2021 NCAA men's basketball tourney: The field shapes up


The field is set for the 2021 NCAA men's tournament.

One year ago, the uniforms were packed away, the basketball courts were silent, and no one needed to find where truTV was at in their channel guide. 

Here in 2021, while the world is still in process from recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, March Madness has returned. Protocols may be different, game days are altered, and the tournament will be played in one (mostly) central location across several venues. But these facts remain: 68 teams will be vying over the next month to be crowned the top team in men's Division I college basketball.

It remains to be seen, however, if the same 68 teams announced on Sunday will be the same ones that begin tournament play on Thursday.

Positive coronavirus tests in programs like Virginia (no. 4 seed, West region) and Kansas (no. 3 seed, West region) ended their conference tournament runs. Most of Virginia's roster is still in quarantine and there are already procedures in place to replace any team(s) that can't continue on prior to the start of the tournament. 

Replacement teams are on standby if a team is forced to bow out due to COVID-19 prior to the 6 pm ET deadline on Tuesday.

A positive coronavirus test also halted the season of the Duke Blue Devils. Duke had won their first two games of the ACC tournament before having to bow out. The Blue Devils likely needed to win the ACC tournament to make the NCAA tournament in 2021.

Duke's absence is the first time since the 1994-95 season in which the Blue Devils will not be in the Big Dance. Joining them on the sideline is perennial power Kentucky, making for the first time since the 1976 season neither Duke or Kentucky is in the NCAA tournament.

The ACC will be represented by seven teams, tied for second-most among conferences with the Big 12. The Big 10 Ten placed nine teams in the tournament, including two no. 1 seeds and two no. 2 seeds.

The SEC has six teams in this year's tournament. 

2021 was also year that saw top-seeds fall in conference tournaments across the land. Many expected winners fell in the semis or quarterfinals. For some, it didn't affect berths in the Big Dance. And for others, it was March madness turned March sadness, has excellent regular seasons were gone in a flash.

That, however, is the pain and glory involved this time of year. With or without fans in attendance, it's good to have it back.

The no. 1 seeds

The West region top seed and tournament's overall no. 1 belongs to the Gonzaga Bulldogs (26-0). Not only has Gonzaga won all of their games so far, they've done so in convincing fashion. Gonzaga averages 92.1 points per game while making 55.1 percent of their field goal attempts. Opponents have lost by single digits to the 'Zags only once this season. Even a 10-point victory over BYU in the WCC final saw Gonzaga come back from a 12-point halftime deficit. 

Gonzaga is led by a trio of players who are among the finalists for the Wooden Award, given to the nation's top men's player. Corey Kispert is the leading scorer at 19.2 ppg, followed by Drew Timme, who averages 18.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. 

Freshman guard Jalen Suggs might be the most well-rounded of the bunch. Suggs averages 14.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game.

The Baylor Bears (22-2) hold the no. 1 seed in the South region, marking the first time in program history they've held the top line. Baylor's two losses came late in the season, falling to the Kansas Jayhawks in the regular season and to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Conference tourney semis.

This team is heavy on the guard rotation, led by a trio of players. Jared Butler is the top scorer, dropping 17.1 per game. MaCio Teague is next at 16.1 ppg and Davion Mitchell contributes 14.1 per contest. Mitchell also tallies 5.4 assists and is shooting 51.5 percent from the field.

Baylor loves to shoot the three and the trio of players above have this season connected a combined 167 times from deep.

In the Midwest region, the Illinois Fighting Illini (23-6) and Big Ten champions earned the no. 1 seed. With 13 Quad 1 wins, the Fighting Illini have the experience to make a Final Four run, but they also have a region filled with teams that could easily do the same. Oklahoma State is playing at a high level and both the Houston Cougars and West Virginia Mountaineers could make some trouble. Even a possible Second Round game with either Loyola Chicago or Georgia Tech could give Illinois fits.

The Illini have a good inside/outside combo, led by guard Ayo Dosunmu. Dosunmu averages 20.7 points and 5.3 assists per game. His partner on the post is Kofi Cockburn, who averages 17.6 ppg and pulls down an average of 9.6 rebounds.

Rounding out the no. 1 seeds, the Michigan Wolverines are limping into the NCAA tournament. The Wolverines have lost three of their last five games and also saw one of their top players in Isaiah Livers sidelined. Livers, who is averaging 13.1 points and 6 rebounds per game, re-aggravated a foot injury in Big Ten quarterfinal action against Maryland. 

Michigan, much like Illinois, has some decent inside/outside action, though they don't like to shoot the three as much as other teams do. Center Hunter Dickinson puts up 14.2 points and pulls down 7.6 rebounds per game. Franz Wagner is great rebounding guard (6.2 per game) and is scoring 12.8 ppg.

4 teams to watch

Though they have dropped five of their last eight games, the Buckeyes of Ohio State (21-9) have a chance in a favorable South region. The Buckeyes reached the final of the Big Ten tournament and have a dynamic scorer in Duane Washington Jr. Washington averages 16.3 points per game and scored 32 against Illinois in the conference tournament final.

Ohio State opens NCAA tournament play on Friday (3/19) with a first-round matchup against Oral Roberts (16-10), winners of the Summit League tournament. 

