting team in the country. The Bulldogs struggled in that department for a while after their COVID-19 pause, but there have been signs that they are recapturing that mojo. During a four-game stretch in late February, they shot 40-of-86 (46.5 percent) from downtown. They also shot 44 percent in the Missouri Valley championship loss to Loyola-Chicago.
Reason to Worry: Drake is playing short-handed. Senior point guard Roman Penn suffered a season-ending injury in mid-February. And while most expect ShanQuan "Tank" Hemphill to be available for the NCAA tournament, he has missed Drake's last nine games while recovering from a broken foot. It's impressive that the Bulldogs didn't completely fall apart without those veteran leaders, but this team isn't as well-equipped as it was when it was knocking on the door of a top 10 NET ranking.
March Madness Ceiling: Between the injuries and the fact that Drake has only faced one tournament-caliber opponent (albeit three times), this is perhaps the most difficult team in the field to try to pigeonhole. Undefeated, full-strength Drake felt like a team that could crash the Elite Eight. Current Drake seems unlikely to win multiple games.
44. UCLA Bruins
Record: 17-9, 13-6 in Pac-12
How They Got Here: After opening the season with a 15-point loss at San Diego State, UCLA reeled off 12 victories in 13 games. The lone loss came in a good battle with Ohio State in Cleveland. By late January, the Bruins were an AP Top 25 team. But they lost six of their final 11 regular-season games to enter the Pac-12 tournament in some bubble trouble and then immediately lost to Oregon State. Not great.
Reason to Believe: When reasonably healthy, UCLA has been potent on offense. Even excluding Chris Smith (12.6 points per game before suffering a torn ACL), the Bruins had five players finish the regular season with a scoring average in double digits, and this despite playing at one of the slower tempos in the country. If Johnny Juzang has no ill effects from the ankle injury that caused him to miss the regular-season finale against USC, the Bruins should be a tough out.
Reason to Worry: Outside of a three-point home win over Colorado more than two months ago when the Buffaloes were without starting center Dallas Walton, UCLA did not fare well against tournament-caliber foes. The Bruins were swept by USC, lost the other game at Colorado, lost their only games against Oregon and Stanford and lost those nonconference games to Ohio State and San Diego State. They did sweep ineligible-for-the-postseason Arizona, but their second-best win over a team with any hope of dancing was a road game against Utah.
March Madness Ceiling: Between Mick Cronin's less-than-fantastic track record in the NCAA tournament and this team's general struggle to play defense against competent foes, I have a hard time believing UCLA could win multiple games.
43. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Record: 15-11, 10-10 in Big Ten
How They Got Here: After starting the season 7-1 with home wins over Illinois, Purdue and Syracuse and a road win over Maryland, Rutgers spent the next 10 weeks doing just barely enough to stay in the field. The Scarlet Knights went 7-9 in their final 16 regular-season games with a terrible 21-point loss to Nebraska and nary a win over a great team. They did, however, win six games against Indiana, Michigan State and Minnesota, dealing painful blows to each of those bubble resumes.
Reason to Believe: Rutgers can and will get all up in your grill on defense. Led by big man Myles Johnson, the Scarlet Knights average more than five blocks and nearly eight steals per game. When they rack up at least 13 combined (aka their average), they are 10-3. And one of those losses was the 77-75 game against Iowa that went back and forth and back again over the final seven minutes.
Reason to Worry: Simply putting the ball in the hoop is often an arduous task for the Scarlet Knights. They are almost unbeaten when scoring at least 70 points (11-1), but they're 4-10 when they fall short of that mark. In half of their 24 regular season games, they shot below 29 percent from three-point range. This is also one of the worst free-throw shooting teams in the country at 63.2 percent.
March Madness Ceiling: It's awesome that Rutgers is finally in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991, but this is not a second-weekend team in its current state. However, if the Scarlet Knights suddenly revert to the way they were playing in December (78.6 PPG, 43.1 3P%), maybe they could pull off a stunner.
42. Clemson Tigers
Record: 16-7, 10-6 in ACC
How They Got Here: Early in the year, Clemson looked like the team to beat in the ACC. The Tigers started 9-1 with impressive wins over Alabama, Purdue, Florida State and Maryland. But after a brief COVID-19 pause, they had an awful two-week stretch, losing four games by at least 18 points each. They righted the ship for a 5-0 record in February, but the 64-54 loss to Syracuse followed by the 67-64 loss to No. 13 seed Miami in the ACC tournament has raised major concerns once more.
Reason to Believe: Before the pause, Clemson's defense was elite, allowing just 57.6 points per game. And after that disastrous two-week stretch, the Tigers got back on track in that regard, holding their final eight opponents to 59.1 points. Clemson isn't unbeatable, but it is definitely going to make you work for every bucket.
Reason to Worry: Clemson has been held to 67 points or fewer in 16 of its 23 games. Half of that is the intentionally slow pace of play, but the other half is that this team simply struggles to score, even against mediocre D. Aamir Simms is the only Tiger averaging better than nine points per game, and if he has an off night, yikes.
March Madness Ceiling: When Clemson went to the 2018 Sweet 16 (and almost upset No. 1 seed Kansas), it had a similar great defense and meh offense dynamic. That team was better in both regards, though, and at least had multiple reliable scorers. The Tigers might be able to defend their way to at least one win, but they're in trouble once they run into a top-tier offense.
41. VCU Rams
Record: 19-7, 10-4 in A-10
How They Got Here: VCU challenged itself early and often, opening the season with consecutive games away from home against Utah State, West Virginia, Memphis and Penn State. The Rams beat the Aggies and Tigers and rode that impressive start through most of the season. Home losses to Rhode Island and George Mason kept VCU on the bubble, but reaching the A-10 championship put VCU into the NCAA tournament for the 12th time since 2004.
Reason to Believe: It's not exactly breaking news for the program that trademarked "HAVOC," but VCU is a colossal nuisance on defense. The Rams rank top-five in the nation in both block percentage and steal percentage, averaging a combined 14.9 per game. They are 17-1 when holding the opposition below 70 points.
Reason to Worry: Nah'Shon "Bones" Hyland is an excellent individual scorer, but VCU's offense is quite lacking. In the two regular-season games against St. Bonaventure, the Rams shot a combined 34.2 percent from the field. In the loss to West Virginia, they shot 35.9 percent and got destroyed on the glass. Aside from shooting the lights out in the season opener against Utah State, they've struggled with NCAA tournament-caliber defenses.
March Madness Ceiling: This is the 10-year anniversary of VCU's iconic "First Four to Final Four" run through the 2011 NCAA tournament, but the Rams are just 3-7 in the Big Dance since then. And in most of those years, they had a similar identity to this one: a defense that makes a ton of momentum-swinging plays, but a lackluster offense that makes winning multiple tournament games a significant challenge. Opponents are better prepared for this defense than they were a decade ago, so even a Sweet 16 appearance feels like a stretch.
40. Georgetown Hoyas
Record: 13-12, 7-9 in Big East
How They Got Here: From 3-8 overall to Big East tournament champions, what an unbelievable turnaround for Patrick Ewing and the Hoyas. Picked to finish dead last in the conference, it looked like they were well on their way to that fate when they went on a three-week COVID-19 pause in January. But this was a completely different team over the past seven weeks.
Reason to Believe: Ignore the slow start and focus on the past 14 games since Northwestern State transfer Chudier Bile became a critical part of the rotation. Georgetown already had a good big man in Qudus Wahab and several reliable guards, but it was lacking that proverbial glue guy. Once the Hoyas found him, they went 10-4 with two wins over Creighton, a victory over Villanova and nothing close to a bad loss.
Reason to Worry: While they aren't nearly as sloppy now as they were during those first 11 games, the Hoyas still lose the turnover battle in just about every game they play. And they frequently struggle to make two-point buckets.
March Madness Ceiling: Was it an incredible sprint to the finish line, or just the beginning of something more? I suspect a lot of people will be picking Georgetown to win one game, but with the way they've been playing as of late, the Hoyas have Sweet 16 potential. Don't imagine they'll be knocking off any No. 1 or No. 2 seeds, but they can beat just about anyone below that top tier.
