If it’s Gonzaga or the field, take the field.
That’s 67 vs. one.
You’d still have to think about it, though.
If it’s Gonzaga or someone else from the field, that’s an easy answer. Gonzaga has been the best team in the nation, one of the best in several years. That does not mean it’s infallible. Hopefully everyone learned their lesson with the last of couple infallible teams. But the Zags are the team with the best opportunity to win the NCAA championship. Just not the only team.
And so we again are ranking the 68 teams that form the 2021 NCAA Tournament field. Having been unable to do this exercise a year ago, we feel a little out of practice, but it’s great to be able to do it once more.
As always, these rankings are based not on regular-season accomplishments or achievements, or on the committee’s seedings or my own, but on the likelihood of each individual team winning the six games necessary to claim the NCAA championship.
Which means factors such as a team’s draw are important, as are having the qualities one generally finds in a champion: a high-end offense and defense, usually one of the 20 most effective in each category; legitimate NBA talent, preferably so obvious that one or more players is considered a first-round pick; a player with the ability, either from the wing or the point, to defeat a well-designed defense just with individual ability and, preferably, a coach who’s been deep into the tournament on prior occasions and understands the challenges.
Here they are, 1-68:
1. Gonzaga. Jalen Suggs’ entry into the program has given the Zags something that even their best teams of the past did not possess. Unless it turns out they play Oklahoma State in the championship game, it is a certainty that the Zags will be represented in each round by the single best talent on the floor. They’ve had very good players who’ve become very good pros before. But Suggs is at the next level beyond the likes of Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura and Dan Dickau and even Adam Morrison. He showed in the comeback win over BYU in the West Coast Conference championship that he can be the player to carry the team through the most difficult moments.
2. Illinois. The Fighting Illini were presented with the most agreeable bracket imaginable, except for that No. 4 seed that is hard to imagine. It’s pretty clear that the committee used O.K. State’s poor analytics against the Cowboys (No. 30 in KenPom, No. 29 in NET) in the seeding process. But their record is excellent and they beat great teams. The Sweet 16 Ayo vs. Cade game, presuming it occurs, will be one of the best shows of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
3. Baylor. The Bears still are among the best prospects to win this championship, even though they’ve not been defending at their customary level going back to mid-January. Their offense can overcome a lot, and it’s always possible that Baylor could return to its destructive ways.
4. Oklahoma State. Can you win a national title with one player? No. Can one player win you a national title? That’s a different question, and Cade Cunningham is one of those few who can provide an affirmative answer. He is not a complete player; his issue with ball-handling is among the reasons the Cowboys fared poorly in advanced metrics and wound up with a No. 4 seed instead of the No. 3 they earned. But he has a wide variety of talents that can change a game. He’ll have to change three or four to get the Cowboys a trophy. But it could happen.
5. Alabama. Probably said this before, somewhere, but the weirdest thing about the Crimson Tide is that they are best known for their offense but are better on D. But point guard Jahvon Quinerly is becoming a special player, or perhaps recovering all of what had made him an elite prospect as a high schooler. Winning the title with a team that draws so much of its offense from 3-point distance is not unprecedented. The 2018 Villanova team did exactly that. But its individual personnel were better suited to individually seizing moments, the way Mikal Bridges did against the Crimson Tide in their second-round game.
6. Michigan. The Wolverines might have been the second or third team on this list were they intact. But they’re not. Losing Isaiah Livers for the foreseeable future is a blow that will be difficult to overcome at the Final Four level. But they can get there, especially if sophomore wing Franz Wagner elevates his offensive game to a level he can reach, but only occasionally has.
7. Texas. There is no team with more dynamic big men than the Longhorns. They’ve struggled at times with consistency, but they have the talent to win this.
8. Iowa. The Hawkeyes’ defense continues to progress, and it’s gotten good enough that it figures not to be what separates them from a Final Four or national title. No, what figures to serve that purpose is Gonzaga standing in the top half of the West region.
