NCAA Tournament 2021: Buying or Selling Top Men's Contenders

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMarch 16, 2021

NCAA Tournament 2021: Buying or Selling Top Men's Contenders

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    Now that the 2021 NCAA men's tournament bracket is set, it's time to start digging into this year's top contenders for the national championship.

    An underdog could always emerge from the field, and plenty of words will be dedicated to Cinderella picks and teams on upset alert in the days to come. But for now, we're focused on the 10 best teams in this year's tournament, based on the full 68-team seed list released by the selection committee following the bracket announcement.

    Each team's strengths and weaknesses, current momentum based on recent performance and path through the bracket were taken into account before an ultimate determination of buy or sell was made on its chances of winning it all this year.

    Let's dive right in.

Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Herb Jones
    Herb JonesVasha Hunt/Associated Press

    Seed List Ranking: No. 5

    The Alabama Crimson Tide finished the regular season with a 16-2 record in conference play and then marched through the SEC tournament to make a serious case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

    They have been nothing short of dominant since they wrapped up a forgettable 5-3 showing in nonconference play, with 11 of their 19 wins against SEC foes coming by double-digit points.

    An efficient defense and a well-rounded offensive attack that features four players averaging more than 11 points per game have been the keys to their success, but there is some danger in their reliance on the deep ball. The combination of ranking third in the nation in three-point attempts per game (30.4) and 117th in three-point percentage (35.1 percent) is a bit disconcerting.

    "They're undefeated when shooting better than 36 percent from deep, but they have been quite vulnerable against tournament-caliber opponents when shooting at or below that mark," B/R's Kerry Miller wrote.

    Surviving the bottom of the East Region with No. 3 Texas, No. 6 BYU, No. 7 UConn, No. 10 Maryland and the winner of the Michigan State vs. UCLA play-in game is a tall order, to say nothing of the fact that they share a side of the bracket with Gonzaga.

    Buy or Sell: Sell

Arkansas Razorbacks

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    Moses Moody
    Moses MoodySean Rayford/Associated Press

    Seed List Ranking: No. 9

    The Arkansas Razorbacks' resume would look an awful lot better if not for a 1-4 stretch in early January when they were without starting forward Justin Smith while he recovered from ankle surgery.

    A four-point loss to Oklahoma State on the road and a seven-point loss to LSU in the SEC tournament are the only other missteps in a stellar season that flew somewhat under the radar at a national level.

    Freshman Moses Moody (17.4 PPG, 5.9 RPG) is a potential lottery pick, and he's surrounded by a talented cast of supporting players capable of stepping up on any given night.

    A convincing 81-66 victory over Alabama on Feb. 24 showed what this team is capable of against a top-tier opponent. Five different players finished in double figures, led by 24 points from Moody, and the Crimson Tide offense was limited to 37.7 percent shooting with 16 turnovers.

    Don't sleep on No. 14 Colgate and No. 11 Utah State in this portion of the South Region. But if the Razorbacks can survive those early tests, then they are more than capable of pushing Baylor for a spot in the Final Four and squaring off against whoever emerges from a Midwest Region led by Illinois.

    If you're looking for a sleeper title contender, this is it.

    Buy or Sell: Buy

Baylor Bears

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    Jared Butler
    Jared ButlerJustin Rex/Associated Press

    Seed List Ranking: No. 2

    The Baylor Bears were absolutely rolling with a 17-0 record when a COVID-19 outbreak shut them down for three weeks at the beginning of February.

    They were stretched to the limit by a terrible Iowa State team in their return to action before suffering their first loss of the year to Kansas, but they righted the ship with impressive wins over West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech to close out the regular season.

    Jared Butler is the type of player who can anchor a team during a long March Madness run, and Baylor checks some big championship-contender boxes with lights-out three-point shooting (41.8 percent, first in D-I) and a defense that forces a ton of turnovers (17.3 per game).

    The biggest knock on the Bears is their poor free-throw shooting, and their overly aggressive defense can lead to some easy baskets for their opponent when they don't flip possession.

    That's nowhere near enough to call them anything short of title contenders, regardless of who they are matched up against along the way.

    Buy or Sell: Buy

Gonzaga Bulldogs

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Seed List Ranking: No. 1

    Saying something like "Gonzaga doesn't play anyone" as a reason to pick against the Bulldogs is a sure-fire way to look like you have no idea what you're talking about.