39. St. Bonaventure Bonnies
Record: 16-4, 11-4 in A-10
How They Got Here: St. Bonaventure didn't play its first game of the season until Dec. 15 and played just two nonconference games. However, that was all the Bonnies needed to get in good enough shape to win the A-10 regular-season title. The regular-season-ending home loss to Dayton left the Bonnies in some bubble trouble, but winning the A-10 championship punched their ticket.
Reason to Believe: With one minor caveat we'll note momentarily, the Bonnies have been stingy on defense. Only two opponents have scored more than 70 against them, as their defensive effective field-goal percentage easily ranks in the top 10 among tournament-bound teams. Big man Osun Osunniyi is like a goalie in the paint, blocking nearly three shots per game.
Reason to Worry: The Bonnies allow an awful lot of three-point attempts. Not many A-10 teams could capitalize on all those perimeter looks, but it wasn't uncommon to see an opponent try 30 or more threes against them. That could spell disaster against a hot-shooting foe. The Bonnies also have no depth, ranking dead last in bench minutes by a considerable margin. That leaves them more vulnerable to fouls or injuries than most teams.
March Madness Ceiling: St. Bonaventure won a First Four game in 2018, but it has not reached the second round of the NCAA tournament since going to the 1970 Final Four. While another trip to the national semifinals is extremely unlikely, this team can win at least one game. With nary a senior on the roster, perhaps St. Bonaventure's big tournament run will come in 2022 or 2023.
38. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Record: 17-8, 11-6 in ACC
How They Got Here: Among teams who made it into March with an at-large pulse, Georgia Tech had, hands down, the most disappointing November. The Yellow Jackets opened the season with back-to-back home losses to Georgia State and Mercer. Then Atlanta became a fortress for the Bees, resulting in wins over Kentucky, North Carolina, Clemson, Florida State, Syracuse and Duke as they surged into the field. And they carried that momentum into Greensboro to win the ACC tournament.
Reason to Believe: If there was a formula that could calculate the most talented player who gets the least national attention, Moses Wright would land near the top of that ranking. Over the final 10 games of the regular season, Georgia Tech's star big man averaged 19.1 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.0 blocks. He carried the Yellow Jackets to the consecutive wins over Syracuse and Duke, averaging 30.0 points and 15.0 rebounds in those two games. Also, GT almost always wins the turnover battle.
Reason to Worry: In spite of Wright's presence in the paint, the Yellow Jackets often struggle on the glass. In their six ACC losses, their average rebound margin was minus-10.3. And while this team has been outstanding at home, the NCAA tournament isn't in Atlanta. During the regular season, Georgia Tech went just 1-5 away from home against teams in the KenPom Top 75, and that lone win was at Virginia Tech when the Hokies were playing their first game in 17 days.
March Madness Ceiling: Because they came out of seemingly nowhere late in the season and because they haven't been in the NCAA tournament in more than a decade, you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone championing the Yellow Jackets as a threat for a deep run. I could see them crashing the Sweet 16, though. With four seniors and two juniors leading the way, this is one of the most experienced teams in the country.
37. Michigan State Spartans
Record: 15-12, 9-11 in Big Ten
How They Got Here: Michigan State sure took its jolly time rounding into tournament form. After a 6-0 start that included a road win over Duke, the Spartans lost nine of their first 13 Big Ten games and became a longshot to dance. Over the final seven contests, though, they won home games against Michigan, Illinois and Ohio State and swept Indiana to storm into the field.
Reason to Believe: Michigan State has so many options on offense. Aaron Henry is the guy who brings it almost every night, but he is surrounded by 10 guys who have each made at least five starts this season. Rocket Watts was the star of the win over Michigan. Joshua Langford exploded for 15 points and 16 rebounds in the win over Illinois. A.J. Hoggard and Marcus Bingham Jr. were critical off the bench in beating Ohio State. Gabe Brown, Joey Hauser and Malik Hall have each been key role players, as well.
Reason to Worry: Having 11 part-time starters in basketball is like having two starting quarterbacks in football: If you have two (or 11), you have none. Michigan State's variety of options makes the Spartans tough to prepare to face, but it also makes it tough for them to even know who they can count on any given night. Outside of Henry, no one seems capable of putting together back-to-back strong performances. Also, MSU's defense is nothing special, rarely forcing turnovers and frequently committing fouls.
March Madness Ceiling: Michigan State has been my bracket-picking kryptonite for literal decades. When I'm all in on the Spartans reaching the Final Four, they bust in the first weekend. When I think the Sweet 16 is their ceiling, some Tom Izzo magic happens and they reach a national semifinal. The good news for the fans in East Lansing is I'm in the latter camp this year. It was a fantastic finish just to get into the field, but they have too diverse a portfolio—and too inefficient a point-guard tandem of Watts and Hoggard—to put together a four-game winning streak.
36. Maryland Terrapins
Record: 16-13, 9-11 in Big Ten
How They Got Here: It was inevitable that some Big Ten team(s) would get into the Big Dance with a sub-.500 conference record, but Maryland's path to 9-11 was something else. The Terrapins' first three league wins were road games against Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota. They later won at Rutgers and picked up home wins over Purdue and Michigan State. But they failed to finish .500 because of season-ending losses to Northwestern and Penn State.
Reason to Believe: When the Terrapins won at Illinois, their leading scorer (Eric Ayala) did not play and Illinois' dynamic duo (Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn) combined for 44 points and 18 rebounds. Yet, somehow, some way, the Terps still won a road game against one of the best teams in the country. Any team that can gut out a win like that needs to be taken seriously.
Reason to Worry: Maryland rarely gets offensive rebounds and it rarely forces turnovers. In conference play, the Terrapins averaged just 5.7 of the former and 10.6 of the latter. In that recent loss to Penn State, the final totals were one and nine, respectively. And that combination of weaknesses does not bode well for the tournament.
March Madness Ceiling: Given ample opportunity, Maryland was able to beat a handful of quality opponents. But most of those great wins were both immediately preceded and followed by losses. The Terrapins might win a game, but any sort of streak seems unlikely.
35. Florida Gators
Record: 14-9, 9-7 in SEC
How They Got Here: Keyontae Johnson was tabbed as the preseason SEC Player of the Year, but the Gators lost him in the fourth game of the season after his terrifying collapse on the court. Since then, they have been, understandably, hit or miss. A bad loss to Mississippi State was immediately followed by a 26-point win over Tennessee. And four days after a surprising road win over West Virginia, they suffered a bad home loss to South Carolina.
Reason to Believe: Florida has a solid defense. The center tandem of Colin Castleton and Omar Payne combines for nearly four blocks per game, and the perimeter defense does a great job of keeping three-point looks to a minimum. Army made 10 treys against Florida in its season opener, and that was the only team to reach double digits in that category against the Gators.
Reason to Worry: The Gators struggle in three key areas: turnovers on offense, defensive rebounds and fouls on defense. That combination of factors means they somewhat blow their advantage in blocks and three-point defense by allowing extra scoring chances. And it's a problem that is getting worse, not better. Between the regular season-ending losses to Tennessee and Missouri, Florida allowed 32 more field-goal attempts than it took.
March Madness Ceiling: Florida has won at least one game in its last seven trips to the NCAA tournament, and it went at least as far as the Elite Eight in five of those years. Expecting that deep of a run this year is likely to end in disappointment, but one win is a likely outcome.
34. Virginia Tech Hokies
Record: 15-6, 9-4 in ACC
How They Got Here: Virginia Tech delivered one of the early stunners of the season, coming from behind to upset Villanova in "Bubbleville." The Hokies would later win home games over Clemson, Duke and Virginia. But they did have a few losses by ugly margins along the way, and they have only played three games since Feb. 6 because of multiple COVID-19 pauses.
Reason to Believe: The Hokies don't have great overall numbers on defense, but there were spurts in each of their marquee wins in which it felt like their opponent was never going to score again. The most noteworthy was the 19-0 run late in the win over Virginia. Give the Hokies an inch and they're liable to take a mile.
