NCAA Tournament 2021 Bracket Picks & Predictions: Betting Analysis For Every First-Round Game
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- The 2021 NCAA Tournament bracket has been revealed, and we hit the ground running with early analysis and picks for every game.
- The tournament begins Wednesday with First Four games before the first full day of action on Friday. The Sweet 16 will be set by Monday.
- Whether you're looking to lock in some early NCAA Tournament bets or need help with bracket advice, we've got you covered.
The 2021 NCAA Tournament bracket has been revealed, and we’ve got you covered with instant analysis in real-time for every first-round matchup and more!
Whether you’re looking for advice on your office pool or looking to get ahead of opening lines, we’ve got you covered with betting and bracket picks as soon as matchups are finalized. So, be sure to bookmark this page, check back frequently, and refresh often on Sunday, because we’ll be publishing instant analysis and updates as furiously as possible throughout the evening.
First Four Matchups
(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.
(16) Norfolk State vs. (16) Appalachian State
This one is going to be an ugly one.
Both of these teams rank outside the top 200 in offensive efficiency and shoot under 47% from inside the arc.
Appalachian State went on a magical run during the Sun Belt tournament, winning four games in four days, all by single digits with two of those games going into overtime.
However, this Mountaineers squad is not aesthetically pleasing on the offensive end of the floor. Appalachian State shoots a ton of 3-pointers (43.9% of its field goal attempts) but is barely hitting over 32% of them. Defensively, Norfolk State allows under 32% from 3-point range, so App State is likely going to have some struggles from the perimeter.
Offensively, Norfolk State does really only two things well. It shoots 3s at over 37% and also gets to the free-throw line at the 27th-highest rate in the country. However, it has little-to-no size inside, as four of its five starters are under 6-foot-7.
That has caused some issues scoring inside, as the Spartans are hitting only 54.8% of their shot attempts at the rim, per Hoop Math. Appalachian State allows one of the lowest free-throw rates in the country and gave up under 35% from 3-point range during Sun Belt play, so the Spartans are likely going to have some struggles on the offensive end of the floor.
Norfolk State plays at a middle-of-the-pack pace compared to the national average, but Appalachian State really likes to slow it down, ranking 310th in adjusted tempo, per KenPom.
So, this is likely going to be a grind-it-out game played in the half-court. I have 132.22 points projected for this game, so if you can find under 135.5 or better, I think it’s worth a bet.
(11) Wichita State vs. (11) Drake
Given the chaos that surrounded Wichita State in November, this is a well-earned at-large bid for the Shockers.
They finished first in the AAC with an 11-2 record and earned valuable Quad I wins over Houston and at Ole Miss.
They will face a Drake team that battled through key injuries to star point guard Roman Penn (left foot) and are still awaiting the return of leading-scorer ShanQuan Hemphill (foot surgery).
The defensive-oriented Shockers held AAC opponents to just 28.9% from 3, while the Bulldogs shot almost 37% from beyond the arc. This is a matchup between two of the great stories of the 2020-2021 season squaring off in the first round.
(16) Mount Saint 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.
The top seed in the bracket has to feel pretty good about its draw. Both of the Zags’ potential second-round opponents played their best basketball last month and have faded of late. Neither has the type of defense needed to contain the buzzsaw that is the Gonzaga offense.
Beyond that, the committee is forbidden from re-aligning teams that have previously met early in the tournament, yet loaded up the high seeds in this region with a rogue gallery of teams the Zags have already beaten. This is in part due to how many Big Ten and Big 12 teams earned high seeds and needed to be separated into different regions.
Gonzaga has already played and defeated Kansas and Virginia this season on neutral courts. The Zags led Kansas by as many as 18 and stretched a lead to 33 against Virginia. The Jayhawks and Hoos are also the two teams who most recently pulled out of power conference tournaments with COVID-19 issues.
Lastly, the 2-seed in this region is also a previous Gonzaga victim. The Bulldogs beat Iowa with relative ease in December as well. Iowa topped Big Ten foes with pace and shooting but couldn’t keep up with the lightning-quick Zags.
Beating any of those teams again is no sure thing, but Mark Few has to like having a blueprint on tape for taking out the best teams in his region.
(1) Gonzaga vs. (16) Norfolk State / Appalachian State
Gonzaga is going to be a massive favorite over either of these teams, but if you’re interested in betting the Zags, Appalachian State is the team you’d like to see advance to the weekend.
