Ranking the 2021 men’s NCAA tournament contenders, from 1-68

Henry Bushnell
·20-min read

For decades, rain or shine, bear or bull, peace or strife, the Monday after Selection Sunday offered a snapshot of a men’s college basketball season. November non-conference flukes no longer mattered. March Madness hadn’t yet skewed our perceptions. For several years, this column attempted to capture that moment in time, when clear eyes and educated minds could assess the top teams in the sport.

Last year, however, this column never got published.

Because we never got to the third Monday in March. COVID-19 canceled the 2020 NCAA tournament. Without that snapshot, without Selection Sunday, an entire season feels erased.

But these 1-through-68 power rankings, of NCAA tournament contenders, had in fact already been compiled. So, before we get to our 2021 ranks, the ones that’ll help you fill out your bracket, it only seems right to recognize what the coronavirus laid to waste.

To recognize teams like Dayton, whose name you won’t even see below, who last year sat at No. 4 overall when the world screeched to a halt.

And teams like San Diego State, a likely No. 2 seed whose 30-win season was cut short.

And even Kansas, currently trying to mitigate the spread of the virus within its program, a year ago our clear No. 1.

Thirty-four teams who were projected to make the 2020 NCAA tournament didn’t make it back in 2021. This brief introduction is dedicated to them – and to their tourney runs that never were.

Now, back to the present. We’ve split the March Madness field into eight tiers. We’ve ranked the 68 participants from most to least likely champion. And as has been the case all season, one of the 68 stands head and shoulders above the rest.

(In parentheses: BetMGM national title odds | region and seed; first matchup)

TIER 1: The Undefeated

1. Gonzaga (+200 | W1; vs. play-in winner)

With accomplished vets and a soon-to-be top-five NBA draft pick and a key transfer to round out an impeccable starting five, Gonzaga was No. 1 in the preseason AP poll.

And the Week 2 AP poll.

And the Week 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16 AP polls.

Yep, the Zags have gone wire-to-wire, because they not only went undefeated; they blasted imposing opponents out of the water in the process. They won seven games over NCAA tournament teams – including Iowa, Kansas, Virginia and West Virginia – and only one was decided by single digits.

You can crack jokes about strength of schedule all you want. But this is the most talented team in college basketball, and the most well-coached team in college basketball, and the most entertaining team in college basketball, and a runaway national title favorite. The eye test bears all of that out. The Bulldogs have a crafty big (Drew Timme), a dead-eye shooter (Corey Kispert), and an elite one-and-done on the wing (Jalen Suggs). Their transition offense is exhilarating. Overall, their offense is the most efficient in college hoops. Their defense ranks in the top 10 as well.

Numbers also speak to their unparalleled brilliance. Per KenPom’s adjusted metrics, the gap between Gonzaga and Baylor, the second No. 1 seed, is roughly equivalent to the gap between Baylor and sixth-seeded USC. The gap between the Zags and the top No. 2 seed, Alabama, is greater than the gap between Alabama and Minnesota, a sub-.500 NIT snub. If this Gonzaga team wins six more games, it will have a strong case as the greatest college basketball team ever.

TIER 2: The Contenders

Michigan center Hunter Dickinson (1) and Illinois center Kofi Cockburn (21) battle for position in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Michigan center Hunter Dickinson (1) and Illinois center Kofi Cockburn (21) battle for position in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

2. Illinois (+700 | M1; vs. Drexel)

The Illini will enter the tournament’s first round having lost just once over a span of two months – and having won six consecutive games against tourney teams by an average margin of 11.5. In Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, they have the best guard-big duo in college basketball.

But it’s the supporting cast that has elevated them to the top of this second tier. Illinois has very few weaknesses. It has a coach who’s now transformed three different programs. It has as good a shot as anybody on the right half of the bracket to do what it just did on Sunday: win a championship at Lucas Oil Stadium.

3. Baylor (+500 | S1; vs. Hartford)

The Bears were as crushed as anybody by last year’s COVID cancellation. Scott Drew, 16 years after taking over a program that hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1950, finally had a true title contender. The virus ripped a dream season to shreds.

But Baylor didn’t pout. It improved. Especially on offense.

This year’s squad shoots the 3-ball better than anybody in America. Five of eight rotation players drain more than 38% of their long-range attempts. As a collective, they hit 42% in conference play. They start five upperclassmen, and the backcourt trio of Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler and MaCio Teague might be the nation’s best.

