On Monday the calendar turns to March, and college basketball prepares to take center stage in American sports. A year after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down U.S. sports right before the Big Dance, college hoops is back and—despite plenty of postponements and pauses along the way—on track to play both the men’s and women’s tournament in 2021. After missing out on most of the traditional March college basketball experience last year, you’ll have to forgive us if we’re a little extra excited for this go-around. Here are eight things in particular we’re looking forward to:
The return of tournament basketball
It’s been a long two years since we last felt the full, magical force of March Madness. We got a taste last year as several mid-major conference tournaments were completed, but sports were shut down before leagues like the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 even got a chance to tip off on the men’s side, let alone the Big Dance. It was the first year without an NCAA tournament since 1938, leaving fans across the nation without a treasured American staple.
Have no fear, though. The thrill of tournament basketball—the upsets, the buzzer beaters, the Cinderellas, the nail-biters—comes roaring back in 2021, and perhaps with an even deeper appreciation among those who didn’t realize just how much they would miss it until 2020. Pretty soon we’ll be in the thick of conference tournament season, and then the men’s NCAA tournament starts March 18 and the women’s on March 21.
Gonzaga's quest for an undefeated title
After Kansas handed Baylor its first loss on Saturday night, there are only three undefeated teams across D-I college basketball: Gonzaga on the men’s side, and California Baptist and Bucknell on the women’s side. The Lancers, of Cal Baptist, are not eligible for this year’s NCAA tournament after a transition to Division I, though they can play in the WAC tournament and attempt to finish unbeaten outside of the Big Dance. Bucknell, meanwhile, has only played eight games, and not since Jan. 31 due to COVID-19.
The Zags, however, can dream of something particularly rare in the men’s game: an undefeated national championship season. A men’s D-I program has not pulled off the feat since the famous 1975–76 Indiana team. Gonzaga has already finished an unbeaten regular season and heads to a WCC tournament where (should it not opt out) it will be the heavy favorite before the NCAAs, where it will likely be the No. 1 overall seed. It will be fascinating to watch its attempt to win the program's first national championship.
Bubble environments like never before
This year’s NCAA tournaments will be played in one location—the women’s in the San Antonio area, and the men’s in the Indianapolis area. The bubble-like environment is a necessity due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and the NCAA even had to announce contingency plans should any teams experience outbreaks. Fan capacity will also be limited at both tournaments.
What impact will this unusual set-up have on this year’s field? Who knows? Perhaps upsets will be less likely without a huge crowd on the underdog’s side—or perhaps that could even work in the favor of lower seeds, with a less-pressurized environment. My colleague Jeremy Woo made a salient point the other day: With teams in a bubble environment and holed up in their hotels except for practice and games, there will be little travel and little for them to focus on besides basketball. Will that play into the top team’s hands? Time will tell, but it will be interesting to see how this unique situation plays out.
UConn back in the Big East tournaments
The Huskies’ conference switch last summer brought them back to a familiar home. Geno Auriemma’s team has dominated just the same; the UConn women are 17–0 and crushing opponents in Big East play, after not losing a single conference game in its seven years in the AAC. The Huskies will, naturally, be the heavy favorites to take home the Big East tournament hardware on March 8.
Meanwhile the UConn men will be more of an underdog in their own tourney, but are not to be slept on after getting back star guard James Bouknight. The last time both Huskies teams won the Big East tournament? When Maya Moore and Kemba Walker led their respective programs to it in 2011.
The ends of major NCAA tournament droughts
One of the more underrated parts of March Madness is the sheer elation of watching programs end long NCAA tournament droughts or go dancing for the first time ever. And it was one of the more crushing aspects of last year’s canceled tournaments, which robbed certain programs of their ability to do just that. For example, the Rutgers men were set to earn their first bid since 1991, and the Stony Brook women—who have never gone to the NCAAs—were a win away from capturing the America East championship when things got shut down. Both programs will try again in 2021, with the Scarlet Knights currently in position for an at-large bid and the Seawolves the No. 2 seed in their conference tourney. They aren’t the only ones: Among others, the Wake Forest women are battling on the bubble for their first bid in a whopping 33 years, and the Grand Canyon men are hoping to earn the WAC autobid for the first time since moving to D-I.
The promise of new blood
In case you haven’t heard, the bluebloods on the men’s basketball side this year have been, uhhh, a little less impressive than usual. Instead, the sport is largely being run by programs that either have never won a national title (Gonzaga, Baylor, Iowa, Illinois, Alabama, Houston, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Florida State, etc.) or haven’t won one in a long time (Michigan, Ohio State). Of the last decade’s champions on the men’s side, only one (Villanova) is currently in the AP Top 10, and only two (’Nova and Virginia) are ranked at all. If you’re tired of the same big-time programs winning and going to the Final Four, this year is especially for you.
But wait, there’s more! Yes, the UConn women are No. 1 in the AP poll, but it’s actually been a whole five years since the Huskies have cut down the nets. It might not be the most exciting drought to break, but the days of it being inevitable that Auriemma’s team would be showered in confetti are (at least temporarily) behind us. Not one of the women’s contenders is undefeated, and there are fresh stories all around: No. 2 NC State, No. 6 Louisville, No. 9 Arizona and No. 10 UCLA have never won the title; No. 3 Texas A&M’s lone championship was 10 years ago; No. 4 Stanford hasn’t won since 1992; and No. 8 Maryland’s only title was in 2006. Could we get two first-time champions in early April?
The star power of March
The spotlight of March Madness always seems to bring out the best in college basketball’s, well, best. This year, that’s the likes of Luka Garza, Paige Bueckers, Ayo Dosunmu, Rhyne Howard, Jalen Suggs, Naz Hillmon and many more, but March stardom isn’t limited to those who are already household names. Whether it’s through a Cinderella run (like Steph Curry at Davidson), a singular upset (like Ali Farokhmanesh’s audacious three to ice Northern Iowa’s triumph over Kansas) or not one but two seismic buzzer beaters (like Arike Ogunbowale against UConn and Mississippi State), anyone can rise up into March lore and etch their name for years to come. Who will be this year’s heroes?
Let’s be real. Everyone wants to see these (until your team is on the wrong end of one, of course). They’re special all the time, but in March and April, they’re the stuff of legends.
We’ll leave you with this: