The men’s NCAA tournament selection committee has spoken, but now it’s time for the real seed list to be revealed. The Sports Illustrated 1–68 rankings aren’t beholden to Quad This or Quad That, or to any other metrics. This is simply a ranking of the teams playing best when it matters most, which is right now.
1. Gonzaga. Undefeated, brilliant offensively, multifaceted, expertly coached, highly skilled, athletic enough—this is your tournament favorite. Being undefeated heading into the Big Dance isn’t easy to do, and it isn’t easy to handle. If it were, we wouldn’t be talking about a 45-year drought since the last unbeaten champion. But being down 14 to BYU in the West Coast Conference tournament will pay dividends. It’s good to have your mouth bloodied and remove any aura of invincibility. Time to fulfill the two-decade quest, rising from obscure mid-major to the game’s unlikely Goliath.
2. Illinois. Best team in the best conference, and a lot of fun to watch. Illinois was rolling at the end of the regular season and kept that going through a high-level Big Ten tournament. Their last six wins are over NCAA tournament teams—and guess how many victories it takes to win it all? Masked man Ayo Dosunmu is a star who will benefit from getting out of black-and-blue conference play; Kofi Cockburn is a tower of strength in the middle; Andre Curbelo is a confident freshman point guard who has hit his stride. The Illini have the pieces.
3. Baylor. Trying to complete the ultimate program comeback, from tragedy and disgrace to champions. The Bears haven’t played their best basketball since coming back from a three-week COVID-19 disruption in February—but they haven’t had to. Losing a couple of games to Kansas and Oklahoma State does not constitute a serious warning sign. After winning the Big 12 regular season, the league tourney didn’t matter. This tourney matters, so expect Baylor to be ready. This is a team full of deadly shooters and tough hombres, with the only problematic component being defensive rebounding (which could be an issue with North Carolina looming as a potential second-round opponent).
4. Alabama. Last year, the Crimson Tide went 16–15 in their first year under Nate Oats. This year, they’re a dangerous No. 2 seed. Can a team really come from as far off the radar as Alabama was to the Final Four? Just look at the football program for comparison’s sake. Nick Saban’s first season at Bama: 7–6. Every season since: national title contention. I’m not saying Nate Oats is the Nick Saban of the hardwood, but he’s done a phenomenal job with a tough senior nucleus and some talented younger guards. And the Tide are in the region with the most vulnerable No. 1 seed. Spring football might just have to take a backseat for a few more weeks.
5. Oklahoma State. This team has a Syracuse 2003 feel to it—young, loose, talented, confident and led by a freshman star. Can Cade Cunningham pull a Carmelo Anthony and lead the Cowboys to the national title in his only year of college ball? The numbers are similar: Anthony averaged 22.2 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.6 steals; Cunningham comes in averaging 20.2 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.4 steals. His supporting cast is bouncy and brash as well, with Kalib Boone in the Hakim Warrick role. But don’t overlook heady junior Isaac Likekele, who ceded control of the offense to Cunningham. Mike Boynton has done great work getting this team to coalesce at the right time. The only concern is a complete lack of NCAA experience, for the players and the head coach.
6. Michigan. The injury to senior Isaiah Livers is really sad, and it creates a major concern if he cannot return to action this week. The 6' 7" Livers is the Wolverines’ No. 2 scorer, a reliable rebounder and a very capable defender, part of the frontcourt length that makes Michigan difficult to score on. Brandon Johns contributed solid minutes in Livers’s absence, but there is a drop-off. Still, Michigan is hardly without talent, starting with mountainous center Hunter Dickinson. Versatile forward Franz Wagner is a tough matchup. Guards Mike Smith and Eli Brooks have consistently burned opponents who underestimate them. The Wolverines are looking at a challenging second-round game against either LSU or St. Bonaventure; can they rekindle the mojo of late February?
7. Arkansas. Welcome back to relevance, Razorbacks. It’s been a while, and you’ve been missed. Arkansas hasn’t made the Sweet 16 since 1996, but this year’s team has a chance at that and more. Second-year coach Eric Musselman has built a fast, fearless team around a first-round talent in freshman guard Moses Moody (17.4 points, 5.9 rebounds) and a cadre of transfers. (You might recall that Musselman took Nevada to the 2018 Sweet 16 with a group of transfers.) Arkansas has no real weaknesses in terms of playing style, but only Northern Kentucky transfer Jalen Tate has appeared in an NCAA tournament game.
8. Florida State. The Seminoles have become a tournament regular under Leonard Hamilton, but he’s never taken them to a Final Four. This team has a chance. It’s a balanced collection of cohesive parts, with a lot of size and athleticism. (Ken Pomeroy’s numbers list the Seminoles as the tallest team in the country.) Florida State has a pair of knockdown shooters in M.J. Walker and Anthony Polite, but the guy who could potentially put the team on his back is 6' 9" freshman point guard Scottie Barnes. He’s a likely top-10 draft pick with a pro-ready body who probably needs to be more assertive at the offensive end.