There are, however, some miniature red flags. The Bears spent December and January in a tier with Gonzaga, but haven’t quite been the same since a COVID-related pause in February. They aren’t particularly big or deep. They sometimes struggle on the defensive glass. (Potential second-round opponent North Carolina’s ears just perked up.) A Big 12 semifinal loss to Oklahoma State was proof of vulnerability, even if ever so slight.

4. Michigan (+600 | E1; vs. play-in winner)

From their masterful 5-11 senior point guard to their dominant 7-1 freshman center, the Wolverines do just about everything well on offense. And Juwan Howard has been a revelation as a first-time head coach.

Yet Michigan is trending in a worrisome direction. It’s lost three of five. Isaiah Livers, its senior co-captain and biggest 3-point threat, is sidelined indefinitely by a stress fracture in his right foot. His status for the NCAA tournament is unclear. The emotions he felt this past weekend offer ominous hints that his Michigan career might be over. If it is, these Wolverines are significantly less formidable.

“But you never know,” Livers said. “This world is full of possibilities. ... I don’t want people to write me off yet.”

5. Alabama (+1600 | E2; vs. Iona)

Nate Oats-coached teams have always run like madmen, and this year’s Crimson Tide are no exception. The reason they’ve exploded onto the contender scene, though, is that they’ve paired transition offense with elite defense. When the latter fuels the former, it can be a lethal combination, and Alabama can be incredibly tough to beat.

6. Ohio State (+1600 | S2; vs. Oral Roberts)

A four-game losing streak to close the regular season was troublesome … and perhaps a bit deceptive. The rest of Ohio State’s work throughout January, February and March – including wins over each of its Tier 2 and 3 Big Ten peers – makes it clear that the Buckeyes can go toe-to-toe with almost anybody in the field of 68. They don’t have a superstar, but they’re old, balanced, and tough enough to win four tourney games or more. As long as they follow Mama Holtmann’s advice.

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TIER 3: The Fringe Contenders

7. Iowa (+1600 | W2; vs. Grand Canyon)

When Iowa’s offense is rolling, it is basketball’s version of Beethoven. Melodic, forceful, and everything in between. Luka Garza, the Wooden Award favorite, is an absolute menace inside. An array of prolific shooters give him space to work. They also take care of the ball exceptionally well.

But Iowa lacks individual shot-creators. When systemic shot-creation slows – often when it’s disrupted by an elite defense – the Hawkeyes can look ordinary. They went 1-5 against teams on the top three seed lines. In those six games, they scored just 1.03 points per possession, only a tick above the Division I average, and well below their top-five season-long mark of 1.17.

All of which is to say that Iowa, though not particularly susceptible to inferior foes, isn’t a true title contender.

8. Houston (+2000 | M2; vs. Cleveland State)

Houston’s best team since Phi Slama Jama is a bit enigmatic on paper. Analytics like the Cougars. But they’ve only played two NCAA tournament teams. They beat Texas Tech back in November, then split a season series with First Four-bound Wichita State. Home and neutral-site games against their next-best opponent, Memphis, both came down to the final possession.

On the plus side, junior guard Quentin Grimes has been on a tear over the past month. The Kansas transfer looks capable of shooting Houston through multiple rounds. Since February 10, he’s averaging 21.2 points per game on 49% shooting from beyond the arc.

But as a whole, the Cougars offense seems a bit too reliant on his shot-making and on rebounding – a 39.4% offensive board rate likely won’t hold up against sturdier competition.

9. Oklahoma State (+1600 | M4; vs. Liberty)

There is a semi-extensive history of top NBA draft picks enrolling at middling Power 5 programs and whiffing on team success. Oklahoma State and Cade Cunningham, however, don’t fit the bill. Cunningham, the odds-on favorite to be taken No. 1 overall in the 2021 draft, has elevated the Cowboys to a new post-Eddie Sutton peak.

But he hasn’t done so by turning the Pokes into a one-man team. Yes, he’s averaged 22.4 points over the season’s latter half. But he’s a skilled and willing playmaker who gets others involved. In part because he does, Oklahoma State can win – and has won – without Cunningham at his best, or even without him in the lineup at all. When streaky sophomore Avery Anderson is also cooking, and when supplementary players are covering every inch of the court with hustle, this team’s ceiling is ridiculously high.

