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Bracketology 2021: A first look at the lock and bubble picture for 2021

Surprise! Just three weeks and two days remain before Selection Sunday and much remains up for grabs.

NCAA Basketball: St. Mary’s at Gonzaga
In this strange season, Gonzaga serves as our North Star and Baylor, the Bulldogs’ Southern equivalent, or Crux.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

In the past, I’ve just posted a bubble post on Friday, not a full bracket. That changes this season, as today’s separate bracket post also includes the weekend viewing guide.

Let’s jump right in with some housekeeping. As usual, there will be 68 teams in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, but with the Ivy League sitting this season out, there are only 31 automatic bids up for grabs, not 32. As a result, the number of at-large bids stands at 37.

Of the 31 automatic bids, it looks like nine of those will go to the champions of multiple-bid conferences. Add those to our 37 at-larges and that means 46 places are available, though that number might fluctuate a bit because of goings-on conferences like the Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley, and Mountain West, in particular.

Teams are listed in seed list order with the numbers in parentheses reflecting the following information as of the morning of Friday, February 19, 2021:

  • NET ranking
  • Overall record against Division I competition only
  • Record in Quadrant 1 and 2 games
  • Record in Quadrant 1 games only

Locks and protected seeds (16)

No. 1s: 1. Gonzaga* (1/21-0/11-0/7-0), 2. Baylor* (2/17-0/8-0/6-0), 3. Michigan* (3/15-1/9-1/5-1), 4. Ohio State (6/18-4/11-4/9-3)
No. 2s: 5. Illinois (4/15-5/10-5/6-4), 6. Alabama* (7/17-5/10-5/6-3) * (7/17-5/10-5/6-3), 7. Villanova* (12/13-3/5-3/2-3), 8. Houston (8/16-3/6-2/2-1)
No. 3s: 9. West Virginia (18/14-4/9-6/5-6), 10. Oklahoma (17/13-5/6-5/5-5), 11. Virginia (9/15-4/8-3/3-3), 12. Iowa (5/16-6/9-6/5-5)
No. 4s: 13. Florida State (16/12-3/7-2/3-2), 14. Tennessee (11/15-5/6-5/4-4), 15. Texas Tech (15/14-6/4-6/4-5), 16. Texas (20/13-5/6-5/3-5)

With three weeks to go before Selection Sunday, even a collapse of epic proportions would not keep any of these 16 teams out. There are a few changes from Saturday’s bracket sneak preview, as Missouri has dropped out of the top 16, thanks to three consecutive losses. Thus, Florida State replaces the Tigers in the group. Thursday night’s action led to Iowa jumping on to the No. 3 line, after an impressive win at Wisconsin, and Houston drop to the fourth No. 2 seed, thanks to a loss at Wichita State. That result pushed the Shockers into the field as the American’s auto-bid holder.

Top four seeds by region

Region 1: 1/1. Gonzaga*, 2/8. Houston, 3/12. Iowa, 4/15. Texas Tech — Total of Top 4 Seeds = 36

Region 4: 1/4. Ohio State, 2/6. Alabama*, 3/10. Oklahoma, 4/13. Florida State — Total of Top 4 Seeds = 33

Region 2: 1/2. Baylor*, 2/5. Illinois, 3/10. Virginia*, 4/16. Texas — Total of Top 4 Seeds = 34

Region 3: 1/3. Michigan*, 2/7. Villanova*, 3/9. West Virginia, 4/14. Tennessee — Total of Top 4 Seeds = 33

With no sites to assign teams to, teams are placed in seed list order when possible. The biggest obstacle to that is the Committee’s principle of placing teams from the same conference in separate regions when they are on the top four seed lines. Of course, with five Big 12 teams among the top 16, the lowest-ranked team from that group, Texas, ends up paired with Baylor for a potential 1 vs. 4 regional semifinal.