Norfolk State isn’t a threat to compete with the Zags, of course, but the Spartans at least have the potential to get hot and put on an offensive show. They rank in the top 40 nationally from beyond the arc, nailing better than 37 percent of their 3s on the season. The Spartans don’t take an inordinate amount of long balls, either, so Gonzaga can’t expect to be gifted with poor shot selection against its overmatched opponent.
For a 16 seed to stay anywhere close to arm’s reach, it needs to shoot the lights out. Appalachian State doesn’t have that gear and is already coming off its hottest stretch of the season. Norfolk State does.
(8) Oklahoma vs. (9) Missouri
This is an interesting matchup between two teams that were looking great heading into February but struggled down the stretch. Both teams are probably glad to see the other in the first round, and one will right the ship and move on to the Round of 32.
Both teams play tough defense but don’t shoot it very well. This could be a good under look at the right number, ideally in the high 130s or low 140s. As for a side, I think the Sooners are the way to go. Oklahoma has a slight edge offensively, and has more scoring options than the Tigers. De’Vion Harmon’s defense will be key for the Sooners in this matchup. If he can shut down Dru Smith or Xavier Pinson, the Tigers will have a really tough time putting up points. I’d imagine this line comes out close to a pick’em, and I’d play Oklahoma up to -3.
(5) Creighton vs. (12) UC Santa Barbara
UC Santa Barbara got a great draw in this troublesome 5 vs. 12 matchup.
Creighton just got trampled by a surging Georgetown squad and has stumbled recently, losing three of its past six. UCSB, meanwhile, handled business in its conference tournament to get the automatic bid.
(4) Virginia vs. (13) Ohio
This is a matchup of totally contrasting styles of play.
We all know what Virginia does. The Cavaliers play at a snail’s pace (dead-last in the country) while relying on being uber-efficient in their half-court offense and defense. They score 68 points per game and allow just 60.
Meanwhile, Ohio blitzed its way through the MAC. It averages more than 80 points per game, and scored 85, 87 and 84 in its three conference tournament wins. The Bobcats did it all on the back of Jason Preston. The junior guard averaged 23 points per game on better than 50% shooting during the Bobcats’ tournament run.
Ohio is going to try to upset Virginia by pushing the pace and scoring a lot. Meanwhile, Virginia will try to grind this game to a halt and win a slow-paced, half-court game. I actually lean Ohio to cover in this one. I think Preston could make some magic happen against a Virginia team that will be coming off a COVID pause.
(6) USC vs. (11) Wichita State / Drake
I love this USC team and think they are a dark horse to make the elite eight. The Trojans are the tallest team in America and have arguably the most talented freshman in 7-footer Evan Mobley.
USC is elite at both ends of the floor and can beat you in a multitude of ways. Offensively, the Trojans average more than 1.06 points per possession and shoot well from all over the court. They also have the 10th-highest offensive rebounding rate in the country.
The height discrepancy is going to pose a major problem for either Wichita State or Drake. The Bulldogs only have one player that stands over 6-foot-6, while Wichita State’s tallest player is 6-foot-8.
Either Wichita State or Drake is also likely going to struggle to score on USC’s defense, because the Trojans are top-20 in defensive efficiency, per KenPom. Since USC is the tallest team in the country, trying to score inside on its 2-3 zone is a nightmare: The USC defense ranks second in the nation in 2-point percentage allowed. Neither Drake nor Wichita State likes to shoot a lot of 3-pointers — and unfortunately for either squad, the 3-ball is really the only chance either team stands at upsetting USC.
If you want to grab openers after the Drake vs Wichita State game on Thursday, my projected line for USC against Drake is -7.53 and against Wichita State is -7.41.
(3) Kansas vs. (14) Eastern Washington
Eastern Washington is a team nobody wants to play right now and Kansas is going to have its hands full. The Eagles play an incredibly fast tempo (28th in Adj. Tempo per KenPom) and have been shooting teams right out of the gym. Eastern Washington has won 13 of its last 14 games and did come within three points of both Washington State and Arizona at the beginning of the season.
Kansas will presumably get David McCormack back, but the Jayhawks still have some COVID issues that caused them to bow out of the Big 12 Tournament. It’s still unclear who will be available for Kansas, so this is a potential upset spot since Kansas isn’t elite offensively, ranking 59th in offensive efficiency.
