Bracketology 2021: Answering the Biggest Questions on the NCAA Tournament Field
A year ago, one of the best sports events of the year was canceled. The frenzy and excitement of March Madness turned into fear and anxiety over a global pandemic.
No onions. No shining moment. No sports at all.
As the coronavirus pandemic wore on through the summer and into the fall, many wondered how it would affect men's and women's college basketball during the 2020-21 season. Would there be a season? Would it be delayed? Would we get May Madness instead of a tournament that runs through March and into April?
The season started with a modest delay, with teams adhering to strict health and safety protocols. It's been a strange season, as several teams opted out of playing, including all Ivy League teams after the conference decided to cancel all sports for the academic year. Some schools were forced to shut down their programs for extended periods of time due to COVID-19 cases or exposures.
But the NCAA is staging men's and women's tournaments this season. Conference tournaments are being contested as we speak, and selection Sunday is a few short days away.
Things might be a little different this year, but that's to be expected. With that said, we've answered five questions about the men's bracket, COVID-19 protocols and more.
What Will Teams Do If a COVID-19 Outbreak Occurs?
As usual, the Big Dance will still be a 68-team, single-elimination tournament. There will be 31 auto-bids, down from 32 with the Ivy League cancellation.
To receive an at-large bid, a team must have played at least 13 games against Division I opponents. With several teams forced to hit pause on team activities this season, the amount of games have varied. Teams can also have played 12 Division I games and one conference championship tournament game to be eligible.
All games will take place around Indianapolis, with the NCAA creating a bubble-like hub downtown. Teams will stay at hotels near the Indianapolis Convention Center, and the venue will serve as the practice facility as well. The Final Four will take place at Lucas Oil Stadium. Fans will be allowed at sites at 25 percent capacity.
Teams that withdraw because of COVID-19 issues will not be replaced. The teams they are slated to face will automatically advance. Teams need to register seven straight days of negative tests to travel to Indianapolis, but once there, a negative test will not take them out of action.
Teams will be allowed to play if at least five players are healthy and cleared to play. However, there is little clarity when it comes to coaches with positive tests.
Which of the Elites Will Miss the Tournament?
Other than COVID-19, the biggest story of the season has been the struggling power programs.
Kansas is good, but it isn't as good as usual. Kentucky is well below .500, and North Carolina have been outside of the Top 25 for much of the season. This week, San Diego and UC Santa Barbara received votes in the Associated Press poll while the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels were blanked once again.
Duke's NCAA tournament chances are likely over after the team announced Thursday morning that it would be forced to withdraw from the ACC tournament because of a positive COVID-19 test. The Blue Devils were a disappointing 13-11 during the regular season and would have needed an ACC tournament title to seal a bid.
Michigan State recently played its way back to the bubble by winning five of its last seven games, including defeats of No. 5 Illinois, No. 4 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan. The Spartans could be playing their best basketball at the right time.
The Jayhawks are in no danger of missing the tournament, and thanks to some inspired play over the last month, the Tar Heels are safe as well. But Kentucky will not be in the Big Dance. That much we know.
According to the simulations at TeamRankings.com, Michigan State has an 86 percent chance of making the tournament.
Will Multiple Big Ten Teams Get No. 1 Seeds?
The Big Ten is undoubtedly the deepest conference in college basketball. Four of the top 10 teams in the NET rankings are in the Big Ten and five are ranked in the AP Top 25.
The top two teams entering conference championship week are Gonzaga and Baylor. It's safe to write them into your brackets as No. 1 seeds. The Big Ten tournament could determine the next two.
The odds currently favor the league's regular-season champion, No. 4 Michigan. TeamRankings.com gives the Wolverines a 96 percent chance to earn a top seed. Andy Katz of NCAA.com, Joe Lunardi of ESPN.com and B/R's Kerry Miller have Michigan and Illinois with No. 1 seeds as well.
But Iowa poses a threat to Illinois on the same side of the Big Ten tournament bracket. The Hawkeyes have been one of the best teams in the country all season and have a two-time Big Ten Player of the Year in Luka Garza. The senior became Iowa's all-time leading scorer in February.
With Purdue and Ohio State in their bracket, the Wolverines don't exactly have a cakewalk to the title game, either. But that fourth and final No. 1 seed could be up for grabs.
Which Teams Outside the Top 4 Could Earn No. 1 Seeds?
Alabama is no longer just a football school.
Two teams outside of the Big Ten have a legitimate chance at grabbing a No. 1 seed: No. 6-ranked Alabama and No. 7 Houston. The margin for error is so thin when it comes to single-elimination tournaments, and the potential for chaos is always high during conference championship week.
According to TeamRankings.com, Alabama has a better chance of being awarded a No. 1 seed (40 percent) than Illinois (37 percent) or Iowa (5 percent). Houston's chances aren't great at only 3 percent, but Ohio State isn't much further ahead (4 percent).
Houston, Alabama, Iowa and Ohio State are largely projected to earn No. 2 seeds. West Virginia, Arkansas, Kansas and Villanova are projected to follow that group as No. 3 seeds.
But it would be a huge program milestone if Alabama earns a No. 1 seed.
Herb Jones, the SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, is healthy heading into the SEC tournament after a back injury plagued him for much of the season. Alabama's biggest competition is Arkansas, who was responsible for one of Alabama's only two conference losses this season.
Which Bubble Teams Will Be Out?
Syracuse kept its season alive with a win over NC State in the ACC tournament Wednesday. But unless the Orange can make a deep run, they aren't likely to get an invite to the Big Dance.
San Diego State is a lock out of the Mountain West Conference, and the conference could have another at-large bid. There is a cluster at the top of the conference standings, with Colorado State and Boise State projected as No. 12 seeds in some brackets and Utah State projected a 12-seed in others.
The Broncos will likely be one of the first four out unless they win the Mountain West tournament. Utah State ended the regular season with four straight wins and carries some momentum into the Mountain West tournament as the No. 2 seed.
In the Big East, Seton Hall ended the regular season with consecutive losses against Georgetown, Butler, UConn and St. John's, likely dooming its chances for an at-large bid.
Where Will the Top Mid-Majors Be Seeded?
The top two mid-majors in the country are Colgate out of the Patriot League and Loyola Chicago out of the Missouri Valley Conference.
Colgate is currently eighth in the NET rankings, which the NCAA selection committee examines while choosing at-large teams. However, the Raiders played a conference-only schedule, so they aren't battle-tested.
Loyola Chicago won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament beating Drake 75-65 in the championship game. Head coach Porter Moser has two seniors left from his 2017-18 Final Four team, and they've reminded him why he spurned St. John's to stay in Chicago.
Sister Jean Delores Schmidt, the darling of the 2018 tournament, has already received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. While it might be unlikely, the team has not ruled out a trip to Indianapolis for her.
If she does, the 101-year-old nun could see Loyola playing as a No. 7 seed.