Other locks (5)

No. 5s: 17. USC* (14/18-3/6-3/3-1), 18. Creighton (23/16-5/11-1/4-1), 19. Missouri (44/13-6/7-6/6-4), 20. Virginia Tech (36/14-4/7-4/3-2)
No. 6s: 21. Wisconsin (22/15-8/8-8/3-6)

Outside of the top 16, teams’ profiles start to look a little messier, with a lack of non-conference results increasing the difficulty level of evaluating teams the further you work your way down the seed list. These five teams, however, look to be set. Creighton and USC have decent shots at jumping into the top 16. Missouri might also return, should the Tigers start winning again.

So, of our 46 open bids, 21 are filled with locks, leaving 25.

Nearing safety (13)

No. 6s: 22. Clemson (41/13-5/9-5/3-5), 23. Purdue (27/14-8/9-7/3-7), 24. Kansas (19/15-7/7-7/4-7)
No. 7s: 25. LSU (28/13-6/5-6/3-5), 26. Arkansas (24/17-5/8-5/3-4), 27. Xavier (49/11-4/4-4/1-2), 28. Rutgers (29/12-8/7-8/4-7)
No. 8s: 29. Oklahoma State (38/14-6/6-5/5-4), 30. Florida (30/10-6/7-4/3-3), 31. Seton Hall (46/13-8/6-7/3-6), 32. UCLA (39/15-5/4-5/2-3)
No. 9s: 33. Oregon (43/13-4/6-2/3-2), 34. Colorado (21/16-7/7-4/2-4)

Now, the teams with more flaws in their profiles start to make their appearance. Were the season to end this weekend, all of these would be in, but there are warning signs for a few. Colorado, for example, has dropped two straight, diminishing the quality of a profile that already included a bad loss at Washington. However, the Buffaloes close with the L.A. schools in Boulder, providing opportunities for a boost. Win those games and Tad Boyle’s team could rise up the seed list. Several teams in this group, such as Arkansas, Xavier, Clemson, UCLA, and Oregon, could eventually join the Buffs on that front if they keep up their current form.

On the other hand, Florida needs to beat Georgia on Saturday, as the Gators bookended a CoVID pause with a home loss to South Carolina and Tuesday’s setback at Arkansas.

Taking those 13 bids off the table, just 12 remain open.

The cut line

No. 9s: 35. Louisville (33/11-4/7-3/0-3), 36. VCU* (31/16-4/6-3/0-3)
No. 10s: 37. BYU (25/15-5/5-5/3-3)

Amazingly, a Louisville team that’s been playing around CoVID pauses does not yet have a Quad 1 victory on their profile. Neither does Atlantic 10-leading VCU, though the Rams do have plenty of wins over teams ranked below them in the bubble pecking order. Road wins over Utah State (whom VCU beat on a neutral floor) and San Diego State, along with a victory over St. John’s at the Mohegan Sun, keep BYU afloat.

No. 10s (Last Four Byes): 38. Indiana (42/12-9/8-8/2-8), 39. UConn (52/10-5/3-5/2-2), 40. San Diego State (26/15-4/4-4/0-3)
No. 11s (Last Four Byes): 41. Maryland (35/12-10/5-10/4-10)

Of this group, UConn has the most upside, thanks to the return of James Bouknight to the Huskies’ lineup. If they win at Villanova on Saturday, watch out. Indiana’s sweep of Iowa boosts its profile significantly and wins over Stanford and Maryland don’t hurt either. As for the Terps, a pair of midweek wins over Nebraska pushed them back over .500, though wins at Illinois and Wisconsin and over Purdue in College Park would have earned them consideration anyway. San Diego State defeated UCLA at Viejas Arena to start the season, but the Aztecs might need to win the Mountain West Tournament when all is said and done, thanks to the traffic jam in that conference.

No. 11s (Auto Bid): 42. Loyola Chicago* (13/17-4/5-4/1-2), 43. Boise State* (37/16-4/3-4/2-2)

A road win over BYU, split with Colorado State, and Wednesday win over Utah State mean Boise State could be in as an at-large, but being swept by Nevada hurts the Broncos’ cause. As for Loyola, the Ramblers’ NET ranking of 13th should be a shoo-in for selection. However, they don’t have a Quad 1 win other than Saturday’s blowout victory at Drake (Loyola then dropped the series finale the next day). Porter Moser’s squad has more of a chance than 10th-ranked Colgate, but they really need to win Arch Madness to be sure.

