The 2021 men's NCAA tournament bracket has been released, and for the next 96 hours before the first round begins on Friday, March Madness pool enthusiasts and hoopheads alike will be filling out brackets and diving into debates over which teams will be cutting down the nets in Indianapolis. This year's tournament will take place in a unique, COVID-19 pandemic-necessitated bubble environment, but the intrigue around the matchups and who this year's surprises, Cinderellas and stars will be remains the same.
The location is different, but the region names (West, East, Midwest, South) remain the same. With the path to the Final Four set, we’re sizing up the players, teams and games to watch in each region.
What should we make of the South, where Baylor aims to reach its first Final Four in more than 70 years?
State of the No. 1 Seed: Baylor
The Bears clinched the Big 12 regular-season championship for the first time in 71 years (1950) en route to claiming the program’s first No. 1 seed. Baylor was forced to take a COVID-19 pause for three weeks at the beginning of February, then suffered both of its losses post-break. That said, that seven-game span was a “murderer's row” of competition, with six of the seven games coming against top-25 teams.
Still, the Bears have legitimate kinks to work out, specifically how to close out games. On Saturday, Oklahoma State erased an eight-point deficit with a 31–14 run with just under eight minutes left in the Big 12 semifinals to hand Baylor its second loss of the season. The Bears have yet to return to “pre-COVID-19 pause” form, whether it was their 21 turnovers against Kansas State in the Big 12 quarterfinals or their abysmal 38.9% shooting performance in the loss to the Cowboys.
That said, the Bears have a perfect collection of blue-collar talent, play with a toughness and grit that overwhelms opponents over the course of the game and own eight Quad 1 wins. The Bears could face early resistance in the second round from either North Carolina or Wisconsin, but their depth should be too much for the top half of the bracket.
Who Has the Toughest Draw: No. 2 Ohio State
The Buckeyes nearly stole the Big Ten title, but eventually fell in overtime to Illinois, 91–88. For their trouble, they’ll have to maneuver through the bottom half of the South bracket, which is riddled with potential landmines. The Buckeyes should handle No. 15 Oral Roberts convincingly, but in the second round either No. 7 Florida or No. 10 Virginia Tech looms. Both teams have multiple double-figure scorers and depth. Should they move on, the Buckeyes would likely face No. 3 Arkansas or perhaps the most dangerous No. 6 seed in the tournament, Texas Tech, before potentially seeing No. 1 Baylor, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “no rest for the weary.”
Team That Could Bust Your Bracket: No. 12 Winthrop
The Eagles face No. 5 seed Villanova in the first round, and the Wildcats are ripe for the picking with their starting point guard Collin Gillespie in street clothes after sustaining a season-ending knee injury earlier this month. That’s 14 points, 4.6 assists and 3.3 rebounds out of the lineup against an Eagles squad which counts depth as one of its greatest strengths. Winthrop has a legitimate 11-man rotation, anchored by Chandler Vaudrin, a 6-foot-7 southpaw point guard who does it all, averaging 12.2 points, 6.9 assists and 7.2 rebounds a game this season. The Eagles have won 28 of their last 29 games dating back to last season, including an impressive win over Southern Conference champion UNC Greensboro. The Eagles have all the ingredients to make it to the Sweet 16.
Related: NCAA Men's Tournament Opening Odds
Player to Watch: Duane Washington Jr., Ohio State
Talk about peaking at the right time. Washington came into the Big Ten tournament averaging 15 points a game, and in the three games in Indianapolis he averaged 25.3. That’s great news for the Buckeyes, who will need that level of production in the grueling South region. Washington gave Illinois all sorts of headaches in the Big Ten title game, scoring in a variety of different ways on all three levels in route to dropping a career-high 32 points in the loss. Washington remaining in attack mode gives Ohio State its best chance to advance in each round. Expect him to eclipse the 32-point mark over the next couple of weeks.
Most Intriguing Matchup: No. 3 Arkansas vs. No. 14 Colgate
Moses Moody and Co. will have their hands full with the Patriot League champions, who come into the Big Dance riding a 13-game winning streak. Both teams are capable of putting up big numbers on the scoreboard (Arkansas: 82.4 ppg, Colgate: 86.3 ppg), both are led by talented guards and both have great depth. The Raiders began their conference-only schedule on Jan. 2 and have held teams to just 68.6 points per game this season. Arkansas has more battle scars, but the Raiders have a tendency to get and stay hot; in March that’s all that matters.
Regional Finalists: No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 2 Ohio State
The Buckeyes more than showed what they’re capable of pushing Illinois to the brink in the Big Ten title game before ultimately falling. Yes, they needed a career-high 32 points from Washington to get there, but his production had been on an upward trajectory all tournament and he got his points in rhythm. That’s a great sign for an Ohio State team with nine Quad 1 wins this season. Baylor is playing with the ultimate chip after dropping two games in the last three weeks and seeing national title talk cooling as a result. The Bears are better defensively and are deeper, but the Buckeyes have consistently proven that, at their best, they’re more than capable of knocking off a No. 1 seed.
Pick to Win the Region: Baylor
I know, I know, there was a mass exodus on the Baylor bandwagon over the last two weeks, but the Bears body of work trumps their recent skid. Baylor is an offensive juggernaut, averaging 84.4 points per game, and led the second-best basketball conference in scoring, field goal percentage (49.3%), three-point percentage (41.8%) and steals (8.9 per game), and it is led by upperclassmen. In the end, that will make the difference.
Full South Region:
No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 16 Hartford
No. 8 North Carolina vs. No. 9 Wisconsin
No. 5 Villanova vs. No. 12 Winthrop
No. 4 Purdue vs. No. 13 North Texas
No. 6 Texas Tech vs. No. 11 Utah State
No. 3 Arkansas vs. No. 14 Colgate
No. 7 Florida vs. No. 10 Virginia Tech
No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 15 Oral Roberts
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