2021 NCAA Bracket Predictions: Best Picks for Every Matchup

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 15, 2021

2021 NCAA Bracket Predictions: Best Picks for Every Matchup

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    You can pick your bracket for the 2021 NCAA men's basketball tournament in a thousand different ways. You could flip coins, throw darts, choose colors or, you know, do something a little more scientific involving basketball data.

    But the tried-and-true method for competing in a bracket pool is watching an excessive amount of regular-season hoops and then quickly scribbling down your picks as the field is announced.

    No guts, no glory, right?

    That's the exact approach I took. Then I spent several hours writing about the picks I made in the span of about 45 seconds. And I have to say, a lot of data is backing up the gut reactions.

    So before the bracket breaks into a thousand pieces like it always does, spend these next few minutes educating yourself on why Utah State can reach the Sweet 16, why Connecticut can reach the Final Four and why we might finally get that Gonzaga-Baylor matchup we've been longing to see.

First Four

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Picks: Michigan State over UCLA, Wichita State over Drake, Texas Southern over Mount St. Mary's and Appalachian State over Norfolk State

    Budding Buzzer-Beater: Appalachian State vs. Norfolk State

    Three of Appalachian State's last six games went to overtime, so this is the obvious choice. The Mountaineers just keep eking out close wins and could keep that trend going. The only problem with expecting a buzzer-beater is that neither of these teams shoots all that well. But let's go unnecessarily far out on a limb right off the bat and say that Norfolk State senior Kashaun Hicks takes and makes the game-winning three for the Spartans.

           

    Upset Special: Wichita State over Drake

    Calling any of these games a potential upset special is silly. They're all seeded the same as their opponent. But as far as KenPom is concerned—where Wichita State is No. 74 and Drake is No. 53—this would be an upset. Drake lost one star (Roman Penn) to a season-ending injury and is hoping to get another one back (Tank Hemphill) for the first time since early February. I find it hard to believe the Bulldogs will be able to live up to their season-long metrics in their current state.

            

    Player to Watch: Johnny Juzang, UCLA

    Regardless of what the metrics say, Michigan State is a better team than UCLA. The Bruins simply have not been the same since Jalen Hill left the team for personal reasons in early February. But if anyone in the First Four is going to just ball out for 35 points, it's UCLA's Johnny Juzang. The Kentucky transfer has put up at least 25 points in four of UCLA's last 12 games.

First Round, East Regional

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    Budding Buzzer-Beater: No. 5 Colorado vs. No. 12 Georgetown

    It has been a rough stretch for No. 5 seeds facing Georgetown. Both Villanova and Creighton earned No. 5 seeds in the NCAA tournament, despite both losing to Georgetown in the Big East tournament. The Hoyas also won at Creighton in early February.

    And Colorado has certainly been known to play down to the level of its competition. While the Buffaloes do have three wins over USC to their credit, they just lost to a No. 12 seed (Oregon State) and previously suffered bad losses to California, Washington and Utah. They also played nail-biters against both Oregon State and Cal in the past several weeks.

    Give me the Hoyas in dramatic fashion.

           

    Upset Special: No. 14 Abilene Christian over No. 3 Texas

    Got to go with at least one 14-over-3 or 15-over-2 upset or people call you a boring coward. But that's not why I'm picking this colossal upset. Texas isn't fantastic in the turnover department. I wouldn't say the Longhorns are bad in that regard, but they are a little below the national average, even with a trio of veteran guards in the backcourt.

    To Abilene Christian, "a little below the national average" in turnovers is blood in the water to a shark. The Wildcats lead the nation in turnover percentage, forcing 20.3 per game, 10 of which are steals. Their aggressive style of play flustered Texas Tech earlier this season in a 51-44 ballgame. And while their style often results in fouls, guess what category Texas is also a little below the national average in? The three guards all shoot well from the free-throw line, but hacking Jericho Sims, Kai Jones or Greg Brown isn't the end of the world.

    Also, before winning the Big 12 tournament, Texas had lost six of its last eight games against KenPom Top 100 opponents. Watch out for KenPom No. 86 Abilene Christian.

