NCAA Tournament 2021: Breaking Down Every Team's Chance to Win the Title
The 2021 men's NCAA tournament bracket is set, and one program will soon be cutting down the nets at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis as the national champion.
If you're an optimistic person, the beauty of March Madness is a near-equal opportunity for the 68-team field. Although eight programs have a play-in game, a title is otherwise six wins away.
But the realistic chances for every team can vary dramatically. For example, no reasonable person will argue Gonzaga and Baylor are equally as likely as Cleveland State, Oral Roberts and Hartford to win the 2021 national championship. The NCAA tournament has extreme long shots, clear favorites and everything in between.
The following tiers are subjective but consider historical trends, regular-season performance and current roster status.
Note: The tiers assume six (or seven) required victories. Coronavirus-related cancellations may affect March Madness as they did conference tournaments, but that is not considered.
Tier 7: Extreme Longshots
No. 16 Seeds: Norfolk State, Appalachian State, Mount St. Mary's, Texas Southern, Drexel, Hartford
Since the March Madness field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, the No. 16 seeds have a single win in 140 first-round matchups. UMBC earned legendary status for toppling Virginia in the 2018 tournament but lost in the second round. Winning six straight games is spectacularly unlikely for a 16.
No. 15 Seeds: Grand Canyon, Oral Roberts, Cleveland State, Iona
As above, this possibility is historically minimal. Although four 15s celebrated a first-round upset in the last decade alone, only 2013 Florida Gulf Coast advanced to the Sweet 16. They can create a bit of chaos in early rounds but will quickly bow out.
No. 14 Seeds: Eastern Washington, Colgate, Morehead State, Abilene Christian
While it's a sweeping generalization, history continues to back it up. In the last 35 tournaments, only two 14s have survived the opening weekend. That hasn't happened since 1997 Chattanooga.
Tier 6: Longshots
No. 13 Seeds: Ohio, North Texas, Liberty, UNC Greensboro
The 4/13 upset has occurred in 25 of the 35 tournaments since 1985, but long-term success is still absent. All six 13s that reached the second weekend lost immediately. That's no small coincidence, given the most likely Sweet 16 opponent is a No. 1 seed.
No. 12 Seeds: UC Santa Barbara, Winthrop, Georgetown, Oregon State
Led by triple-double threat Chandler Vaudrin, Winthrop is extremely fun. Georgetown and Oregon State both stole a bid as surprise conference tournament champions, and UC Santa Barbara is 22-4. As enjoyable as the 5/12 upset can be, however, only 2002 Missouri has ever won a Sweet 16 game as a No. 12 seed.
Tier 5: Cinderella Teams
No. 11 Seeds: Wichita State, Drake, Utah State, Syracuse, Michigan State, UCLA
Interestingly enough, four No. 11 seeds have reached the Final Four compared to a combined two for Nos. 9 and 10. As a result, the tone changes here. Still, this group is loaded with inconsistency. Michigan State's best-case performance and Syracuse's reasonably favorable draw are worth considering.
No. 10 Seeds: VCU, Virginia Tech, Maryland, Rutgers
Syracuse finally broke the Elite Eight barrier for 10-seeds in 2016, eliminating ACC rival Virginia to reach the Final Four. As you'd expect from this range, however, all four programs are strong on either offense or defense but not both.
No. 9 Seeds: St. Bonaventure, Georgia Tech, Missouri, Wisconsin
Between a total toss-up against the No. 8 seed in the first round and a near-certain clash with the No. 1 next, the No. 9 seed is a tough position. Simply to reach the Sweet 16, though.
St. Bonaventure may need to outlast LSU, Michigan and Florida State. ACC champion Georgia Tech could meet Loyola-Chicago and Illinois on the first weekend alone. Missouri would face Gonzaga in the second round, and Wisconsin has dropped seven of its last 10 games. We're not banking on it.
No. 8 Oklahoma Sooners
In January alone, Oklahoma defeated West Virginia, Kansas, Texas and Alabama. Following that torrid run, however, Lon Kruger's team has plummeted. While they've consistently avoided a blowout loss against a challenging Big 12 schedule, the Sooners are just 1-5 in the last six games.
No. 8 North Carolina Tar Heels
On the bright side, No. 8 is the lowest-ranked seed to win a national title! But that happened in 1985. The only programs since then to reach the Final Four are 2011 Butler and 2014 Kentucky. North Carolina is one of the best offensive rebounding teams as usual, but it's largely a product of highly inefficient shooting.
No. 7 Connecticut Huskies
Huge fan of James Bouknight. But for UConn to put together an extended run, he'll need to conjure up some Kemba Walker magic. The Huskies are just 29.8 from three-point range in the last seven games, and stout defense on the opposite end cannot atone for that subpar shooting unless Bouknight goes nuclear.
