NCAA Brackets 2021: The Chaos Bracket That Could Actually Happen
One of the most inclusive traditions in sports is finally here: It's time to fill out a bracket for the 2021 men's NCAA tournament.
Millions of people—everyone from diehard college basketball fans to blissfully unaware friends and coworkers who are joining the fun—will submit their predictions for March Madness. And sometimes, a bracket full of counterintuitive picks may actually become the most accurate projection of all.
And we are totally here for it. Bring on the upsets!
Yes, some predictions will seem outlandish. We have a history of success, though. In 2019, our chaos bracket had Virginia, Texas Tech and Auburn reaching the Final Four. Hey, 3-of-4 is pretty good!
While these selections are subjective, factors used to explain the choices—again, in many cases unlikely—include statistics, trends and recent team performance.
Biggest first-round upset: No. 13 Ohio over No. 4 Virginia
During the ACC tournament, a positive COVID-19 test removed Virginia. Even if the Cavaliers are at full strength, though, Ohio is a tough matchup. Jason Preston averages 7.2 assists, and both Ben Vander Plas and Mark Sears are at 3.5 dimes per game or better. Additionally, Ohio ranks 26th in non-transition effective field-goal percentage, per Hoop-Math.com.
If that translates to a slower tempo than the Bobcats usually play, they have the talent to stress UVA's vaunted defensive structure.
Biggest second-round upset: No. 6 USC over No. 3 Kansas
Because the bracket has No. 1 Gonzaga, No. 2 Iowa and No. 5 Creighton advancing, the "big" upset is not massive.
Rarely do both offenses ignore the perimeter, but this contest sure might try. Kansas ranks 201st in three-point attempt rate, and USC is way down at No. 308. As a result, the "dirty work" of rebounds and turnovers should define the result. It's a toss-up, and chaos means USC wins.
Final Four team: No. 2 Iowa Hawkeyes
Considering top-seeded Gonzaga's status as the overall favorite, of course the Zags need to lose. They won the regular-season matchup 99-88 but shot 13-of-26 from the perimeter. Iowa—the nation's 14th-best team in that category—went 4-of-22.
Gonzaga's undefeated year would end in the Elite Eight.
Biggest first-round upset: No. 14 Colgate over No. 3 Arkansas
Our level of excitement for this matchup is bordering on unhealthy.
According to KenPom.com, Colgate and Arkansas rank 25th and 17th, respectively, in tempo. Despite that rapid pace, Colgate has the nation's best three-point defense and the 12th-best perimeter offense. Part of that can be attributed to Patriot League competition, but this should be a challenging, frenetic game for Arkansas.
Biggest second-round upset: No. 12 Winthrop over No. 4 Purdue
Given that Villanova is without guard Collin Gillespie, a first-round loss to Winthrop wouldn't be a surprise. The head-turning result would be Winthrop toppling Purdue, which is 8-6 when it records a turnover rate of 15 percent or higher but is otherwise 10-3. Winthrop forces turnovers at the 20th-highest clip in the country.
Final Four team: No. 1 Baylor
Since the men's NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, only twice has a No. 1 seed not reached the Final Four. We need a top seed somewhere. And if Purdue loses before the Sweet 16, a favorable road is even less arduous. Regardless of whether Ohio State or Texas Tech emerges from the lower half of the South Region, Baylor's top-ranked perimeter unit can thrive.
Biggest first-round upset: No. 13 Liberty over No. 4 Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State attempts 48.9 percent of its shots at the rim, the fourth-highest mark in the nation, per Hoop-Math.com. Liberty is 30th at defending the rim and has a huge advantage on the perimeter, where it ranks sixth nationally compared to 169th for OSU. If Liberty can survive down low, its barrage of shooters could propel an upset over the scorching Cowboys.
Biggest second-round upset: No. 8 Loyola-Chicago over No. 1 Illinois
The upper half of the Midwest Region is terrifying, and the most intriguing potential second-round game is this in-state clash.
Illinois uses a relatively fast tempo, prefers two-point shots and corrals a lot of offensive rebounds. Loyola plays slowly, defends extremely well inside the arc and grabs the fourth-best percentage of defensive rebounds. Loyola has a legitimate shot at another Cinderella run.
Final Four team: No. 2 Houston
You want chaos? How about not Illinois, Oklahoma State or West Virginia from the Midwest Region?
The path to the Sweet 16 is awfully kind for Houston, which is second in offensive rebound rate. And in that regional semifinal, the opponent could be a West Virginia team that ranks No. 296 in opponents' offensive rebound rate. Houston is likely to lose before the Final Four, but upsets of Oklahoma State and Illinois would provide an incredibly fortunate path.
Biggest first-round upset: No. 12 Georgetown over No. 5 Colorado
Stay hot, Hoyas?
After a 9-12 regular season, Georgetown won four straight games to steal the Big East tournament title. Most notably, it held those opponents to a 26.4 three-point percentage along the way. And when Colorado shot below 33.3 percent from three in 2020-21, it posted a 6-6 record.
Biggest second-round upset: No. 8 LSU over No. 1 Michigan
If Michigan is without Isaiah Livers, expectations for the Wolverines will drop substantially. LSU finds itself in prime position to take advantage, provided it eliminates St. Bonaventure in the first round. LSU's defense is a long-term concern, but KenPom's fifth-ranked offense can spearhead a couple of wins.
Final Four team: No. 3 Texas
Abilene Christian's defense will be a nuisance in the first round. But then, any of Alabama, Connecticut and Maryland are vulnerable if they lose the rebounding battle. Texas has failed to grab 60-plus percent of all misses only twice in 26 games. Factor in Michigan's potential early exit and the Big 12 champions could have a shot at a national title, too.
To recap, the Final Four qualifiers are Iowa vs. Texas and Baylor vs. Houston. On a related note, that sound you hear is the Lone Star State erupting into basketball-caused pandemonium.
But the championship won't be a Texas-sized showdown.
Because of his floor-spacing ability, Iowa center Luka Garza is an ideal counter to the Longhorns' length on the interior. Texas can capitalize on a favorable bracket to reach the Final Four but lacks an undeniably elite strength, which is a problem in a matchup with Iowa's 14th-ranked perimeter offense.
In the other national semifinal, Baylor's talent should ultimately win out. Chaos in the Midwest Region can help Houston along, but a barrage of Baylor three-pointers would end the memorable run.
Hopefully, we've learned our lesson here.
Two years ago, the love of chaos compelled us to take Texas Tech over Virginia. Let's not make the mistake again, instead going with Baylor to outlast Iowa in an offense-focused clash. Iowa is 1-5 when its opponent shoots 42-plus percent from three, and Baylor has knocked down 41.8 percent of its triples this season.
If Baylor survives March Madness, the men's program would win its first-ever national championship.