NCAA Bracket 2021: Forecasting Potentially Epic 1st-Round Matchups

Jake RillFeatured Columnist IMarch 7, 2021

NCAA Bracket 2021: Forecasting Potentially Epic 1st-Round Matchups

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    March Madness got its name for a reason. The NCAA men's basketball tournament can be wild, unpredictable and thrilling. You never know what might happen once the 68-team field is set.

    It's not quite time for the mayhem. There are still some major conference tournaments that need to take place that will help shape the bracket for this year's Big Dance. Then the selection committee will reveal the field March 14.

    Sports fans are hungrier than ever before for March Madness this season because last year's tournament was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

    If past years are any indication, then it shouldn't take long for some close, exciting games to take place. Based on some bracket projections, here's a look at several potential first-round matchups that would likely get the tournament off to a thrilling start.

Drake vs. Oklahoma

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Drake has lost only three games this season and could win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament Sunday. This could be a Cinderella team in the making, and its NCAA tourney run could start off with an exciting first-round matchup.

    ESPN's Joe Lunardi is projecting the Bulldogs to be a No. 11 seed and take on No. 6-seeded Oklahoma in the first round. If that's how things line up, then this could be an upset pick when filling out your bracket.

    Heading into the MVC tournament championship game against Loyola-Chicago, Drake is 25-3. It got off to a hot start this season, winning its first 18 games, and it should receive an at-large bid even if it doesn't win Sunday.

    Meanwhile, Oklahoma has notched some impressive wins this season (including two over West Virginia), but it ended the regular season with four straight losses, so it needs to get back on track during the Big 12 tournament. Senior guard Austin Reaves, who leads the team with 17.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game, could help them do that.

    If Oklahoma and Drake play to open March Madness, don't be surprised if a competitive game ends with the Bulldogs pulling off the upset and beginning a strong tournament run.

Oregon vs. Maryland

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    Andy Nelson/Associated Press

    Oregon has had an impressive season in the Pac-12 and may only be getting better. Maryland has had some struggles, but it's faced some challenging Big Ten competition and has picked up some late wins. A first-round matchup between the two in the NCAA men's basketball tournament? That has the potential for some excitement.

    Jerry Palm of CBS Sports is projecting the No. 8-seeded Terrapins to face the No. 9-seeded Ducks. And if that happens, it would likely be a competitive game that could go either way.

    Having won eight of its past nine games, Oregon is on a roll entering its regular-season finale against Oregon State on Sunday. The Ducks could win the Pac-12 regular-season championship for the second straight season. And even if they don't win the conference tournament, it's possible they will still be seeded in this range as an at-large team.

    Maryland has flashed its potential throughout the season, including when it notched wins over Illinois and Wisconsin. However, the Terrapins have been inconsistent, as their recent five-game winning streak ended with a loss to lowly Northwestern. They will look to re-establish some momentum before the Big Ten tournament with a win over Penn State on Sunday.

    An Oregon-Maryland matchup would be the first meeting between the programs, and it could be one of the better contests early in March Madness.

VCU vs. Tennessee

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    Mark Wallheiser/Associated Press

    When March rolls around, it's always important to keep an eye on VCU. The Rams have been the Cinderella team of the NCAA men's basketball tournament before (reaching the Final Four in 2011), and they could do it again.

    Lunardi is projecting VCU to be a No. 11 seed with a tough matchup against No. 6-seeded Tennessee. The Volunteers haven't lived up to expectations in the SEC this season, going 16-7 and 9-7 in conference play, but they are a solid team that could still make some noise in March.

    But the Rams could be a tough team too, even if they are a lower seed. They are 19-6 this season, going 10-4 in Atlantic 10 play and winning their first two games in the conference tournament. VCU could win the tourney title with a win over St. Bonaventure on March 14.

    It hasn't been that long since these two programs have faced off. On Nov. 30, 2019, Tennessee beat VCU on the road 72-69. And while the teams are mostly different, some of the players from that meeting are still playing, so perhaps a matchup between them would be just as competitive.

    Could VCU pull off the upset, or would Tennessee begin a tournament run of its own? It's exciting to see imagine what will happen if this matchup materializes.