9. Ohio State. One of the toughest high-end teams to gauge in the tournament—enticing but frustrating. The Buckeyes can beat anyone, but seem to flail at crunch time against top competition. Their Big Ten tournament ride to the finals was an encapsulation: three wins and one loss, two in overtime, the others decided by a total of five points, with a couple of sizable leads nearly blown down the stretch. Chris Holtmann has a great shooter in Duane Washington Jr., a talented post player in E.J. Liddell and plenty of complementary parts. But this isn’t a good defensive team—undersized inside and not great pressuring the ball on the perimeter. Strongman Kyle Young missed the last two games of the Big Ten tourney with an injury, and the Bucks need him back for this one.
10. Iowa. Two great questions are about to be answered: How far can Luka Garza take the Hawkeyes? And is an infamously lax defensive program now actually good enough to get stops? Garza is among the most fascinating players in the tournament: unbelievably productive at the college level, yet viewed with near-total disinterest by the NBA. He’s the hub around which Iowa’s deadly array of shooters operate, making it a very difficult team to guard. And speaking of guarding: the Hawkeyes’ defensive efficiency numbers have improved dramatically in recent weeks, landing them in the top 50 in the nation per Ken Pomeroy. (Which is still not great. Progress, not perfection.) Fran McCaffery has never taken a team to the Sweet 16; if this one doesn’t make it at least that far, it will be viewed as a major disappointment.
11. North Carolina. How far can offensive rebounds take a team? That is the Carolina Question. The Tar Heels’ best offense is to throw the ball at the rim, then retrieve it closer to the rim and stick it in. They have four players 6' 10", 240 pounds or more, which certainly helps explain why they are the No. 1 offensive rebounding team in the country. They also play a platoon of freshmen guards, which helps explain why they’re one of the more turnover-prone teams in the tournament. North Carolina was bounced earlier than expected from the last two tournaments (2018 and ’19), and both were blowout losses. This team looks like it could lose in the first round to Wisconsin or beat Baylor and make a deep run.
12. Texas. This is a dangerous team: experienced in the backcourt, long and athletic in the frontcourt, and showing an improving ability to make plays at crunch time. The second-half rallies to win the Big 12 tourney were impressive. An interesting aspect of the Longhorns’ current five-game winning streak is that it coincides with a lessened role for freshman mega-recruit Greg Brown—he’s averaged 18 minutes, 5.4 points and 4.0 rebounds in that stretch, with the bottom coming when he walked off the team bench in the Big 12 quarterfinal game against Texas Tech. He was dropped from the starting lineup for the final against Oklahoma State. Shaka Smart has a Final Four in his past; could he have another in his near future?
13. Oregon. This ranking is based as much on respect for Dana Altman as a tournament coach as anything. He’s twice taken No. 12 seeds to the Sweet 16, took a No. 3 seed to the Final Four, and has a 13–6 NCAA tourney record at Oregon. As for this year’s team: the Ducks can score, with an underrated centerpiece in Chris Duarte and an aggressive sidekick in Eugene Omoruyi. The drawback is on the defensive end, where Oregon has no true paint presence. Opponents don’t often struggle to get good shots. The lower half of the West Region bracket gives the Ducks a chance to make a run.
14. West Virginia. The Mountaineers were only 4–4 in their last eight games, but that included some strong performances in defeat against Baylor and Oklahoma State. Stepping away from the grind of the Big 12 should help freshen West Virginia, particularly guard Miles (Deuce) McBride, who became the focus of opposing scouting reports. (McBride has made just five of his last 24 three-pointers.) This is not a classic Bob Huggins “Press Virginia” defense, so the Mountaineers need to score to win. Physically gifted post player Derek Culver must get his occasionally low motor cranked up for a first-round matchup with Morehead State freshman talent Johni Broome. One concern, if you’re thinking Final Four: WVU never won more than three Big 12 games in a row.
15. LSU. The classic talented underachiever conundrum. The Tigers probably have three NBA players on their roster, and several other talented parts. Yet LSU was so weak defensively that it gave up 80 or more points 14 times. The Tigers rank 54th of the 68 teams in the tournament on the defensive end, surrendering too many offensive rebounds and not generating many turnovers. But the trio of Trendon Watford, Cameron Thomas and Javonte Smart does give Will Wade some strong-ass options at the offensive end of the court. When LSU beat Arkansas and then pushed Alabama to the final seconds of the SEC tournament championship, you saw this team’s potential.
16. Houston. The Cougars are the effort kings of the Dance, walloping opponents on the offensive glass and leading the nation in adjusted shooting defense. They have quality guards and a true leading man in Quentin Grimes, who has been on fire from the perimeter (14 for 26 from three in the American Athletic Conference tournament, and 42 for 85 in the last nine games). With nobody in the starting lineup taller than 6' 7", they are susceptible on the defensive glass. And there is the lingering question of the quality of competition in an undistinguished AAC. But Kelvin Sampson’s 2018 and ’19 tournament teams went exactly as far as their seeding predicted—and with this team earning a No. 2 seed, Houston could be in this for quite a while.
17. Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets were given a disrespectful No. 9 seed, the lowest for the ACC tournament champion in 34 years. That’s probably owing to November losses to Mercer and Georgia State, and this team bears no resemblance to that one. They’re dangerous enough to pose a potential second-round problem for Illinois. Josh Pastner’s team has two really good players in crafty point guard Jose Alvarado (15.3 points, 4.1 assists, 3.0 steals) and active post player Moses Wright (17.4 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.6 blocks), but the rest of the lineup has stepped up as well down the stretch. Tech has forced an average of 17 turnovers per game during its current eight-game winning streak.
18. Loyola Chicago. Another team disrespected by the committee, which kind of comes with the Missouri Valley Conference territory. The Ramblers were a No. 11 seed when they went to the Final Four in 2018, and the current team was given a No. 8 seed and a matchup with Georgia Tech in the opening round. Brutal. Consider what Porter Moser’s team has done, winning 17 of its last 18 games with the lone loss by a point on the road in overtime against a fellow NCAA tourney team (Drake). Ken Pomeroy says this is the best defensive team in the country. It absolutely is a team that will slow the game down to a grind and make opponents guard for the full shot clock. Center Cameron Krutwig is a low-post marvel despite having the vertical leap of a rhino. Let Sister Jean in the gym, just in case there is another memorable run by the Ramblers.
19. Purdue. The Boilermakers have become a reliable Sweet 16–level program, reaching at least that stage in each of the last three tournaments. (They were one brilliant pass and shot by Virginia away from crashing the 2019 Final Four and writing a different tournament history.) As usual, Purdue has massive size—6' 10", 265-pound Trevion Williams is the star, but 7' 4", 285-pound freshman Zach Edey is the rising revelation. Purdue doesn’t shoot it extremely well from deep and could use a return to form by guard Sasha Stefanovic, who has struggled a bit since missing three games with COVID-19 (8 for 32 from three). The x-factor for the Boilers could be the focus of assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry, who was named the head coach at Penn State on Monday. Shrewsberry will stay with Purdue through the tourney and has a big role as the team’s offensive coordinator.
20. BYU. I was looking forward to seeing the high-octane Cougars potentially making a run in last year’s Big Dance before it was canceled. This year’s team might not be quite as good, but BYU is still potent and capable of winning games. Guard Alex Barcello (15.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.5 assists) has risen into the alpha role while a new cast of teammates has coalesced around him: Purdue transfer Matt Haarms, Utah Valley transfer Brandon Averette, freshman forward Caleb Lohner (whose blond Goldilocks curls will generate much discussion). This is the only team to legitimately make Gonzaga sweat in the last several months; will they be ready for the first-round blueblood that comes their way out of the First Four, either Michigan State or UCLA?
21. San Diego State. The Aztecs only vaguely remember what it’s like to lose, having last done so Jan. 16. They got through the Mountain West Conference tournament in workmanlike fashion and will have to turn it up now—but opportunity awaits. The bottom half of the Midwest Region is far from overwhelming, giving SDSU a plausible path to the regional final. It will have to shoot well against the Syracuse zone and then be ready for a pace battle with West Virginia, but multipurpose forward Matt Mitchell leads a tough and confident team that could well be up for those challenges. There is a potential focus issue, with coach Brian Dutcher jumping to the forefront of speculation at Minnesota, where his father once coached.
22. Kansas. There is some COVID-19 mystery surrounding the Jayhawks, who had to withdraw from the Big 12 tourney. Bill Self said Sunday that Kansas left three players in Lawrence due to COVID-19 protocols, including Jalen Wilson (per Jeff Goodman) and presumably including starter David McCormack after the center missed the conference tournament. When they can arrive in Indianapolis and be cleared to play is uncertain. Third-seeded Kansas is scheduled to begin play Saturday against Eastern Washington, a game that could potentially be won while shorthanded, but then it would get difficult. Kansas had been playing better down the stretch, winning eight of nine. Now it’s hard to know what to expect.
23. Virginia. What has the virus done to the Cavaliers? We’ll find out. Virginia withdrew from the ACC tournament due to COVID-19 issues, and coach Tony Bennett said players will be in quarantine through Thursday. Virginia is scheduled to fly to Indianapolis on Friday and play Saturday, which means there won’t be much in the way of on-court preparation for dangerous first-round opponent Ohio. Even at full strength, this Virginia team doesn’t pack the usual killer defense—but this isn’t a bad offensive unit, possessing three starters who are shooting 41% or better from three. Point guard Kihei Clark has an uncanny knack for making the right pass at the right time.
24. Colorado. The Buffaloes have their highest seeding in program history as a No. 5. What can they do with it? They are resourceful, tough and led by a great four-year college player in point guard McKinley Wright IV, who creates for a supporting cast that can be a bit hit-and-miss at the offensive end. Defensively, Colorado is very solid despite not having great athleticism. The Buffs are shooting 82% from the foul line, which has helped them win some close games—until they went 12 for 20 at the line and lost a close game against Oregon State for the Pac-12 tournament title.