Reason to Worry: As good as the defense was in those big wins? That's how dreadful the offense was in the blowout losses to Penn State, Syracuse and Georgia Tech. The Hokies usually do a fine job of scoring in the paint, but things can get ugly in a hurry when Keve Aluma has an off night.
March Madness Ceiling: Insert "shrug emoji" here. I truly don't know what to make of Virginia Tech. The Hokies have spent most of the season in the Nos. 15-25 range of the AP poll, but the predictive analytics have been a good deal lower on this team all year long. Could they pull off a big upset? Sure. Would I be stunned if they reach the Elite Eight for the first time since 1967? Definitely.
33. Missouri Tigers
Record: 16-9, 8-8 in SEC
How They Got Here: Missouri had a maddeningly inconsistent season. The Tigers had impressive wins over Illinois, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida and Oregon and were a projected No. 4 seed in the selection committee's top 16 reveal on Feb. 13. But they also went 0-3 against the SEC's schools in Mississippi, lost to Auburn, lost to Georgia and never once cracked into the KenPom Top 25.
Reason to Believe: Missouri has an "Old Big East" feel to it. It's an old, big, physical team with five seniors and five guys listed at at least 6'5" and 220 pounds in its primary eight-man rotation. The Tigers are happy to win games in the paint and at the free-throw line, and in fact shot below 30 percent from three-point range in each of the wins over Illinois, Alabama, Arkansas and Oregon.
Reason to Worry: The Tigers struggle on defense. Over their final 11 regular-season games, they allowed 78.3 points per game while scoring 75.9. In particular, driving guards who can finish through contact have given Missouri fits.
March Madness Ceiling: Missouri's ceiling is probably the Sweet 16, but only because of its inconsistency. The Tigers can beat anyone on the right day, but stringing together three or more good games has been a struggle, especially as of late.
32. Oklahoma Sooners
Record: 15-10, 9-8 in Big 12
How They Got Here: In mid-January, Oklahoma was 6-4 and barely on the projected bubble. But then the Sooners won eight of their next nine games—including great victories at Texas, at West Virginia, vs. Alabama and vs. Kansas—to vault all the way up to a potential No. 2 seed. Unfortunately, they were unable to let those good times roll, closing the regular season on a four-game losing streak which included a bad loss to Kansas State.
Reason to Believe: Oklahoma doesn't often shoot itself in the foot with fouls or turnovers, committing a combined total of around 25 per game. (For comparison, Stetson is right around the national average in tempo, turnovers and fouls, and the Hatters average nearly 30.) And while Austin Reaves is no Buddy Hield or Trae Young, he's the exact type of can-do-it-all senior leader who you want willing your team to victory in the tournament.
Reason to Worry: Some lot of good the lack of turnovers and fouls does the Sooners sometimes. In the season finale against Texas, they committed three turnovers, allowed nine free throws in the first 39 minutes and still lost. Oklahoma is simply an average shooting team and allows more than its fair share of three-pointers—19 of them in the early loss to Xavier.
March Madness Ceiling: I've been out on Oklahoma as a Final Four contender for a while, and the recent four-game losing streak merely means I no longer need to grapple with the idea of picking Oklahoma to lose to a No. 14 seed in the first round. That said, you don't beat Alabama, Kansas, Texas and West Virginia (twice) unless you're a team that's capable of doing some damage in the Big Dance. The Sooners have been a bit down on their luck lately, but they could scrap their way to an Elite Eight.
31. BYU Cougars
Record: 20-6, 10-3 in WCC
How They Got Here: Save for an uncharacteristically awful shooting night in a 79-53 loss to USC, BYU had a solid run through nonconference play, defeating St. John's, Utah State, Utah and San Diego State. And aside from a road loss to a Pepperdine team with two future pros on its roster, the Cougars' only WCC losses were to the juggernaut known as Gonzaga. They were overshadowed all year, but this is a good team.
Reason to Believe: As evidenced in the first half of the WCC championship, the Cougars have shooters. They aren't quite as lethal as last year's team, which ranked second in the nation in effective field-goal percentage. However, it's pretty remarkable that they had to replace five of their six leading scorers during a pandemic and they still rank comfortably in the top 50 in both three-point and two-point percentage. They also have quite the rim protector in 7'3" former Purdue big man Matt Haarms.
Reason to Worry: The overall defensive efficiency numbers look good, but is the defense actually good? BYU played five games against top-40 offenses, allowing at least 82 points in each game against Gonzaga, the aforementioned 79-point game for USC and then a 74-68 win over St. John's in which the Red Storm were without their senior leader Rasheem Dunn. BYU also typically loses the turnover battle.
March Madness Ceiling: BYU had fringe Final Four potential when everything got shut down one year ago, but this year's team is in more of a "could catch fire to reach the Sweet 16" boat. Pulling off multiple consecutive upsets is probably asking too much, but this is certainly a team that could stun a title contender.
30. Utah State Aggies
Record: 20-8, 15-4 in Mountain West
How They Got Here: Utah State got out to a tough start in the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic, opening the season with blowout losses to VCU and South Dakota State. From that point forward, though, the Aggies were a problem. They almost beat BYU. They swept San Diego State and won two of three against Colorado State. USU spent what felt like the entire season in the bubble conversation, but the Aggies made it.
Reason to Believe: Neemias Queta. That's it. That's the reason. Utah State's 7-footer from Portugal averaged 18.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 5.0 blocks in three MWC tournament games. It wasn't that far off from what he usually does, either. Trying to score in the paint against the Aggies is not good for your health. And second-chance opportunities are almost nonexistent while Queta is on the floor.
Reason to Worry: Beyond Queta? The Aggies are just OK. Justin Bean gets the occasional double-double. Brock Miller can stroke it from three. But if Queta gets into foul trouble or is otherwise somehow neutralized, Utah State's ceiling comes crashing down. This is also, generally, not a good shooting team, resulting in fewer than 65 points in nearly one-third of games played.
March Madness Ceiling: In case it wasn't obvious, I'm a little enamored with Queta and love Utah State's potential as a Sweet 16 crasher. Even though the offense is a bit questionable, the Aggies are so tough to score against that they can beat anyone.
29. San Diego State Aztecs
Record: 23-4, 14-3 in Mountain West
How They Got Here: San Diego State started out the year with a statement 73-58 win over then-ranked UCLA. The Aztecs later improved to 5-0 with an 80-68 road win over then-ranked Arizona State. They sputtered for a bit against quality foes (BYU, Colorado State and Utah State) but closed out the season on a 14-game winning streak. The Mountain West was at the epicenter of the bubble for much of the year, but SDSU was safely in well before March began.
Reason to Believe: The Aztecs have one of the stingiest defenses in the country, which isn't anything new. No opponent has scored more than 72 against them yet this season. But while many previous iterations of this program struggled to score, San Diego State shoots quite well from three-point range. Jordan Schakel is the leader of that brigade, but the Aztecs have four legitimate threats from the perimeter.
Reason to Worry: Though the defense is mostly fantastic, it does have one major concern: three-point attempts. Opponents average more than 24 attempts per game against San Diego State, and roughly two-thirds of foes have made at least one-third of those attempts. This hurt the Aztecs dearly in the loss to Colorado State, in which they shot 14-of-30 while allowing 11-of-27.
March Madness Ceiling: One of these years, a Mountain West Conference team will finally advance beyond the Sweet 16. This may well be the team to break that curse. The Aztecs have the talent to reach the Elite Eight, provided they can avoid having an early opponent catch fire from downtown.
28. North Carolina Tar Heels
Record: 18-10, 10-6 in ACC
How They Got Here: Well, it was a better year than last season but not vintage UNC. The Tar Heels won a bunch of decent games but didn't beat a definite tournament-caliber opponent until the late-February home win over Florida State. Good thing they at least managed to take that one, though, or they likely wouldn't be in the field.
Reason to Believe: Per usual, the Tar Heels are extremely good on the offensive glass. The combined force of Day'Ron Sharpe, Armando Bacot, Garrison Brooks and Walker Kessler paces them to more than 15 offensive rebounds per game. And save for the road losses to Iowa and Florida State, the defense has been solid.