No. 11s (Last Four In): 44. Stanford (53/14-8/5-8/3-5), 45. Minnesota (57/13-9/5-9/4-8)

The Golden Gophers are currently placed in a First Four matchup despite not having recorded a true road win as of yet. But all is not rosy in the Twin Cities heading into the weekend:

That’s a situation that bears watching over the final weeks of the regular season.

As for Stanford, a neutral-floor win over Alabama, a sweep of tourney-ineligible Arizona, and quasi-home win over UCLA keep them in the field for now.

No. 12s (Last Four In): 46. North Carolina (51/13-7/6-7/1-7), 47. St. John’s (67/14-8/2-5/5-6)

North Carolina’s best win came over the Cardinal in the relocated Maui Invitational, and time is running out for the Tar Heels to improve upon it. On the other hand, St. John’s slides back in after Wednesday’s win over Xavier, the Red Storm’s third victory over a team in the field.

First Four OUT: 69. Saint Louis (32/11-3/2-1/1-1), 70. Drake (34/19-2/5-1/1-1), 71. St. Bonaventure (45/10-3/4-3/1-2), 72. Richmond (61/10-5/4-3/2-2)
Next Four OUT: 73. Colorado State (47/13-4/3-4/2-3), 74. Utah State (55/13-6/3-4/2-3), 75. Ole Miss (56/12-8/6-7/2-4), 76. Western Kentucky (75/15-4/4-2/2-2)

With a trio of Atlantic 10 squads, two Mountain West teams, and single representatives from both the Missouri Valley and Conference USA, the Championship Fortnight is setting up to be fascinating from a bubble perspective. At the moment, I’m not confident in the Selection Committee giving mid-majors the benefit of the doubt, even with this season’s unique non-conference scheduling challenges. Saint Louis, who defeated LSU at home, and Richmond, who topped Loyola Chicago on a neutral floor, are best positioned to sneak in from this group because of those victories.

Due to the strength of the SEC, Ole Miss, the lone power conference team in this group, probably has the best chances of entering the field.

Also Considered: 77. Syracuse (50/12-6/2-5/0-4), 78. SMU (59/11-4/4-3/0-3), 79. Duke (60/9-8/5-6/1-3), 80. Georgia Tech (62/10-8/5-6/1-6), 81. Memphis (63/12-6/3-5/0-2), 82. Georgia (89/12-8/4-7/2-5), 83. Pittsburgh (80/9-8/5-6/1-2), 84. Michigan State (91/10-9/4-9/2-8), 85. Saint Mary’s (72/11-7/3-6/0-4), 86. Davidson (74/10-5/3-3/0-1), 87. Dayton (93/11-7/4-5/2-1)

Of the next 11 teams, Georgia and Duke are probably best positioned to record the quality wins they need to earn an at-large. Syracuse’s position is damaged by the number of games it’s lost to pauses, including two against Louisville alone.

(Mostly) One-bid conference reps

No. 12s (Auto Bid): 48. Wichita State* (68/11-4/4-4/2-2), 49. Belmont*. 50. Winthrop*
No. 13s: 51. UC Santa Barbara*, 52. Toledo*, 53. North Texas*, 54. Liberty*
No. 14s: 55. UNCG*, 56. Colgate*, 57. Vermont*, 58. Grand Canyon*
No. 15s: 59. South Dakota State*, 60. Eastern Washington*, 61. James Madison*, 62. Monmouth*
No. 16s (First Round): 63. Texas State*, 64. Sam Houston State*
No. 16s (First Four): 65. Prairie View A&M*, 66. Wagner*, 67. Cleveland State*, 68. North Carolina A&T*

Wichita State’s Thursday victory over Houston pushed it into the field for the time being. While a non-conference win over Ole Miss helps the Shockers’ cause, they will still need to keep things going to earn a bid.

Of the remaining one-bid conference leaders, Belmont, currently 17-0 in the OVC with a NET of 64, bears watching the rest of the way. However, the Bruins do not have a Quad 1 or 2 win (or game, for that matter) on their profile, which might doom their case.

Again, Friday’s full bracket is also available and my next full update will publish on Tuesday.