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April 14, 2021

Predictions and previews of the long-awaited 2021 NCAA Tournament

By ERIC LYNCH | March 17, 2021

jared-butler

LOCKEDIN MAGAZINE/CC-BY-2.0

Jared Butler leads the top-seeded Baylor Bears in scoring.

It is March, and for many sports fans that means one thing: college basketball. The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, often referred to as March Madness, is one of the most anticipated sports events of the year, and it has finally arrived. Due to COVID-19, the entire tournament will be held in Indiana with most games taking place in Indianapolis. Games begin March 18, and the tournament will run until April 5, when the championship game will be held. 

Who’s in the field?

Selection Sunday was March 14, and they announced the field of 68 teams that would play in this year’s tournament. The big names to watch are the top four teams; Gonzaga, Baylor, Michigan and Illinois are all number one seeds. Each of these teams has shown their elite status throughout the year, especially Gonzaga and Baylor, who maintained top-three status over the course of the entire season. Even amongst these teams, Gonzaga is a clear favorite; after finishing the season 26-0, it’s clear that few teams are capable of upsetting the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

The two-seeds are also worth looking at: Iowa, Ohio State, Alabama and Houston. Iowa features Luka Garza, one of the best players in the nation. Alabama and Houston both won their conference tournaments while Iowa and Ohio State were both defeated by one-seed Illinois in the Big 10 Tournament. Still, Ohio State played a close game, only losing by three points in overtime. 

A few notable teams that didn’t make this year’s tournament include the Duke Blue Devils, the Kentucky Wildcats and the Louisville Cardinals. These three teams have been tournament mainstays for years. This will be the first time since 1976 that both Duke and Kentucky have missed out on the madness.

Exciting first-round matchups

Thousands of people spend days trying to predict how the tournament will unfold. It’s nearly impossible to predict the entire first round correctly, so the only matchups that are guaranteed to occur are these first-round matchups that have already been scheduled. Still, there will be plenty of good games to watch.

Seventh-seed Oregon will play 10th-seed Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) on March 20, closing out the first round. Both teams are 8-2 in their last 10 games. Oregon started the season poorly but has come back nicely, falling just short of winning the Pacific-12 Conference Tournament. VCU had a streaky season but ultimately finished strong and won the Atlantic 10 Conference. The game should be close but could ultimately be decided by whether or not VCU can stop Oregon’s reliable three-point shooting.

Eighth-seed North Carolina (UNC) will play ninth-seed Wisconsin on March 19. Both of these teams are used to being placed higher, so it will be interesting to see how they respond to the tough matchup. Both teams have great coaches and experienced players, so they are certainly capable of playing to their full potential. Still, Wisconsin went 3-7 in their last 10 games while UNC has won 10 of their last 15. 

The seventh-seed University of Connecticut (UConn) will try to defeat the 10th-seed University of Maryland (UMD) on March 20. After rejoining the Big East Conference, UConn has had one of their best seasons in years. Their lead scorer, James Bouknight, is averaging 19 points per game. Meanwhile, UMD had a strong season despite playing in the stacked Big 10 Conference. Either team could take this game, but if UMD can limit Bouknight’s scoring, they should be able to advance.

Potential upsets

Every bracket-maker knows the feeling of fixating on upsets. It’s difficult to strike the right balance, and it’s easy to oversaturate a bracket with underdogs. But some upsets are actually fairly predictable.

Villanova has found themselves as a five-seed after spending the first half of the season as a top-three team in the nation. After Collin Gillespie went down with an injury, the team’s season slipped from their hands. Still, their ranking is inflated due to their early-season success, and it’s easy to identify them as the worst five-seed in the tournament. They play 12-seed Winthrop who ended their season with a 23-1 record. I would almost be more surprised if Villanova ended up winning this game.

Here is my bold take for this article: 15-seed Iona will beat two-seed Alabama in the first round. It’s certainly unlikely, but the NCAA Tournament never goes the way it’s supposed to. Alabama’s second-year coach Nate Oats runs an experimental offense that relies heavily on the three-pointer. At the same time, the team only shoots 35% from the three-point line — this isn’t a bad number, but it isn’t great either. If Alabama can’t get their shots to fall, they will start to slip, and Iona will take advantage. Iona isn’t even a terrible team. They are coached by the experienced Rick Pitino and led by 18-point-per-game scorer Isaiah Ross.

Projecting a champion

In most bracket formats, bracket players earn the most points for correctly predicting the winner of the national championship game. This game is crucially important, and I predict that Baylor will come out on top. Yes, Gonzaga is the favorite, but I believe they have a difficult road to the final game and could easily be upset by Virginia, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan or even Creighton. Meanwhile, Baylor only needs to fear Ohio State and Illinois. Baylor shoots 42% from the three-point line, which is an insanely high number — the highest in the nation. In the NCAA Tournament, three-pointers are the key to getting big leads and making comebacks. If any game is going wrong, it’s nice to be able to rely on that scoring ability. 

But Baylor is just one of 68 possible champions, and even if all of those teams don’t have a very good chance of winning, it’s still incredibly difficult to predict the winner. Take your best guesses, or just pick the teams you want to root for. In the end, it takes a lot of luck to win your bracket pool, so hopefully you can have some fun along the way.

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