Reason to Worry: One of the reasons North Carolina gets so many offensive rebounds is that—aside from Kerwin Walton three-pointers and Bacot bunnies—this team can't shoot. Caleb Love was awesome in the two wins over Duke, but he has otherwise been painfully inefficient running this offense. And if an opponent ever feels like playing Hack-a-Heel, all four of the big men are poor free-throw shooters.
March Madness Ceiling: Here's a fun fact: North Carolina's last winning streak of four or more games came in November...of last season. This team has plenty of talent, but consistent success has eluded the Tar Heels for a long time. And aside from last year's 14-19 disaster, this is both the most turnover-prone and poorest-shooting UNC team in many moons. Were this "North Carolina State" instead of "North Carolina," no one would be expecting a Sweet 16 appearance.
27. Villanova Wildcats
Record: 16-6, 11-4 in Big East
How They Got Here: For a good while, Villanova was a projected No. 1 seed. The Wildcats started out 11-1 with a great road win over Texas. But they suffered three losses in February—each by double digits—and had the misfortune of a devastating injury in early March. This team is nowhere near the title contender it seemed to be six weeks ago.
Reason to Believe: Villanova won it all in both 2016 and 2018 behind the strength of an offense that could make it rain from three and rarely committed turnovers. At least in that regard, it's business as usual for the Wildcats. They ended the regular season with more made three-pointers (194) than turnovers committed (193). Iowa and Liberty are the only other teams who fit that description.
Reason to Worry: What happened in Villanova's first 20 games is mostly irrelevant because it recently lost senior lead guard Collin Gillespie for the year to a torn MCL. In the first contest played without him, the Wildcats scored a measly 52 points in a loss to Providence—their third-lowest point total in a game since February 2013. Even if they somehow figure out how to replace his offense, Villanova's defense was already considerably worse than when it won its two national championships.
March Madness Ceiling: In each of its last nine trips to the NCAA tournament, Villanova has either won it all or lost before the Sweet 16. And if that trend continues, the Wildcats are almost certainly headed for the latter. They had a decent chance at a Final Four run with Gillespie, but that isn't happening with Chris Arcidiacono running the point—a guy who had played just 35 career minutes in two seasons prior to Gillespie's injury.
26. Colorado Buffaloes
Record: 22-8, 14-6 in Pac-12
How They Got Here: Despite losing the only game it played against a comparable foe (Tennessee), Colorado opened the season with a 6-1 record and an average scoring margin of plus-20.5 points. From that point on, the metrics were all in on the Buffaloes as a second-weekend team, though the results were less conclusive. They did sweep USC, but they also suffered bad losses to Washington, Cal and Utah.
Reason to Believe: When it comes to free-throw shooting, Colorado is second to none. The Buffaloes ended the regular season at a clip of 83.4 percent. Even if they dipped to 82.4 by the end of the NCAA tournament, it would still be the highest team percentage in at least a decade. And in McKinley Wright IV, Colorado has a veteran lead guard more than capable of putting the team on his back.
Reason to Worry: In the loss to Utah, Colorado blew a 19-point lead in the final nine minutes. In the loss to Washington, the Buffaloes shot 1-of-18 from deep while allowing the Huskies to hit 12-of-25. Each seems like a borderline unrepeatable anomaly, but it is alarming how poorly things have gone for the Buffaloes on multiple occasions against bad opponents.
March Madness Ceiling: I've gone back and forth on Colorado all season long, but this is clearly a team that can hang with anyone, and it's a team that finished the regular season well with four consecutive wins. I'll be tempted to pick the Buffaloes to lose in the first round, but they're well-rounded enough to win a pair of games.
25. Wisconsin Badgers
Record: 17-12, 10-10 in Big Ten
How They Got Here: The Badgers started 8-1 with nice, convincing wins over Louisville, Michigan State and Loyola-Chicago. Up until late January, they were ranked in the AP Top 10 more often than not and felt like a fringe title contender. But their most recent winning streak of more than two games ended before New Year's Eve.
Reason to Believe: Wisconsin has one of the most turnover-averse offenses in the country, and just about everyone who takes the floor is a solid shooter, both from three-point range and the free-throw line. Their efficiency on offense isn't anything close to what it was in 2014 and 2015, but this team doesn't often shoot itself in the foot.
Reason to Worry: Wisconsin had every opportunity to prove it could beat Elite Eight-caliber opponents. It failed time and again. The Badgers did win that home game against Loyola-Chicago, but they lost all nine of their regular-season games against Michigan (two), Iowa (three), Illinois (two), Ohio State and Purdue.
March Madness Ceiling: Three years ago, Kansas State took a similar path to the NCAA tournament, losing every game it played against the Big 12's top tier before sneaking into the Elite Eight as a No. 9 seed. So, I suppose there's recent precedent for a deep Wisconsin run. However, anything further than the Sweet 16 seems unlikely.
24. Texas Tech Red Raiders
Record: 17-10, 9-8 in Big 12
How They Got Here: Texas Tech's journey back to the tournament began last spring when Marcus Santos-Silva and Mac McClung transferred to Lubbock. That duo has started every game, and McClung was the hero in wins over Texas, Oklahoma and LSU. But the Red Raiders were swept by each of Baylor, Kansas, Oklahoma State and West Virginia, plus an early loss to Houston.
Reason to Believe: Though the defense is nowhere near as good as it was en route to the 2019 national championship game, Chris Beard's guys can still get after you in a big way, averaging better than 11 combined blocks and steals per game. And while they get all those steals on defense, the Red Raiders rarely commit turnovers of their own.
Reason to Worry: Reminiscent of some of those "Press Virginia" teams of yesteryear, the defense is rather boom or bust. When they don't get a block or steal, the Red Raiders defense is below the national average in terms of defensive rebounding, three-point percentage and free-throw rate. Survive the pressure and there's a good chance you beat Texas Tech.
March Madness Ceiling: Against teams outside the KenPom Top 100, Texas Tech went 11-0 with an average scoring margin of 26.7 points. Against everyone else: 6-10, out-scored by a total of 34 points and only once won back-to-back games against tournament-caliber foes. (Wins over LSU and Oklahoma.) The Red Raiders will probably win their opener, but it's rather unlikely we're headed for a third consecutive Elite Eight featuring Texas Tech.
23. Tennessee Volunteers
Record: 18-8, 10-7 in SEC
How They Got Here: Tennessee started out 7-0 with nice wins over Colorado and Missouri, the latter coming on the road by 20 points. The Volunteers climbed as high as No. 6 in the AP poll in mid-January before playing barely-.500 basketball the rest of the way. They did smoke Kansas by 19 during that less-than-stellar finish, though, so it's not like they've lost the ability to win.
Reason to Believe: The Volunteers are a certified migraine inducer on defense. They don't have an individual player who racks up a ton of blocks or a ton of steals, but they have so much collective length that it often feels like there are six guys on the floor. But if you want individual names to watch for, Yves Pons and Josiah-Jordan James are the most irritating for opponents to navigate.
Reason to Worry: The defense is fierce, but there are nights where this offense can't hit water in the ocean. The Vols were held to 56 points or fewer in 20.8 percent of their regular-season games. Each member of their seven-man rotation averages at least 8.0 points per game, but they have neither a go-to scorer nor a true point guard.
March Madness Ceiling: Tennessee has too much talent to be counted out. Both Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer are potential lottery picks, James was a 5-star recruit two years ago and Pons is going to straight up jump out of a gymnasium one of these days. The overall shooting percentages are concerning, but this felt like an Elite Eight team less than two months ago. It would be a surprise if the Vols got there, but they could.
22. LSU Tigers
Record: 18-9, 11-6 in SEC
How They Got Here: A book about LSU's season would be called "A Tail of Two Tigers." For the first half of the year, the Tigers felt like a fringe title contender. They started out 10-2, and the lone losses were close road games against Saint Louis and Florida. No shame in those results. But they went 6-6 the rest of the way (before the SEC tournament), and some of those losses got ugly. The two regular-season losses to Alabama were by a combined margin of 48 points.