    The West Coast Conference was a cakewalk this year aside from BYU. But with neutral-site victories over Kansas (102-90), West Virginia (87-82), Iowa (99-88) and Virginia (98-75) on their resume, the Zags proved plenty during nonconference play.

    "This Gonzaga squad is much more 2014-15 Kentucky than it is 2013-14 Wichita State if we're drawing comparisons to recent unbeatens," B/R's Kerry Miller wrote.

    All five starters scored in double figures during a 10-point win over BYU in the conference title game, and all five guys are capable of doing their part to lead this team to a national title.

    Freshman phenom Jalen Suggs does an excellent job running the offense, and he's capable of scoring 20 when needed. Big man Drew Timme is extremely skilled and commands attention in the post. Corey Kispert might be the best pure shooter in the country. Joel Ayayi had a triple-double earlier this year. Andrew Nembhard is a former 5-star recruit who transferred in from Florida.

    They only go seven deep, and the seventh man, Aaron Cook, averages 14 minutes per game. But they haven't had any trouble playing an up-tempo style all season.

    This is the team to beat.

    Buy or Sell: Buy

Houston Cougars

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    Quentin Grimes
    Quentin GrimesMike Carlson/Associated Press

    Seed List Ranking: No. 8

    With a swarming defense that allows just 57.9 points per game, the Houston Cougars are not going to be a fun matchup for anyone in this year's tournament.

    They rank among the national leaders in steals per game (8.2, 34th), blocks per game (4.7, 26th) and offensive rebounds per game (14.3, third), and those strengths can be counted on night in and night out.

    Where they come up a bit short is on the offensive end.

    They get a lot of second chances thanks to their ability on the offensive glass, but they have gone ice-cold from the field more than once this year. They shot 39.0 percent in an ugly Quadrant 3 loss to East Carolina and 35.7 percent in a Quad 2 loss to Tulsa that was just on the fringe of being another Quad 3 defeat.

    The overall weakness of the AAC this season also raises some red flags. The only marquee win on their resume was a 64-53 victory over Texas Tech back in November.

    The winner of a likely No. 3 West Virginia vs. No. 6 San Diego State matchup in the second round could bring Houston's tournament run to an abrupt halt. If it survives that game, Illinois and Oklahoma State reside on the upper half of the Midwest Region.

    Buy or Sell: Sell

Illinois Fighting Illini

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Seed List Ranking: No. 3

    The easy knock on the Illinois Fighting Illini early in the year was that they were lacking in complementary contributors beyond the dynamic one-two punch of Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn. If Dosunmu was having an off night shooting or Cockburn got into foul trouble, they were vulnerable.

    The Big Ten tournament title game was the perfect example of how far they've come.

    Dosunmu scored 16 points on 5-of-17 shooting, and Cockburn played just 29 minutes while spending some time on the bench with four fouls. It didn't matter. Andre Curbelo (16 points, 5 assists), Da'Monte Williams (13 points, 3 steals) and Giorgi Bezhanishvili (12 points, 6 rebounds) all had huge games off the bench, and the Illini came away with a three-point win in overtime.

    There is no question this team is at its best when Dosunmu is making a run at a triple-double and Cockburn is asserting his dominance in the post, but other weapons are capable of picking up their portion of the slack.

    Loyola Chicago is a brutal second-round draw, Oklahoma State is the best No. 4 seed in the field, and whoever emerges from the bottom of the Midwest bracket between No. 2 Houston, No. 3 West Virginia and No. 6 San Diego State is going to be a major headache.

    It's not an easy road ahead, but the Illini are good enough to survive it.

    Buy or Sell: Buy

Iowa Hawkeyes

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    Luka Garza
    Luka GarzaCharlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Seed List Ranking: No. 7

    A handful of players each year are capable of carrying their team to the Final Four, and Luka Garza is one of them in 2021. 

    The two-time Big Ten Player of the Year is averaging 23.7 points and 8.8 rebounds, and he has gone off for 30 or more points seven times this year. He is flanked by Joe Wieskamp (69 threes, 47.3 3PT%) and Jordan Bohannon (77 threes, 38.9 3PT%), who are both capable of catching fire from the perimeter, and freshman Keegan Murray is an X-factor capable of double-digit scoring outputs.

    However, this team has not fared well against elite opponents.