            

    Player to Watch: Cameron Thomas, LSU

    With a shoutout to UNC-Greensboro's Isaiah Miller (19.3 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 4.0 APG, 2.6 SPG), the NBA scouts watching this region are most enamored with LSU's freshman phenom. At 22.7 points per game, Cameron Thomas ranks top five in the nation in scoring, and he does it in such a variety of ways that he's impossible to stop. Aside from leaving one game against Ole Miss after just four minutes with an injury, Thomas has scored at least 16 points in every single LSU game.

First Round, South Regional

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    Budding Buzzer-Beater: No. 6 Texas Tech vs. No. 11 Utah State

    Against competent foes, Texas Tech played a ton of close games. The Red Raiders twice lost in overtime to Oklahoma State, had three losses by a single point and won four games by five points or fewer. Even the 11-point loss to West Virginia was a nail-biter until the final 30 seconds or so. Mac McClung and Co. have had more than their fair share of last-minute theatre.

    Utah State is a bit of a far cry from Oklahoma State or West Virginia, but the Neemias Queta-led Aggies are more than capable of hanging with Texas Tech—a team that doesn't shoot all that well even when it isn't facing one of the best shot-blockers in the country.

    If we do get a buzzer-beater, definitely do not expect that final bucket to make this an 81-79 ballgame. In this battle between excellent defenses, a 61-59 finish is way more likely.

           

    Upset Special: No. 12 Winthrop over No. 5 Villanova

    This is such a brutal draw for Villanova.

    Without senior lead guard Collin Gillespie, the Wildcats aren't the same. They scored 52 in a loss to Providence and then blew a late lead in a loss to Georgetown. Those are the only two games in which Chris Arcidiacono spent most of the game running the point, and they obviously didn't go well.

    Enter Winthrop, a team that wants to run, run and run some more and that can force a good number of turnovers on defense. The Eagles also boast one of the best rebounding margins in the country, though I suspect that's primarily a product of playing 21 of their 24 games against the Big South. Winthrop's nightly triple-double threat Chandler Vaudrin will dominate this lead guard battle en route to an upset.

            

    Player to Watch: Max Abmas, Oral Roberts

    I already mentioned my favorite player, Neemias Queta, but here's another mid-major show-stopper. Max Abmas leads the nation at 24.4 points per game. He shoots 43.8 percent from three-point range and launches more than eight attempts per game. And Oral Roberts is no one-man show. Abmas' teammate Kevin Obanor also averages 18.2 points and is an even better perimeter shooter at 46.9 percent.

    The Golden Eagles are atrocious on defense, but Ohio State isn't great, either. Texas Tech-Utah State might be a crawl to 60, but this could be a race to 100.

First Round, Midwest Regional

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    Budding Buzzer-Beater: No. 8 Loyola-Chicago vs. No. 9 Georgia Tech

    I love both of these teams and I hate that they're facing each other right away. I do expect an incredible game, though.

    Both score very well in the paint, which is no surprise, since the Ramblers have Cameron Krutwig and the Yellow Jackets have Moses Wright. Both teams are red-hot, too, as neither has lost since Valentine's Day.

    But given the trouble Georgia Tech had in both of its losses to Virginia, Loyola-Chicago should get the win. The Ramblers have a Virginia-like defense that commits limited fouls, allows few second chances and does it all at the speed of smell. But just like Loyola-Chicago's first three wins in the 2018 NCAA tournament, it's going to come right down to the final seconds.

           

    Upset Special: None

    The region that you expect to be the cleanest almost always ends up being the messiest, but I just don't see any upsets here.

    Forced to pick one, I'd probably go with No. 11 Syracuse over No. 6 San Diego State. Buddy Boeheim has been hotter than the sun lately and the Aztecs allow a lot of three-point looks. Plus, when Syracuse controversially sneaks into the NCAA tournament, it usually goes on a deep run, right? However, ignore that "logic" and I like San Diego State to get the W.

            

    Player to Watch: Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State

    Tennessee has two projected lottery picks and Illinois has the best inside-outside duo in the nation, but come on. Cade Cunningham is going to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. He does everything, and he does it so smoothly. Watch him while you can.