9. Ohio State. The Buckeyes could be national champions — if they’re fortunate enough not to deal with any of those teams out there that rely on size to make a difference. It’s just hard for the Buckeyes, as they’re constructed, to prevail against opponents with a Luka Garza or Kofi Cockburn or Hunter Dickinson. In terms of avoiding high-level inside scorers, the Buckeyes’ regional draw is not a huge problem.
10. Purdue. The Boilermakers have size, depth, versatility and a tremendous coach. What they don’t have, with Sasha Stefanovic only 9-for-37 in his past nine games, is the requisite 3-point shooting to win six games. They’ve been 7-2 during that slump, though, which includes wins over Wisconsin and Ohio State, so they might have a Final Four in them.
12. West Virginia
14. Texas Tech.
15. Florida State
17. LSU. It’s impossible not to be impressed by the offensive ability on display with Trendon Watford, Cameron Thomas and Javonte Smart. If they defended at a B-plus level, they’d be a strong Final Four contender. As it stands, they’re only an No. 8 seed.
22. San Diego State. The Aztecs’ best team in forever didn’t get the chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. The reward for putting together another great season? Having to deal with the Syracuse zone in the first round. Look, there’s no Hakim Warrick in this defense, but more accomplished teams than S.D. State have faced middling Syracuse zones and gone home early from the tournament. It’s just hard to prepare for it when so few teams employ a scheme quite like it.
25. North Carolina. I’d like North Carolina better to make a Sweet 16 push if they hadn’t played themselves into an 8/9 game. The Tar Heels’ size could cause problems for a lot of opponents, and their guards are gaining the experience necessary to one day be elite. The Tar Heels will be one of the top teams in next year’s preseason rankings. Getting as much experience as possible in this year’s tournament will only help in pursuit of the 2022 title.
35. St. Bonaventure. There is so much to admire about this program, this coach. It’s astounding that Mark Schmidt hasn’t gotten a more prominent job given what he’s achieved with the Bonnies. They’re back in the NCAA Tournament for the third time since his arrival in 2007. It’s not easy to get to the NCAA Tournament from the Atlantic 10, and it’s doubly tough at St. Bonaventure.
37. Georgia Tech.
39. Virginia Tech
43. Michigan State
44. UCLA. The Bruins are not the 44th-best team in this tournament. They might be the 44th-best at closing games, but they’ve played some fine basketball and were only eliminated from Pac-12 regular-season title contention on the following day. But like First Four opponent Michigan State (and both Drake and Wichita State) it means having to win seven games to win the national championship. As unlikely as it is to win a title from an 11 seed, it’s more so when you are required to win an extra game.
45. Utah State
48. Ohio U
50. Oregon State. Saturday of championship week was one of the wildest in the sport’s history, producing two major-conference “bid stealers” in a six-hour period. The Beavers have been playing better, though, with seven wins in their past nine games. Maybe I’m underestimating them.
52. Wichita State
53. UNC Greensboro
55. North Texas
56. Abilene Christian. The 13 and 14 seeds in this tournament are uncommonly strong. There were very few upsets in the conferences that produced such teams as Abilene Christian, which means the teams seeded No. 4 and No. 3 had better be ready to go. Like Texas, which faces this 19-4 squad that ranked 74th in the NET and lost by only seven to Texas Tech.
57. Eastern Washington
58. Morehead State
59. Iona. Rick Pitino, back from his exile to coaching pro hoops in Greece, back in the NCAA Tournament. There is no way Alabama’s coaches are excited about the idea of having to deal with someone who has a 54-19 March Madness record and two NCAA championships.
60. Cleveland State
61. Oral Roberts
62. Grand Canyon
65. Appalachian State
66. Norfolk State
67. Mount St. Mary’s
68. Texas Southern. Johnny Jones, often derided during his tenure at LSU and ultimately removed from the job, proved that he’s a capable coach by taking his third different program to the NCAA Tournament. This trip won’t last long, but the Tigers will be here.