New Year’s March Madness Bracketology: How the league stacks up as Conference Play Begins

March Madness will be far from typical this year. All 67 games will take place in Indianapolis, and bracket “regions” won’t be based on location. However, it’s still happening, and I’ve had the chance to watch more college hoops than ever this year. I normally don’t get into the bracketology game until February, but some conference play has already started and I think we have a good sample size to start to talk about the bracket with a little less than half of the season complete. Keep reading to see my bracket with analysis, and as always feel free to comment with your thoughts.

Gonzaga looks like the best team in the nation. Led by Cole Kispert and Drew Timme, they have multiple big wins including ones over Iowa and Kansas. I have Texas and Missouri securing high seeds in their first bid since 2018; Texas is keeping up with the top teams in a stacked Big 12 and the Tigers have upset Oregon and Illinois to give themselves a significant resume. Illinois may have the loss to Missouri and a loss to Rutgers, but the duo of Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn have led the Fighting Illini to victories over Duke, Minnesota, Indiana, and others.

Duke should drop to a 5 seed (or possibly lower) after losing their three best players to the NBA draft and struggling without much of an upperclassman presence. Meanwhile, Northwestern is posting their best season since 2017 when they made their first ever NCAA Tournament, possibly better than that even. They have crucial B1G wins over Michigan State, Indiana, and Ohio State and have a top 25 resume at the moment. UConn’s move to the Big East has gone well so far, as James Bouknight nearly led them to upset Creighton. They should be able to get back to the tournament this year. Maryland should also be in line to make the tournament after their win over a top 10 Wisconsin squad. Xavier only has one loss, and that came in a close game with Creighton. They are yet another team that has outperformed expectations and should make it.

San Diego State may not have Malachi Flynn, but they still have a strong squad that has taken down teams like UCLA and makes a good case for the top 25. UCLA is one of the better teams in a weak Pac-12, they don’t have many big wins but they have a better resume than most of the conference. I have SMU and Alabama just barely making it as well.

Right now, I’m judging conferences based on which team I think would win the conference tourney. Mercer and South Dakota State both have impressive wins that makes me think they can win their mid-major conferences. Grand Canyon, Texas Southern, and Navy are far from tourney locks but the first two look like the best in their conference thus far and Army and Navy are the only Patriot League teams who have started their season at all.

Villanova may have lost to Virginia Tech but they have been spotless otherwise with some impressive wins, so I’m expecting a 1 seed for them. Iowa has had some rough losses, but Luka Garza has looked really good and they can compete with the best teams in the nation as well. Texas Tech hasn’t really had a big win yet, but they’ve come very close against top teams like Kansas and Houston so I think they’re legit with Georgetown transfer Mac McClung leading the way. Florida State has looked very good as well, led by the duo of freshman Scottie Barnes and returnee M.J. Walker. Michigan is undefeated, so they should have a pretty high seed until they lose. They haven’t played any fellow top 25 teams yet though; the first big test for them will come on Sunday when they host Northwestern.

The only Saint Louis loss this year came against the Minnesota Gophers, who have upset Iowa. I have them beating out Richmond (who lost to Hofstra) in the Atlantic 10 and securing a top half seed. UCF has played with grit in every game this year; their biggest win came against Florida State but they came close against Houston too. I see them as a legit AAC contender alongside Houston. Oregon looks like the best team in this year’s Pac-12, but they haven’t really stood out without Payton Pritchard. I have them facing Florida in an 8-9 game, who should stay competitive even with Keyontae Johnson recovering from a scary in-game collapse.

Syracuse doesn’t have any big wins yet but they look better than last year and were missing coach Jim Boeheim’s son Buddy for several of their early games. BYU has been inconsistent but they did knock off San Diego State. I have a conference winner, Liberty, in the 12 slot here, as they were very competitive with Power Six teams at the Space Coast Challenge to open the season. Bryant, Georgia State, Iona, and Eastern Washington should also make it after their own conference wins.