First Round, West Regional

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    Budding Buzzer-Beater: No. 8 Oklahoma vs. No. 9 Missouri

    It's perfect that the selection committee paired these teams together, because these are two of the main teams who have mediocre metrics in spite of a bunch of quality wins. When either one gets a quality win, it usually comes right down to the wire. Almost seems inevitable for this game to go to overtime.

           

    Upset Special: No. 13 Ohio over No. 4 Virginia

    November 27 was an eye-opening day for both of these teams. That's when Virginia lost to San Francisco and Ohio darn near won a road game against Illinois. Things have changed, of course. That was the day after Thanksgiving and it's now almost St. Patrick's Day. But it was the first and most vivid of signs that A) Virginia could lose in the first round and B) Ohio could stun a top team.

    These aren't the Cavaliers of yesteryear. They still play at a slow tempo, but they aren't as good as usual on defense. They're also way more reliant on three-pointers than usual, which is always a little scary come tournament time.

    And Ohio has a ridiculously talented point guard in Jason Preston. At 16.6 points, 7.2 assists and 6.8 rebounds per game, he's a walking triple-double. And he's one of four Bobcats more than capable of shooting over the top of Virginia's pack-line D.

    While I can't and won't speculate on who might be available for Virginia, the Cavaliers pulling out of the ACC tournament on Friday because of COVID-19 protocol could mean they're a little short-handed in this one. Even at full strength, though, I like Ohio.

            

    Player to Watch: David McCormack, Kansas

    Instead of a "You all need to marvel at this guy's greatness!" player to watch, David McCormack is more of a "How does he actually look?" player to watch. Kansas' primary big man was unavailable for the Big 12 tournament because of COVID-19 protocol. The Jayhawks eventually pulled out of the tournament altogether, but in the one game we saw them play without McCormack (vs. Oklahoma), they almost blew a 23-point lead and just did not look right. Their ceiling is much lower if he's out or limited.

Second Round, East Regional

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    Budding Buzzer-Beater: No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 7 Connecticut

    The big question in this game is: Who controls the tempo? Alabama isn't that efficient on offense, but it can sprint its way to 80 points in just about any game. Connecticut is rather efficient, but at a tortoise-like pace.

    I like Connecticut to pull off the upset for three reasons: 1. The Huskies dominate the offensive glass while Alabama's biggest defensive weakness is second-chance opportunities. 2. Connecticut has a solid perimeter defense while Alabama lives and dies by the three. 3. James Bouknight might be Kemba Walker 2.0.

    Upset or not, it should be a thrilling game.

           

    Upset Special: No. 12 Georgetown over No. 4 Florida State

    Perhaps Connecticut knocking out Alabama is a bigger upset in your eyes, but I feel the need to highlight the fact that I'm picking Georgetown to the Sweet 16, even though there was no chance in hell the Hoyas were making the dance without winning the Big East tournament.

    While it would be a big upset, these are two teams trending in opposite directions. Florida State has lost three of its last five, including an ugly loss at Notre Dame to end the regular season. The 'Noles have been a turnover-prone mess as of late, and they have often looked just disinterested on defense—a bizarre thing to say about a Leonard Hamilton-coached team.

    Meanwhile, Georgetown has been playing with tenacity, winning 10 of its last 14 games. The Hoyas don't force many turnovers, so maybe this is a terrible pick. But my gut has been telling me for a while not to trust Florida State.

            

    Player to Watch: Brandon Johns Jr., Michigan

    With Isaiah Livers out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his foot, Brandon Johns Jr. made his first start of the season in the Big Ten semifinal against Ohio State. He shot 0-of-3 from the field, but scored seven points on free throws and grabbed eight rebounds in 24 minutes. Definitely not Livers-level production, but the Wolverines should be able to get by through the first few rounds if he can keep doing that.

Second Round, South Regional

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    Budding Buzzer-Beater: No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 8 North Carolina

    I don't believe this should be a close game. Baylor is one of the best turnover-forcing teams in the country and it is a force of nature from three-point range. By comparison, North Carolina has a woefully inefficient starting point guard (Caleb Love) and allows a lot of three-pointers. Throw in North Carolina's general struggles with shooting and this one could get ugly.

