The NCAA Tournament selection committee had a better opportunity to balance the strength of the four regions in the 2021 event than at any point in nearly two decades because contesting the entire event in the state of Indiana meant geography no longer was a concern.
Without worrying about keeping teams closer to home for their games, they could just seed according to strength and then use those rankings to build an even bracket.
Except … there are conference rules to obey, and there’s the fact that seeding isn’t always as accurate as we’d like.
So how did the committee do? Which of the four No. 1 seeds has the best route to the Final Four, and whose is most daunting?
The answers are here:
Region rank: Fourth
Biggest Obstacle: Iowa. The Hawkeyes’ rapid improvement on defense is there in the numbers. In early February, around the time they lost four in a five-game stretch, the Hawkeyes fell out of the KenPom top 100 in defensive efficiency. They had begun the season understanding that they needed to improve dramatically on last season’s 97th-ranked D if they wanted to take a swing at the NCAA championship, and they’d somehow gotten worse. But the season wasn’t over, and during the past three weeks they’ve held seven of their 10 opponents under 70 points and have risen all the way to 50th in defense. That’s a different Iowa team than the Zags played the last time around.
Team they want to see: No. 5 Creighton. This Bluejays team is immensely improved on defense from prior editions, but the lack of size would make it a more comfortable day for Drew Timme, and the need to pay extra attention to him would empower the Zags’ perimeter. Even before the massive disappointment in the Big East title game against Georgetown, they had lost twice in the previous five games.
Lurking in the bottom half: No. 7 Oregon. Coach Dana Altman seems to find a way to get his teams moving in the NCAA Tournament. The Ducks have made the second weekend in each of their past three tournament appearances, including a Final Four trip in 2017. With gifted wing Chris Duarte, Altman has a player who can be the foundation of a great team. And the Ducks did win the Pac-12 regular season. So maybe everyone’s overreacting to the conference tournament flameout — and Oregon is ready for another March run.
Will Gonzaga make Final Four: Yes. They are the best team with the right combination of experience, size, depth, talent and coaching. And they know that they can conquer the teams they are likely to play. Gonzaga already has defeated each of the next three highest seeds in the region: No. 2 Iowa, No. 3 Kansas and No. 4 Virginia. It seems unlikely that’s ever happened since the NCAA began seeding the event in 1979, but it’s going to take someone with more time on their hands than me to establish that as a fact.
Region rank: Third
Biggest obstacle: No. 4 Oklahoma State. Placing the Cowboys in this position on the bracket creates the possibility that the Fighting Illini will have to defeat the most talented player in the tournament, Cade Cunningham, and a team with 10 wins against Quad 1 opponents, merely to advance to the regional final. The selection committee appears to have relied upon advanced metrics that suggest the Cowboys are closer to a No. 7 seed than a No. 3 seed, but their results declare that they are among the most dangerous teams in the tournament. Cunningham has been a team-changing player in the final month of the season, assuring his selection as a first-team All-American and helping to deliver two victories against No. 3 seed West Virginia, a conference tournament win over Baylor and a regular-season sweep of rival Oklahoma.
Team they want to see: No. 2 Houston. Why? Because it will mean the Illini have survived to the Elite Eight and that they’ll face the weakest No. 2 seed in the tournament. Somebody had to get the last No. 2 seed, and there was no one who met all of the qualifications, so it went to the Cougars even though they struggled twice in a week to defeat a non-tournament Memphis team and own just a 2-1 record against teams in the field.
Lurking in the bottom half: No. 6 San Diego State. The core players of this team have a 53-6 record over the past two seasons. That’s an .898 winning percentage. They know how to win. Forward Matt Mitchell averages 15.5 points, his fourth consecutive season as a double-figure scorer and may be the most underrated player in all of college basketball.
Will the Illini make the Final Four? Yes. They have exceptional ability at the guard (Sporting News first-team All-American Ayo Dosunmu) and center spots (All-American Kofi Cockburn) and a developing, game-changing talent in freshman point guard Andre Curbelo. Their defense is one of the best in the country and they can score in a variety of ways. The players in their rotation have embraced their roles. It’s all there for them. So long as Cade Cunningham doesn’t wreck it.
