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Bracketology 2021: Setting Off on the Road to Indiana

This most unprecedented college basketball season will result in a most unique NCAA Tournament. Expect plenty more twists and turns on our way there.

NCAA Men’s Final Four - Previews
The entirety of the 2021 NCAA Tournament will be played in Indiana, with the majority of games in Indianapolis itself.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

On Monday night, Alabama won its sixth FBS national championship since 2009 after routing Ohio State, 52-28, to cap off a College Football Playoff that featured two other frequent participants, Clemson and Notre Dame. College football at the FBS level (and FCS too, when you consider North Dakota State’s dominance there) is largely devoid of drama because of the strength of its current class of blueblood programs.

Compare college football’s situation to what’s present in this first bracket of 2021. This projection isn’t kind to college basketball’s current powers, specifically three of the four teams that participate in the annual Champions Classic.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Florida
If Kentucky dominates its next few opponents like it routed Florida on Saturday, it will be back in the bracket in a couple of weeks.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
  • Duke stands at 5-2 and 3-0 in the ACC, but the Blue Devils are ranked 98th in the NET as of this morning and don’t own a Top 100 win. So, they’re missing from this bracket.
  • Michigan State defeated Duke by a 75-69 score in the first-ever on-campus Champions Classic game on December 1st. While that win and a January 5th victory over Rutgers mean the Spartans have two Top 100 wins, they’re also 8-4 overall, 2-4 in Quad 1 and 2 contests, and 84th in the NET. So, they’re also out for now.
  • Then there’s Kentucky, 3-0 in the SEC but 4-6 overall, thanks to a six-game losing streak to cap pre-SEC play. The Wildcats are 88th in the NET and will need to build on their three-game conference win streak to get on the right side of the cut line.
NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at Portland
Gonzaga is making everyone look like fools right now.
Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

When you look at the top of the first bracket of 2021, you’ll find two teams who were No. 1 seeds when the 2020 season was suspended in the early days of the CoVID-19 pandemic: Gonzaga and Baylor. The Bulldogs are 12-0, with just one of those victories, an 87-82 triumph over West Virginia in a hastily-arranged Jimmy V Classic on December 2nd, coming by fewer than 10 points. The Bears, meanwhile, are 11-0, with every single one of those victories accompanied by a double-digit margin. Of course, the cancelation of the pair’s scheduled meeting in Indianapolis on December 5th is the reason both teams currently own perfect records. That lost game is just one of the many pandemic-related events that have affected the 2020-21 season so far and will likely impact it until we reach its conclusion.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I am a Florida alum and fan. My enthusiasm for this season was already low heading into December 12th, since it simply doesn’t feel right to me to have supposedly “amateur” athletes traveling all around the country during a pandemic for the purposes of entertaining the masses. Keyontae Johnson’s collapse early in the first half of the Gators’ rivalry game at Florida State led my remaining enthusiasm to all but vanish.

Johnson, the preseason SEC Player of the Year, might be out for the season, reportedly diagnosed with acute myocarditis, a condition that may or may not be related to his earlier reported case of CoVID. Johnson’s collapse appeared to be a warning to the sports world at large but has largely been ignored by the sports media in the month since. I sincerely hope that this behavior does not end up being a case of us collectively burying our heads in the sand.

I’m thankful that there haven’t been any further reported cases of serious illness or injury related to CoVID in college basketball, but I also worry that it’s only a matter of time before that status quo is shattered.

The Actual Bracket

As this season has looked, sounded, and felt different, so does this bracket. For starters, you’ll notice that it appears on Blogging the Bracket, not directly on SB Nation, for the first time 2009. That’s due to budget cutbacks and layoffs from 2020. Hopefully, this situation will be temporary.

The other bracket changes are due to the unique character of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, the entirety of which will be played in the state of Indiana. For the moment, that means the job is a lot easier for me. I don’t need to worry about assigning teams to pods, ensuring BYU only plays in a Thursday/Saturday pod or region, or many of the other bracketing rules applied in normal seasons. Until I receive further guidance from the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee, I’m labeling each region by the overall seed number of its top seed, so Gonzaga anchors Region 1, Baylor tops Region 2, and so on. I am also not assigning any venues or days until there’s further clarity on the schedule and information on whether the local host schools (Butler, Indiana, IUPUI, Purdue) will be able to play on their own floors, should they make the field. If you are interested in how this tournament may unfold, Matt Norlander wrote a piece at CBS Sports detailing how he forecasts the 2021 Tournament be scheduled and broadcast.

With fewer geographic restrictions in play, this bracket largely follows the seed list. However, I did implement intraconference matchup restrictions as directed. Note that with the Ivy League abstaining from the 2020-21 season, this season’s NCAA Tournament will feature 31 automatic bids and 37 at-large bids.

My bracket projections themselves will even look a bit different. After years of dealing with tables and text—and the fact they don’t work so well with mobile browsers, I’ve decided to use PNG files to display the bracket. Since this is a new approach, I’m interested in your feedback on it.

Rundown

Last Four Byes: Purdue, North Carolina, Florida, VCU
Last Four IN: Oklahoma, NC State, Arkansas, Pittsburgh
First Four OUT: Michigan State, Syracuse, Northwestern, Tulsa
Next Four OUT: Texas Tech, Wichita State, SMU, Saint Mary’s

Bids by Conference

*: auto bid holder

Big Ten (9): 2. Iowa, 2. Michigan*, 3. Wisconsin, 4. Illinois, 5. Ohio State, 7. Minnesota, 8. Rutgers, 9. Indiana, 10. Purdue
ACC (8): 3. Clemson, 4. Virginia Tech, 5. Louisville, 8. Florida State, 9. Virginia*, 10. North Carolina, 11. NC State (First Four), 11. Pittsburgh (First Four)
Big 12 (6): 1. Baylor*, 1. Texas, 2. Kansas, 5. West Virginia, 6. Oklahoma State, 11. Oklahoma (First Four)
SEC (6): 2. Tennessee, 5. Missouri, 7. Alabama*, 10. LSU, 11. Florida, 11. Arkansas (First Four)
Big East (5): 1. Villanova*, 3. Creighton, 6. UConn, 8. Xavier, 10. Seton Hall
Pac-12 (5): 4. USC, 4. Colorado, 6. UCLA*, 6. Oregon, 9. Stanford
Atlantic 10 (3): 7. Saint Louis, 11. VCU, 12. Richmond*
Mountain West (2): 7. San Diego State, 8. Boise State*
West Coast (2): 1. Gonzaga*, 9. BYU

Today’s bracket will be light on commentary since I’ve already quite a bit. However, I will say that it was exceptionally difficult to separate teams, particularly after seed line 3. When you combine the fact the revised NET is still unstable with vast differences in scheduling that playing college basketball in a pandemic creates, the Selection Committee will be challenged over the next two months or so.

My next bracket will come on Friday.