NCAA Bracket 2021: Highlighting Favorites and Cinderella Teams for March Madness

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistMarch 14, 2021

NCAA Bracket 2021: Highlighting Favorites and Cinderella Teams for March Madness

0 of 2

    David Becker/Associated Press

    The Gonzaga Bulldogs will try to become the first men's basketball team since 1976 to finish the season undefeated.

    Mark Few's team earned the No. 1 overall seed for the NCAA tournament on Sunday, and it appears to have one of the easiest draws in the field.

    Gonzaga was drawn in the same bracket as two high-profile teams that it beat during the regular season: the Kansas Jayhawks and Virginia Cavaliers.

    The biggest challenger to Gonzaga could be the Illinois Fighting Illini, who finished their fantastic end to Big Ten play with a tournament crown.

    Gonzaga and Illinois would not meet until the national championship, but based on their recent forms, it would be worth the wait for that matchup.

    There is always the chance that some of the top teams are upset early on in the Big Dance, and there are a few candidates from the mid-major ranks that could fit the Cinderella role to perfection.


    Bracket Challenge Game – Join the Bleacher Report Group

    Start Your 2021 Bracket

Top Favorites

1 of 2

    Darron Cummings/Associated Press


    Gonzaga resided at the top of the AP Top 25 for most of the season, and it could finish there in April.

    The No. 1 overall seed earned a handful of favorable matchups in the West Region, starting with a potential second-round meeting against either the No. 8 Oklahoma Sooners or No. 9 Missouri Tigers.

    Oklahoma and Missouri both struggled down the stretch and could be easily beatable in the round of 32.

    Virginia and Kansas could both have questions about available players after positive COVID-19 tests took them out of their respective conference tournaments.

    The toughest test in the West for Gonzaga will be the Iowa Hawkeyes, but the Bulldogs wracked up 99 points on the Big Ten side on December 19.

    Gonzaga has rarely experienced a slip-up with its trio of National Player of the Year candidates running the offensive show.

    Jalen Suggs, Corey Kispert and Drew Timme are a hard-to-beat trio. All of them average over 14 points per game and shoot over 50 percent from the field.

    No opponent has been able to slow down Gonzaga for 20 minutes, yet alone 40, so unless the Zags have an uncharacteristic performance, they appear to be on a straight path for the Final Four.



    Illinois will be one of the most popular non-Gonzaga selections to win the NCAA tournament.

    Brad Underwood's team enters the Big Dance on a seven-game winning streak with five victories over Top 25 teams in the Big Ten.

    Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn are an unstoppable inside-outside duo, and the Illini's role players have developed into consistent contributors over the last few weeks.

    Andre Curbelo, Trent Frazier and Adam Miller provide depth behind Dosunmu, who averages 20.9 points per game, and they could be the keys to getting through some tough matchups.

    The first test will come in the round of 32 against either the No. 8 Loyola-Chicago Ramblers or No. 9 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.

    If Loyola is the second-round foe, Cockburn could be occupied by Cameron Krutwig and the guards may have to take over.

    Illinois could face an even tougher Sweet 16 matchup with the No. 4 Oklahoma State Cowboys, but the deep backcourt could help absorb whatever Cade Cunningham and Avery Anderson throw at them.

    The Illini's experience in winning close games against the nation's best teams should give them the advantage in those matchups and push them toward the Final Four.

Top Cinderella Teams

2 of 2

    Nell Redmond/Associated Press


    Get ready to hear a lot about the Winthrop Eagles between now and Friday's first-round matchup with the Villanova Wildcats.

    Pat Kelsey's team is 23-1 and breezed through most of its competition in the Big South to earn the No. 12 seed in the South Region.

    Winthrop could not have asked for a better matchup since Villanova has struggled since losing guard Collin Gillespie at the start of March. Additionally, the Wildcats dealt with an injury to Justin Moore prior to the Big East tournament.

    With one of its top two guards missing and the other not at full strength, the Wildcats lost to the Providence Friars in their regular-season finale and were eliminated by the Georgetown Hoyas in the Big East tournament quarterfinals.

    Winthrop scored 80 points in each of its three Big South tournament victories, all of which were won by double digits.

    The Eagles have four players that average over 10 points per game, and they shoot 35.3 percent from three-point range as a team.

    If Villanova can't figure out its offense with Gillespie out and Moore not at full strength, it could be susceptible to a first-round upset.

    Assuming Winthrop wins this game, it could reach the Sweet 16 if it outshoots the fourth-seeded Purdue Boilermakers.

    Because the Eagles are aligned with Villanova, they will be the popular Cinderella pick while others may fly more under the radar.


    Cleveland State

    The Cleveland State Vikings could be the best team to choose for an upset from a No. 14 seed or worse.

    The Horizon League champion was drawn with the Houston Cougars, who struggled a bit with some of the top teams in the American Athletic Conference.

    Kelvin Sampson's team won the AAC tournament with ease against the Cincinnati Bearcats on Sunday, but they failed to put away the Memphis Tigers with ease in the semifinals and in their regular-season finale.

    Houston's losses came against the Wichita State Shockers, who won the AAC's top seed, the Tulsa Golden Hurricane and East Carolina Pirates.

    In two of those three games, Houston failed to reach the 65-point mark. It scored 73 against East Carolina, but that total was padded late in the game.

    Cleveland State held three of its last four opponents under 70 points, and it shoots 45.2 percent from the field. Torrey Patton, Trey Gomillion and D'Moi Hodge all average over 10 points per game.

    If the trio of Vikings guards cause trouble to Houston's backcourt, they could keep the first-round game tight and spring an upset.

    If that occurs, a Sweet 16 berth should not be out of the question since the Clemson Tigers and Rutgers Scarlet Knights both experienced some rough patches of form late in the season. Clemson lost two of its last three and Rutgers went 3-4 in its final seven contests.


    Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.

    Statistics obtained from ESPN.