No. 7 Florida Gators
Making threes on the Gators is tough, but they still have noticeable limitations on both ends. While the offense is 272nd in turnover rate, the defense is 141st in two-point defense.
No. 6 San Diego State Aztecs
While the Aztecs head to March Madness on a 14-game winning streak, the mediocre level of competition is a concern. That's not a shot at SDSU's scheduling; it's simply a part of this season's circumstance. Nevertheless, the Aztecs haven't played anyone better than BYU, Utah State or UCLA.
Tier 4: Don't Bet on It
No. 5 Tennessee Volunteers
Once upon a time, Tennessee looked like a strong Elite Eight contender. Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case in the last two months. The Vols opened 10-1 but are 8-7 since then, never winning more than two straight games. Tennessee is on upset alert in the opening round against Oregon State.
No. 7 Clemson Tigers
The good news is Clemson beat Purdue and Alabama at neutral sites early in the season and could play Rutgers and Houston on the opening weekend. The bad news is Clemson went 0-5 on the road against Quadrant 1 teams in ACC action. That's not a comforting thought for a neutral-site tournament.
No. 6 BYU Cougars
There's a lot to like about BYU, particularly its 26th-ranked three-point shooting unit and the 21st-lowest rate of offensive rebounds allowed. Because of its league affiliation and a limited nonconference slate, though, BYU is very untested. The recent loss to Gonzaga suggests the Cougars can be a thorn, but there's a big difference between being competitive and winning a national title.
No. 5 Colorado Buffaloes
If only Colorado could play USC all the time. Excluding the Trojans, the Buffs are 0-4 against Quadrant 1 teams—and each of those contests happened outside of Boulder. Colorado also lost to Washington and Cal on the road. Since the offense has often sputtered elsewhere, CU lasting six games would be stunning.
No. 6 USC Trojans
Shot-blocking star Evan Mobley is the primary reason USC has ceded the eighth-lowest field-goal percentage at the rim, per Hoop-Math. But if an opponent starts hitting threes, can the Trojans keep up? They attempt triples at the 307th-lowest rate and connect on just 34.8 percent, which is 126th nationally.
No. 5 Villanova Wildcats
With a healthy Collin Gillespie, the 'Cats would be on a higher tier. Since his knee injury, Villanova has lost to Providence and Georgetown while seeing its assist average tumble from 15.8 to 10.5. It's hard to trust the Gillespie-less roster.
Tier 3: Add a Little Luck
No. 8 Loyola-Chicago Ramblers
Not only is Loyola the second-ranked defense on KenPom, the Ramblers have the nation's most efficient transition offense, per Hoop-Math.com. If the opponent can make a decent percentage of shots and limit live-ball turnovers, Loyola has problems. But that combination is a strong foundation.
No. 7 Oregon Ducks
Between three-point shooting and rebounding, Oregon has a couple of defined trends. Oregon is 14-1 when it shoots 38 percent or better from the perimeter but otherwise it's 6-5. Plus, the Ducks' four worst total rebounding rates are all in losses.
No. 8 LSU Tigers
LSU has immense potential on the offensive end. The trio of Cameron Thomas, Trendon Watford and Javonte Smart alone have combined to score more than 50 points per game. But since the defense is mediocre—125th, according to KenPom—the Tigers can hardly afford a single poor shooting night.
No. 4 Purdue Boilermakers
Led by Trevion Williams, the Boilers have a tremendous presence on the glass. They rank 30th in total rebound rate, including 54th on the offensive end. The love-hate statistic is 45.7 of opponents' shots are from the three-point line, the 10th-highest in the country. Purdue rarely allows close-range looks, but one scorching team or a friendly rim could be the Boilers' undoing.
No. 4 Florida State Seminoles
Florida State will advance as far as the offense can take it. Leonard Hamilton's squad ranks 14th in three-point percentage and 17th in offensive rebound rate. But when FSU's shooters are off, they're off. Four of the Seminoles' five losses have included a sub-30 three-point percentage and/or sub-70 free-throw clip.
No. 6 Texas Tech Red Raiders
As part of Chris Beard's philosophy, the Red Raiders force turnovers and limit giveaways at excellent rates. Texas Tech ranks 30th and 14th, respectively, in those categories. The primary issue, though, is the offense lacks consistency. Nobody averages even three assists, and Texas Tech has failed to crack 33.3 percent on long-range shots in 14 of its 27 games.
No. 2 Houston Cougars
Thanks to a top-tier defense and penchant for grabbing offensive rebounds, Houston earned a high seed. The Cougars rank No. 1 in field-goal percentage allowed and secured the second-highest rate of their misses on offense. Since the offense leans on perimeter shots, though, if those aren't falling and the opponent is limiting second-chance opportunities, Houston will be in trouble.