    But good luck finding the last tournament that didn't have at least one No. 1 vs. No. 8/9 game come right down to the wire. And for all its shortcomings, North Carolina rarely gets blown out. With their four big men crashing the offensive glass, the Tar Heels are liable to give Baylor a major scare. (If it comes down to a buzzer-beater, though, having Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell is a nice plus for the Bears.)

           

    Upset Special: No. 11 Utah State over No. 3 Arkansas

    Before the brackets even came out, I knew that if Utah State got in, I was going to have a hard time picking against the Aggies before the Sweet 16. Even though I like the Razorbacks as a sneaky Final Four contender, I'm riding the Neemias Queta bandwagon to the second weekend.

    That's probably not the rational, analytical reason you want for an upset pick such as this, but how's this: When opponents shoot 34 percent or worse from three-point range against the Aggies, Utah State is 14-1. The lone exception was just the other night in the MWC championship, but the Aggies looked exhausted after a super late game the night before and still limited the Aztecs to 68 points.

    Arkansas does a lot of things well, but this is an average three-point shooting team. And if you try to score in the paint against Queta, things can go south in a hurry.

            

    Player to Watch: Trevion Williams, Purdue

    Whether it's Winthrop or Villanova that the Boilermakers draw in the second round, that team is going to have a whale of a time trying to shut down Trevion Williams. Purdue's 6'10" center went for 26 points, 14 rebounds and five assists in the Big Ten tournament against Ohio State. It was his sixth double-double with at least 21 points. And when he comes out, the Boilermakers merely bring in 7'4" Zach Edey, who has developed into a major asset over the past month of his freshman season.

Second Round, Midwest Regional

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    Budding Buzzer-Beater: No. 4 Oklahoma State vs. No. 5 Tennessee

    Putting Oklahoma State in a "likely buzzer-beater" category is always a good idea. The Cowboys played in 15 games decided by five points or fewer, plus a 16th that went to double overtime before a final margin of eight. Whether they're facing Oral Roberts, TCU, Oklahoma or Texas Tech, the Pokes love dramatic finishes.

    And they are 11-5 in those 16 games, so give the Fightin' Mike Boyntons a spot in the Sweet 16.

           

    Upset Special: None

    Yep. That's right. All chalk in the Midwest Region for a second consecutive round.

    You're probably wondering, "Kerry, when the heck does that ever happen?" Let me tell you, it doesn't. In 2008, there were two regions that came super close. The East was all chalk for two rounds except for a No. 9 over No. 8 upset, and the only lower seed to win in the South was the No. 5 over No. 4 game.

    But the last time all of the top seeds won in both the first and second round in a region was 30 years ago when the 1991 Southeast Region played perfectly to form.

    And how's this for an unreal coincidence that I'm just now noticing: Rutgers was the No. 9 seed in that 1991 Southeast Region, and this is where Rutgers lands for its first dance since 1991. I mean, if that isn't fate...

            

    Player to Watch: Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois

    Dosunmu was a superhero before he suffered a broken nose and had to start wearing a protective mask, but now he looks the part, too. In four games since returning from that injury, he has averaged 19.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.5 assists in four Illinois victories. Two years ago, Ja Morant put up a monster triple-double in the NCAA tournament. Dosunmu could do it, too. (Though, probably not against Loyola-Chicago's stingy defense.)

Second Round, West Regional

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    Budding Buzzer-Beater: No. 2 Iowa vs. No. 7 Oregon

    It's so tempting to pick this upset. Both teams are super efficient on offense, and despite the lower seeding, Oregon had been playing like an Elite Eight team for the bulk of the past six weeks.

    However, the Ducks just lost a game to Oregon State that wasn't all that close, and Iowa's defense keeps looking better every time it plays. The Hawkeyes did just give up 82 points to Illinois, but Oregon doesn't have anything close to a Kofi Cockburn.

    Even though I'm rolling with Iowa here, I fully expect a dramatic finish. And in that situation, got to go with the national player of the year.

           

    Upset Special: No. 13 Ohio over No. 12 UC Santa Barbara

    The No. 12 vs. No. 13 game for a spot in the Sweet 16 is always a crowd pleaser. There haven't been many lately. Oregon vs. UC Irvine in 2019 was the only one in the past six NCAA tournaments. But it felt like we used to average one per dance for the longest time. (There were two such matchups in 2008.)