25. Texas Tech. After reaching the 2018 Elite Eight and 2019 national title game, the Red Raiders’ reputation has risen so far and so fast that they’re now almost naturally overrated. This group is not as good as those teams—not quite as vicious defensively, not quite as synched up offensively. Tech is 5–10 against NCAA tourney teams, 1–5 in the last six. The Red Raiders seem to have moved in recent games toward an offensive attack that is a little less Mac McClung–centric and a little more inclusive of others. We’ll see whether that’s a sustainable plan. This much is sure: Chris Beard’s 10–3 tourney record is impressive.
26. Creighton. The last glimpse of the Bluejays wasn’t pretty, as they were scoring 48 points and being run out of Madison Square Garden in the Big East tournament final by underdog Georgetown. Was that a blip or a foreshadowing of struggles to come this week? Creighton is about as reliant on the three as any team still playing, with 44% of its shots coming from outside the arc. That puts a lot of pressure on making them, which they didn’t do in the Big East semis and final (14 of 52). Marcus Zegarowski and Mitch Ballock are 40% shooters from deep, but the Jays could use a return to form from Denzel Mahoney (1 for 17 from two-point range and 8 for 32 from three in March). Greg McDermott is still trying to work his way through the infamous “plantation” speech and resulting firestorm.
27. St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies ride a lot of good vibes into the Big Dance after winning the Atlantic-10 tournament and retaining the underrated Mark Schmidt (so far) as their coach. Bonaventure dominated the A-10 tourney, looking like a team that has hit its stride in a short, strange season that didn’t begin until Dec. 15. Schmidt plays a short rotation and really relies on only one big man, which can be problematic at tournament time. But tireless guard Kyle Lofton leads a tenacious and wily bunch that will not be easily forced out of its deliberate pace. The Bonnies haven’t played a game with more than 70 possessions since Jan. 6.
28. Connecticut. The Huskies were a hot team until Creighton slowed them down in the Big East semis. Guard James Bouknight has carried a big load since coming back from injury a month ago, averaging 18 points and six rebounds in the last eight games. He will need some help in this tourney from Danny Hurley’s ensemble cast—perhaps backup freshman big man Adama Sanogo can continue his March roll (13.3 points, seven rebounds, 1.5 blocks). The Big East was underwhelming this year; is UConn ready for a step up in class that begins against Big Ten opponent Maryland?
29. Maryland. When we last saw Mark Turgeon, he was facing an enraged Juwan Howard in the Big Ten quarterfinals. Presumably calmed down since then, Turgeon can turn his attention to the much smaller Danny Hurley and UConn, in what should be a welcome departure from the Big Ten sausage grinder. The Terrapins, who take 43% of their shots from beyond the arc, need to get back to making them after going 14 of 46 from three in the league tourney. This is a tough core group that has played a lot of ball together and could have had a good run in last year’s tourney; expect the Terps to be highly motivated to make up for the missed opportunity this time around.
30. USC. The Trojans are an enigmatic team, possessing great talent and seemingly unsure of how to maximize it. On Feb. 17 they were 18–3 and looked like the best team in the Pac-12; one month later they’re 22–7 and coming off a dysfunctional conference tourney in which they struggled to beat Utah and then were smashed on the backboard by Colorado. Evan Mobley is a likely top-three NBA draft pick, with impressive athleticism and skill for a 7-footer, but it still seems as if USC occasionally forgets to use him. Guard play and foul shooting are both spotty. On size alone, the Trojans will be a difficult matchup for either Wichita State or Drake.
31. Michigan State. We have arrived at the portion of the rankings where the teams’ flaws start to overwhelm their merits, so it’s time to overreach with the Spartans. Their efficiency numbers say that they very much deserve their No. 11 seed, but they have a coach who has reached at least the second round of the tournament 17 times, including seven of the last eight. And the Spartans were capable of hitting some high notes late in the year, with wins over Michigan, Illinois and Ohio State in the final month. Still, it’s hard to envision a serious run from a team that shoots poorly and handles the ball haphazardly.
32. Wisconsin. The Badgers are allergic to momentum, failing to win consecutive games since the third week of January. But the competition has been murderous: 10 of 12 losses are to NCAA tourney teams, and nine of them are to tourney teams that earned top-five seeds. Wisconsin has at least mastered the art of the close loss late in the year, with the last four of them by five points or fewer. Greg Gard’s team doesn’t lack size, but it does lack an ability to use that size effectively inside at the offensive end. Wisconsin hasn’t won an NCAA tourney game since 2017, and Gard needs to show he can still make some noise in a tournament setting.
33. Tennessee. A season that began with Final Four hype became an offensive quagmire by February, and the Volunteers have been slogging through it ever since. After raising hopes by routing Kansas on Jan. 30, Tennessee is 6–5 with losses to three non-tourney teams. It’s been a difficult transition of the offensive loan from limited veterans to talented (but error-prone) freshmen, with Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer learning on the job. Learning time is now over. Tennessee can at least make it difficult for the other team to score, though it will miss injured center John Fulkerson if he cannot go after the vicious elbow from Florida’s Omar Payne in the SEC tourney. The last time Rick Barnes had a team outperform its season was 2002; this team is seeded for a second-round punchout.
