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 West, where Gonzaga rides into Indy chasing perfection?
State of the No. 1 Seed: Gonzaga
Frankly, Gonzaga has looked destined for the top overall seed ever since an emphatic win over Kansas in the very first game of the season. The Bulldogs have earned and lived up to their lofty expectations each step of the way since, leaning on a turbo-charged, balanced offense and four players with All-American cases. Rarely do you find four stars with skill sets as complementary as Jalen Suggs, Corey Kispert, Drew Timme and Joel Ayayi. Mark Few’s teams have led the nation in offensive efficiency three years running, and this edition is the third-best nationally in the last 10 years, per KenPom’s data. They’ve accomplished that without over-relying on launching threes, which bodes well for the sustainability of the whole thing. The synergy between their stars passes the eye test, and Gonzaga’s ball movement can be a beautiful thing.
Still, running the table presents its own set of challenges. As history has shown, going into the tournament undefeated guarantees new levels of pressure. Apart from a sluggish first half against BYU in the WCC championship game, Gonzaga hasn’t played a truly close contest since Dec. 2 against West Virginia, a game they still won by five. The Bulldogs’ defense is steady, not elite, but no opponent has been able to take full advantage. Attrition can be a nasty thing in March, but it’s hard to make a case for Gonzaga being truly vulnerable, mostly because we have yet to see it. Still, as the stakes magnify, their stiffest test is almost certainly still to come.
The big question as it pertains to Gonzaga’s region is whether the Zags will encounter that type of challenge prior to the Final Four. We actually have more answers than usual on that front: they’ve already beaten the 2, 3 and 4 seeds— Iowa, Kansas, and Virginia—in the regular season, and handily at that. At a glance, the answer is probably not. But of course, we have to play the games first.
Who Has the Toughest Draw: No. 2 Iowa
The bottom half of this bracket is completely loaded; Iowa’s path to a possible Elite Eight rematch with Gonzaga does not look fun at all. Luka Garza and the Hawkeyes draw a pretty solid first-round opponent in Grand Canyon, but it’s the prospect of having to go through a very experienced, under-seeded Oregon team in the second round that should ring the potential upset bells. Win that one, and Iowa could pull either Kansas (always formidable, COVID-19-pending) or USC (not as scary, but still dangerous) in the Sweet 16. The Hawkeyes are certainly good enough to pull it off, but of all the No. 2 seeds, they may be staring down the bumpiest path.
The Team That Could Bust Your Bracket: No. 7 Oregon
There are several good lower seeds in this region, but among the teams that can avoid Gonzaga until the Elite Eight, Oregon deserves your attention. Led by 23-year-old Chris Duarte—one of the best all-around players in the country—the Ducks are extremely experienced, and well-tested. Losing to Oregon State in the Pac-12 tournament was a tad concerning, but since Feb. 6, they’ve lost just twice, and on a good shooting night, they’re a lot to handle. If they can handle VCU (who scuffled hard in the A-10 final) in Round 1, the Ducks will not be afraid of Iowa, and are capable of matching them shot for shot. If they can make it that far, what’s one more win?
Related: NCAA Men's Tournament Opening Odds
Player to Watch: Evan Mobley, USC
In addition to being a projected top pick in the NBA draft, Mobley has done a whole lot of heavy lifting for the Trojans this season, and most opponents haven’t dealt with anything close to his game-changing defensive length. USC is a little bit vulnerable itself due to inconsistent guard play, but it's also plenty capable of beating good teams on a given night. Mobley has been locked in, scoring 26 points, grabbing nine rebounds and blocking shots in each of his last two Pac-12 tournament games. This is your last chance to watch Mobley play in college, and an Elite Eight run is not out of the question—though not necessarily likely. As a smaller ask, a USC-Kansas second-round matchup would be pretty intriguing.
Most Intriguing Matchup: No. 4 Virginia vs. No. 13 Ohio
This region could be ripe for multiple first-round upsets (keep an eye on Creighton-UC Santa Barbara, as well) but this is the game I’m most curious about. Virginia will be dealing with a layoff of more than a week after withdrawing from the ACC tournament due to COVID-19 protocols. Ohio star playmaker Jason Preston is capable of being the best player in this game. As we all know, Virginia’s plodding tempo can leave it vulnerable against lesser competition. The Bobcats struggle on the defensive end, but feature plenty of shooting and have rolled to a 12–3 mark dating back to Jan. 2. They won’t be fazed after memorably playing Illinois to a two-point loss back in November. This is a potentially tricky starting spot for the Hoos.
Regional Finalists: Gonzaga and Iowa
I realize I just spent quite a bit of time teasing a possible Iowa upset, but ultimately I think the Hawkeyes win the games they’re supposed to and get the job done. Luka Garza is still a whole lot to handle, and it’s a huge challenge for opponents to either match up adequately, or force his team out of its comfort zone with tempo. If they draw Oregon in the second round, things might get dicey early in the bracket, but Iowa has been heavily tested to this point.
As for Gonzaga, it’s just tough to see the Bulldogs wilting at any point before the Elite Eight at minimum. The winner of Oklahoma and Missouri shouldn’t pose an intense challenge. Creighton and UVA both got tough first-round draws, and no matter who the Zags would draw in the Sweet 16, they’d be in good shape.
Pick to Win the Region: Gonzaga
There will eventually be pressure mounting here, and the prospect of facing a team they’ve already played might actually make things trickier, but Gonzaga is as good as advertised, and exceptionally hard to pick against, at least until the Final Four.
Full West Region:
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 Norfolk State/Appalachian State
No. 8 Oklahoma vs. No. 9 Missouri
No. 5 Creighton vs. No. 12 UC Santa Barbara
No. 4 Virginia vs. No. 13 Ohio
No. 6 USC vs. No. 11 Wichita State/Drake
No. 3 Kansas vs. No. 14 Eastern Washington
No. 7 Oregon vs. No. 10 VCU
No. 2 Iowa vs. No. 15 Grand Canyon
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