The 2021 men’s NCAA tournament bracket has been released, and for the next 96 hours before the first round begins on Friday, March Madness pool enthusiasts and hoopheads alike will be filling out brackets and diving into debates over which teams will be cutting down the nets in Indianapolis. This year’s tournament will take place in a unique, COVID-19 pandemic-necessitated bubble environment, but the intrigue around the matchups and who this year’s surprises, Cinderellas and stars will be remains the same.
The location is different, but the region names (West, East, Midwest, South) remain the same. With the path to the Final Four set, we’re sizing up the players, teams and games to watch in each region.
State of the No. 1 Seed: Michigan
Unranked in the preseason AP poll, Michigan came out of nowhere to start 11–0 and win the Big Ten regular season title for the first time since 2014. That Big Ten championship is no small feat, considering the conference is the highest-rated conference anywhere since 2002, per KenPom. The Big Ten was a gauntlet this season, and navigating it as well as the Wolverines did is one of the most impressive achievements of the season.
What has made Michigan so good? The Wolverines have the combination of experience, depth, shooting and NBA talent that is ideal in trying to push for a national championship. Freshman big man Hunter Dickinson exceeded expectations and blossomed into one of the best players in the country up front, while sophomore wing Franz Wagner has enjoyed a breakout campaign and does absolutely everything for the Wolverines. But the real revelation has been senior point guard Mike Smith, a grad transfer from Columbia who has been the steady hand running the show. Dickinson’s dominance in the paint, combined with elite shooting and playmaking around him, makes Michigan incredibly hard to guard.
The big concern is the health of senior wing Isaiah Livers, an essential component of this team. Livers is out indefinitely due to a stress injury to his right foot and his status for the NCAA tournament is unclear. The team’s second-leading scorer, Livers is an elite shooter, solid distributor and, perhaps most importantly, one of the leaders of this team.
A matchup with either LSU or St. Bonaventure in the second round could be quite challenging, particularly without Livers. However, if the Wolverines can survive the first weekend, the path to the Elite Eight feels very manageable given the vulnerability of both Florida State and Colorado.
Who Has the Toughest Draw: No. 3 Texas
The Longhorns earned a No. 3 seed after winning the Big 12 tournament, but the committee did them no favors in terms of matchups. First round foe Abilene Christian is no cake walk thanks to an elite defense that held Big 12 rival Texas Tech to 51 points earlier this season. Assuming the Longhorns get by Abilene, they are staring down a matchup either with an elite-shooting BYU team that led Gonzaga late just last week … or a potential matchup with a Michigan State team that has beaten three top two-seeds this season. Beyond that, No. 2 seed Alabama or a red-hot No. 7 UConn looms just to get to the Elite Eight. If Texas makes its first deep run of the Shaka Smart era, it will certainly have been earned.
Team That Could Bust Your Bracket: No. 9 St. Bonaventure
I really like the draw for the Bonnies, who looked excellent in the A-10 tournament. The opening-round matchup against a talented but defense-optional LSU team feels manageable, and St. Bonavenutre got paired with the most vulnerable No. 1 seed in a Livers-less Michigan squad. Winning a matchup like that will of course be challenging, but Bonaventure center Osun Osunniyi is one of the nation’s best interior defenders and could make life difficult for Hunter Dickinson if he can stay out of foul trouble. If Osunniyi can slow Dickinson and perimeter scorers Dominick Welch and Jaren Holmes knock down shots, the Bonnies could pull the upset and blow this region wide open. Much has been made of St. Bonaventure’s lack of depth, but the Bonnies’ five starters are incredibly talented and disciplined. This is a definite team to watch.
Related: NCAA Men’s Tournament Opening Odds
Player to Watch: James Bouknight, UConn
The Big East’s second-leading scorer this season and a likely first-round pick in the coming NBA draft, few players are more exciting in the country than Bouknight. An elite athlete who is a menace in transition, Bouknight is capable of taking over a game with his scoring ability. He has greatly increased UConn’s ceiling since coming back from a January elbow injury, leading the Huskies to a 6–2 finish after his return in mid-February. All in all, UConn is 11–3 with Bouknight in the lineup and 4–4 without him. The Huskies are more dangerous than their No. 7 seed indicates now that he is fully healthy, and a potential second-round matchup against Alabama could be one of the best games of the entire NCAA tournament.
Most Intriguing Matchup: No. 6 BYU vs. No. 11 Michigan State/UCLA
Regardless of whether UCLA or Michigan State wins in the First Four matchup, this 6/11 showdown with BYU has the potential to be an incredibly exciting game. The Cougars have major Cinderella potential, an elite offensive team loaded with shooters who led Gonzaga with under 10 minutes to play in the WCC title game. Alex Barcello is one of the best guards in the nation, and Mark Pope’s club will be ready for the challenge against whichever opponent they draw. But taking on a Michigan State team that is playing its best basketball of the season right now or a UCLA team with a relatively lean résumé but plenty of talent will be quite the challenge. Add in the potential for a strong MSU fan presence in Indianapolis, and this could be one of the most entertaining games of the tournament.
Regional Finalists: St. Bonaventure vs. Alabama
Between No. 9 seed St. Bonaventure and No. 7 UConn, I’m confident that at least one of the top two seeds in this region will get bounced in the opening weekend. Whichever of the top two survives will be in the driver’s seat to win the region, and I’ll give a slight edge to Alabama here. As I wrote above, the Bonnies are perfectly positioned for a deep run thanks to their experience, talent and coaching, combined with drawing a weakened Michigan team. Meanwhile, Alabama has a challenging road but continues to win me over with its shot-making ability and competitiveness, and Herbert Jones might be the best player in this region. If the Tide can get past a UConn team playing great basketball, they have a great chance of reaching the Final Four.
Pick to Win the Region: Alabama
Much has been made about Alabama’s dynamic offense, but it’s really the success on the defensive end that has led the Tide to new heights this season. Nate Oats’s team cruises past Rick Pitino’s Iona Gaels in round one, wins a hard-fought battle against UConn in round two, thanks to Herb Jones’s defense on James Bouknight, and is off to the races after upsets in the upper part of the region.
Full East Region:
No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 16 Mount St. Mary’s/Texas Southern
No. 8 LSU vs. No. 9 St. Bonaventure
No. 5 Colorado vs. No. 12 Georgetown
No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 13 UNC Greensboro
No. 6 BYU vs. No. 11 Michigan State/UCLA
No. 3 Texas vs. No. 14 Abilene Christian
No. 7 UConn vs. No. 10 Maryland
No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 15 Iona
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