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The most important thing you can do to win your bracket pool contest is to pick the winner of the NCAA Tournament correctly. Period. Going 28-4 in the first round is a nice moment to brag about, sure, but it's actually worth less in its entirety than picking the national champion at the end in most bracket contest formats. Given that, it’s important to pick a national title outcome that makes sense - in the last thirty years, #1 seeds have won the NCAA Tournament a whopping two-thirds of the time. We'll do our best to break them down here below, region by region, to help you choose your final bracket pick correctly.
West Region #1 Seed: Gonzaga Bulldogs
Once again, Gonzaga is the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament after ripping through the West Coast Conference with relative ease. At 26-0, the Zags are looking to become the first team since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers to finish an undefeated championship season in Division I Basketball. Gonzaga’s superiority among their peers is no secret to oddsmakers either, and the Bulldogs’ pedestrian 11-11-2 showing against the spread this season is evidence of that. They’ve made the tournament 21 consecutive times, but have never won it - most recently, they fell to Texas Tech in the 2019 Elite Eight, Florida State in the 2018 Sweet Sixteen, and dropped a heartbreaker to North Carolina in the 2017 national title game.
If ever a Gonzaga team was built to end its title drought, this is the group. Four of the five starters for the Zags are projected top-40 picks in this summer’s NBA draft, led by lottery prospects Jalen Suggs and Corey Kispert. Upperclassmen Joel Ayayi and Drew Timme also figure to be drafted as well, putting Gonzaga in the unique position of having only one freshman among their deep class of draft prospects. There’s nothing new about the fact that winning an NCAA Championship often requires a blend of experience and elite talent, and the Bulldogs have both. And in limited action against Power-5 competition, Gonzaga certainly drove this point home - double-digit wins over Kansas (3-seed), Virginia (4-seed), Iowa (2-seed), and Auburn make for an impressive resume alongside an 87-82 triumph over West Virginia (3-seed).
Stylistically, Gonzaga is excruciatingly difficult to keep up with. The Bulldogs rank 4th nationally in tempo and welcome opportunities to score in transition and push the envelope with the most efficient offense in the nation. Their 61% effective FG% is the best in the nation as well, as the Zags also make an astounding 64% of their two-point attempts. Teams with elite length and athleticism on the defensive end have given Mark Few’s teams trouble in the past - North Carolina, Florida State, and Texas Tech’s outfits of past years all match that profile - but I’m not sure there’s a group out there that can slow them down. Looking around their bracket specifically, the Bulldogs also landed a great draw - #2 seeded Iowa can’t defend, and #3-4 seeds Kansas and Virginia are surrounded by COVID-19 question marks. Oh, and Gonzaga has already defeated all three of them by double digits. Don’t be surprised when they cut down the nets this April.
Where to watch: Saturday, 9:20 p.m. EST on TBS (@ Bankers Life Fieldhouse)
The Odds: TBD
South Region #1 Seed: Baylor Bears
One of the most unfortunate COVID-19 casualties of the 2020-21 NCAA season was the cancellation of December 5’s Baylor-Gonzaga matchup, a rare opportunity to watch #1 and #2 nationally-ranked teams go at it during the regular season. Unlike Gonzaga, however, Baylor had plenty of other opportunities to prove their mettle in and out of conference play, and they certainly capitalized on it. The Bears finished the season 22-2, but both losses came in the final two weeks of the season after a lengthy pause due to COVID-19 concerns in the program. The major question mark around Baylor entering the NCAA Tournament certainly wasn’t answered down the stretch of its regular season, leaving bettors and bracket-makers to guess whether Baylor is better understood as the team we saw start 18-0 or the one that finished 4-2 and even struggled to put away lowly Kansas State in the Big 12 tournament. With another week passing between the Big 12 tournament and Baylor’s first NCAA challenger in the round of 32 (sorry, Hartford - no chance) - I’d still bet that the Bears will be just fine. Baylor boasts two projected NBA draftees in PG Davion Mitchell and SG Jared Butler, who together make up arguably the best backcourt in the nation. While the Baylor Bears won’t wow you from an NBA-potential level perspective, they’re an extremely experienced, and a well-balanced unit built to excel at this college level.
Baylor attacks opponents on all sides with elite, experienced guards and strong wings - they’re the third most efficient offense and best three-point shooting team in the nation according to KenPom.com, while rebounding a remarkable 37.5% of their own missed shots despite rarely having a player taller than 6’8” on the floor. Mark Vital, a 6’5” senior G/F, is their leading rebounder and a leader on the floor for this Bears’ experienced group. Defensively, the Bears feast on opponents with pressure, forcing turnovers on 24.6% of opponents’ trips down the floor. At 15-7 ATS this season, the Bears are also accustomed to shattering expectations. Between 2012-2019 Baylor reached the NCAA Tournament 6 of 8 times and likely would have entered last year’s event with a #1 seed. They also reached the Elite Eight twice in that span but were bounced by #1 seeds in both instances and have yet to reach a Final Four under coach Scott Drew.