No. 5 Creighton Bluejays
The perimeter is the basis of the Bluejays' success. Creighton ranks 37th in three-point attempt rate and 43rd in three-point percentage. But can the shooters stay hot enough to survive six games? In all likelihood, Creighton needs a defense that struggles to create turnovers to carry the team once or twice.
No. 4 Virginia Cavaliers
This is a pretty standard Virginia team, though the defense—while still respectable—is less suffocating than usual. Virginia plays at the nation's slowest tempo, per KenPom, and has a top-20 three-point shooting clip. Because the defense isn't elite, however, UVA has a slim margin for error.
No. 3 Texas Longhorns
In short, Texas is solid on both offense and defense. That's largely a product of three experienced guards and star freshman Greg Brown. The concern with Texas is a constant stream of close finishes; 12 of the Longhorns' 25 games have been decided by six points or less and/or gone to overtime. They're a proven winner in those situations with a 9-3 record, but that's a risky trend to trust.
No. 3 Arkansas Razorbacks
After a 1-4 stretch in January, Arkansas has recovered to the point it's on the border of Tiers 2 and 3. At their best, the Razorbacks have an excellent defense and can dominate the glass. But when Arkansas loses the rebounding battle, it has a 6-4 record with three victories of five points or less.
Tier 2: Strong Contenders
No. 3 Kansas Jayhawks
Kansas has hidden some of its offensive limitations by thriving on the defensive end. Since the beginning of February, opponents have mustered a 28.2 three-point clip and 38.3 mark overall. There is clear precedent for Kansas' shots not falling. If they are, though, it'll be tough to beat the Jayhawks.
No. 3 West Virginia Mountaineers
In recent years, "Press Virginia" created a whole lot of havoc. This season, the Mountaineers have leaned on an offense that ranks 11th in efficiency, per KenPom. Granted, they're awfully dependent on corralling their own misses. West Virginia is just 242nd in field-goal percentage but 14th in offensive rebound rate.
No. 1 Michigan Wolverines
Isaiah Livers' foot injury is a major problem. If he's unavailable—and Michigan currently lists him as out indefinitely—the Wolverines will be down their No. 2 scorer and top perimeter threat. They absolutely can reach the Sweet 16, but winning a title without Livers is unlikely. Michigan sticks in this tier because, until told otherwise, maybe he can return later in the NCAA tournament.
No. 4 Oklahoma State Cowboys
Top NBA prospect Cade Cunningham leads an offense that prioritizes attacking the rim over shooting threes, ranking third and 295th, respectively, in those categories. Factor in a 29.3 opponent three-point clip in the last 12 games, and it's easy to understand the recent surge. Still, the minimal-long range threat combined with the 49th-highest turnover rate is cause for uneasiness.
No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes
Because this is an offense-driven team, Ohio State's splits are both incredibly obvious and unsurprising. Six of the Buckeyes' eight losses have included a three-point percentage of 31.0 or worse. In 20 games above that mark, they have a 17-2 record.
No. 2 Iowa Hawkeyes
For most of 2020-21, Iowa fit a similar mold to Ohio State. Luka Garza headlines an offense that ranks fourth in scoring per game and has the 11th-best three-point clip. While the Hawkeyes have started to execute better on the defensive end recently, any lapse on the perimeter could be crushing. Opponents shot 39.5 percent or better from long distance in six of Iowa's seven losses.
No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide
If you like modern basketball, this is your favorite team. The Crimson Tide rank sixth in three-point defense, seventh in tempo, per KenPom, and 15th in three-point attempt rate. It all comes back to offense, though. Alabama is 16-0 with an effective field-goal percentage of 50.0 or higher but 7-6 in the other games.
Tier 1: Favorites
No. 1 Illinois Fighting Illini
With a nod perhaps only to Gonzaga, there isn't a more feared duo than ball-handler Ayo Dosunmu and center Kofi Cockburn. Additionally, the Illini—who are 12-1 since a mid-January loss to Ohio State—rank 24th with a 37.9 three-point clip. As long as their perimeter defense is sound, Illinois can make a run at a title.
No. 1 Baylor Bears
Baylor doesn't have many flaws, but a strong perimeter defense will be most likely to threaten the Bears. The problem for opponents is, even then, Baylor has enough firepower to overwhelm a defense. Led by Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell, the Bears lead the nation with a 41.8 three-point percentage. And on defense, they are seventh in opponent turnover rate. If both of those continue to happen, Baylor should be headed to the Final Four at worst.
No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs
Gonzaga has landed some criticism for its defense, especially in the first half of a recent win over BYU. As the second half showed, however, the Zags are practically untouchable at their best. Gonzaga leads the nation in several offensive metrics, including true shooting percentage and KenPom's efficiency. Heading into March Madness, it practically seems like foul trouble is the only thing that could slow Gonzaga.