2021 March Madness January Bracketology: Where teams stand midway through conference play

We are just over 6 weeks away from Selection Sunday, and we are midway through regular season conference play. I last posted a bracketology around New Year’s before conference play had really began. I come to you 4 weeks later with an update. Which teams improved? Which teams declined? Which teams are on the bubble? Keep reading to find out what I think.

Note: Conference winners were not based on current conference standings — they were based on who I think would win if the conference tournaments were played today.

I have Baylor edging out Gonzaga as the #1 overall team. Baylor is one of five remaining undefeated teams at 14-0 and comes off a strong week in which they took down Kansas and Oklahoma State. I have Tennessee as a 2 seed despite a rough week that included losses to Florida and Missouri. They should be back to business as usual once Jaden Springer returns. The Hawkeyes fall to a #3 seed after the loss to Indiana, though they should be back to a 2 seed soon if Luka Garza keeps playing like he has been. Florida State is definitely a top 16 team as well after some strong ACC wins over North Carolina, Louisville, and Clemson (who they lost to earlier in the season).

I’m higher on UConn than most. Sure, they had a rough week, but when James Bouknight is healthy the Huskies are a dangerous team. Bouknight nearly led UConn to upset Creighton in their first meeting, and I think UConn will play like a top 25 or possibly even top 16 team once Bouknight returns. The Hoosiers have won the games they should be winning, and I think the upset over Iowa gives them a borderline top 25 resume as well. Both the Hoosiers and Purdue should do well in the tourney this year considering the fact that it will be played entirely in Indiana. I have the Boilermakers as an 8 seed in this same conference.

The recent departure of Oscar Tshiebwe hurts West Virginia, but the Mountaineers did just upset Texas Tech. I still think they’re a top 25 team even if I’m lower on them than the consensus. I had LSU as a top 25 team to begin the year, but they won’t be back there until they beat some better opponents. Their biggest win so far is against Arkansas. USC is another team that lacks big name wins despite a strong season overall, so I have them in the 10 slot. The Friars are just about the opposite of those teams I just mentioned. They stand at 8-7, but they’ve had some pretty impressive moments. They were able to pull off an upset over Creighton after 36 points from David Duke and they have some other impressive Big East victories to add to it. That should be enough to secure a bye, while Utah State and Memphis have just enough of a resume to secure some of the final at-large bids.

Liberty, Montana State, Colgate, UMBC, and Jackson State fill out the rest of this region as I think they would win their conference tournaments based on what we’ve seen so far. Liberty was impressive at the Space Coast Challenge and has followed it up with a strong Atlantic Sun showing, so they get the highest seed of these teams. Montana State and Jackson State are undefeated in conference play, while Colgate and UMBC are close to it, so they should all get auto-bids as well.

Michigan’s only loss so far is in Minnesota, and the Gophers have been pretty impressive on their home court this year; I have them as a 1 seed despite their upcoming 2 week COVID pause. The Longhorns came pretty close to a 1 seed as well, but I think Michigan has a slightly better resume. Creighton is a very tricky team to rank. Every single Blue Jays game this year has come extremely close. The Jays nearly took down Kansas, but they also have three conference losses: Butler, Providence, and Marquette. Alabama is another team that’s hard to rank. They started off the season extremely shaky, falling to Stanford and Western Kentucky and nearly losing to Furman, but they have yet to lose an SEC game. Virginia, similarly, started off with a loss to San Francisco but is undefeated in ACC play. I have all three of those teams over Ohio State, who despite road wins over Wisconsin and Illinois got swept by Purdue and has a loss to Northwestern.

Oregon lost to an extremely inconsistent Colorado Buffaloes team, but they still appear to be the best squad in a weak Pac-12. I have them facing off against Duke in Round 1. Duke, like fellow 10 seed USC, lacks a big name win this year. I have Boise State and Drake in the 8-9 game. Both the teams play in fairly strong conferences (though they aren’t Power Six) and are undefeated in those conferences. Drake is undefeated on the season, while the Broncos have only lost once (to Houston). We’ll see if Drake can maintain their undefeated season when they return from their pause for COVID protocols.

Saint Bonaventure should snag one of the last four byes, as they’re off to a rather strong start in the Atlantic 10. Western Kentucky is the 12 seed here. While they are on this as an auto-bid, I think they would find a way into the tournament regardless after an impressive start that includes a win over Alabama.

I have Sam Houston, Grand Canyon, Northeastern, and Coastal Carolina winning their respective conferences to round out the region. Sam Houston is undefeated in the Southland Conference, as is Grand Canyon in the WAC, so they should get higher seeds than the Huskies and Chanticleers.

Gonzaga and Winthrop, two of the other undefeated teams this season (in addition to Baylor and Drake), are included in this region. The fifth remaining undefeated team is Alabama A&M, who is banned from the 2021 tournament due to poor academics. I have the Bulldogs slightly below Baylor, but they do have wins over Iowa and Kansas as a part of their 15-0 start to the season. Houston was undefeated for a while as well, but they split the season series with Tulsa. I have them as a 2 seed since they have been dominant for the most part as Quentin Grimes posts another strong season for the Cougars. Speaking of Kansas, I have the Jayhawks in the 3 slot for this region. They have wins over Texas Tech and Creighton, but they’ve also dropped 3 straight, falling to Oklahoma State, Baylor, and Oklahoma. Kansas was lined up to be a 1 seed last year, but without Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson, they profile as more of a 3 seed for now.