Reason to Believe: In Cameron Thomas, Trendon Watford, Javonte Smart and Darius Days, LSU has one heck of a quartet on offense. Those four guys averaged 66.8 points per game during the regular season, which is better than about 20 percent of what entire teams score. The Tigers also don't commit many turnovers and snag a lot of offensive rebounds. As a result, they have one of the 10 most efficient offenses in the country.
Reason to Worry: LSU's defense is just plain bad. The Tigers have allowed at least 80 points in more than half of their games, this in spite of having surprisingly good luck in the three-point defense department—only one of their last 24 opponents shot better than 37.5 percent from distance; 17 of them shot 30.0 percent or worse. If they can't slow down teams when those shots aren't falling, heaven help them when an opponent does get hot.
March Madness Ceiling: There are always a few teams who could score their way into the Elite Eight, if only they could defend their way out of the first round. LSU is one of those teams that has more than enough offense to win a couple of games but is probably going to give up 90 points in a loss by the end of the first weekend.
21. Creighton Bluejays
Record: 20-8, 14-6 in Big East
How They Got Here: Creighton was one of the biggest bracketology conundrums. The Bluejays almost won at Kansas, but they didn't, so their best nonconference win came against Big Ten bottom-feeder Nebraska. And then in league play, Creighton swept Connecticut and blew out Villanova, yet suffered not-great losses to Butler, Georgetown (twice), Marquette, Providence and Xavier. Knowing what to make of Creighton from both a seeding and ceiling perspective has long been a struggle.
Reason to Believe: Not many teams shoot better than Creighton does, particularly when Marcus Zegarowski is in a groove. The Bluejays start three seniors and two juniors. Three of those veterans average more than two made three-pointers per game, and three shoot better than 63 percent from inside the arc. Creighton also does a great job of taking care of the ball with minimal turnovers.
Reason to Worry: Creighton's defense—though considerably more efficient than in any previous year under Greg McDermott—is far from championship-caliber. And with a starting lineup where no one is taller than 6'7", the Bluejays frequently lose the rebounding battle.
March Madness Ceiling: Creighton has been eliminated prior to the Sweet 16 in 17 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament. In a lot of those, the Bluejays were double-digit seeds, not expected to make a deep run. But even the Doug McDermott years always ended before the first weekend. That obviously does not mean Creighton is guaranteed to lose within its first two games, but I'm far from convinced that this is the team to end that drought.
20. Purdue Boilermakers
Record: 18-9, 13-6 in Big Ten
How They Got Here: Though Purdue went winless against Illinois, Iowa and Michigan, it swept Ohio State (before the Big Ten tournament). The Boilermakers also won two regular-season games each against Indiana, Michigan State and Penn State en route to 13 wins in the best conference. They also lost a game to Miami in which the Hurricanes shot 1-of-17 from three-point range, which makes it challenging to trust this team.
Reason to Believe: Trevion Williams is a problem. Purdue's big man was a bit overshadowed in a league where Luka Garza, Kofi Cockburn and Hunter Dickinson also thrived, but he is a relentless force in the paint, averaging 25.0 points and 14.4 rebounds per 40 minutes. And while the 6'10", 265-pound junior only plays about 25 minutes per night, it's not like opponents get any relief when he goes to the bench and 7'4", 285-pound freshman Zach Edey takes his place. Edey had 41 points and 16 rebounds combined in his final two games of the regular season.
Reason to Worry: When this offense goes cold, it goes polar-vortex cold. Purdue was held to 60 points or fewer six times this season. In one of those games, the Boilermakers did not make an actual shot (only layups and free throws) in the first half against Michigan State. They also struggle to defend the perimeter, forcing few turnovers and ranking well outside the top 300 in both assist percentage and three-point attempt rate, per KenPom.
March Madness Ceiling: Purdue has won at least two games in each of its last three trips to the NCAA tournament, and this team is good enough to keep that streak alive. With only one reliable double-digit scorer, though, anything more than the Sweet 16 seems unlikely.
19. Oregon Ducks
Record: 20-6, 14-4 in Pac-12
How They Got Here: Take out the home losses to Oregon State and Washington State—suffered at considerably less than full strength and after COVID-19 pauses—and the Ducks look like a Top 10 team. Or, at least they did before that Pac-12 semifinal loss to Oregon State. Their only other losses were away from home against quality opponents (Missouri, Colorado and USC).
Reason to Believe: Since getting Will Richardson back from thumb surgery in early February, Oregon has been tough to beat. All five starters ended the regular season shooting at least 36 percent from three-point range while making at least 1.5 triples per game. The Ducks shot 42.3 percent as a team over their final 11 regular-season games.
Reason to Worry: They somehow make it work, but Oregon basically starts five wings. They're all 6'5" or 6'6", and there's nothing close to a true point guard or center in the bunch. One has to think some team with a dominant center or a ball-hawking defense will exploit that lack of variation.
March Madness Ceiling: Oregon has five players who average at least 10 points per game, and that quintet is made up of three seniors and two juniors. That's a lot of skilled experience for a coach (Dana Altman) who is closing in on 700 career wins and who has won multiple games in each of his last three trips to the NCAA tournament. The Ducks have Elite Eight potential.
18. Loyola-Chicago Ramblers
Record: 24-4, 16-2 in Missouri Valley
How They Got Here: Early losses to Wisconsin and Richmond left Loyola-Chicago nowhere close to the at-large conversation when Missouri Valley Conference play began. But after that 3-2 start, the Ramblers became a near-unstoppable force, routinely winning games by 20 or more points. They won each of their three MVC tournament games by double digits, locking up a bid they were likely to get no matter what happened.
Reason to Believe: Loyola-Chicago's defense is sensational. The 75-65 win over Drake in the MVC title game snapped a 17-game streak of holding opponents to 58 points or fewer. Second-chance opportunities and trips to the free-throw line are few and far between against the Ramblers. And anchored by mustachioed big man Cameron Krutwig, they shoot nearly 60 percent from inside the arc.
Reason to Worry: In the losses to Wisconsin and Richmond, each team shot at least 50 percent from three-point range against the Ramblers. They also had some rough luck defending the three multiple times each against Indiana State and Southern Illinois. And for a team that only averages around 72 points per game, one off night in that department could be fatal.
March Madness Ceiling: With a snail-like tempo, a solid overall shooting percentage and an elite defense, Loyola-Chicago bears a lot of similarities to recent iterations of the Virginia Cavaliers and is a better version of the Ramblers team that made it to the 2018 Final Four. There likely won't be many people who actually pick it, but no one would be surprised if this team makes it to the final weekend of the tournament.
17. USC Trojans
Record: 22-7, 15-5 in Pac-12
How They Got Here: Led by super freshman Evan Mobley, USC started 18-3 and entered the final third of February with an outside shot at a No. 1 seed. But after carrying the team for nearly three months, Mobley hit the proverbial wall and the Trojans lost three out of four games. Had it not been for Tahj Eaddy's miracle bucket at the last second against UCLA, that losing skid would have been four out of six. Mobley was awesome in the Pac-12 tournament, though, so look out.
Reason to Believe: USC's rough finish was largely fueled by unsustainably awful luck with its three-point defense. Its final seven regular-season opponents shot 55-of-120 (45.8 percent) from distance. Colorado also shot 50 percent against the Trojans in the Pac-12 semifinals. Outside that, the defense was great all year, particularly in the paint, where Mobley averages three blocks per game. He and older brother Isaiah Mobley also anchor a great offensive rebounding unit.
Reason to Worry: USC is a dreadful free-throw shooting team. That shortcoming didn't stop Michigan State (63.2 percent) from reaching the Final Four in 2015, but those Spartans were the exception. Teams that leave points at the charity stripe this frequently tend to lose before the Sweet 16.
March Madness Ceiling: The free-throw problem is concerning. USC also doesn't force many turnovers. But between the Mobley brothers and Eaddy, the Trojans have a talented enough nucleus to win several games. They only briefly cracked the AP Top 25 in February, but this has been a top 25 team on KenPom for most of the season. No one would be surprised to see the Trojans reach the Sweet 16.