San Diego State (23-4) had a little lull at the start of Mountain West conference play in dropping three of their first five games. The Aztecs, however, were missing Mountain West Player of the Year Matt Mitchell in two losses to Utah State. Since then, San Diego State, the no. 6 seed in the Midwest, has rattled off 14-straight victories and has a deep, talented roster. 

The Aztecs open play against 11-seed Syracuse (16-9) on Friday (3/19).

In a bid-stealing run, the Georgetown Hoyas (13-12) emerged as surprising champions of the Big East tournament. Sitting as the 12-seed in the East region, the Hoyas hope to continue their magic when they open play on Saturday (3/20) against 5-seed Colorado (22-8).

Before winning four games in the Big East tournament, Georgetown finished out the regular season winning four of six. 

BYU (20-6) gave Gonzaga all they could handle in the WCC tournament finals, leading by as many as 14 and ultimately losing by ten. Three of BYU's losses were to Gonzaga this season and two other losses were by a combined seven points. The Cougars have range and size, a nice mix for this time of year.

Their first game will be on Saturday (3/20).

The Oklahoma State Cowboys (20-8) are also a team playing at a high-level right now and could make some noise out in the Midwest region. 

Upset alert

Upsets by lower-seeded teams are part of the reason so many enjoy this time of year. Here are a handful of teams I think could win their opening-round game and perhaps even make a Sweet 16 appearance.

Winthrop (23-1) suffered a two-point loss, their only blemish in the 2020-21 season. The Eagles have an experienced team that won their second Big South title in a row. A 12-seed in the South region, Winthrop has a good-chance at defeating a Villanova (16-6) squad who will be playing without their best player and has lost three of their last four games.

A feel-good story this time of year is always a plus and that's exactly what the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (15-11) have going for them. Rutgers, a 10-seed in the Midwest region, is appearing in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 30 years. The program would have likely been selected last year if not for the tournament's cancelation, so this year's edition is extra sweet.

Rutgers opens play against no. 7 seed Clemson (16-7).

Two other teams have more difficult matchups in the First Round, but both have the ability to pull off the upset. The Cleveland State Vikings (19-7) are champions out of the Horizon League and have a roster of junior college transfers who have developed quite the chemistry this season. And UNC Greensboro (21-8), winners of the Southern Conference, have won eight of their last ten.

Cleveland State is a no. 15 seed and opens against Houston (24-3) in the Midwest region. If victorious, we could very well see a Cleveland State - Rutgers matchup in the round of 32.
UNCG is a 13-seed in the East region and opens play against Florida State (16-6).

Also be sure to keep an eye on the Big West champion UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (22-4), who are a 12-seed out West and have only lost once in the new year. The Gauchos face 5-seed Creighton (20-8) out of the Big East.

The First Four

Two historically elite programs from power conferences will be squaring off in a match-up that normally one might see in a Final Four game.

Though neither the Michigan State Spartans (15-12) or UCLA Bruins (17-9) should be complaining.

The Spartans might have the bigger gripe, having knocked off Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio State in recent weeks. UCLA, on the other hand, enters the tournament on a four-game losing streak, falling in the Pac-12 conference tournament to eventual champion Oregon State (17-12).

Selected for this battle for 11-seed supremacy (in the East region), the winner between the Spartans and Bruins will face BYU.

Another enticing match-up, also on the 11-seed line, is out West, where the Wichita State Shockers (16-5) take on the Drake Bulldogs (25-4). Wichita State had an eight-game winning streak snapped when they lost to Cincinnati in the American Conference tournament. The Shockers also own a win over Houston, which is the no. 2 seed in the Midwest Region.

Drake, meanwhile, raced out to an 18-0 start to the season before slightly falling back to Earth. The Bulldogs lost to Loyola Chicago in the Missouri Valley Conference tourney and have been without point guard Roman Penn, who broke his foot in a game in February. 

The winner of Wichita State and Drake will face no. 6 seed USC. 

The other two First Four games focus on the 16-seeds in the West and the East regions. These games involve smaller conference champions playing against each other in hopes of advancing to play a top-seed.

Out West, the Norfolk State Spartans (16-7), champions out of the MEAC, will play the Appalachian State Mountaineers (17-11). The Mountaineers won the Sun Belt Conference tourney and the winner of this game will face Gonzaga.

In the East, it's a matchup between the Northeast Conference and SWAC champions. The Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers (12-10) take the court against the Texas Southern Tigers (16-8) as they square off for the right to play Michigan.

Interesting opening games

After the First Four on Thursday, things really kick into gear on Friday and Saturday. Aside from the teams mentioned above, here are four games I'm looking forward to watching: 
  • South Region: (8) UNC vs (9) Wisconsin (3/19)
  • Midwest Region: (8) Loyola Chicago vs (9) Georgia Tech (3/19)
  • West Region: (7) Oregon vs (10) VCU (3/20)
  • East Region: (2) Alabama vs (15) Iona (3/20)
Be sure to follow along for all the action on this blog, plus over on Twitter via @jasonrh_78 and @lookinsporty1

picture credit: Wikimedia Commons