    This one in particular would be a lot of fun, because UC Santa Barbara's JaQuori McLaughlin vs. Ohio's Jason Preston is a heavyweight fight masquerading as a mid-major tussle. We previously mentioned Preston's triple-double potential, but McLaughlin goes for 16.2 points, 5.2 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.6 steals in his own right. With both point guards listed at 6'4" and roughly 190 pounds, break out your Spider-Man vs. Spider-Man memes.

            

    Player to Watch: Luka Garza, Iowa

    How ridiculous is it that Luka Garza is averaging 23.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, and he has gotten slightly worse in both categories since last season? If it feels like we've been talking about this guy nonstop for two years, it's because we have. And whether the Hawkeyes draw Oregon or VCU in this game, he's going to be the difference-maker in the paint.

    (Before you get mad that I've now gone two full sections through the West Region without mentioning any of Gonzaga's stars, rest assured there will be plenty more time for Zags discussion.)

Sweet 16 and Elite 8, East Regional

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    No. 1 Michigan over No. 12 Georgetown

    Though I love Georgetown as a Sweet 16 sleeper, this is where the glass slipper falls off.

    Not knowing Isaiah Livers' status definitely concerns me. But Michigan is just too well-rounded and too good on defense to let this one slip away. The Wolverines boast one of the best defensive two-point percentages in the country, and Georgetown has one of the worst two-point offenses in the tournament. That's a deal-breaker before even accounting for Michigan's efficiency on offense.

             

    No. 7 Connecticut over No. 11 Michigan State/UCLA

    Michigan State is my pick in the play-in game, but I guess it's technically an either/or situation until that First Four game is played. But Connecticut would beat either Michigan State or UCLA.

    Along with Gonzaga, Michigan, Illinois, Houston and Purdue, the Huskies are one of just six teams ranked in the top 25 in both adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency. Though I just now looked up that tidbit, it's little coincidence that I have all six of those teams in my Sweet 16.

    Setting aside the recent 59-56 game against Creighton in which James Bouknight did what he could in spite of leaving the previous day's game with full body cramps, Connecticut has been on fire lately. And the Huskies will continue that surge against one of these two teams who barely even tried to get into the tournament this past week.

          

    No. 7 Connecticut over No. 1 Michigan

    I'm a big believer in Michigan, but this is where the Livers uncertainty pushed me over the edge.

    The Wolverines have a great nucleus even without him. Mike Smith has been so great at point guard. Franz Wagner is well on his way to the lottery. Hunter Dickinson is one of the best big men (freshman or otherwise) in the country. And getting glue guy Eli Brooks back on the court for the Big Ten tournament was huge. Livers is nowhere near as individually vital to his team's success as Bouknight is to Connecticut's.

    But if the Husky is healthy and the Wolverine is not, advantage UConn. And for the second time, Connecticut goes to the Final Four as a No. 7 seed. (Also happened in 2014.)

Sweet 16 and Elite 8, South Regional

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    No. 1 Baylor over No. 4 Purdue

    Purdue allows three-point attempts at the highest rate of any team in the tournament. And the Boilermakers—who don't have a true point guard—have been occasionally prone to turnover woes.

    I don't know what the blueprint is for beating Baylor, but that's a mighty fine blueprint for getting blown out by Baylor.

    Trevion Williams and Zach Edey offensive rebounds could keep Purdue within reasonable striking distance, but the Bears would likely crush the Boilermakers along the perimeter on both ends of the floor.

            

    No. 2 Ohio State over No. 11 Utah State

    As much as I admire Utah State, this isn't even a remotely tough call.

    Ohio State's defense is not great, but neither is Utah State's offense on most nights. And on the other end of the floor, the Buckeyes are a bit of a matchup nightmare for the Aggies. With a center (E.J. Liddell) who has legitimate three-point range, Ohio State could just play five-out offense to neutralize Neemias Queta's rim-protection prowess.

    The Buckeyes are also adept at drawing contact on offense, and a couple early fouls on Queta could end this game by halftime.

