Last year, it took us until Thanksgiving week to get to the start of the college basketball season. Now, in 2021, we are on track to start on time and with a full schedule and limited scheduling impacts—like the Maui Invitational being relocated for a second season in a row and many, though not all, events outside of the United States taking another year off. Time will tell if this season ends up being truly normal or is another plagued by cancelations and postponements. Last year, I didn’t produce a preseason bracket because of the lack of clarity in terms of scheduling, selection, and tournament format. With a return to a regular schedule and the typical NCAA Tournament structure, normal service resumes.
Not that producing my first bracket of the 2020-21 season in January improved its accuracy when compared to the real thing!
Comparing January 2021 and Preseason 2019
|Selection/Seeding||Jan. 2021||Preseason 2019|
|Selection/Seeding||Jan. 2021||Preseason 2019|
|Correct Final Selections||41||40|
|Missed Final Selections||27||28|
|Teams Correctly Seeded||8||8|
|Teams Seeded Within 1 Seed Line||8||9|
|Teams Seeded Within 2 Seed Lines||8||7|
|Teams Seeded Within 3 Seed Lines||5||4|
|Teams Seeded Within 4 Seed Lines||5||6|
|Teams Seeded Within 5 Seed Lines||3||2|
|Teams Seeded Within 6+ Seed Lines||4||4|
Moving my first bracket from November to January last season only led to an improvement of one team from a selection standpoint, while the seeding of both brackets featured roughly the same level of accuracy, or the lack thereof. My conclusion, as in so many other sports, you may not be able to earn a playoff bid during the early part of the season, but you can certainly lose one. Conference season plays an outsized role in forming college basketball’s postseason, no doubt because of power league schedules and the opportunities they provide to their members.
Welcome Back, Ivy League!
With the eight Ivy teams back after a year away, the selection rules for the field of 68 also return to normal: 32 conference tournament champions and 36 at-large choices.
Since the NCAA has put APR penalties on hold for two years, there aren’t quite as many teams ineligible for the postseason as in many recent seasons, at least for now. Of the 358 teams currently in Division I, 349 are eligible for selection; however, that number might as well be 348:
- Oklahoma State saw its appeal of sanctions related to the FBI investigation into college basketball dismissed. So, the Cowboys, an at-large team when I first put this field together last week, are now out.
- James Madison is leaving the Colonial Athletic Association to become a member of the FBS Sun Belt Conference, so the CAA banned the Dukes from eligibility for conference championships in response. While JMU could earn an at-large bid, the chances of that are slim to none, so the Dukes are de facto out of the race for the 2022 NCAA Tournament before the season even tips off.
- Eight teams are reclassifying to Division I with each having varying waiting periods until reaching tournament-eligibility. Cal Baptist (WAC) and North Alabama (ASUN) will be fully eligible next season (2022-23), though the Lions are permitted to compete in the ASUN Tournament this season. The 2023-24 campaign will be Merrimack’s first chance at winning the Northeast Conference’s auto bid. Another ASUN member, Bellarmine, the Big West’s UC San Diego, and a pair of WAC newcomers in Tarleton State and Dixie State—likely to be renamed to Utah Tech in the near future—get their first cracks at an NCAA bid in 2024-25, though the Knights will compete in the ASUN’s postseason events until then, like North Alabama. Then, there’s new Summit League member St. Thomas, which is in the Twin Cities. The Tommies are the first team to ever reclassify from Division III to Division I, so they will need to sit out a bit longer. Their first season of Tournament eligibility will come in 2026-27.
All of these years could change if the NCAA changes its rules regarding the postseason eligibility of reclassifying teams. And there’s at least one team, future Southland member Texas A&M-Commerce, that will start its jump to D1 next year. Meanwhile, last season’s America East champ, the Hartford Hawks, will be dropping down to Division III soon.
For the second consecutive year, the Gonzaga Bulldogs are the No. 1 overall seed in my first bracket of the season. The Zags are joined on the top line by the team they vanquished in an epic National Semifinal, the UCLA Bruins, along with the Michigan Wolverines squad the Bruins stunned in the East final, and a Kansas Jayhawks team the USC Trojans dispatched in the Second Round as a three seed.
The defending National Champion Baylor Bears are the top No. 2 seed in this preseason projection, while the Houston Cougars, the team eliminated by their former and future conference mates in the Final Four, checks in as a three seed.
