This year’s NCAA tournament feels different, and it’s not just because it’s the first in a bubble. Rather, for the first time in a long time, it really feels like it’s anyone's tournament to win.
The last time we watched March Madness in 2019, only No. 1 and No. 2 seeds made the Elite Eight. And in the last 20 years, there hasn’t been a single Final Four without at least two No. 1 seeds.
But this bracket is jam-packed with teams that could stay a few extra weekends, from one seeds (is it a hot take to pick NC State?) to three seeds (don’t forget about Tennessee’s victory over South Carolina) to five seeds (we see you Caitlin Clark and Iowa).
With games starting on Sunday, March 21, here are our first reaction to the 2021 NCAA tournament draw.
No. 1 seed with the toughest path
When it comes to tournament spoilers, Stanford has multiple of their side of the bracket. Second seeded Louisville might have the country’s best player in Dana Evans. Three seeded Georgia has a mean, physical, and experienced defense. Fourth seeded Arkansas has knocked off UConn and Baylor (more on this below). And Five seeded Missouri State came back from 16 to beat Maryland.
Stanford will have some tough games down the road — that is, if they can even make it out of the second round. The Cardinal will have to face off against either Oklahoma State and Natasha Mack, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, or Wake Forest and their four players averaging double-digit points.
There’s a reason Stanford was ranked as the number one overall seed, but don’t let the headlines deceive you. This will not be an easy journey back to the Final Four for the Cardinal.
The non-top two seed with the best chance to win it all
How about No. 4 Arkansas? The Razorbacks have wins over Baylor and UConn, and lost to Texas A&M twice by a total of three points. They can score in a hurry, averaging 83.1 points per game, fourth-best in the country, despite playing in the SEC. They also have a born scorer in Chelsea Dungee, who lives at the free-throw line and attacks the basket without any regard for the defenders in front of her. Dungee dropped 37 points on UConn, and she can do it again. Just ask Ole Miss, whom she torched for 38 points five games later.
The problems with Arkansas? They’re on the stacked side of the bracket, are 2-6 against top-25 teams, and, for as much as Arkansas can score, they allow opponents to score just as much. In an early-season match-up against Maryland, they gave up 115 points — the Terrapins’ highest-scoring outing of the year. But if this Arkansas team gets hot or Dungee fights her way to the free-throw line 17 times (as she did against Ole Miss), they can beat anyone in the bracket — as they’ve already shown.
Team with the most Cinderella potential
Who doesn’t like watching a team fly up and down the court chucking threes? That’s what you’ll get with Florida Gulf Coast University. Riding a 25-game win streak, the Eagles’ offense averages an NCAA-best 11.9 three-point field goals per game, while they limit opposing three-point shooters to 25.3% on the other end.
Their only two losses came early in the season against Missouri State and Arkansas, games they played without their leading scorer Kierstan Bell, an Ohio State transfer who averaged 24.3 points and 10.8 rebounds this year. When Bell finally did return, Florida Gulf Coast scored 70 points and beat a UCF squad that typically holds teams to 49.9 points per game — the best in the country. The 11th seeded Eagles are a tad undersized, without a true forward or anyone above 6-foot-1 on their roster, but, at full strength, no one in the country has beaten them.
Best conference champion to not make the tournament
That’s right. A team won their conference championship and won’t be making the trip to San Antonio. But it’s not because of COVID or NCAA violations. It’s because they’re still in the process of reclassifying to Division I.
We’re talking about Cal Baptist here, the only team in the country to have an undefeated record after they went 24-0 this season and swept the WAC. Previously a Division II team, Cal Baptist must wait a total of four years before hearing their name called on the Selection Show. In the meantime, they’ll have to settle for a WNIT bid. See you in 2023, Lancers fans.