If the Bears going to change their fortunes in 2021, then they’ve got a difficult bracket to fight through and will need to put their recent struggles behind them. North Carolina’s potential length in the second round could cause major issues for a team challenged for size like Baylor - and to survive, the Bears will need to prey on the Tar Heels’ young guards for turnovers. Should they push into the Sweet 16 and beyond, however, Purdue and Ohio State figure to be stiff challengers as well. I believe that the Bears will either fall abruptly in the Round of 32 to North Carolina or they will make the Final Four. Their recent play and relative lack of size, however, make it difficult for me to see them winning it all at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Where to watch: Friday, 4:30 p.m. EST on truTV (@ Lucas Oil Stadium)
The Odds: Baylor -26 (-10000 ML) vs. Hartford, 141 O/U
East Region #1 Seed: Michigan Wolverines
In direct contrast to Baylor, Michigan is absolutely not lacking in size. Led by 7’1” freshman phenom Hunter Dickinson, the Wolverines (20-4, 16-6 ATS) exceeded expectations greatly in year two under Juwan Howard. Like Baylor, however, the Wolverines sputtered late, losing three of their final five games and losing the Big Ten tournament in the semifinals against Ohio State. The big question mark surrounding Michigan isn’t COVID-19 related, but injury related - senior Isaiah Livers suffered an injury in the first round of the Big Ten tournament that is likely to sideline him for the remainder of the 2021 season. He likely represents Michigan’s only likely NBA draft prospect for 2021, projected to be taken somewhere in the second round. Livers averaged 13.1 points and 6 rebounds while playing 31 minutes/game and was a team leader - while Michigan is still talented enough to make a deep run, Livers' loss hurts in a big way.
The Wolverines are a sort of KenPom darling, ranking 6th nationally in offensive efficiency and 7th in defensive efficiency. They control the game at a deliberately slower than average pace, relying on elite execution on the offensive end (top-50 in effective FG%, 3P%, 2P%, avoiding turnovers, and free throw execution) and a defense that allows opponents to convert only 42.3% of two-point attempts. Senior guards Mike Smith and Eli Brooks are a steadying presence on a roster with multiple talented and young frontcourt players as well. At 55th nationally in KenPom’s experience metric, the Wolverines are the most experienced of the NCAA Tournaments' #1 seeds, and they won’t be intimidated by the moment.
Despite Howard entering his first NCAA Tournament as a head coach, the Wolverines have plenty of recent tournament experience to draw on. In both 2013 and 2018 Michigan lost in the national title game - the latter an experience that Livers, Eli Brooks, and Austin Davis all remember too well. Michigan's draw in the East bracket this year certainly presents its fair share of challenges - most notably from #2 seed Alabama - but even making it to that potential Elite Eight matchup won’t be easy for this hobbled squad. Should Florida State meet Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen, they’d present a stiff challenge with elite length and athleticism, and the best three-point shooting in the ACC as well. Michigan has shown an innate ability to come back from deficits and find ways to win unlikely games all season, so they can’t be counted out. But I struggle to see them escaping Florida State, Texas, and Alabama to make another Final Four in 2021.
Where to watch: Saturday, 3:00 p.m. EST on TBS (@ Mackey Arena)
The Odds: TBD
Midwest Region #1 Seed: Illinois Fighting Illini
Unlike the other three top seeds in the Big Dance, Illinois crashed the party with a late surge that has them entering the NCAA Tournament with their hair on fire. The Illini (23-6, 16-9-1 ATS) in fact enter the tournament having won seven in a row - also 14 of 15 - and even racked up four wins over top-10 teams in the final two weeks of their pre-tournament schedule. Illinois is both talented and deep here, and Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn are absolute monsters offensively and the reason Illinois can beat any team in the country when they’re playing well. Dosunmu, averaging 20.7 points per game to go along with 6.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists, is the high-energy straw that stirs the drink for the Fighting Illini.
Dosunmu plays with incredible energy and is a lethal pairing with the 7’0” brick house that is Kofi Cockburn. Cockburn averages 17.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per game while shooting over 65% from the floor - at an athletic 285 pounds, he represents a major matchup problem on the inside for virtually any team in the nation. Dosunmu figures to be a mid-first rounder and Cockburn a second rounder in this June’s draft, and both he and Cockburn’s effectiveness are buoyed by a deep roster of veterans, including upperclassmen Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Trent Frazier, and Da’Monte Williams are all major contributors as well. Like Michigan, KenPom absolutely loves Illinois - the Illini rank 7th and 5th in offensive and defensive efficiency respectively. Illinois is top-25 nationally in effective FG%, two-point shooting, three-point shooting, getting to the free throw line, and top-50 nationally on the offensive glass.
Defensively, on the other hand, the Illini are top-50 in effective FG% and two-point shooting defense, and they make up for a lack of forcing turnovers by allowing the 11th-fewest offensive rebounds in the country. Illinois’ tournament berth in 2021 is their first under coach Brad Underwood, but the Illini are the third team Underwood has in fact led to the big dance himself. At Stephen F. Austin Underwood made three appearances in the tournament, including two first round upset wins. As a program, 2021 represents Illinois’ first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2013 and their first #1 seed since 2005’s National Championship loss to North Carolina. The Illini drew #2 seed Houston, #3 seed West Virginia, and #4 seed Oklahoma State in their Midwest bracket this year, and of those schools, Oklahoma State likely figures to present the biggest challenge in the Sweet Sixteen given Cade Cunningham’s ability to score 40+ points and will the Cowboys to big wins. Ultimately, I’d project the Illini to ride their heat wave all the way to the National Championship game for another date with the top-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs.
Where to watch: Friday, 1:15 p.m. EST on TBS (@ Farmers Coliseum)
The Odds: Illinois -22.5 (-10000 ML) vs. Drexel, 143.5 O/U