34. Clemson. The Tigers were very good in the 2020 portion of the schedule, taking down Purdue, Maryland, Alabama and Florida State in a 7–1 start. But 2021 has been fairly flat, with a good home stand in early February (wins over North Carolina, Syracuse and Georgia Tech) and not much else. An upset loss to Miami in Clemson’s first ACC tourney game—despite making 12 threes—heightened concerns. Brad Brownell’s team is characteristically tough on the defensive end, adept at creating turnovers and shutting down driving lanes. Guard play isn’t great at the offensive end, which puts a lot on forward Aamir Simms’s broad shoulders.
35. Winthrop. The Eagles are stone-cold winners, losing just a single game by two points. They destroyed the competition in the Big South tournament, winning three games by an average of 25.7 points. Now comes the big step up in class from a league Ken Pomeroy rates 27th out of 32 nationally. While Winthrop has a right to be at least slightly miffed at a No. 12 seed, it was presented with a wounded target in the first round in injury-diminished Villanova. The Eagles will throw at least 10 players at the opposition, subbing in waves, and push the tempo to something approaching frantic. Chandler Vaudrin is a savvy point forward who hasn’t played 30 minutes in a game since Feb. 12; he will be fresh and ready to go.
36. Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are dancing for the first time since 1991, which is cause for celebration in New Jersey. What comes next is a bit murky. Rutgers dominated the Fired Coaches Division of the Big Ten, beating Indiana three times and Minnesota twice, but otherwise went 6–11 in the league. It hasn’t beaten a tourney team since January. Rutgers is beefy and tough and disruptive defensively, and it has some go-to guys on the offensive end in Ron Harper, Jacob Young and Geo Baker. But if they have to make shots from the outside or at the free throw line to advance, they might be done early.
37. Syracuse. We’ve seen this movie before: Grumpy old man barely squeaks into the tournament amid grumbling from those who don’t believe his team deserved it, then weaves zone spell over the field and outperforms his seeding. Jim Boeheim is back, baby. His 2016 team made the Final Four as a No. 10 seed, and his 2018 team made the Sweet 16 as a No. 11. Can the Orange do it again? Well, the zone is nowhere near as effective this time around, with less length and physical presence than the better Boeheim teams. But 2021 Syracuse is pretty good at the offensive end, with shooters and passers and solid ball handlers that have allowed Boeheim to up the tempo a bit. This is definitely a team playing its best ball right on time.
38. Missouri. The Tigers have staggered through the last month, losing six of their last nine games and not bearing much resemblance to the bunch that opened the season with five straight wins over NCAA tournament teams, capped by beating Illinois. Mizzou is haphazard with the ball and prone to sudden lapses that turn leads into deficits. Four of Cuonzo Martin’s starters are having career-best seasons, but occasionally dominant center Jeremiah Tilmon has regressed late in the year. Missouri very much needs him to have a strong presence in the paint at both ends of the court. The one constant is the most reassuring constant: Mizzou plays hard, which will give it a chance to advance at least one round.
39. Florida. The Gators got their NCAA tournament work done in January, a month when they defeated LSU, Tennessee and West Virginia. February and March have been a chore, going 5–6. Still, just getting this far is an accomplishment when you consider that the team’s best player, Keyontae Johnson, collapsed in the fourth game and never returned. Florida is prone to frenetic possessions offensively, playing too fast and turning the ball over, but it can be efficient at that end when focused. Guard Tre Mann is an NBA talent who has averaged 23.5 points over his last four games, and he’s a willing rebounder. The Gators need to get big man Colin Castleton reengaged after a quiet SEC tourney.
40. Virginia Tech. When the Hokies tip off against Florida on Friday, they will have played three games in 40 days and lost two of them. Their season wandered into COVID-19 oblivion, and we’ll see whether they can get it back. Mike Young’s team had some high points, beating Villanova when that meant something and also taking down Clemson and Virginia. They showed toughness in the paint, on the glass and on the defensive end. But that all seems a long time ago now. Forward Keve Aluma is the bellwether: Virginia Tech is 12–1 when he scores more than 12 points, 3–5 when he scores 12 or fewer.
41. Oklahoma. The Sooners very much look like a team that hit its ceiling a while ago, then watched everyone catch up and go past it. They’ve lost five of their last six, and three of their four wins since January were over inept Iowa State. Now, Oklahoma certainly did have some high points, beating West Virginia twice, Texas, Kansas and Alabama. Austin Reaves has had a great season, leading the team in points (17.7), rebounds (5.7) and assists (4.7). Guard De’Vion Harmon has been a consistent contributor, and big man Brady Manek is a streaky shooting threat in a stretch-five role. But the rest of the cast is limited, as has been exposed. Lon Kruger’s coaching acumen can wallpaper over only so much.
