NCAA Tournament 2021: Predicting Favorites for March Madness BracketMarch 7, 2021
NCAA Tournament 2021: Predicting Favorites for March Madness Bracket
For the majority of the NCAA men's college basketball season, the talk was about the Gonzaga Bulldogs and Baylor Bears being the two best teams.
Over the last few weeks, the Michigan Wolverines and Illinois Fighting Illini pushed themselves into the conversation of elite teams.
Michigan displayed no effects from a long pause in play and reeled off some tremendous Big Ten wins. Illinois earned arguably the best win of the season when it blew out the Wolverines with Ayo Dosunmu out injured.
Illinois backed up its claim for the fourth No. 1 seed in the NCAA men's basketball tournament Saturday, as it knocked off the Ohio State Buckeyes on the road with Dosunmu back in the lineup.
Gonzaga and Baylor should still remain at, or near, the top of every favorites list to win the Big Dance, but those conversations must involve the Big Ten's two best sides as well.
Gonzaga asserted itself as the No. 1 team in the country during a dauting nonconference schedule.
Mark Few's team defeated the Kansas Jayhawks, Iowa Hawkeyes, West Virginia Mountaineers and Virginia Cavaliers in a one-month span.
Gonzaga's offense scored at least 87 points in each of those contests, and its defense slowed down Iowa and Virginia in stretches of those clashes to win by double figures.
Since then, the Zags earned a perfect 15-0 record in West Coast Conference play. They are two wins away from securing the league's automatic berth into the field of 68.
Gonzaga is such a tough matchup for any opponent because it has a terrific freshman guard in Jalen Suggs and a frontcourt duo in Corey Kispert and Drew Timme that are all hard to stop.
Kispert leads the team with 19.5 points per game. Timme is the better rebounder of the two with 7.1 boards per game to go along with 18.9 points per contest.
If that was not enough to scare opposing teams, Gonzaga's role players score at a high rate too. Joel Ayayi averages 11.3 points per game, while Andrew Nembhard and Anton Watson average over seven points per contest.
Gonzaga is the most complete team in the nation, and it will take a perfect effort from one of its early March Madness foes to spring an upset.
Barring an upset in the WCC tournament, Gonzaga should be the No. 1 overall seed and take the title of pre-tournament favorite.
Baylor's recent drop in the AP Top 25 was because of Michigan's handful of terrific wins and its own lackluster form in the return from a COVID-related pause.
The Bears suffered their only loss of the campaign against the Kansas Jayhawks on February 27, which came four days after a disappointing four-point home win over the Iowa State Cyclones.
Scott Drew's team righted the ship with wins over West Virginia and the Oklahoma State Cowboys to reaffirm its status as a No. 1 seed and the top program in the Big 12.
Baylor boasts some similar qualities as Gonzaga, as it has a three-pronged attack of top scorers and some of the best defenders in the country.
Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell all average over 13 points per game and shoot better than 46 percent from the field.
If one member of the trio is having an off night, Drew can turn to another part of the triumvirate to pick up the scoring slack.
The Bears have one of the best defenders in the country in Mark Vital, who will likely guard every opponent's top scorer in the NCAA tournament.
If the dream of a Gonzaga-Baylor matchup comes to fruition, Vital should be matched up with Suggs in what would be one of the best individual battles of the season.
However, that matchup likely will not happen until the national championship, if it does at all, since Baylor should be the No. 2 or No. 3 overall seed and placed on the opposite side of Gonzaga.
Michigan produced an opposite set of results compared to Baylor when it came out of its COVID-19-related pause.
The Wolverines reeled off five consecutive victories, three of which were over teams in the AP Top 25.
Juwan Howard's team is 6-1 since it returned to the floor on February 14, with the only loss coming at home to Illinois.
The Wolverines have been viewed as the top threat to Gonzaga and Baylor lately because they have a great mix of players who contribute in every facet of the game.
Freshman big man Hunter Dickinson has won some battles during conference play with Iowa's Luka Garza and others that has proved he can go head-to-head with the likes of Kispert and Timme.
Isaiah Livers and Eli Brooks could be the most important players to Michigan's success in March since they were part of the Wolverines team that reached the 2018 national championship.
Michigan has six players who average over seven points per game. Five of those players shoot over 35 percent from three-point range.
At its best, Michigan can torch opponents with hot shooting from beyond the arc and through Dickinson controlling the paint.
Illinois' Kofi Cockburn was the only player to control a matchup with Dickinson, and that performance came in what can only be described as an off night for the entire Wolverines team.
Michigan shot 34.7 percent from the field in that loss, so if a rematch happens in the Big Ten or NCAA tournaments, we should see a more even contest.
Illinois may be the hot team that fans choose to win the NCAA tournament.
Brad Underwood's team defeated Michigan on the road without Dosunmu and then followed it up with a road victory over Ohio State. Those two results likely secured the fourth No. 1 seed.
Illinois has one loss dating back to January 19, and it won its last four Top 25 showdowns inside the Big Ten.
The Fighting Illini can make a deep run in the Big Dance because it has one of the best inside-outside duos in the nation in Dosunmu and Cockburn.
An argument can be made that Dosunmu should be the main challenger to Garza in the National Player of the Year race.
The junior guard averages 20.9 points per game, and he produced a pair of triple-doubles in February against the Minnesota Golden Gophers and Wisconsin Badgers.
On Saturday, Dosunmu did not appear to be affected by the mask he wore because of a facial injury suffered against the Michigan State Spartans. He had 19 points, four rebounds and three assists.
Cockburn is one of the most physically imposing big men in the nation. He averages 17.3 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. It would take either a poor shooting night or foul trouble to take the 7-foot, 285-pounder from controlling the paint.
Illinois only has a strong supporting cast of guards in Andre Curbelo, Trent Frazier and Adam Miller who can pick up the scoring if Dosunmu or Cockburn have an off night.
Since they have solid scoring depth and two stars that take over games, the Illini have to be considered as a March Madness favorite and one of the few teams that can beat Gonzaga, Baylor and Michigan.
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.
Statistics obtained from ESPN.com.