16. Connecticut Huskies
Record: 15-7, 11-6 in Big East
How They Got Here: After a seven-year hiatus in the AAC, Connecticut returned to the Big East and quickly became one of the best teams in the league again. The Huskies couldn't win any of their games against Creighton or Villanova, but they were right there in all four contests and closed out the regular season with six wins in seven games.
Reason to Believe: Throw out the eight games played without James Bouknight and Connecticut is a borderline Top 10 team. And, yes, it's fair to throw those games out, because outside maybe Cade Cunningham and Luka Garza, Bouknight is the most impactful player in the country. If you're looking for this year's top Kemba Walker candidate, you don't even need to leave Storrs. And completely unrelated to Bouknight, Connecticut ranks among the best in the nation at both offensive rebounding and blocking shots.
Reason to Worry: As great as Bouknight is, best of luck counting on anyone else to score. In the December loss to Creighton, he scored 40 points on 24 field-goal attempts while the rest of the team combined for 34 points on 43 shots. It was a similar story in the loss to Villanova, in which non-Bouknight Huskies shot 13-of-38 and scored 39 points. Even in the win over USC, it was 43 points on 40 shots by the rest of the team. If Bouknight has an off night, the Huskies are in trouble. Even if he doesn't have an off night, they are still liable to struggle a bit on offense.
March Madness Ceiling: UConn has undeniable Final Four potential. But if you're afraid to bet your bracket life on a team that relies so heavily on one player, that's more than fair. After all, the reason we still talk about Walker 10 years later is because it almost never happens. (The same goes for the next decade we'll spend talking about teams potentially pulling off a UMBC-style miracle.)
15. Texas Longhorns
Record: 19-7, 11-6 in Big 12
How They Got Here: Early on, Texas looked like the clear top challenger to Baylor in the Big 12. The Longhorns started out 10-1 with a 25-point road win over Kansas, a 22-point neutral-site win over Indiana, close victories over North Carolina, West Virginia and Oklahoma State, and just a nail-biter loss to Villanova. They were Top Five in the AP poll for almost a month. They faded from there but turned it back on in time to win the Big 12 tournament.
Reason to Believe: At their peak, the Longhorns were outrageously good on defense. Indiana had its worst offensive performance of the season against Texas. Kansas, North Carolina, West Virginia and Villanova all had a point total against the Longhorns that ranks among their five lowest of the year. Opponents eventually started hitting threes against the Longhorns, but the length and athleticism of Greg Brown, Kai Jones and Jericho Sims can make this team a nightmare to score against.
Reason to Worry: Texas entered the Big 12 tournament having lost six of its last eight games against tournament-caliber opponents, and even the two wins weren't significant momentum changers. The Longhorns needed overtime to win at home against Kansas on a night when David McCormack was severely limited by foul trouble, and they eked out a recent win over Oklahoma in a battle between teams limping to the finish line.
March Madness Ceiling: If the Big 12 tourney was the start of recapturing that first-half-of-the-season form, the Longhorns are a title contender. Beating Texas Tech and Oklahoma State this past week was certainly impressive, but if you’re hesitant to fully buy back in on a team that stumbled through February, that’s understandable.
14. Virginia Cavaliers
Record: 18-6, 13-4 in ACC
How They Got Here: An early loss to San Francisco and a 98-75 blowout at the hands of Gonzaga made it look like Virginia was going to finish nowhere close to the top of the ACC standings for the first time in nearly a decade. But the Cavaliers turned a corner and won 11 of their first 12 league games. They sputtered to three consecutive losses in mid-February but still managed to secure the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament.
Reason to Believe: Under Tony Bennett, Virginia has had an effective field-goal percentage of 53.0 or better just three times: 54.8 when it made the Elite Eight in 2016, 55.2 when it won the national championship in 2019 and 56.1 this year. Led by transfers Sam Hauser and the aptly named Trey Murphy, the Hoos can make it rain from three-point land. They are also lights-out from the free-throw line.
Reason to Worry: While Virginia's shooting is better than ever, its defense is much worse than usual. It's still good, and it still controls the snail-like tempo as well as any team in the country. However, Virginia's perimeter defense is nowhere near what it used to be. In terms of turnover rate, assist rate and three-point percentage, this is the worst D Virginia has had since fully installing the pack-line in 2011-12.
March Madness Ceiling: Though only one program has won back-to-back titles since the early 1990s (Florida in 2006-07), only a fool would write off these reigning national champions. 2019 was the first time Virginia made the Final Four under Bennett, but it always feels like their efficient, plodding style of play can go the distance. And, good news: UMBC is not in the tournament this year.
Virginia had to pull out of the ACC tournament Friday morning because of a positive COVID-19 test, and we'll have to wait and see how healthy this team is—if it is able to play in the tournament at all. For now, though, we're not going to speculate on such matters and will assume that Virginia is good to go.
13. West Virginia Mountaineers
Record: 18-9, 11-6 in Big 12
How They Got Here: West Virginia spent the entire season ranked in the AP Top 20, but it feels like we never reached any sort of consensus on how good this team actually is. In most of their big wins, the Mountaineers had to claw back from massive deficits. They trailed by 19 in the wins over Oklahoma State and Texas, and they were down by a dozen late against Texas Tech. They can't be counted out of any game.
Reason to Believe: Led by Derek Culver, West Virginia dominates on the offensive glass. But unlike previous iterations of this program, these Mountaineers can also shoot the three, don't commit many turnovers and spend a lot of time at the free-throw line. Per KenPom, the 'Eers rank top 100 in all four categories. In the site's near quarter-century of data history, that has never been the case before.
Reason to Worry: West Virginia has been synonymous with "defense" for most of Bob Huggins' time in Morgantown, but not this year. The Mountaineers have frequently struggled on that end of the floor and have just a 5-9 record when allowing 72 or more points. Even in their marquee wins over Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech (twice), they had to be on point on offense to overcome allowing 80.6 points on average.
March Madness Ceiling: West Virginia came within five points of beating Gonzaga on a neutral court, and it took Baylor to overtime in its only matchup with the Bears. This is clearly a team capable of hanging with anyone. However, it's hard to trust a team that relies on winning games by scores like 88-87 and 84-82. It likely won't be too long before the lack of defense bites West Virginia in the rear, but this team is at least capable of reaching a Final Four.
12. Kansas Jayhawks
Record: 20-8, 12-6 in Big 12
How They Got Here: After allowing 102 points in a season-opening loss to Gonzaga, Kansas won eight straight, including victories over Creighton, West Virginia and Texas Tech. The Jayhawks then struggled for more than a month, racking up six losses in 10 games, but they won six of their final seven conference matchups, including ending Baylor's perfect season. (Let's pretend that UTEP game didn't happen.)
Reason to Believe: It took a while to come together, but Kansas' defense was ridiculously good late in the year. Per KenPom, Kansas' last eight opponents scored 477 points on 555 possessions. That's a raw defensive efficiency of 85.9 points per 100 possessions. Factor in the strength of some of those offenses, and it's even more impressive.
Reason to Worry: Kansas has had an alarming trend of entering the NCAA tournament with a huge unknown in the paint. In 2014, the Jayhawks lost Joel Embiid to a back injury. The following year, Cliff Alexander was suspended and Perry Ellis was hurt late in the regular season. In 2018, Udoka Azubuike got hurt and missed the Big 12 tournament. And now this year, David McCormack's status is up in the air due to COVID-19 protocols. His in-season development was the biggest reason Kansas finished so strong. If he can't play, the Jayhawks could get bounced in the first round.
March Madness Ceiling: Even if we assume Kansas is good to go in spite of needing to pull out of the Big 12 tournament, the McCormack factor is gigantic. After the Feb. 27 win over Baylor, I felt like Kansas was going to win the Big 12 tournament, slide up to a No. 2 seed and emerge as one of the select few non-No. 1 seeds whom everyone talks about as a threat to win it all. But now? I'm definitely waiting to submit my bracket until we know if he's available. In the interim, even penciling KU into the Sweet 16 is dicey. That's how important the big man is.