Baylor doesn’t have as many big wins as Gonzaga, but they look like a title contender and likely 1 seed this year. Houston is currently undefeated, and with a relatively easy schedule there’s a chance they keep it up. If they do I’d probably call them a 1 seed but for now they slot in as a 2 seed as their only big tests came against Texas Tech and UCF. Wisconsin has some bad losses, falling to Marquette and Maryland, but they’ve also taken down Michigan State and annihilated Louisville. If the inconsistency continues they could fall a bit but for now they look like a top 10 team. Creighton has competed with the best of the best too, but they also lost to Marquette and nearly lost to UConn. Their success is dependent on Marcus Zegarowski’s ability to take the leap we were expecting, and he has been inconsistent thus far. Virginia also has a big loss to San Francisco but they’ve looked like a typical Tony Bennett team otherwise.

NC State made a name for themselves by knocking off UNC this past week, and they are a top 25 team for now. Rutgers is playing in a very competitive B1G but their win over Illinois and the success of Ron Harper Jr. help them stand out. I have them facing off with Virginia Tech, who knocked off Villanova, in the Round of 64. I don’t see Virginia Tech getting that high a seed unless they pick up some more big wins; they did also lose to Penn State so I don’t see them as a top 25 team right now. I have another B1G team, Indiana, and LSU in the 8-9 game. Both have been competitive despite a lack of big wins.

Western Kentucky has looked better than most mid-major teams and competed with Power Six teams so I have them as an 11 seed ahead of all of the Last Four In. Southern Illinois looks like the best team right now in a strong MVC, so I have them as a 12 seed (though that conference is very close so several teams could win it and easily secure a 12 or 13 seed). I also have Winthrop, Stephen F. Austin, and Belmont making it on auto-bids with Norfolk State and CSU Fullerton edging out their weaker conferences to make it as well.

Kansas looks good with several freshmen standing out alongside returnees Ochai Agbaji and Marcus Garrett; they have several big wins already. Tennessee got their season off to a late start but looks dominant so far, possibly better then they were when Grant Williams was on the team. West Virginia has also competed with the best of the Big 12, coming close against Kansas, so they should secure a high seed. The UNC Tar Heels have had a tough schedule thus far, but look much, much better than last year with Caleb Love and other freshmen supporting returnees like Garrison Brooks. Michigan State has had some bad losses too but the B1G is not an easy conference to play in this year and I see them picking up some big conference wins and bouncing back. Minnesota and Ohio State are also borderline top 25 teams from the B1G after impressive in-conference wins.

In the 8-9 game, I have Louisville, who looks to be a mid-tier ACC team this year, and Stanford, one of the better teams in a weak Pac-12. Marquette and Clemson should also secure at-large bids after some big victories to start the season. San Francisco and Richmond also have some impressive wins and should edge out tourney bids. I have Akron, Hofstra, UMBC, and Cleveland State securing auto-bids in this region. If Cleveland State can hold on to win the Horizon League, they’d make their first NCAA tournament since 2009 and their third ever.

Bubble Watch

These teams could all easily make the tournament; they could all also easily miss. Their fate will come down to how they do in conference play. Dayton, USC, Providence, Arizona State, Miami, and Oklahoma State are pretty much regulars here, while normally dominant teams like Kentucky are also here after rough starts. If Kentucky does well in conference play, they could still make the tourney. Teams like South Florida could make it as well, the Bulls are better than usual with David Collins getting better and just need some big wins on their resume.

That’s all for today’s bracketology. You may notice that I included a lot of B1G teams. The B1G is a very strong conference this year; I had them securing 11 (yes, 11) tournament bids here and teams like Purdue and Penn State could make a case for the tourney as well. So far, Nebraska seems to be the odd team out in this conference; everyone else has a chance at the tourney. Yes, that’s how good this conference is. Some B1G in-conference games will be national TV events throughout the start of 2021, and I’ll be watching as it looks to be one of the best college hoops conferences in history.

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