          

    No. 1 Baylor over No. 2 Ohio State

    The two Sweet 16 games are bad mismatches for the underdogs, but this Elite Eight game could be a real barnburner.

    Ohio State has one of the most efficient offenses, and one of its biggest strengths is not committing turnovers. Though Baylor doesn't necessarily need to force turnovers to win, it did lose in two of the five games in which it finished with fewer than seven steals.

    However, Ohio State's defense is a major concern when it comes to Final Four potential, and I can't see the Buckeyes slowing down the Bears.

    This might play out similar to Ohio State's 92-87 game against Michigan, or its 91-88 battle with Illinois in the Big Ten championship. Unfortunately, the Buckeyes lost both of those games.

Sweet 16 and Elite 8, Midwest Regional

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    No. 4 Oklahoma State over No. 1 Illinois

    This one hurts as a Sweet 16 showdown. It should really be a Final Four game, or at the very least an Elite Eight affair. Ayo Dosunmu vs. Cade Cunningham will be a battle for the ages.

    But after going all chalk for the first two rounds, give me the Cowboys in an upset.

    Oklahoma State's biggest problem all season has been committing turnovers, but the Illinois defense forces turnovers at a pathetically low rate. And this is where people are going to realize how good Cunningham's supporting cast has been. Avery Anderson III has been the Robin to Cunningham's Batman over the past month. Kalib Boone and Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe have been great assets in the paint. And getting Isaac Likelele back after missing a few games late in the year is like found money for the Cowboys.

    If Kofi Cockburn and Trent Frazier just light it up for the Illini, perhaps the upset doesn't happen. But Oklahoma State is more than just one star.

            

    No. 2 Houston over No. 3 West Virginia

    If you can find a prop bet on which game is most likely to have a brawl break out, this would be a good pick.

    Houston is basically the new Press Virginia, forcing a lot of turnovers and just generally driving you nuts with physical defense. Then on offense, the Cougars are just as physical, dominating on the offensive glass. But the Mountaineers are still a hard-nosed bunch, too, and they've dealt with their fair share of physicality in the Big 12.

    Houston will out-defend West Virginia, though, and the Mountaineers' occasional over-willingness to settle for mid-range jumpers will be their fatal flaw in this one.

    Free throws could be a game-changing advantage for West Virginia, though. The Mountaineers average more than 24 free-throw attempts per game, and Houston is prone to putting guys on the charity stripe.

           

    No. 4 Oklahoma State over No. 2 Houston

    Truthfully, this was every bit as tough to pick as the Oklahoma State-Illinois pairing. Though people gripe when a region doesn't have any Cinderella candidates, it sure does create some amazing latter-round matchups.

    This game feels like a point of pride and frustration for Oklahoma State, though.

    The Cowboys had 10 Quadrant 1 wins this year. They beat every team in the Big 12 except for TCU (for some bizarre reason) and they won a game against Arkansas. Meanwhile, Houston won one neutral-site game against Texas Tech and somehow it ended up with a No. 2 seed while the Cowboys were relegated to a No. 4.

    Oklahoma State can't beat the selection committee, but it could send them a message by winning this game.

Sweet 16 and Elite 8, West Regional

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    No. 1 Gonzaga over No. 13 Ohio

    I like Jason Preston.

    I love Jalen Suggs. And Drew Timme. And Corey Kispert. And Joel Ayayi.

    Ohio did almost pull off a 13-over-1 upset the last time it went to the NCAA tournament, taking North Carolina to overtime in the 2012 Sweet 16. But that was the first game those Tar Heels were playing after their starting point guard Kendall Marshall suffered a fractured wrist in the previous round. Let's all hope there's not a similar situation here.

           

    No. 2 Iowa over No. 3 Kansas

    I truly have no idea what to make of Kansas.

    On Feb. 28, I probably would have picked the Jayhawks to win this game. They were fresh off a convincing win over Baylor, putting a nice bow on a strong close to the Big 12 season.

    But then they looked awful against UTEP, almost wilted spectacularly in the second half against Oklahoma in their only Big 12 tournament game and now we have no clue how healthy they are in terms of COVID-19. At this point, I've got to roll with the super-efficient offense of the Hawkeyes.

