You can keep the Final Four. Give me the first two days, the 139 games happening at once, the upsets and the survivals and everything else that happens when you give the top teams in the nation one game and one day on which to be the best. Any given Sunday, in other words, crossed with a radioactive spider and benevolent fairy godmother.
Those dramatic upsets are clearly the best part of this whole thing. The entire sports community is going to remember Loyola-Chicago and Sister Jean for a long time. Ditto the George Masons and the Butlers and the Valparaisos and the UMBCs.
So who's going to pull the upset this year? Here are our picks for Day 1 of the 2021 NCAA men's tournament. We've ranked them from least to most dramatic. We've also included historical percentages of how each underdog seed has performed in the opening round.
Florida Gators (14-9, South Region, No. 7 seed)
Florida lost a big piece when Keyontae Johnson went down on December 12 after a scary on-court collapse. The team has gone on to enjoy moderate success, but Johnson is an experienced junior forward who was putting up 16.0 points a game before his season ended.
In any event, Florida is certainly dangerous with Tre Mann and 6'11" Colin Castleton down low. But the Gators lost three of their last four entering the tournament. Virginia Tech is a grinding squad led by Keve Aluma, who leads the team with 15.6 points per game but averaged 19.0 over the Hokies' past seven contests. It's a team that just won't quit, and it may be hot at the right time, while the opposite is true for the Gators.
Texas Tech Red Raiders (17-10, South Region, No. 6 seed)
The Red Raiders went 3-5 down the stretch, though they came within a point of upsetting Texas in the Big 12 tournament. Utah State, by contrast, won six of its last seven, with the only loss coming to another current No. 6 seed in San Diego State.
This one will be different, though, because the Aggies have a secret weapon: Neemias Queta out of Portugal, who just received an All-American honorable mention nod.
Not bad for a player from the Mountain West Conference, where the 7-footer leads in no fewer than 19 basic and advanced statistical categories. He also leads the nation in defensive win shares (2.8) and defensive box plus/minus (6.6). He blocks 3.2 shots per game while converting 55.7 percent of his own attempts.
This is a problem for the Red Raiders because they are a very guard-heavy squad. Of the seven Texas Tech players who get at least 20 minutes of playing time, only one, Marcus Santos-Silva, is a forward, and he's only 6'7".
Could Texas Tech double down on small ball and run the Aggies off the court? Sure. Could Queta put up one of those magical tournament performances and become an overnight sensation in the process? Yes to all of that.
Villanova Wildcats (16-6, South Region, No. 5 seed)
Winthrop is a mid-major, but the Eagles don't rely on hot shooting or gimmicky defenses. This team can play, and it can play at a high level.
They're some kind of fun to watch, too, looking to run early and often. In fact, the Eagles sit 11th nationally in KenPom's adjusted tempo rating—only Gonzaga and Alabama are ranked higher in the tournament field.
Villanova still has to be stinging from that stunner against Georgetown in the Big East tournament. The Wildcats may come out fired up. But now that they're without starting point guard, second-leading scorer and top assist man Collin Gillespie after a season-ending knee injury, they're not going to be as formidable as they may have been earlier in the season.
Arkansas Razorbacks (22-6, South Region, No. 3 seed)
You know that game every season when a mid-major underdog gets red-hot, makes a million threes and runs away with a big win? This year, this is that matchup.
Arkansas is a terrific team behind likely NBA lottery pick Moses Moody. The Razorbacks are a tough defensive squad, ranking 13th nationally, per KenPom.
But when you've got four guys on four separate hot streaks, the seams of any defense can burst. Colgate's top four scorers all average double figures and shoot at least 37 percent from deep. They also have a quiet star in guard Jack Ferguson, who leads the country in offensive rating.
There's a big "if" that comes with this one, but for the best upsets, there always is.
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