I have the Jayhawks projected as a -11.03 favorite in this one, but keep an eye on the Jayhawks all week long as we start to get more news about who is or isn’t available to play.
(7) Oregon vs. (10) VCU
The Oregon Ducks have an interesting matchup against the surprise from the Atlantic 10 in the VCU Rams.
The Rams replaced their whole starting lineup this year but didn’t miss a beat through their “Chaos” defense. I like Oregon in this one, as it has taken care of the basketball all season long.
VCU relies on forcing turnovers and has struggled with coughing the ball up itself. Oregon ranks first in the Pac-12 in forcing turnovers, and that should be a key statistic to watch in this one.
The Ducks have the length and size to be able to slow down VCU star Nah’shon Hyland. All five starters on the Ducks are 6-foot-5 or taller, and they have won 11 of their last 13 games.
VCU struggled to slow down the St. Bonaventure offense in the A-10 Championship. It will have its work cut out for it in this game with Eugene Omoruyi and Chris Duarte, who both average 16.7 points per game.
Turnovers will ultimately doom the Rams, and I see the Ducks advancing in this one — although the committee did them no favors, potentially looking at Iowa, Kansas, and Gonzaga after they move past VCU.
(2) Iowa vs. (15) Grand Canyon
This is a fairly intriguing matchup for the Antelopes. No, teams aren’t exactly lining up to battle Luka Garza and the hot-shooting Hawkeyes. But Grand Canyon does have a ton of size that should give the presumed National Player of the Year some trouble.
Wichita State transfer Asbjorn Midtgaard leads Grand Canyon in scoring, standing at 7-feet and 270 pounds. Garza’s worst performances this season have come against big men he could not bully around on the block. His worst shooting nights from the field against the size of Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn, Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson, Rutgers’ Myles Johnson, and the size of North Carolina.
Defensively, Garza will need to battle with Midtgaard or chase stretch-four Alessandro Lever out to the perimeter. Grand Canyon doesn’t have the shooting to hang wire-to-wire with Iowa, but the Lopes have the size to pull out a cover and contain Garza.
You’d think Baylor might be a bit envious of some of the other top seeds with the draw the Bears pulled on Sunday. In large part because no other Big 12 team can be seeded 2-4 in the same region as the top-seeded Bears, Baylor’s quarter of the bracket was flooded with some of the hottest teams in America.
After losing its final four regular-season games, Ohio State stormed to the Big Ten title game, battling Illinois into overtime. Purdue won its last five regular season contests before losing in overtime to Ohio State at the Big Ten Tournament. Arkansas has a claim as the hottest team in the nation, having lost just once since February began.
The Bears are still the rightful favorites to reach the Final Four out of the South Region, but no one could blame you for thinking one of those three could stay hot and knock off Baylor. My gut likes the Hogs to make a run to the Elite Eight and challenge Baylor for a trip to the final weekend of tournament play.
(1) Baylor vs. (16) Hartford
Hartford is elated to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. The Hawks can’t be pleased to see Baylor as the first team they’ll face in tournament play. Hartford had the second-most efficient defense in the America East, thanks in large part to leading the conference in forced turnover rate.
Baylor’s experienced guards should have no problem controlling the ball and will find little resistance slashing into the paint against Hartford. Even if Baylor, which thrives behind the 3-point line, has an ice-cold shooting night, it’s impossible to imagine Hartford overcoming the athleticism advantage the Bears will hold. The Hawks only scored above one point per possession in 10 of their 23 games this season. It would be a shock if they came anywhere close to that mark against Baylor.
(8) North Carolina vs. (9) Wisconsin
Two Power-5 teams headed in opposite directions face off with North Carolina taking on Wisconsin. The Tar Heels won three of their last four games, losing a close 69-66 battle to Florida State in the ACC Tournament. Wisconsin sputtered at the end of the regular season, losing five of its last six games. In the Big Ten Tournament, the Badgers barely escaped with a one-point win over Penn State before succumbing to Iowa by five points.
The Badgers are a veteran team, but haven’t played well for the majority of the second half of this season. Their size advantage inside will be negated by the trio of Garrison Brooks, Armando Bacot, and Day-Ron Sharpe. This will be a battle of pace between the up-tempo Tar Heels (45th in tempo per KenPom) and the sloth-like Badgers (326th per KenPom).