11. Florida State Seminoles
Record: 16-6, 11-4 in ACC
How They Got Here: Early consecutive wins over Indiana, Florida and Georgia Tech set the table for Florida State to become one of the top contenders for the national championship. But the Seminoles just sort of danced around that table for a couple of months instead of getting comfortable at it. Dominant wins were interspersed among questionable losses, including two late Ls at North Carolina and Notre Dame, which let Virginia win the ACC regular-season title.
Reason to Believe: Experienced depth is always a plus in March, but Florida State's typical approach of smothering you with wave after wave of long, athletic players feels like an added bonus this year. And this is the most gifted on offense Florida State has been under Leonard Hamilton. By now, you're used to the Seminoles playing 12 or 13 guys, most of whom can block shots and just generally annoy you on defense. But this team makes threes and crashes the offensive glass at rates unlike we've seen in the past.
Reason to Worry: Every now and then, Florida State seems to just not care about playing defense, especially away from home. In each of their losses, the Seminoles allowed at least 76 points to offenses that aren't exactly elite. They also had to gut out a 92-85 overtime win over a not-good Wake Forest squad. And we're not even talking about "that opponent was uncharacteristically hot from distance" situations. North Carolina, Clemson and Georgia Tech shot a combined 24-of-94 (25.5 percent) while knocking off the 'Noles, and the Tar Heels committed 21 turnovers.
March Madness Ceiling: Florida State might be the most Jekyll and Hyde team in the country. Good Florida State—the one that beat each of Virginia, Florida, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Louisville by double digits—looks like a team that could effortlessly cruise to the Elite Eight. But Bad Florida State could get bounced early by a double-digit seed. The ceiling is at least a Final Four, but a realistic expectation is the Sweet 16.
10. Arkansas Razorbacks
Record: 22-6, 13-4 in SEC
How They Got Here: Arkansas started out 9-0, lost four out of five games while starting power forward Justin Smith recovered from ankle surgery and then won 11 of its final 12 regular-season games. Few people outside of Fayetteville seem interested in talking about the Razorbacks as a title contender, but they were almost unblemished at full strength.
Reason to Believe: Arkansas is your classic jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none squad. Pick just about any stat, offensive or defensive, and the Razorbacks are above the national average, yet not all that close to best in the country. With a future NBA star like Moses Moody and a rotation in which six other guys have had at least one 20-point performance this season, that lack of an Achilles' heel and the full-strength success makes Arkansas feel like one of the safest Sweet 16 picks (aside from the No. 1 seeds).
Reason to Worry: The only great, top-half-of-Quadrant-1 win that Arkansas had during the regular season was a home game against Alabama, in which the Razorbacks were awarded literally 35 more free-throw attempts than the Crimson Tide. (Considering each team is average in both the committing and drawing fouls departments, that was bizarre.) That doesn't mean Arkansas is incapable of beating the caliber of opponent it would draw in the Sweet 16 and beyond, but it is a little concerning.
March Madness Ceiling: Every year, there's a team that I like as a Final Four sleeper regardless of its draw, but that I don't quite have the guts to pick that far. This year, Arkansas is that team. Moody is a special talent, and he is surrounded by guys capable of lighting up the scoreboard on any night. The Razorbacks are going to win multiple games, possibly four.
9. Houston Cougars
Record: 24-3, 14-3 in American
How They Got Here: Houston made some major early statements with wins by double digits over Boise State and Texas Tech within its first three games of the season. Since then, though, the AAC has done the Cougars no favors. Their best win after November was probably the road game against SMU. They also suffered bad losses to Tulsa and East Carolina.
Reason to Believe: Outside of that 82-73 loss to ECU, Houston's defense has been stupendous. That was the only regular-season opponent to reach 70 against the Cougars, who apply relentless half-court pressure. They do occasionally get a little too physical and allow more than their fair share of free throws, but their defensive profile on KenPom is extremely green (great) outside of that category. Houston is also one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country.
Reason to Worry: Houston does a lot of things extremely well...except for shooting. The Cougars shot 39.0 percent from the field in the loss to East Carolina and 35.7 percent at Tulsa. The good news is that because of their offensive rebounding and their aggressive defense, they have attempted more shots than their opponents in every game this season, often by a wide margin. But at the end of the day, you need to be able to put the ball in the hoop.
March Madness Ceiling: The Cougars have been lurking just outside the AP Top Four all season long, never quite able to get over the hump as a team that should be a No. 1 seed or that should reach the Final Four. But with this defense and with the way they typically dominate the rebounding and turnover battles, the Cougars have the chops to reach a national semifinal. Pick this team to lose to anything other than a No. 1 seed at your own peril.
8. Ohio State Buckeyes
Record: 21-9, 12-8 in Big Ten
How They Got Here: Ohio State had impressive road wins over Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Rutgers and Wisconsin during its run through the Big Ten meat grinder. By mid-February, the Buckeyes were an obvious choice as a projected No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. But they sputtered to the finish line with four consecutive losses to Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa and Illinois. Getting to the Big Ten championship game, though, has alleviated any momentum concerns.
Reason to Believe: Ohio State has one of the most efficient offenses in the nation, devoid of anything close to a clear weakness on that end of the floor. Primary frontcourt star E.J. Liddell developing into a reliable three-point shooter has made the Buckeyes versatile and difficult to defend. Even though they lost the game, putting up 87 points on Michigan in late February was proof they can score on anyone.
Reason to Worry: The defense is...not great. While it's great that the Buckeyes don't have a clear weakness on offense, it's concerning that they don't have a clear strength on defense. They are especially bad in the turnover-forcing department, and that amplifies their general mediocrity on that end of the floor.
March Madness Ceiling: The "great offense, weak defense" teams are always tantalizing to pick for a deep run because of their proven ability to catch and sustain fire. However, those teams are much more likely to lose in the first round than to make the Final Four. Throw in the four-game losing streak to end the regular season and it would be a little surprising to see the Buckeyes reach the final weekend of the tournament.
7. Alabama Crimson Tide
Record: 24-6, 16-2 in SEC
How They Got Here: Seven games into the season, Alabama was 4-3 with losses to Stanford and Western Kentucky and nothing better than a neutral-site victory over Providence. But the Crimson Tide turned the SEC into their personal playground, starting 10-0 and blowing out most of the competition in their path.
Reason to Believe: Alabama makes more than 10 three-pointers per game on average, and it boasts one of the most efficient defenses in the country. That's a lethal combination when both halves of the equation hold true.
Reason to Worry: The reliance on three-pointers is a huge risk. Nearly half Alabama's field-goal attempts are three-pointers, and the Crimson Tide aren't that good at making them. But at least their three-point percentage is above average. In two-pointers, free throws and turnovers, they're right around the national average. They also have shots blocked and balls stolen way more often than most teams. They're undefeated when shooting better than 36 percent from deep, but they have been quite vulnerable against tournament-caliber opponents when shooting at or below that mark.
March Madness Ceiling: When I wrote in mid-January about Alabama's attempt to pull off the elusive football/basketball national championship double dip, I didn't believe it could happen. It was just a fun, topical piece about a hot team. But then the Crimson Tide kept racking up statement wins, and it feels like this team could reach a Final Four for the first time in program history. It all depends on whether Alabama can catch fire from deep, though.
6. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Record: 20-8, 11-7 in Big 12
How They Got Here: From "not eligible for the postseason and probably won't finish .500 anyway after losing most of last year's key contributors" to "legitimately could win a national championship," it has been a wild few months in Stillwater. And there has been plenty of theatre along the way. Oklahoma State has played in 12 games decided by five points or fewer in regulation, plus four overtime games. The Sooners are 11-5 in those contests, and they comfortably beat Baylor in the Big 12 semifinals.
Reason to Believe: Not exactly ground-breaking analysis here, but Cade Cunningham is sensational. Oklahoma State's 6'8" point-forward isn't built anything like Kemba Walker, but he's wired to potentially lead his team on a similar run. And while most casual fans likely could not name any member of his supporting cast, both Avery Anderson and Isaac Likekele can carry the Pokes through any Cunningham cold spells.
