By Geoff Gray
It’s been a long two years, but the greatest tournament in all of sports is back. The 2021 NCAA Tournament will take place in unprecedented fashion, with all games taking place in Indianapolis with strict COVID-19 protocols in place. The tournament may feel a little different, but America’s favorite tradition of filling out brackets is back, and I’ll break down each region to help you finalize yours.
If you’re taking a flyer on a double-digit seed to reach the Sweet 16, this is the region for you. A double-digit seed has reached the Sweet 16 in 33 of the last 35 tournaments, and I’m looking at Gonzaga’s potential matchup here.
Virginia is in quarantine until Thursday and leaves for Indianapolis on Friday for their matchup against Ohio on Saturday, meaning they can’t practice this week. Ohio is led by star point guard Jason Preston who fills up the stat sheet and has an incredible underdog story. They also took Illinois down to the wire back in November. I got the Bobcats advancing to the second round, where they’ll meet the 12 seed, UC Santa Barbara.
UCSB has won 18 of their last 19 games and is playing a Creighton team that’s lost three of their last six, most recently getting obliterated by Georgetown in the Big East Tournament final. One of these two teams will meet Gonzaga in the Sweet 16.
Moving down, Kansas has been dealing with COVID issues as well, as Jalen Wilson is out for the round of 64 and questionable for the round of 32. I have them taking care of Eastern Washington, but I like USC to upset them in the second round. USC is led by projected #2 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, Evan Mobley, and they have the talent to disrupt a banged up Kansas team.
Oregon is a scary seven seed at the bottom of this region. Mobley and the Trojans could also be a problematic matchup for Luka Garza and the Hawkeyes as well, but I already have enough chaos out west. Gonzaga over Iowa in the Elite 8. The Zags are too good offensively and their path is too clear to not go chalk here. Mark Few gets another shot at getting Gonzaga their first national title.
If you’re looking for a dark horse Final Four team, this is where you should look. Michigan is simply not the same team without Isaiah Livers. Assuming they get past LSU, Florida State is very well coached and has the length and size to give Hunter Dickinson problems down low. I see the Seminoles in the Elite 8, where they’ll meet Shaka Smart and the Texas Longhorns.
What takes you far in March? Experienced guard play. Courtney Ramey, Andrew Jones, and Matt Coleman may be the best trio of guards in the country, and they have NBA talent in the front court. Coming off a Big 12 Tournament title, they have the momentum to carry them through a wide open region. Alabama won’t go down easy if they can take care of a dangerous UConn team in the second round, but I see Shaka Smart getting back to the Final Four.
Another upset I like in this region is Michigan State/UCLA over BYU. Tom Izzo in March is a nightmare for any opponent, and BYU is rather over-seeded. Not to mention, a team playing in the First Four has advanced to the second round in eight of the last nine tournaments. And yes, I know half the country is picking Georgetown over Colorado. We all love a Patrick Ewing led team that just steamrolled through the Big East Tournament. I just think the Buffaloes are hearing that noise and will be better prepared for it.
Here is where things get dicey for me. I love Baylor’s guards. Jared Butler is one of the best players in the country and they went 22-2 in the second best conference in the country. However, they had many COVID issues a few weeks ago and barely played games in February. Frankly, they haven’t quite been the same team since.
I wasn’t sold on Ohio State either until the Big Ten Tournament. This team plays really hard and is led by a dominant inside-out duo of EJ Liddell and Duane Washington Jr. Give me the Buckeyes in a nail-biter, advancing to their first Final Four since 2012.
Other upsets I like in this region are Virginia Tech over Florida, Winthrop over Villanova, and Texas Tech over Arkansas in the round of 32. Yes, Villanova hasn’t been the same since they lost Collin Gillespie, but I also like the matchup for Winthrop. Not only are they 23-1, but they’re experienced and rebound very well. 6’7” point guard Chandler Vaudrin is leading the NCAA in triple doubles and 6’9”, 275-pound DJ Burns leads a strong attack on the glass that can be difficult for a Villanova team that lacks size.
As for Texas Tech, they are battle tested and Chris Beard proved his worth taking them to the finals in 2019. If they can survive a tough first round matchup against Utah State, I see them putting an end to Arkansas’ hot streak. I’m ready for NCAA Tournament Mac McClung.
When the bracket was being released, I knew for some reason my two favorite teams in the tournament would meet way earlier than they should, because that’s March Madness for you. I had Oklahoma State as another potential dark horse team, but after being under-seeded by the committee, they now have to go through Illinois, perhaps the only other team I liked more going into the selection show.
This has the potential to be one of the best Sweet 16 matchups in recent memory. Cade Cunningham will probably go first overall in the 2021 NBA Draft and he has the killer instinct that can take a team very far. He has a supporting cast too, as they went to West Virginia last week without him and grinded out a win. If they were in any other region, they could very well make the Final Four, but Illinois is too good. Despite having maybe the toughest strength of schedule in the country, the Illini have won 14 of their last 15 games and had to go through the cream of the crop en route to a Big Ten Tournament title. Not only is Ayo Dosunmu arguably the best player in the country, but Kofi Cockburn is one of the best big men in the tournament. This duo will take them to the Final Four, despite potentially having to go through Loyola Chicago and Oklahoma State in the second and third rounds.
Other upsets I like in this region are Rutgers over Clemson and Syracuse over San Diego State. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Aztecs, but that Syracuse zone is hard to prepare for and Jim Boehim is no stranger to winning games in the NCAA Tournament as a double-digit seed. Rutgers has elite guard play and they showed glimpses of excellence when taking down Illinois back in December. I wouldn’t be surprised if they give Houston some problems in the second round. I’m not ecstatic about the way West Virginia has been playing recently, but they are elite on the offensive end and they got a good draw. Give me Bob Huggins and the Mountaineers falling to Illinois in the Elite 8.
The Final Four
It’s hard to imagine the Zags not making it to the national championship game when considering how good they are offensively and what their path is to get there. Jalen Suggs, Corey Kispert, and Drew Timme are one of the deadliest trios we’ve seen in awhile.
However, while offense wins games, defense wins championships. After witnessing what Illinois has done to close out the season, I can’t see anyone else beating them, even Gonzaga. Aside from Dosunmu and Cockburn, Andre Curbelo and Trent Frazier are dynamic guards that play with great poise. Da’monte Williams is a knock-down shooter and Giorgi Bezhanishvili brings a lot of grit and toughness off the bench.
Two weeks ago, without Ayo Dosunmu, they traveled to a fully healthy Michigan team, and embarrassed them on their own floor when people were calling Michigan the best team in the country. Illinois checks every box and just feels like a team of destiny right now. Give me the Illini over the Zags in the finals, 75-73. Dosunmu gets tournament MVP and brings Illinois their first national championship in program history.
While I feel like this breakdown can help you win your bracket pool, remember that this is March Madness. Oftentimes, the more you know, the worse your bracket does! Bracket busted or not, there is nothing quite like the NCAA Tournament. Here’s to hoping COVID-19 won’t ruin this great tradition, as it has many others over the past year. Stay positive. Test negative.