10. Florida State (+2000 | E4; vs. UNC Greensboro)

Leonard Hamilton has taken some very good teams to the NCAA tournament over his 19 seasons at Florida State. None had ever shot better than 35.5% from beyond the arc. The Seminole Formula has almost always been: Size, length, athleticism, depth, defense.

This year’s team has all of that … and it shoots 38.5% from 3, the fifth-best mark among major-conference teams. It has a lottery pick in Scottie Barnes; zero rotation players under 6-foot-4 or 210 pounds; and the most efficient offense in modern program history. Yes, it’s lost three of its last five. But it’s capable of emerging from the East region.

11. Texas (+2000 | E3; vs. Abilene Christian)

Over the course of the 2021 season, we’ve come to know two Texases:

  1. The one who sprinted out to a 10-1 start by beating North Carolina, Oklahoma State, Kansas and West Virginia; and then perhaps reappeared to capture a Big 12 tournament title.

  2. The one who struggled to string together 40 consistent minutes in between.

The former could make the Final Four. The latter could stumble on the first weekend. If you pick ‘em, be prepared for a roller-coaster ride. Fourteen of the Longhorns’ 17 games against the KenPom top 100 have been decided by three possessions or fewer.

12. Purdue (+4000 | S4; vs. North Texas)

Methodical. Unsexy. Dangerous. Trevion Williams, the most heavily-used post player in college basketball, is an unconventional joy to watch.

13. Arkansas (+3500 | S3; vs. Colgate)

The Razorbacks play fast and at times unhinged – sort of like their coach, Eric Musselman, who you’ll remember from a wild 2018 tournament run at Nevada.

This team has seniors and a future lottery pick. It won its last 12 SEC games before succumbing to LSU in the conference tournament semis. Like a few others in this tier, its floor may be low, but there's significant upside.

TIER 4: The COVID-infected Fringe Contenders

14. Kansas (+2500 | W3; vs. Eastern Washington)
15. Virginia (+5000 | W4; vs. Ohio)

The defending national champs and the would-be 2020 favorite both pulled out of their conference tournaments due to positive COVID-19 tests. A majority of Virginia players have been in quarantine since, and won’t be able to practice until Thursday. They won’t be able to travel to Indy until Friday, the day before their first-round game. Oh, and they’ll be without their teammate who tested positive. And more COVID cases could still arise.

Kansas, on the other hand, is traveling to Indianapolis, but without three players who’ve recently tested positive – including top big man David McCormack and, reportedly, one of the seven other rotation players. McCormack could still play in the first round. But, without knowing the specifics of the situation, the rushed timeline seems to present some risk of an extended outbreak.

So any projections for the Jayhawks or Cavaliers come with one big COVID caveat: Nobody can guarantee they’ll even play a March Madness game. If they can weather these storms, though, and progress past the first weekend, they could make some noise on the second.

TIER 5: The Lurkers

16. West Virginia (+2000 | M3; vs. Morehead State)
17. Loyola (+4000 | M8; vs. Georgia Tech)

Advanced metrics suggest that this Ramblers team is better than the 2018 Final Four team. It’s different, though, and so are its circumstances.

Cameron Krutwig was a freshman center on that 2018 squad, which at times went to a five-guard lineup. Now he’s one of college basketball’s best players, and the focal point of much of what Loyola does. He’s a brilliant passer from the high and low post, and a handful with his back to the basket. It remains to be seen, however, whether this reformed offense is built for March success.

More important, though, is this nightmarish Selection Sunday draw. In 2018, Loyola’s path to the Final Four went through a No. 6, 3, 7 and 8 seed. This year, the Ramblers get a streaking Georgia Tech in Round 1, with top-seeded Illinois looming in Round 2. Porter Moser is a heck of a coach, and his team defends ferociously, but even just reaching the second weekend will be a gargantuan task.

18. Oregon (+5000 | W7; vs. VCU)

Prior to a fluky Pac-12 semifinal loss decided almost solely by 3-point variance, the Ducks were 34-7 in the month of March dating back to 2016. They were 15-1 over the last three seasons, with the only loss coming in 2019 to eventual national champion Virginia. And they appeared to be on another late surge. They’d won 11 of 12, including four victories over tourney teams.