42. Wichita State. No tourney résumé owes more to a single game than the Shockers’ Feb. 18 home win over Houston. That’s basically all they have to hang their wheat on, which is why Wichita is in a First Four game. Nevertheless, this is better than many expected after longtime coach Gregg Marshall was forced out right before the season and replaced by interim coach Isaac Brown. He did well enough to get the full-time job a few weeks ago. This is a bad defensive team by customary Wichita standards, but the Shockers do have a baller guard in sophomore Tyson Etienne (17 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.6 assists).
43. VCU. The great news for the Rams is that guard Nah’Shon (Bones) Hyland bounced back well from a late February injury, averaging 21 points and seven rebounds in the A-10 tournament. That at least gives VCU an offense, because he’s pretty much it when it comes to scoring. Nobody else on the roster has had a 20-point game this season. The Rams otherwise rely on their trademark disruptive defense to create turnovers and harass shooters. VCU has become a tournament regular with nine bids in the last 10 that were held, under three different coaches. But it hasn’t won an NCAA game in five years, and that drought might continue.
44. Villanova. I didn’t love this team at full strength; the Wildcats often looked plodding when matched up against athletic opponents and lacked a rim protector. Now that No. 2 scorer, assist leader and ball dominator Collin Gillespie is gone with a knee injury, it’s hard to see ’Nova doing anything in the Big Dance. Jay Wright obviously is a good enough coach to come up with a plan for how to win without Gilliespie, and he does have three other quality players in Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Justin Moore (who is nursing a sprained ankle) and Jermaine Samuels. But Villanova is 0–2 without Gillespie, and it seems likely to be 0–3 after meeting up with an underrated Winthrop team.
45. Drake. The Bulldogs weathered major injuries and a couple of late losses to make the Missouri Valley Conference tourney final and sew up a bid, which was a just outcome after a 25–4 season that started 18–0. If ShanQuan (Tank) Hemphill returns after a nine-game absence and can play at a decent level against Wichita State, Drake has a great chance of advancing past the First Four and into the main bracket. Guard Joseph Yesufu stepped up after Hemphill got hurt, averaging 23 points over his last seven games. Drake shoots it well, doesn’t turn it over much and has a penchant for making big plays in close games, all of which are good March traits. Defensively it’s below average for a tournament team.
46. UC Santa Barbara. The Gauchos are 18–1 since the calendar rolled over to 2021, most of them not close. Now we’ll see how dominating the Big West translates to taking on a team from the Big East (Creighton). Leading scorer JaQuori McLaughlin was very good in the league tourney, averaging 20.3 points, and Joe Pasternack has had five other players record at least one 20-point game. This is a very 2021 roster, with seven transfers who have come together and created a powerful unit. UCSB isn’t great from the perimeter, either shooting it or defending it.
47. Utah State. The Aggies made their way into the field with a Mountain West semifinal win over Colorado State—an elimination game for the loser and a celebration game for the winner. That, combined with a mid-January sweep of league champion San Diego State, helped offset losses to South Dakota State and UNLV. Utah State is very good defensively thanks to 7-foot paint anchor Neemias Queta (third nationally in block rate), and very shaky offensively. The Aggies are 54th among tourney teams in terms of offensive efficiency, shooting tepid percentages and turning the ball over too frequently. Best chance against Texas Tech is to hope for a 52–50 grinder.
48. UCLA. A Jan. 2 home win over Colorado did a LOT of work on the Bruins’ résumé, because there isn’t much else of substance there. Maybe the committee liked the sweep of Arizona, which self-imposed a postseason ban and otherwise would have been a bubble team. Bottom line, a few snubbed teams have to be looking at UCLA and wondering how the Bruins got in ahead of them. They bring a four-game losing streak into their First Four game against Michigan State and very much need 6' 6" junior Jules Bernard to continue his late-season surge (17.7 points in the last three games).
49. Georgetown. Patrick Ewing’s return to the tournament as a coach is one of the better March Madness stories, especially given the fashion in which it happened. The Hoyas were 9–12 on the season, left for dead, until storming through the Big East tournament in Ewing’s old domination grounds of Madison Square Garden. Georgetown swarmed the three-point line in MSG, holding four opponents to a combined 28-for-106 shooting outside the arc. The Hoyas made timely buckets on offense and built their confidence for the final, when they obliterated Creighton. Now, the chances of that carrying over to a run in the Big Dance? Unlikely. But that tourney title and a good recruiting class could be the launching pad for big things in 2021–22.
50. Ohio. Did anyone have a more dominant conference tournament run than the Bobcats? Maybe only Winthrop. Consider: Out of 120 minutes played, Ohio led for 111:47, most of that by double digits. Jason Preston is one of the better players you’ve never seen, a crafty 6' 4" junior averaging 16.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 1.6 assists while shooting 58% from two-point range and 40% from three. He carries a team that is potent offensively but pretty porous on defense, allowing opponents a 51% effective field goal shooting. Depending on the extent of Virginia’s COVID-19 issues and quarantine rust, Ohio would seem to have a legitimate shot of playing at least two games.