(5) Villanova vs. (12) Winthrop
It looks like it is going to be another year of 12 seeds running the first round. Villanova is sliding, due to injury, and Winthrop is just getting started.
Without leader and starting point guard Collin Gillespie for the remainder of the season, it’s hard to say whether or not the Wildcats can take down a stellar Winthrop team that was three points away from being undefeated.
Villanova has dropped its past two games to Providence and Georgetown. Those are not exactly powerhouse teams this year. Realistically, Villanova is overvalued by the committee this year, and it’s not worth a No. 5 seed, considering the current state of this team.
I underestimated the Eagles; they are the real deal. And their triple-threat senior leader, Chandler Vaudrin, gives this team life. He averages 12.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 6.9 assists per game and should be considered as one of the most valuable offensive pieces to any team this year. As a matter of fact, he just posted a triple-double against High Point on March 1.
Trust the No. 12 seed Eagles here. They are an extremely talented squad with a knack for closing out games, as their 23-1 record shows. Unfortunately for Villanova, everything has just gone wrong recently. It is incredibly difficult for a team to recover from losing its starting point guard in March.
(4) Purdue vs. (13) North Texas
Purdue is a bit of a sleeper in this tournament.
While it dropped the first game in the Big Ten Tournament to a very talented Ohio State team, Purdue went 5-0 straight up and against the spread in its final five regular season games. Matt Painter has his guys playing well at the right time.
Purdue has an awesome young core paired with veterans, and they all play well together. The Boilermakers were solid at everything this season, finishing fifth in the Big Ten in offensive efficiency and third in defensive efficiency.
Plus, the Boilermakers are led by a top-10 player in Trevion Williams. Williams averaged 15.6 points and nine rebounds per game while shooting over 45% from the field this season. He finished seventh in KenPom’s Player of the Year rankings.
After dropping its final three regular-season games, North Texas made a miracle run in the C-USA Tournament. The Mean Green won four games in four days to earn their NCAA Tournament berth, upsetting Western Kentucky in a dramatic final.
The Mean Green probably peaked after that run. Therefore, I think this is a good spot to buy low on Purdue and sell high on North Texas.
(6) Texas Tech vs. (11) Utah State
Defense reigns supreme in this matchup between the Red Raiders and Aggies.
Texas Tech ranks 24th in adjusted defensive efficiency while Utah State is even better at eighth-best overall, per KenPom.
Both teams are superb on the boards, with the Aggies led by Mountain West Player of the Year big man Neemias Queta (15.1 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 3.2 BPG). The Red Raiders need a strong offensive effort from guard Mac McClung (15.7 PPG), who is the bellwether of Texas Tech’s offense. As he goes, so do the Red Raiders’ chances.
Texas Tech will be the toughest defensive test the Aggies have faced, but they should find open looks against a Red Raiders defense that allowed Big 12 opponents to make 38.3% of shots from deep, the worst defensive mark in the conference.
This will be a slow, defensive battle, which is in complete contrast from the following matchup against either No. 3 Arkansas or No. 14 Colgate.
(3) Arkansas vs. (14) Colgate
Get your track shoes on for this battle between two of the fastest teams in college basketball. Despite not starting its season until January 2, Colgate earned its invitation with an 11-1 regular season and three-game destruction of the Patriot League Tournament. The Raiders are ranked 25th in adjusted tempo, per KenPom, and are the third-best 3-point shooting team (40%) in the country.
Arkansas is one of the few teams that plays faster than the Colgate, ranking 17th overall in adjusted tempo. Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman guided the Razorbacks to a second-place SEC finish, ending the regular season with an eight-game winning streak. Arkansas? Battle-tested. Colgate? A dangerous unknown.
But either way? This game is coming in hot.
(7) Florida vs. (10) Virginia Tech
Many ACC fans didn’t like that Virginia Tech got the 3-seed in the conference tournament after several of its most difficult league games were cancelled during its COVID-19 pause. The NCAA Tournament committee, however, punished the Hokies for their weak strength of schedule, slotting them as a 10-seed with a very tough opening game against the Florida Gators.
Florida is a bad matchup for the Hokies because it can take away what Virginia Tech does best. The Hokies are a good outside shooting team and have a number of offensive options, but Florida defends the 3-point line very well, giving up just 30.5% from deep. The Gators also have a great interior defender in Colin Castleton, who averages over two blocks per game and can contain VT big man Keve Aluma in the post. The Action Network projects a spread of Florida -3.5, and I’d be very comfortable backing the Gators at that number.
