The NCAA made headlines with its decision to hold the entire 2021 NCAA Tournament in Indianapolis and its surrounding area. While the event won’t take place until March of next year, it is never too early to try to predict the field of 68 that will be traveling to Indianapolis. With that being said, here are my preseason predictions:
Automatic Bids: Vermont, Houston, Richmond, Virginia, Lipscomb, Baylor, Villanova, Eastern Washington, Winthrop, Iowa, UC Irvine, Hofstra, Western Kentucky, Wright State, Siena, Bowling Green, North Carolina Central, Loyola-Chicago, San Diego State, Fairleigh Dickinson, Austin Peay, Oregon, Boston University, Kentucky, Furman, Stephen F. Austin, Grambling State, South Dakota State, Little Rock, New Mexico State, Gonzaga.
At-Large Bids: Memphis, Saint Louis, St. Bonaventure, Duke, North Carolina, Florida State, Louisville, Miami, Syracuse, Kansas, Texas Tech, West Virginia, Texas, Oklahoma, Creighton, Connecticut, Providence, Seton Hall, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan State, Rutgers, Ohio State, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, Northern Iowa, UCLA, Arizona State, Stanford, Arizona, Tennessee, LSU, Alabama, Florida, Arkansas, BYU.
Bubble Watch (Last Teams In): St. Bonaventure, Miami, Oklahoma, Purdue, Northern Iowa, Arizona, Arkansas, BYU.
Bubble Watch (Outside Looking In): SMU, Clemson, NC State, Xavier, Minnesota, Maryland, USC, UNC Greensboro.
Jay Wright and Villanova have been a March mainstay since the Big East reboot. They are one of the best programs in the nation with floor spacing along with shooting from beyond the arc. That, combined with their experience and depth, could very well push them to another title. Some are calling for Baylor to regress this season, as few predicted their rapid rise in 2019-20. Their versatility presents a lot of options for Scott Drew to experiment with, and will make them very difficult to upend in March. This could very well be the year that Gonzaga wins national title. Not having Filip Petrusev and Killian Tillie will be tough to overcome, but they have the ideal blend of pro-level talent, depth, and interchangeability to compete with anyone at the top. Iowa is in a position to have potentially one of the best seasons in program history. They touted one of the most productive and efficient offenses last season, while playing one of the toughest schedules. Their depth and offensive consistency will keep them in every game. Youth will be yet another test for Kentucky, who brought in another recruiting class that ranked atop the nation. The addition of Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr puts them into this tier, who will be a go-to option as the young players come into form. Their dribble drive offense will overwhelm defenses, especially in March when legs are tired.
Final Four Sleeper Picks
Every player on Florida State’s roster is 6’5 or taller, a formula that has worked for Leonard Hamilton for years. Their length, athleticism, strong interior defense, and high field goal percentages make them a nightmare to try to stop for 40 minutes. Texas Tech probably isn’t a sleeper pick in many contexts, but a team that is often overlooked due to it not being a “blue blood” power. Chris Beard’s roster is another with length and versatility, a combination that bodes well in March. Tom Izzo has a lot of options this season with his roster at Michigan State. If they can fill the void left by Cassius Winston, their offense shouldn’t miss a beat, as there is a lot of talent across the board. West Virginia graded out high in a number of metrics last season despite a rough record. They don’t run the full-court press as much as they used to, but still present a stifling opposition. Some offensive help seems to be on the way, so don’t be surprised if Bob Huggins can put together a March run. Kelvin Sampson and Houston have one of the more statistically complete teams in the nation. The Cougars have one of the best backcourts, along with a defense that ranked 11th overall last season. Combine that with Sampson’s coaching skills and you get a very dangerous team.
This could be a special season for Western Kentucky, as they have talent that can rival power conference teams. Not only are they good enough to be ranked, but they can wreak havoc in March. Northern Iowa had a top-25 offense last season, and should not miss a beat in 2020-21. They have probably the best mid-major player in A.J. Green and a pack-line defense that makes it hard for opponents to generate consistent offense. Darrell Walker has potentially the deepest mid-major at Little Rock. They shoot the lights out from anywhere on the court, and have virtually every weapon returning for another run. They could steal a game or two depending on the matchup. Richmond presents a number of issues for teams to game plan for. They have a strong Princeton-style offense, a system that will directly benefit from having five returning seniors. They were also one of the most efficient defensive teams in the A-10 last year, making them hard to beat on both sides of the ball. Like most years, New Mexico State will pose a threat to any high seed. The Aggies have virtually no weaknesses, having a very versatile offense with a lot of returning experience. Their roster is almost identical to the one that gave Auburn (a Final Four team) a major scare in the opening round in 2019. Don’t be surprised if they knock off a team or two.
(Cover Photo: Chicago Tribune)