2021 NCAA Tournament Bracket Breakdown: East Region Predictions & Betting Angles
Nic Antaya/Getty Images. Pictured: Hunter Dickinson.
The East Region is the most wide-open region in the NCAA Tournament.
There are so many different outcomes that could occur in this region. Michigan is incredibly vulnerable without Isaiah Livers, and in the second round will either face LSU’s explosive offense or St. Bonaventure’s stifling defense. Those two are the most dangerous 8- and 9-seeds in the tournament, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Michigan fall to either of them.
Meanwhile, Alabama is a very mercurial 2-seed. It’s one of the most 3-point dependent teams in the nation, one of just 15 teams that scores more than 40% of its total points from deep. That could mean either a Final Four run or a second-round exit depending on if its long-range shots are falling.
Connecticut is also a very dangerous 7-seed. The Huskies boast a tough defense (first in Big East in defensive efficiency) and are led by alpha-dog James Bouknight. UConn could certainly make the Final Four in this region.
All-in-all, anything can happen in the East Region this year.
NCAA Tournament: East Region
First Four Matchups
(16) Mount St. Mary’s vs. (16) Texas Southern
The SWAC representative ended the undefeated run of Prairie View A&M with a convincing 80-61 win in the tournament final.
Head coach Johnny Jones’ Tigers earned a true road win at Wyoming en route to a 26th-best non-conference strength of schedule. Texas Southern loves to run, ranking 41st in adjusted tempo, per KenPom but also defends inside the arc. The Tigers ranked 23rd in the nation in 2-point interior defense, allowing opponents just 45.1%.
Mount St. Mary’s pulled consecutive road upsets at Wagner and at Bryant to earn the automatic berth from the Northeast Conference. The Mountaineers play at a slow and deliberate pace that also excels at defending inside the arc. The Mount allowed NEC opponents to only shoot 44.2% from 2-point range during the season.
This is a battle of pace, with the team that succeeds in settling into its style the likely winner.
(11) Michigan State vs. (11) UCLA
This is definitely the most high-profile matchup in First Four history with the Spartans and Bruins both surviving the bubble to qualify for the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
Michigan State has needed to maintain an even stronger defensive presence than normal as a result of an offense that ranked second-worst in Big Ten Conference play.
The Bruins are actually a much better offensive team, with a defense that surprisingly ranked just ninth-best within the Pac-12. The Spartans have the better resume with recent wins over Illinois, Ohio State, and Michigan.
UCLA has lost its last four games, but that did include a one-point loss at home to talent-rich USC. Both teams have the talent, experience, and coaching acumen to give No. 6 seed BYU a tough battle in the next matchup.
(1) Michigan vs. (16) Mount Saint Mary’s / Texas Southern
The Wolverines are going to get the win against whichever team advances out of the First Four. The more interesting question is figuring out by how much.
Michigan is without one of its best players, 6-foot-7 forward Isaiah Livers. He is nursing a fracture in his right foot and is out indefinitely. Livers could return at some point during the Wolverines’ run, but he’s not expected to suit up for their first-round game this weekend. Expect a lot of talk about the team rallying around its fallen star in both the lead-up to and aftermath of this one.
Camaraderie is not quantifiable, and it makes it difficult to project how the team will perform against what will be an overmatched opponent. Regardless, this matchup and the circumstances around the end of Michigan’s season make it increasingly likely that either Mount Saint Mary’s or Texas Southern will be lambs sent to the slaughter when either one takes the court against the Wolverines.
How the Wolverines fare long-term without Livers is unknown. How they fare in the first round is not.
(8) LSU vs. (9) St. Bonaventure
This game may be my favorite matchup of the whole tournament with both teams entering the Madness playing some of their best basketball of the season.
LSU has been a wagon offensively all season, averaging 120.5 points per every 100 possessions, which ranks fifth in the country, according to KenPom. It made a run in the SEC Tournament, beating Ole Miss and Arkansas before losing by one in a barn-burner to Alabama, which is a 2-seed in the tournament.
St. Bonaventure ran through the Atlantic 10 this year, only losing four games by a total of 13 points combined. It’s a well-balanced team that owns the top-ranked offense and defensive efficiency ranking in A-10 play.
The big knock I have on the Bonnies is they’re only five players deep and have no real depth to their roster. In the conference championship against VCU, the Bonnies played only seven players, including one who played just two minutes.
This will be a contrast in styles as St. Bonaventure will want to play a slow-tempo game, while LSU will look to get out and run. LSU should be able to wear down on the thin roster of the Bonnies to survive and advance in what should be a great first-round matchup.
(5) Colorado vs. (12) Georgetown
Georgetown is going to be a popular “upset” choice as the 12-seed over 5-seed Colorado after winning the Big East Tournament. I’m not buying into this Hoyas team and still believe in the Buffaloes even after they lost the Pac-12 Tournament Championship to Oregon State. I see this as a good buy-low opportunity for Colorado and a sell-high opportunity with Georgetown.
Patrick Ewing deserves all the credit in the world for what this Hoyas team did in the Big East Tournament. They finished the season 9-12 before ripping off four wins in a row over some of the top teams in the conference such as Villanova, Seton Hall, and Creighton.
Georgetown is a tough team to pin down as it plays out of control at times. It ranks 309th in the country in turnovers, coughing it up 21.7% of their offensive possessions, according to KenPom. The Hoyas can also catch fire from behind the arc, as they connected on 36.7% of their 79 3-point attempts in the Big East Tournament.
Colorado is led by McKinley Wright IV, a senior guard who did it all for the Buffaloes and put up 15.5 points, 5.6 assists, and 4.3 rebounds per game. He’s the type of player who should be getting national attention, but this may be his coming out party if he can lead the Buffaloes to a deep run.