I still have Illinois as a top 16 team despite their recent loss to Maryland. The Terrapins have been inconsistent, but they’ve had a lot of big wins lately, and that loss doesn’t really ruin the resume for Illinois. I’m higher on the Fighting Illini than most, and I’m also pretty high on the Florida Gators. Even after Keyontae Johnson’s scary collapse, the Gators have gotten off to a strong start in SEC play that includes a victory over Tennessee. If Johnson can return before the year ends, watch out for Florida in this tourney.

Yes, Minnesota did pull off upsets over Iowa and Michigan. However, both of those wins were at home, and the Gophers lost to each of those teams on the road. They aren’t invincible at home either, as they recently hosted Maryland and lost. It’s hard to put the Gophers much higher than I have them considering their inconsistency. A lot of people have Virginia Tech as a clear cut top 25 team and some have them over teams like Florida, Illinois, and Minnesota. Yes, they beat Villanova, but I don’t see how they’re any better than a team like Indiana; both lack a good resume around the big upset they pulled off.

In the 8-9 game here, I have Syracuse and San Diego State. I did not think I would end up putting Syracuse here, but all they really needed to prove was that they could beat other tourney contenders. Headed into this week, their best win was against Georgetown, but this week they added wins over Miami FL and Virginia Tech to legitimize their resume. SDSU has been inconsistent in the Mountain West, but they’ve had some impressive wins like their opening night victory over UCLA, which was back when UCLA star Chris Smith was healthy. UCLA gets one of the last four byes. I’m not as high on them considering Smith is done for the year and the Bruins already lacked a big name win. Unlike Syracuse, I don’t see them winning too many big games down the stretch.

Seton Hall is 9-6, but if they just finish their games a little stronger they have the potential to be a lot better. They’ve come within minutes of taking down Oregon, Louisville, and even Villanova. I have them grabbing the 10 seed, and I have Belmont, South Dakota State, UC Irvine, Siena, and Coppin State rounding out the region with at-large bids. Belmont is 16-1, and South Dakota State upset Utah State, so those two have the highest seeds of the bunch.

I have Villanova joining Baylor, Gonzaga, and Michigan as a 1 seed. Aside from the Virginia Tech loss, the Wildcats have dominated this season. Their resume would be up there with Baylor and Zags if it weren’t for the loss. They’re not there yet, but I could see Texas Tech making the case for a 1 seed as well. They didn’t really play too many good teams early on, but they’ve now taken down Texas and would be competing for the Big 12 if it weren’t for Baylor. They lost to the Bears about a week ago, but they play Baylor again in 3 weeks and a road win over Baylor could be what they need to make a leap in the rankings. Even if they don’t snag a 1 seed, I think Georgetown transfer Mac McClung could lead them on another Final Four run. Oklahoma State is another Big 12 team I think people are sleeping on. They put up a good fight against Baylor and Texas and led by freshman stud Cade Cunningham, they took down Kansas and Texas Tech. I think they headline that second tier of Big 12 teams; I have them ahead of West Virginia and the Oklahoma Sooners (who I have as a 10 seed here).

The Badgers have lost to Marquette and Maryland, two lesser teams that have been extremely inconsistent. I think those games were a fluke though, because Wisconsin has a very impressive resume aside from that. They annihilated Louisville early in the season and are 6-3 in an unforgiving B1G. I have 10 B1G teams making the tournament, including Michigan State and Rutgers from this region. The Spartans could be performing better in the conference, but I expect Tom Izzo to lead them on a turnaround and they’ll end up with an 8 or 9 seed as they usually do in down years. I have them taking on Louisville in the 8-9 game. The Scarlet Knights have similar inconsistencies to fellow B1G team Minnesota: they rarely win road games and they are even somewhat inconsistent at home. The difference between Rutgers and Minnesota? Rutgers doesn’t have wins over the B1G’s top two teams. Rutgers will have to make it out of a First Four game against another streaky team in Clemson. I have an Oscar da Silva-led Stanford squad ahead of both of these teams as they secure one of the last four byes.

Missouri and Saint Louis are two teams that have exceeded expectations. I didn’t really see Missouri as a tournament team before the season, but an experienced core led the Tigers to victories over Illinois, Oregon, and Tennessee (who had beaten them just a few weeks prior). The Billikens started off the season strong with wins over LSU and NC State and just one loss (in Minnesota). They’ve been on pause due to COVID but they’re starting Atlantic 10 play this week and that will be a test to see if this team is a legitimate top 25 squad.

Rounding out the region with auto-bids are Wofford, Toledo, Bryant, and Cleveland State.

Bubble Watch

Just outside the field of 68 is BYU. It’ll be hard for them to legitimize their resume unless they can upset Gonzaga, but they may be able to sneak into the tournament if other bubble teams struggle. Kentucky, unlike most years, is also just outside the tourney. Kentucky might very well be the most inconsistent team in the country right now. The Wildcats will need their young core to step up and finish games stronger if they want a slot in the tourney. Maryland is below .500 in B1G play despite some big name upsets. If they can win Big Ten games on a more consistent basis they should make it. South Florida has pretty much met expectations so far. If they can knock off Houston or another big name team, they might have a chance to get in.

I think Pittsburgh and Mississippi State have fairly good chances to get in as well. They play in a strong conference, they just need to prove themselves to be capable against some better conference opponents. The Shockers and Rams have an uphill climb, though either could have a chance if they upset their conference’s top team (Houston for Wichita State and Boise State for Colorado State).

That’s all for today’s bracketology. Feel free to comment with your thoughts.

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