51. Liberty. This team is loaded with winning DNA—three key players were part of the 2019 team that beat Mississippi State and made the round of 32, and would have been a threat in last year’s tournament as well. The best of them is miniature point guard Darius McGhee, who gets a lot done at 5' 9": 15.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists. Coach Ritchie McKay has carved out an impressive niche in Lynchburg, going 82–16 over the last three seasons. This team starts no one taller than 6' 7" and is susceptible defensively, which makes the matchup with No. 4 seed Oklahoma State a problematic one. Best chance for the Flames is to use their deliberate tempo to shorten the game and frustrate the young Cowboys.
52. Oregon State. The Beavers are playing with house money now, after winning their first Pac-12 tournament title. They showed two flashes of promise during the regular season: a January winning streak over Arizona State, USC and Oregon; a late-season road winning streak over California, Stanford and Utah. Then they went to Las Vegas and rolled sevens for three straight days—a late rally to force overtime and upset UCLA, then a bigger upset of Oregon, then holding off Colorado in the final. Oregon State isn’t good inside the three-point arc at either end, making just 46.9% of its two-point shots and allowing opponents to make 52.5%.
53. North Texas. The Mean Green got here the wild way, surviving an absurd Conference USA title game against Western Kentucky. North Texas led 17–0, then found itself behind by seven in the final minutes. Grant McCasland’s team pitched a three-minute shutout to end regulation, then won in overtime. The crown prince of the Mean Green is Javion Hamlet, who has taken arms against a sea of troubles and led the team in scoring in seven straight games. North Texas is a pretty good shooting team when it isn’t throwing the ball all over the gym (20.3% of its possessions end in turnovers). It is better at the defensive end, a quick and scrappy bunch that creates a lot of steals.
54. Colgate. The darling of the NCAA algorithm arrives with a No. 9 ranking in the NET and a No. 14 seed in the South Region. The Raiders had as fine a season as the Patriot League would allow, going 14–1 while playing all of five opponents. Matt Langel’s team gets good shots and makes them, drilling 40% from three and 55% from two. Senior point guard Jordan Burns is the rock Colgate relies upon, pushing a fast pace and taking 30% of the team’s shots. This is a good team, but the opponent is problematic: Arkansas is considerably more athletic and will be perfectly fine running with Colgate. The Raiders have no stylistic advantage in this matchup.
55. Abilene Christian. Abilene is the prettiest town George Hamilton has ever seen, and the basketball isn’t bad there, either. The Wildcats are a good team in a bad league (the Southland), their power rankings dragged down by the competition. Joe Golding’s team has won 12 of its last 13, with the only loss by two points on the road, and the Wildcats gave Texas Tech a good scrap in December before losing by seven. They play inside-out through 7-footer Kolton Kohl, have capable three-point shooters and force a ton of turnovers defensively. Texas is better, but Texas had better be ready to play.
56. Iona. The Gaels are ranked this high for one reason, and it’s the biggest reason when it comes to March basketball: They have the best coach in the tournament. Rick Pitino has done things in the Big Dance that only Roy Williams—among coaches in this field—could equal. Yes, Tim Cluess recruited three of the key current players, but they were on a team that went 12–17 last year. Currently they are on a team that is 12–5, coming off two long COVID-19 pauses without flinching or falling apart. The matchup with Alabama has the makings of a fast-paced disaster for Iona, which has turnover issues and doesn’t score at the rim terribly well already and now faces the No. 2 defense in the land. But if you don’t think Pitino will have a plan, guess again.
57. Eastern Washington. The Eagles are a pretty offensive team, moving the ball and themselves with alacrity and scoring from every position on the floor. They have five players in double figures and five guys who can shoot the three. There is some Gonzaga Lite in the team from Cheney, which is just down the road from Spokane. Shantay Legans is a coach on the rise. The Eagles will be at a definite athletic disadvantage against Kansas—provided Kansas brings its full roster to the game. Eastern Washington will have a hard time stopping the Jayhawks in transition and in the paint.
58. Morehead State. Get ready for the Johni Broome experience. He’s the most promising prospect at Morehead since Kenneth Faried, a lanky lefty big man who has nice touch and moves and rebounds outside his box. Broome averaged 19.3 points and 12 rebounds in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament, scoring a career-high 27 against Belmont in the final. Broome pairs well with the guard trio of Skyelar Potter, Devon Cooper and Ta’lon Cooper (32 points per game). Morehead’s major weakness is turnovers, and Bob Huggins has been known to heat up opponents with pressure defense.
59. UNC Greensboro. This is five straight 20-win seasons for Wes Miller, and for some reason he’s still the coach of the Spartans. This isn’t his best team, but it does feature one of the most interesting players in the tournament in guard Isaiah Miller (no relation). He’s a 6-foot guard who has no shooting range, making just 21% of his threes and 63% of his free throws, yet he averages 19.3 points per game (along with 6.9 rebounds and 4.0 assists). He takes 16 shots per game inside the arc, going fearlessly where players his size don’t always succeed. Unfortunately for Miller, 6' 9" Florida State point guard Scottie Barnes will be waiting for him Saturday.