(2) Ohio State vs. (15) Oral Roberts
Head coach Chris Holtmann has righted the Buckeyes ship, after Ohio State ended the season with four consecutive losses. The Buckeyes had an impressive Big Ten Tournament run, defeating Minnesota, Purdue, and Michigan before losing in overtime to Illinois in the title game.
Their strong finish earned them a No. 2 seed and the right to face the nation’s leading-scorer in Oral Roberts’ Max Abmas (24.2 PPG), who teams up with junior forward Kevin Obanor (18.2 PPG, 9.5 RPG) for a formidable inside-outside duo. The Golden Eagles earned the automatic bid from the Summit League, and balanced an up-tempo style with an improving defense. Ohio State is the superior team, but with the status of forward Kyle Young (concussion) unknown, Abmas and Obanor should absolutely keep Holtmann’s focus throughout the week.
Of the four regions, the Midwest feels the most likely to stay chalk through the second weekend.
There’s few things dumber than predicting a bracket will stay chalk on the internet, so I implore you to find me in a few weeks when this looks silly.
But Illinois has looked so strong of late, beating top ranked teams through the end of the Big Ten regular season and claiming the conference tournament crown. Houston is a team poised for tournament success thanks to its lockdown defense. West Virginia pulled a very advantageous pod of first-weekend opponents, and Oklahoma State is underseeded as a four.
Loyola Chicago, Georgia Tech, Syracuse, and Morehead State are all interesting teams to eye as possible spoilers, yet the longer this region sits on your computer screen, the more it looks like the top seeds have easier paths to the Sweet 16 than their counterparts elsewhere.
(1) Illinois vs. (16) Drexel
Drexel has been waiting a long time to play in the NCAA Tournament again. Well, welcome to the Big Dance, Dragons. Here’s a Kofi Cockburn for you to deal with.
Cockburn was going to have his way against whichever 16 seed drew the Illini, but Drexel should be particularly enticing for him. The Dragons start 6-foot-8 James Butler at center and have been hurt in the paint all season long. The Dragons allowed 55.3% of their opponents’ points inside the arc, among the top-40 in the nation in that stat. Drexel’s entire team has just 45 blocked shots all season.
Illinois will feed Cockburn early and often. If he’s healthy and not in foul trouble, he’ll feast.
(8) Loyola Chicago vs. (9) Georgia Tech
Loyola Chicago got absolutely betrayed by the committee this year. KenPom has it ranked as the ninth-best team in adjusted efficiency margin. Effectively, he believes the Ramblers are the ninth-best team in the nation, and they got an eight-seed.
In addition, if they squeak by a surprising Georgia Tech squad, they immediately have to deal with Illinois, a team I believe could find itself in the Final Four.
This certainly draws some concerns about the committee, in my opinion. It clearly still doesn’t value teams that dominate in their respective conferences.
Georgia Tech is an unfortunate draw for Loyola Chicago, but the Ramblers are arguably a top-10 team in the nation, and I expect them to handle business behind their star Jokic-like center, Cameron Krutwig. Expect their No. 1 defense in the nation to give the Yellow Jackets some trouble in a low-scoring affair.
(5) Tennessee vs. (12) Oregon State
A lot of people look for upsets in the 12-5 matchup. That won’t be the case in this game. Oregon State snuck into the field after winning the Pac-12 Tournament with upset wins over UCLA, Oregon and Colorado.
ennessee lost to Alabama in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament after leading most of the game. The Volunteers have the fourth-ranked defensive efficiency in the country, letting up just 87.0 points per every 100 possessions. They force turnovers on 22.9% of their defensive possessions and should be able to impose their will against the Beavers.
Oregon State has already had its Cinderella story by winning the Pac-12 Tournament. That fairytale should come to an end in the first round when the Beavers face a defense as strong as Tennessee. The Volunteers have a deep roster and share the basketball, with seven players who average eight points or more per game. I make the Volunteers close to a double-digit favorite and would be surprised if they lay an egg and get upset in the first round.