           

    No. 1 Gonzaga over No. 2 Iowa

    A game could always go differently the second time around, but we already saw what happened when Gonzaga faced Iowa on a neutral court in December.

    It has always bothered me a little bit that Iowa was able to score 88 points in that game despite shooting 4-of-22 from three-point range. Tough to beat Gonzaga while having one of your worst shooting performances of the season, but the Hawkeyes gave it a valiant effort. It felt like a bit of a red flag for Gonzaga's D.

    However, it's also worth remembering that Gonzaga went into that game fresh off a COVID-19 pause and still put up 99 points. Also, in the game right before that pause, Jalen Suggs suffered the foot/Achilles injury against West Virginia and we didn't even know how much he'd be able to play.

    Iowa's defense has improved since then, but I'm far from convinced it is ready to slow down Gonzaga's juggernaut of an offense.

Final Four

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    No. 1 Gonzaga over No. 7 Connecticut

    As with the matchup with Ohio in the Sweet 16, Gonzaga's four is greater than its opponent's one.

    James Bouknight has a much more capable supporting cast than Jason Preston, but it just takes so much scoring to legitimately compete with Gonzaga. Even if Bouknight goes for 40 while R.J. Cole and Tyrese Martin step up to the plate with 15 points each, the Huskies might need another 20 from the rest of the roster to topple the Zags.

    I just don't see that happening. Give me Connecticut in a bunch of 71-66 type of ballgames in the first few rounds, but Gonzaga rolls in somewhat convincing fashion here.

             

    No. 1 Baylor over No. 4 Oklahoma State

    Round IV. Fight.

    Baylor handled Oklahoma State somewhat comfortably in both regular-season meetings, though it very much bears mentioning that the Cowboys were not at full strength for either one. Cade Cunningham and Rondel Walker missed the game at Oklahoma State; Isaac Likelele was out for the game in Waco.

    With both teams at full strength for the Big 12 semifinal, it was Oklahoma State's turn to win one.

    That last game felt like a major outlier for Baylor, though. The Bears shot 6-of-28 from three-point range against a not-great defense and only tallied five steals against a turnover-prone offense. In both regards, it was one of their worst games of the year. And yet, Baylor led for most of the game until a late 11-0 Oklahoma State run.

    I would love nothing more than a Jalen Suggs vs. Cade Cunningham national championship matchup. Can't imagine there have been many title-game pairings between the potential top two picks in the NBA draft. But Baylor will be better than it was in the Big 12 tournament to set up the game we've been waiting to see for months.

National Championship Game

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    No. 1 Gonzaga over No. 1 Baylor

    We were supposed to get this game on Dec. 5, but it was called off just a few hours before tipoff because of positive COVID-19 results within Gonzaga’s program.

    Both programs said for a while they had a mutual interest in trying to reschedule the game, but they just couldn't ever find a place that fit into both schedules.

    How about April 5?

    Michigan and Illinois surged late in the year while Baylor tapered off a little bit following its three-week pause, but it still feels like these were the two best teams over the course of the entire season. For 14 consecutive iterations of the AP Top 25, it was Gonzaga at No. 1 and Baylor at No. 2.

    There hasn't been a national championship matchup this imminent since 1999, when Duke and Connecticut started at No. 1 and No. 2 and spent the entire year ranked in the Top Four.

    But after all the talk of Gonzaga and Baylor comprising college basketball's top tier, that tier has been reduced to one.

    If you can get 50-50 odds on a "Gonzaga or the Field" prop, go ahead and take the field. Weird stuff always happens in the tournament. But tasked with filling out a bracket and picking one team who can survive six different styles of opponent to win a national championship, I'm not sure how anyone can pick against Gonzaga.

    In this projected championship, the Zags would feast on Baylor's good-not-great defense. Jalen Suggs and Andrew Nembhard would withstand the constant pressure well enough for Gonzaga to outscore Baylor.

    Now, if MaCio Teague has another game like last weekend in which he hit 10-of-12 three-pointers, maybe Baylor keeps pace. But I've got to go with the Zags to win it all and to finally shut up the people who insist year after year that this isn't an elite team.

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