Colorado owns an adjusted efficiency margin of 23.11 and is an overall well-rounded team that has the pieces to make a deep run.
The Hoyas will need to catch fire from behind the arc to take down a team like Colorado. Although that feat is a possibility, I like this Colorado team to give Florida State a run for its money in the next round.
(4) Florida State vs. (13) UNC Greensboro
Florida State is likely to be a popular darkhorse pick to make a run deep in the tournament, and the Seminoles are fortunate to have avoided Gonzaga’s side of the bracket. That said, they won’t have a cakewalk in the first round against Southern Conference champion UNC Greensboro if they play like they did in the ACC Tournament title game, where they committed 25 turnovers.
The Seminoles owned the No. 1 offense in ACC play, averaging 113.7 points per 100 possessions. They played with one of the faster tempos and shot lights-out from behind the arc, converting on 40.3% of their 3-point attempts. They’re a tall and athletic group that has the size to dominate physically in the first round.
The Spartans opened the year 6-5 before catching fire, winning 15 of their next 18 games. Like many teams in their position, though, they played an easy schedule, facing just two opponents ranked inside the top 100. They’re led by senior guard Isaiah Miller, who averaged 19.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game, and he will need to be Superman for the Spartans to keep this one close.
Ultimately, I think the Seminoles are too athletic. But if Florida State is as sloppy as it was against Georgia Tech, an upset isn’t out of the question.
(6) BYU vs. (11) Michigan State / UCLA
BYU would likely rather see UCLA emerge from Thursday’s First Four game than have to tussle with the Spartans. BYU’s offense is driven by ball screens and spread out by hot shooters lining the 3-point arc.
That would somewhat play into Michigan State’s defensive strategy. Sparty allowed the lowest 3-point percentage in Big Ten play and the lowest percentage of points allowed from outside the arc. Michigan State’s defensive issue has been sending opponents to the free throw line,an area where the perimeter-oriented Cougars would likely not be able to cash in.
Instead, a game against UCLA’s defense probably sounds better to Mark Pope and BYU. The Bruins ranked in the bottom three in allowing 3-point rate, 3-point percentage, and percentage of points from 3s in Pac-12 play. On the other end, Matt Haarms would make for an apt dance partner for Tyger Campbell’s constant pick-and-roll play.
If the Cougars had a say, they’d like to see Sparty lose in the battle of the blue bloods.
(3) Texas vs. (14) Abilene Christian
Are you looking for a big first-round upset?
Look no further than Abilene Christian and its incredible defense. The Wildcats finished first in their conference and 30th in the country in defensive efficiency, while finishing 12th in the country in defensive eFG%.
Their perimeter defense is super active and especially effective. The Wildcats finished first in the nation in turnover percentage, forcing 9.9 steals and more than 20 total turnovers per game. They also held opponents to below 30% shooting from 3-point range.
While Texas, with a considerable bit of luck, won the Big 12 Tournament, I’m not really high on this team. Plus, with a turnover rate of over 20%, the Texas offense falls right into the Abilene Christian defense’s hands.
Abilene Christian went 7-1 SU and ATS in its last eight games, and I believe they can be active enough on the perimeter to really mess with the Longhorns’ guard play. Jericho Sims is going to be a big issue, but let’s see if 7-foot senior Kolton Kohl can contain him to some degree.
(7) UConn vs. (10) Maryland
If you’re looking for a first-round lock, your search can end here.
Connecticut is stifling and efficient on the defensive end (28th in the country in defensive eFG%), and the Huskies have a player in James Bouknight who can take them to another level on the offensive end. The sophomore guard is averaging 19 points per game on 45/30/81 shooting splits, and has carried the UConn offense during large stretches of the season.
Maryland isn’t particularly good on either end of the court. The Terrapins have two offensive weapons in Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala, plus the Big Ten Defensive Player Of The Year in Darryl Morsell, but are simply too streaky to trust against an opponent of UConn’s quality.
Maryland boasts a few huge wins (Illinois, Purdue, Wisconsin), but is just 1-3 SU and ATS in its last four, with outright losses to Northwestern and Penn State. Meanwhile, Connecticut covered five straight before its close loss to Creighton in the Big East Tournament.
UConn is playing too well and Maryland is too inconsistent to trust the Terps in this spot. I like the Huskies to roll.
(2) Alabama vs. (15) Iona
Rick Pitino stole the spotlight after winning the MAAC tournament as a 9-seed to send his fifth different school to the NCAA tournament. The Iona Gaels only played 17 games this season after shutting down for 51 days due to COVID-19 protocols. They were forced to shut down an additional 17 days just before the conference tournament for the same reason, which makes their MAAC title even more impressive.
Iona has played just one team ranked inside the top 150 in the country in Seton Hall, a game it lost by 22. Pitino and the Gaels will have their work cut out for them in a huge step up in class against the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Alabama has been working on changing their reputation from being just a “football school” in recent years. The Crimson Tide own the second-ranked defense in the country allowing just 86.0 points per every 100 possessions, according to KenPom. They have won nine of their last 10 games, including a comeback win over Tennessee and a back-and-forth final against LSU in the SEC championship on Sunday.
Alabama plays with a top-10 tempo and looks to get out and run every opportunity they get. The Crimson Tide have four players who average double-digit points and 3-point shooters all over the court. They aren’t afraid to run scores up as they showed in the first round of the SEC tournament when they demolished Mississippi State 85-48.
I expect some of the same in this matchup as Bama will be too much for Iona to handle.
Roll Tide Roll!