(4) Oklahoma State vs. (13) Liberty
The Cowboys will be one of most popular non-No. 1 seeds picked to make the Final Four, largely due to the incredible play of superb freshman Cade Cunningham (20.2 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 41.3% 3P). But the Cowboys should be very careful against the dangerous Liberty Flames, the Atlantic Sun representative in the tournament. The Flames are coached by Tony Bennett-disciple Ritchie McKay, and they rank 10th in the country in 3-point shooting (38.8%). Liberty earned the automatic bid in 2018, and the 13-seeded Flames promptly knocked off No. 4 Mississippi State.
Oklahoma State’s Mike Boynton is guiding one of the hottest teams in the country, and he’ll have the best player on the floor in any matchup. But with junior Darius McGhee (15.6 PPG, 41.3% 3P) leading the deliberate and slow-paced Flames, this is one of the most compelling matchups of the opening round.
(6) San Diego State vs. (11) Syracuse
This is a generous draw for the Orange, who are lucky to avoid the First Four. On paper, the Aztecs have an edge, and their top-15 KenPom defense should be able to give Syracuse trouble.
This game should open around a pick‘em or maybe with the Aztecs a small favorite, but I don’t see myself getting involved in the spread pregame. I just don’t know how well San Diego State will handle Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. It has really given teams that are unfamiliar with it issues in the NCAA Tournament. The zone powered Syracuse to a Final Four run as a 10-seed in 2016 and to the Sweet 16 as an 11-seed in 2018.
The way to attack this game is to see how comfortable San Diego State looks against the zone in the first few minutes and then make a live wager. If the Aztecs come out looking sloppy and confused, Syracuse and the under live will have great value.
(3) West Virginia vs. (14) Morehead State
As soon as I saw this matchup, I thought back to the 2016 season when the No. 3-seed Mountaineers were easily beaten 70-56 by No. 14-seed Stephen F. Austin.
Morehead State will bring an eerily similar profile into this matchup as the Lumberjacks did in 2016. The Eagles have a superb defensive unit, ranking Top 50 in Effective Field Goal percentage allowed and 3-point percentage allowed (KenPom). They led the Ohio Valley Conference in every major defensive category, and won 15 of their past 16 games.
West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins will have the talent advantage with 6-foot-10 forward Derek Culver (14.6 PPG, 9.8 RPG) and big-shot maker Miles McBride (15.4 PPG, 39.2% 3P), but I anticipate this game will have one of the lowest point-spread of any Top 4 seed opening round matchup.
(7) Clemson vs. (10) Rutgers
Every year on Selection Sunday, there’s a crop of teams that bettors and fans can’t wait to pick against. Clemson and Rutgers were likely atop that list for many this season … until the committee paired them up against one another in the first round. Rutgers is 8-10 since January 1. Clemson is 7-6 since mid-January. These are not the hottest teams in this bracket, to say the least, but one is guaranteed to play in the Round of 32.
Clemson’s defense should line up nicely against Rutgers. The Tigers allow a ton of 3s — their opponents have the highest 3-point rate in the ACC. Rutgers, however, is not a team built to take advantage. The Scarlet Knights have shot just 31.1% from distance this year, including a dismal 25.8% in their last nine games. That’s too large a sample size to bet Rutgers and pray for regression. It’s more likely indicative of offensive issues.
(2) Houston vs. (15) Cleveland State
This is going to be a very slow-paced game. The Cougars rank 327th in the country in tempo, while Cleveland State ranks 282nd. The Vikings are going to have a lot of trouble scoring in this game because their offense is not their strong suit (199th nationally in offensive efficiency, per KenPom) and Houston is top 20 in defensive efficiency, giving up only 0.86 points per possession.
The Vikings don’t attempt a lot of threes (26.8% of their field-goal attempts) and probably won’t be able to make very many because Houston has one of the best 3-point defenses in the country, allowing only 28.6% shooting from beyond the arc. The Cougars also are the fifth-best defense inside the perimeter, allowing 43.0% from 2-point range, so I have a hard time seeing how Cleveland State is going to even come close to scoring 60 points.
Houston will be able to play its game offensively, but the strength of this Cleveland State team is on the defensive side of the ball, as the Vikings allowed just one point per possession in the Horizon League. They turn opponents over at a high level and defend the 3-point shot well, so they stand a fighting chance if they can keep the Cougars’ eighth-ranked offense in check. The Vikings did hold Ohio State to 67 at the beginning of the season, so they have at least seen an elite offense this season.
I only have 127.67 points projected for this game, so I think there is a lot of value on this under if you can get it at 133 or better.
This 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.
(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!