One loss doesn’t erase all that promise. All five starters shoot 36% or better from deep, and they actually improved, even against tougher competition, as the season wore on. Oregon has all the tools necessary for an Elite Eight charge.

19. Texas Tech (+2500 | S6; vs. Utah State)

Let’s have a quick chat about 3-point defense. Because Texas Tech’s, for three straight years, was excellent. From 2018-2020, opponents shot 32.3%, 29.8% and 31.0% from beyond the arc. And then, suddenly, in 2021, they caught fire, hitting 35% of their long-range bombs, significantly above the D-1 average.

But here’s the thing about 3-point defense: A large chunk of it is actually just luck. So there’s a decent chance that Tech’s defense, which spent 2018-2020 as a top-10 unit, is better than its results and raw numbers suggest. If so, this is an underrated No. 6 seed with some sneaky second-weekend potential.

20. LSU (+5000 | E8; vs. St. Bonaventure)

The Tigers’ Big Four – Cameron Thomas, Trendon Watford, Javonte Smart, Darius Days – stack up against almost any Big Four in the sport. Michigan should be petrified if it meets LSU in the second round.

21. Wisconsin (+4000 | S9; vs. North Carolina)

The Badgers will be a case study in what I like to call Close Game Theory. They went a demoralizing 0-9 against the top five teams in the Big Ten – which explains their No. 9 seed. But they lost the last four (to Iowa, Purdue and Illinois) by two possessions each – which helps explain why KenPom thinks they’re a top-10 team in the country.

So is there simply something about this Wisconsin team that prevents it from getting over the hump? Or do the narrow losses inform us that the Badgers are actually quite close to elite? Or at least much closer than their record would indicate?

I lean toward the latter. North Carolina, and perhaps Baylor, will find out.

22. Colorado (+6600 | E5; vs. Georgetown)
23. UConn (+4000 | E7; vs. Maryland)

UConn without James Bouknight, its sophomore scoring guard extraordinaire: 4-4, intensely mediocre.

UConn with Bouknight, as it will be throughout March Madness: 11-3, with the only losses coming to Creighton – once in OT, once by three points – and at healthy Villanova.

As a result, the Huskies are underseeded.

24. Creighton (+2500 | W5; vs. UC Santa Barbara)
25. USC (+3500 | W6; vs. play-in winner)

Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel spoke with a dozen college hoops coaches to gauge which tourney teams are potential flops. USC made the list.

26. BYU (+8000 | E6; vs. play-in winner)

Fun, but nowhere near as fun as last year’s Cougars were. An excerpt from the morning of March 11, 2020, about BYU’s 3-point shooting:

The Cougars lead the nation at 41.9 percent from deep. Five players are north of 45 percent. Every single member of the rotation is above average from 3. That they’re able to do this from beyond a longer 3-point arc – now 22.2 feet, back from 20.8 before this season – is a massive plus. The effect of the new distance, coach Mark Pope told Yahoo Sports, is that “you’re purchasing so much more space, to not only finish at the rim but also keep your dribble alive and create havoc off the bounce.” The result is a two-point field goal percentage that also ranks among the country’s top 20. Any team with this prolific of an offense is dangerous.

That team was a Final Four sleeper. This one, in all honesty, isn’t. But the fact that it’s back as a No. 6 seed after losing five key seniors is a remarkable feat in itself.

27. Villanova (+4000 | S5; vs. Winthrop)

Villanova, in its last four games, has, in chronological order:

  • Lost by 12 at 10-15 Butler

  • Lost starting point guard Collin Gillespie to an MCL tear

  • Scored 52 points in a loss to Providence

  • Lost to Georgetown in its Big East tournament opener

This just isn’t Nova’s year.

28. San Diego State (+5000 | M6; vs. Syracuse)
29. Oklahoma (+3500 | W8; vs. Missouri)
30. North Carolina (+5000 | S8; vs. Wisconsin)

Roy Williams has gone back to old reliable: When all else fails, pound the hell out of the offensive glass. Carolina can’t shoot or take care of the ball, but with a massive front line – four rotation players over 6-foot-10 – it’s the best offensive rebounding team in the nation. That, coupled with defense, will make the Tar Heels a tough out.

31. Tennessee (+4000 | M5; vs. Oregon State)
32. Georgia Tech (+10000 | M9; vs. Loyola)

Opened the season giving up 123 points to Georgia Southern in a four-OT loss.