Region rank: Second.
Biggest obstacle: No. 8 LSU. There are better teams in the region than the Tigers, but having to play such a talented team so soon … well, that’s exactly what the committee is supposed to avoid when creating these brackets and seeding the teams, but even after the Tigers won four games in a row — including over NCAA Tournament-bound Missouri and Arkansas and bubble-bound Ole Miss — and took Alabama to the final seconds in the SEC championship game, they still were placed in an 8/9 game. It’s unclear whether forward Isaiah Livers will return at all during the tournament, but it’s least likely that he would be available the first weekend. Getting to the Sweet 16 will not be a breeze.
Team they want to see: No. 5 Colorado. Presented with an opportunity to win a championship and hang a banner against an Oregon State squad ranked 85th by KenPom and 91st in the NET, the Buffaloes came out and fell behind by nine points in the first 15 minutes. McKinley Wright may be college basketball’s most underrated player, but where is the spark from everyone else?
Lurking in the bottom half: No. 3 Texas. The Longhorns are one of those teams you want someone else to beat for you. They don’t just have big guys, they have big guys who can fly. If guards Matt Coleman, Courtney Ramey and Andrew Jones are having a good night — and they’ve won their past six, four against tournament teams — you’ve got problems.
Will Michigan make Final Four: No. The loss of star forward Isaiah Livers, who was averaging 13.1 points and 45.7 percent 3-point shooting, is a lot to overcome. To reach championship level, the Wolverines already were going to need sophomore Franz Wagner to step forward; now they need him to handle some of Livers’ offensive responsibility, as well. They will not go out meekly, but they will exit before this tournament’s final weekend.
Region rank: First
Biggest obstacle: No. 2 Ohio State. The Buckeyes have not won every game they’ve played against elite opposition. They’re 3-4 against the top two seed lines and 4-6 against the top four lines. But they’ve been in nearly every one of those games. The margin of those six defeats: 6.3 points. If Baylor gets to the regional final against the Buckeyes, it would be one of the rare games for OSU against a top-end opponent in which it would not face a massive height disadvantage. The tallest players in the Bears’ primary rotation are 6-8 Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua (20 minutes per game) and 6-10 Flo Thamba (15 minutes). That’s a significant change from the legion of bigs who 6-7 EJ Liddell was forced to confront in the Big Ten.
Team they want to see: No. 4 Villanova. Are we all piling on the Wildcats because of the knee injury to star point guard Collin Gillespie? Well, now that they’ve lost their only two games without him, it’s hard not to be skeptical of Villanova’s path forward. It might have been a reasonably smooth transition if planned replacement Justin Moore hadn’t been injured, as well. He played in the Big East Tournament loss to Georgetown and scored 10 points, but the Wildcats were knocked off their game and shot only 30 percent from 3-point range.
Lurking in the bottom half: No. 6 Texas Tech. There are few players left from the 2019 Final Four team, and the Red Raiders lost more than their fair share of the biggest games this season. But the analytics love them because they’re competitive in every game, and coach Chris Beard appears to be adjusting his offense away from an overreliance on guard Max McClung. They’ve lost often enough that an early departure would be no surprise. But ask the other Big 12 teams they’ve battled whether the Raiders will go down easily.
Will Bears make the Final Four? No. The Bears were trending down even before they were handed the most difficult bracket of the No. 1 seeds. It’s been common to trace the team’s diminished defense to the three-week pause the program had to endure, but the truth is they were starting to decline in that department before that prolonged break. And now they have to deal with a possible run of North Carolina, Purdue and Ohio State? That’s a lot of challenges in a short time for a team that needs to get its act back together for a Final Four run. Maybe a few days off after their Big 12 Tournament loss will help. They would not be the first team to gain such a benefit. But the draw does them no favors in that regard.