Reason to Worry: While Oklahoma State's winning percentage in close games is mighty impressive, the regularity with which this team plays in nail-biters is a little concerning. Two of the close losses were to TCU. They also completely collapsed down the stretch in the close loss to West Virginia. And turnovers are an Achilles' heel for this team, committing 16 per game.
March Madness Ceiling: Oklahoma State had eight regular-season wins over Sweet 16-caliber opponents. And though the Cowboys were unable to win either of the games against Baylor, they did topple the Bears in the conference tournament. The advanced metrics never believed this was a top-20 team, but a guy like Cunningham can defy the analytics. It won't be a popular pick, but Oklahoma State could win it all.
5. Iowa Hawkeyes
Record: 21-8, 14-6 in Big Ten
How They Got Here: Iowa sputtered for a couple of weeks in late January/early February, but outside of that stretch of four losses in five games, the Hawkeyes have been one of the better teams in the country. Over the final few weeks of the regular season, they swept Wisconsin and scored an impressive 16-point road win over Ohio State.
Reason to Believe: Aside from Gonzaga, Iowa has the most efficient offense in the country, and it has the tournament's most unguardable big man in Luka Garza. The funny thing is teams get so worried about slowing down Garza that it's actually the Hawkeyes perimeter game that makes them so darn good. They shoot almost 40 percent from three-point range and average slightly better than 2.0 assists per turnover as an entire team.
Reason to Worry: Though this defense has improved considerably—75.2 points allowed through first 18 games; 66.0 in final nine regular-season games—the Hawkeyes have only improved to "competent" on that end of the floor. They still struggle to defend the three and don't force many turnovers.
March Madness Ceiling: Iowa could win it all, but the more realistic ceiling is probably the Final Four. In theory, the Hawkeyes would need to go through three No. 1 seeds to cut down the nets, and their 0-4 record against Gonzaga, Michigan and Illinois doesn't bode well there. If this recent defensive improvement persists, though, they could shoot their way to a title.
4. Michigan Wolverines
Record: 20-4, 14-3 in Big Ten
How They Got Here: Michigan started out 11-0 and was 13-1 when it went on a three-week-long COVID-19 pause. While many teams struggled in their first couple of games back, the Wolverines seemed to get even stronger, reeling off great wins over Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa. They did sputter to the finish line, though, with losses in two of their final three regular-season games.
Reason to Believe: Michigan's numbers came back to earth a bit with those March losses, but the shooting percentages—both on offense and defense—remain quite impressive. The Wolverines almost make three-pointers (38.7 percent) at the same clip as they allow two-pointers (42.3 percent). It's so tough to score in the paint against Hunter Dickinson and Co., and then after you work your tail off for a deuce, they'll come right down and drain a demoralizing trey.
Reason to Worry: When Michigan has an off night, it really has an off night. In the 18-point loss at Minnesota, the Wolverines committed 20 turnovers. In the 23-point loss to Illinois, they couldn't buy a bucket or slow down an Ayo Dosunmu-less Illini offense. It's almost impossible to win the NCAA tournament without gutting out at least one game when the shots aren't falling or when an opponent can't seem to miss. Can Michigan survive that game?
March Madness Ceiling: With Eli Brooks looking healthy in the Big Ten tournament, the sky's the limit. The senior guard has been Michigan's glue guy. Things unraveled quickly in the Minnesota game because he was out, and then he suffered an ankle injury a few minutes into the regular-season-ending loss to Michigan State. If he stays healthy, Michigan should reach the Final Four and could win it all. But if he's limited or out altogether, the Wolverines might get bounced early.
3. Illinois Fighting Illini
Record: 23-6, 16-4 in Big Ten
How They Got Here: Illinois had some tough, close losses in the first half of the season and was at one point 9-5 without any particularly great wins. But the Illini closed out the regular season with wins in 11 of their final 12 games, rapidly surging from a team that could reach the Elite Eight to a team that should make the Final Four.
Reason to Believe: Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn are the most unstoppable outside-inside duo in the country. The former has a flair for the dramatic and has been (at least anecdotally) the best crunch-time player this season. The latter is a 7'0", 285-pound behemoth who looks like he was chiseled out of stone. Either one can completely take over a game at a moment's notice, and having two players that dominant is quite the luxury.
Reason to Worry: The big concern with Illinois has always been: Who else shows up? Trent Frazier will dominate one game and completely disappear the next. Adam Miller has been the same way. And while Andre Curbelo has played well the past couple of weeks, he has gone through stretches of maddening inconsistency, too. When the role players step up, Illinois can win three consecutive road games against Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State. When they don't, Illinois barely ekes out wins over Nebraska and Northwestern.
March Madness Ceiling: Illinois is clearly capable of winning a national championship. Not only did the Illini blow out Michigan in Ann Arbor without Dosunmu, but they put up a good fight on a neutral court against Baylor back in December—despite getting just seven points and four rebounds from Cockburn because of foul trouble. It's really just a question of whether they can bring their A-game for three straight weeks.
2. Baylor Bears
Record: 22-2, 13-1 in Big 12
How They Got Here: For most of the season, Baylor was the clear-cut second-best team in the country. That temporarily changed when the Bears came back from a three-week COVID-19 pause, darn near lost to Iowa State and did then suffer their first loss (at Kansas). But subsequent wins over West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech have put Baylor right back on that second-best perch. The Bears did lose to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 semifinals on an uncharacteristically poor shooting night, but that doesn’t feel like a huge cause for concern.
Reason to Believe: Baylor does three things as well as any team: shoot threes, force turnovers and grab offensive rebounds. All three of those strengths defied the Bears in the loss to Kansas, but in the vast majority of games, opponents have been helpless against that lethal combination.
Reason to Worry: In their constant hunt for steals, the Bears somewhat frequently overextend their defense and leave someone wide open for a three. Five opponents made at least nine triples and shot better than 45 percent from three-point range against them. Some of that is dumb luck, and the risk is usually worth the reward. It's still a minor concern. Also, despite fantastic three-point shooting, Baylor is subpar in the free-throw percentage department.
March Madness Ceiling: Though it has not been to a Final Four since 1950, Baylor is one of the top candidates to win the national championship. With so many gifted shooters and so many aggressive offensive rebounders, this team won't get shut down on offense anytime soon. With any luck, we'll finally get the Baylor-Gonzaga game that was canceled in December.
1. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Record: 26-0, 15-0 in WCC
How They Got Here: Gonzaga opened the season with consecutive neutral-site victories over Kansas, Auburn, West Virginia and Iowa. The Zags later added a game against Virginia and dropped 98 points on what has been the nation's best defense for the past decade. And then aside from BYU catching fire in the first half of the WCC championship game, they weren't really challenged at any point in league play. Domination from start to finish.
Reason to Believe: Take your pick, really. I've said for months that 2020-21 Gonzaga basketball feels like 2020 Alabama football, as both of those forces of nature boasted three legitimate candidates for National Player of the Year. Jalen Suggs has been just fantastic running this offense as a freshman, Drew Timme is a gifted scorer with excellent footwork for a big man, and Corey Kispert might be the best pure shooter in the country. As long as two of those three guys show up to play, best of luck to any upset-minded foe.
Reason to Worry: You know why people keep pushing the dumb "Maybe blowing out the WCC night after night will hurt them in the tournament" narrative? Because there's no rational reason to worry about Gonzaga. The Zags occasionally give up more points than you might expect and/or like to see from a top-tier defense, but that's mostly because of their lightning-fast tempo. I do worry ever so slightly about their limited depth, but you could toss "Could they withstand a minor injury or COVID-19 player absence?" concerns at a whole lot of teams.
March Madness Ceiling: There's no ceiling here, and it almost feels like the floor is the Final Four. This Gonzaga squad is much more 2014-15 Kentucky than it is 2013-14 Wichita State if we're drawing comparisons to recent unbeatens. Anything could happen in the tournament. It has only been three years since the No. 1 overall seed lost to a No. 16 seed in the first round. But Gonzaga is, at worst, neck-and-neck with Baylor as the co-teams to beat.