Closed it winning eight in a row, and celebrating an ACC title with raw emotion, swimming in balloons on an otherwise empty court.

33. Syracuse (+8000 | M11; vs. San Diego State)
34. St. Bonaventure (+10000 | E9; vs. LSU)

We’ll use this space for a brief tribute to late St. Bonaventure University president Dennis DePerro, who died earlier this month as a result of complications from COVID-19. DePerro, among many accomplishments, in 2018 presided over the school’s first NCAA tournament victory in 48 years. Sadly, he won’t be around to savor a potential second three years later.

“He was a friend. He was a guy that I could walk into his office at any time and sit down and talk to,” Bonnies coach Mark Schmidt said. “He really supported athletics, in particular men’s basketball.”

35. Maryland (+10000 | E10; vs. UConn)
36. Michigan State (+6600 | E11; First Four vs. UCLA)

Tom Izzo. March. You know the drill.

TIER 6: The Sweet 16 Longshots

37. Virginia Tech (+6600 | S10; vs. Florida)
38. VCU (+10000 | W10; vs. Oregon)
39. Wichita State (+10000 | W11; First Four vs. Drake)
40. UC Santa Barbara (+25000 | W12; vs. Creighton)

The Gauchos are 18-1 since January 1. Against weak competition, yes, but they’re easily the best of the automatic qualifiers from one-bid leagues.

41. Clemson (+8000 | M7; vs. Rutgers)
42. Rutgers (+6600 | M10; vs. Clemson)
43. Utah State (+6600 | S11; vs. Texas Tech)
44. Florida (+8000 | S7; vs. Virginia Tech)
45. Missouri (+6600 | W9; vs. Oklahoma)
46. Georgetown (+10000 | E12; vs. Colorado)

Georgetown’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2015! (The Hoyas, remarkably, have won just two March Madness games since 2008. Two!)

47. UCLA (+8000 | E11; First Four vs. Michigan State)
48. Oregon State (+8000 | M12; vs. Tennessee)
49. Ohio (+15000 | W13; vs. Virginia)

Jason Preston. Remember the name. (Or fear it, if you’re in any way affiliated with Virginia.)

50. Drake (+10000 | W11; First Four vs. Wichita State)

TIER 7: The Semi-Easy Outs

51. Colgate (+15000 | S14; vs. Arkansas)

Don’t be fooled by Colgate’s top-10 ranking in the NCAA’s wonky NET. It’s a “weird artifact of a weird season.” But this team is indeed quite good by small liberal arts college basketball standards. It shoots 40% from 3-point land. Senior guard Jack Ferguson shoots 51%, the second-best mark of all qualifying players in the tournament.

52. Liberty (+25000 | M13; vs. Oklahoma State)
53. North Texas (+15000 | S13; vs. Purdue)

The Mean Green held Arkansas, West Virginia and Loyola under a point per possession in non-conference play.

54. Winthrop (+15000 | S12; vs. Villanova)
55. Eastern Washington (+50000 | W14; vs. Kansas)
56. Abilene Christian (+50000 | E14; vs. Texas)

The best turnover-forcers in college hoops could pester a turnover-prone Texas team.

57. UNC Greensboro (+15000 | E13; vs. Florida State)
58. Grand Canyon (+50000 | W15; vs. Iowa)
59. Morehead State (+25000 | M14; vs. West Virginia)
60. Cleveland State (+50000 | M15; vs. Houston)
61. Iona (+50000 | E15; vs. Alabama)

TIER 8: The Pushovers

62. Drexel (+50000 | M16; vs. Illinois)
63. Hartford (+50000 | S16; vs. Baylor)
64. Oral Roberts (+25000 | S15; vs. Ohio State)
65. Norfolk State (+50000 | W16; First Four vs. Appalachian State)
66. Appalachian State (+50000 | W16; First Four vs. Norfolk State)
67. Mount St. Mary’s (+50000 | E16; First Four vs. Texas Southern)

Point guard Damian Chong Qui is, in the words of Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel, “the 5-foot-8, 155-pound Energizer bunny that powers the delightfully unorthodox band of basketball misfits from Mount St. Mary’s.”

68. Texas Southern (+50000 | E16; First Four vs. Mount St. Mary’s)

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