IN (28): Arizona, Auburn, Belmont (OVC), Buffalo (MAC), Delaware (CAA), Duke, Furman (SoCon), Georgia State (Sun Belt), Indiana, Kentucky, Louisville, Memphis, Milwaukee (Horizon), Morgan State (MEAC), Nevada, New Mexico State (WAC), Nicholls (Southland), Notre Dame, Richmond, Saint Mary’s, South Dakota State (Summit), Southern Utah (Big Sky), UAB (C-USA), UC Irvine (Big West), Vermont (America East), Wagner (NEC), Xavier, Yale (Ivy)
OUT: Abilene Christian (Southland, now WAC), Appalachian State (Sun Belt), Clemson, Cleveland State (Horizon), Creighton, Drake, Drexel (CAA), Eastern Washington (Big Sky), Georgetown, Georgia Tech, Grand Canyon (WAC), Hartford (America East), Missouri, Morehead State (OVC), Mount St. Mary’s (NEC), Norfolk State (MEAC), North Texas (C-USA), Ohio (MAC), Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Oregon State, Rutgers, UC Santa Barbara (Big West), UNCG (SoCon), Utah State, VCU, Wichita State
Last Four Byes: Syracuse, Wisconsin, BYU, LSU
Last Four IN: Nevada, Virginia Tech, Saint Mary’s, Richmond
First Four OUT: San Francisco, Northwestern, Seton Hall, St. John’s
Next Four OUT: Oklahoma, Creighton, Georgia Tech, Butler
Bids By Conference
Big Ten: 9
Big 12: 5
Big East: 3
Atlantic 10: 2
One-bid conferences: 22
Outside of name, image, likeness (NIL) and proposals for a new NCAA constitution, conference realignment has dominated the headlines this offseason. While many of the biggest changes—those spurred in part by Oklahoma and Texas’s departure for the SEC from the Big 12—will come in future seasons, there are some noteworthy changes that will impact this campaign.
- Last season, the WAC brought Dixie State and Tarleton State up from Division II to remain at nine members after Cal State Bakersfield left for the Big West and Kansas City returned to the Summit. But the conference will feature 13 members, 10 of which are tournament eligible, thanks to addition of four of the Southland Conference’s former Texas members—2021 NCAA rep Abilene Christian, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2018 qualifier Stephen F. Austin, Lamar, and Sam Houston State. However, the only constant with the WAC’s membership is change; So, one of the newcomers, Sam Houston, and longtime anchor New Mexico State will soon be out the door, headed to the umpteenth version of Conference USA, while geographic outlier Chicago State is voluntarily leaving after this season. Meanwhile, current Big Sky member Southern Utah will join two other Beehive State rivals in the conference for the 2022-23 season.
- The Southland took the brunt of this season’s realignment damage, dropping from 13 members in 2020-21 to just eight this season. Not only did the league lose four Texas teams to the WAC, Central Arkansas headed to the ASUN to help build that conference’s new football league. And eight might not be enough for the league, as the WAC came calling for two more schools, Incarnate Word and McNeese. It seems like the Cowboys will stay; however, leaving only the Cardinals’ membership up in the air. With only Texas A&M-Commerce lined up as a replacement so far, the Southland will have either eight or nine members in 2022-23, depending on what UIW decides.
- The OVC is another league dealing with an exodus. Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State both left for this season’s version of the ASUN and Austin Peay will join them next season. Perennial conference power Belmont got its long-awaited call-up to the Missouri Valley, though the Bruins will still play this season in the Ohio Valley. So, last year’s 12-team OVC is down to 10 for this season, with a drop to eight (at least) coming for 2022-23.
- The ASUN, a nine-team loop in 2020-21, is now a 12-team conference with the additions of UCA, EKU, and Jacksonville State, with all 12 teams eligible for the conference tournament and 10 eligible for the NCAAs. But even this conference isn’t all that stable, as Liberty and newcomer Jacksonville State, will join Conference USA with New Mexico State and Sam Houston. With those departures and Austin Peay’s arrival, the ASUN might be down to 11 members in 2022-23. Emphasis on “should.” Timing for many of these conference changes are still up in the air.
- The MEAC is another conference holding on for dear life. First, Hampton left what was a 13-team league for the Big South after the 2018-19 season. One year later, Savannah State returned to the Division II CIAA. So, the conference entered its COVID season with a serviceable 11 members, but only eight remain heading into 2021-22. North Carolina A&T joins Hampton in the Big South for this season, while the conference’s two Florida members, Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman, are now SWAC members. So, that leaves the MEAC with just eight teams, like the Southland. The Big South and SWAC, however, are now both 12-team conferences.
- The Summit League, meanwhile, moves from nine to 10 members with the addition of St. Thomas.
As usual, I may not publish another bracket until early January, but I will have plenty of viewing guides and other content to come in the interim. Enjoy the new season, everyone!