    The Hawkeyes played Gonzaga, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio State a combined six times during the regular season and went 1-5 with three double-digit losses.

    They threw their best punch at Gonzaga in December. Garza scored 30 points, Wieskamp added 20, and they held Corey Kispert and Drew Timme below their season averages. They still lost by 11 points.

    Now they share the West Region with the Zags. Even if they can escape No. 3 Kansas, No. 6 USC and No. 7 Oregon at the bottom of the bracket, it looks like the Elite Eight will be the end of the line.

    Buy or Sell: Sell

Michigan Wolverines

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    Hunter Dickinson
    Hunter DickinsonDoug McSchooler/Associated Press

    Seed List Ranking: No. 4

    The Michigan Wolverines closed out February with an 18-1 record, looking very much like one of the nation's elite teams.

    Then they were dismantled at home by an Illinois team playing without All-American candidate Ayo Dosunmu, suffering a 76-53 loss that was a blowout from the early stages. They lost again in the regular-season finale to Michigan State and fell by one point to Ohio State in the semifinals as the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament.

    That late-season inconsistency would be a bit troubling on its own. But add to it the fact that the Wolverines might be without Isaiah Livers and the red flags fly.

    The 6'7" senior forward averages 13.1 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists, and he is the Wolverines' best marksman from deep with a team-high 50 three-pointers at an impressive 43.1 percent clip. He is sidelined indefinitely with a stress injury to his right foot after making an early exit against Maryland in the Big Ten tournament.

    Freshman standout Hunter Dickinson and NBA prospect Franz Wagner are both capable of big games, but this Michigan team is just not the same without Livers.

    The Wolverines will get everything they can handle from the winner of LSU vs. St. Bonaventure in the second round, and escaping the East Region would still mean a Final Four matchup with Gonzaga.

    Buy or Sell: Sell

Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Duane Washington Jr.
    Duane Washington Jr.Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Seed List Ranking: No. 6

    It's easy to envision the Ohio State Buckeyes as a title contender after watching them go stride for stride with Illinois in the Big Ten championship game. E.J. Liddell was held to 12 points on 3-of-16 shooting, and it still took an extra period for things to be decided, so don't count the Buckeyes out against anyone.

    The flip side of that was a four-game losing streak to finish out the regular season and a shaky defense that allowed 75 or more points 10 times this year.

    The Buckeyes are going to score. They have proved that all year, including an 87-point showing against Michigan that was the most points the Wolverines allowed all season. The question is whether they can slow down top-flight teams.

    Baylor and Arkansas are a tough draw in their own region, and don't sleep on No. 15 seed Oral Roberts with the nation's leading scorer, Max Abmas, leading the charge.

    It would take stringing together some of their best defensive performances of the year for the Buckeyes to reach the Final Four. Even then, they could be staring down a rematch with Illinois. The high-floor offensive teams are always intriguing, but the defensive shortcomings are tough to ignore.

    Buy or Sell: Sell

West Virginia Mountaineers

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    Derek Culver
    Derek CulverKathleen Batten/Associated Press

    Seed List Ranking: No. 10

    This is not your traditional defensive-minded West Virginia team.

    The Mountaineers have allowed 72.1 points per game, giving up over 80 points on eight separate occasions and ranking outside the top 200 nationally in field-goal percentage allowed.

    At the same time, this is a better offensive team than West Virginia has had in quite some time with Derek Culver (14.6 PPG, 9.8 RPG) and Miles McBride (15.4 PPG, 39.2 3PT%) leading the way.

    It dominates the offensive boards with 13.4 rebounds per game on that end, and that will be a significant feather in its cap when the importance of every possession is ramped up during the NCAA tournament.

    After going toe-to-toe with Gonzaga (87-82 loss) and Baylor (94-89 overtime loss) while picking up seven Quadrant 1 wins along the way, the Mountaineers belong in the conversation of top-tier teams nationally.

    Bob Huggins knows how to game-plan defensively as well as any head coach in the nation, and that could help offset what could otherwise be their undoing. San Diego State in the second round and a potential Sweet 16 matchup with Houston will test their mettle on the offensive end, but it actually plays to their benefit that those are two defensive-minded teams.

    It's the potential Illinois or Oklahoma State meeting in the Elite Eight that is hard to see a way around.

    Buy or Sell: Sell


    All stats courtesy of Sports Reference.