60. Cleveland State. The Vikings required an outrageous rescue in the Horizon League quarterfinals, surviving a very bad Purdue Fort Wayne team in triple overtime (the saving shot in double OT was a banked-in three by 250-pound [ha] post man Algevon Eichelberger, who has not made another three all season.) But they made the most of their mulligan, rolling past Milwaukee and Oakland and into the tournament for the first time since 2009. Coach Dennis Gates is a hot name on the market and could certainly boost his profile with an upset of Houston—but that’s a lot to ask of a team that simply doesn’t shoot very well.
61. Grand Canyon. We have history here: the first team nicknamed the Antelopes in D-I NCAA tournament history. There are 91 species of antelope on the planet but only one in the tournament, and this particular breed is of the stubborn defensive sort. Grand Canyon has allowed only 30% shooting from three and 45% from two, which presents a challenge (at least on paper) to Saturday opponent Iowa. At the very least, Bryce Drew’s team has a large foreign legion to throw at Luka Garza in 7-foot, 270-pound Dane Asbjorn Midtgaard and 6' 10", 235-pound Italian Alessandro Lever. Keeping pace offensively could be an issue, but Drew is already winning—he scored the first NCAA bid in school history and did it while the school that fired him two years ago, Vanderbilt, is miles away from making this tourney.
62. Oral Roberts. Kevin Obanor should never buy a drink again in Tulsa—although drinking is probably not something the late televangelist namesake of the school would condone. Obanor volley-tipped a rebound into the basket before the buzzer to win ORU’s Summit League semifinal, then the Eagles outlasted North Dakota State in the final and here we are. ORU’s first tourney appearance since 2008 was accomplished despite a wildly porous defense, which ranks 285th nationally and 38 spots behind the next-worst in the Big Dance. But Oral Roberts does lead the nation in foul shooting and hits 38.8% of its threes—so if Ohio State lets this turn into a shootout, beware. The Eagles can make shots.
63. Drexel. In a season as messy as this one, it was bound to happen: A team that never even won so much as two straight Colonial Athletic Association games would suddenly win three in a row and grab an NCAA bid. That’s the Dragons, dancing for the first time since 1996. Drexel shot the lights out from three for three fate-kissed days, making 29 of 51. The Dragons made 32 of 41 free throws. They rebounded with gusto. And now here they are taking on Illinois, which will probably strafe Drexel’s weak defense, but at least they’re in it.
64. Hartford. For 11 years, coach John Gallagher has been rolling the stone uphill at a program that has never been to the NCAA tournament. There were four 20-loss seasons in the first seven, but the school kept believing in him. In 2018 it turned for good, with four straight winning seasons, but an NCAA bid still seemed unlikely in an America East Conference dominated by Vermont, Stony Brook and UMBC. This year, as a No. 4 seed, Hartford broke through—upsetting Vermont in the semifinals and then beating fellow dark horse UMass Lowell for the bid. It could get ugly for the second-worst offense in the tournament against Baylor on Friday, but it beats watching someone else on TV from home.
65. Norfolk State. Nine years ago, the Spartans shocked the world as a No. 15 seed by taking down No. 2 Missouri. They would be taking it up a notch this year, because Norfolk is in a First Four game against Appalachian State and with a win would advance to play Godzilla Gonzaga. So, not likely. But give Norfolk credit for improving late, closing on a six-game winning streak and making the Big Dance for the first time since that epic upset. They do have a trio of 40% three-point shooters who will bear watching in Joe Bryant, Kashaun Hicks and Jalen Hawkins.
66. Appalachian State. If you need proof that every day provides a new chance to get out of a rut and get right, well, App State is your team. The Mountaineers exited February having lost six of their last seven games, and the only victory was in double overtime. They were one of the last teams anyone suspected would waltz into the Sun Belt tourney in Pensacola and steal the thing. But they won four games in four days—the middle two of them in overtime—and earned the program’s first bid in 21 years. App State is a very poor shooting team that also is a very poor defensive team, but it somehow made 44 threes in the Sun Belt tourney and forced a bunch of turnovers and kept on winning.
67. Texas Southern. Johnny Jones couldn’t get to the NCAA tournament when he was coaching Ben Simmons at LSU, but look what he’s done with Michael Weathers. The guard who has bounced from Miami (Ohio) to Oklahoma State to Texas Southern had an epic, 30-point game in the SWAC semifinals to take down Jackson State, with no shot bigger than a three at the buzzer of regulation to force overtime. The fast-moving Tigers will present a major tempo challenge to deliberate Mount St. Mary’s in the Thursday First Four game.
68. Mount St. Mary’s. March Madness is a beautiful thing on many levels, but at the granular level it is beautiful because it introduces you to players like Mountaineers point guard Damian Chong Qui. All of 5' 8" and 155 pounds, the tireless tempo director carried Mount St. Mary’s to the Dance with 21 points, eight rebounds and five assists in an NEC title game triumph over favored Bryant. Chong Qui has played every minute of the Mount’s last five games, two of them overtime contests. The easiest bet of the tournament is that he will play every second Thursday night against Texas Southern.
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