It feels MAGNIFICENT to finally have the NCAA Tournament back. It's almost been two years. Two long years since Virginia won the national championship. And now we finally can brace ourselves and bask in the best sporting event in the world. Remember: the schedule is a little bit different this year. The First Four will be played on Thursday, then the first round will commence Friday and continue to Saturday. 

So now that we have a field of 68, let's get to what we do best: ranking! As always, I have assembled the field from No. 1 to No. 68. I'm taking into consideration coaching, talent, schedule/results -- pretty much everything EXCEPT first-round bracket matchups. 

The field is set! Create a bracket pool to compete against friends or play solo for your chance to win a brand new Nissan Rogue and a college basketball dream trip. Get in the action today.

It's our first NCAA Tournament without Duke and Kentucky since 1976. Coincidentally enough, that year was also the last time a team went undefeated. Can 26-0 Gonzaga match 32-0 Indiana? We've got something of a cosmic feel to this unique NCAA Tournament. Let's dive right in. Here's the 2021 NCAA Tournament field, ranked from best to worst. 

As it should be, undefeated Gonzaga is the No. 1 overall seed. It's also the best team on my list. It's the first team since Kentucky in 2015 to enter the NCAA Tournament without a loss. Gonzaga is the only team in the country with three viable All-American candidates: Corey Kispert, Drew Timme, Jalen Suggs. The Zags boast the best offense in the sport and have the best adjusted efficiency margin, per KenPom, in history (+37.91) and have beaten teams by an average of 23.0 points -- second most of any team in the last 25 years. The Bulldogs make 63.9% of their 2-point shots, which at this point is a Division I record. Beatable? Yes. BYU came close. But only a few teams -- the ones listed right below -- have the pieces to pull it off. Mark Few has had great teams before, but never one like this. Gonzaga as a program is at its peak right here, right now. Six wins from sports immortality.
Yes, Gonzaga is the best team in college basketball, but the Big Ten champions are the hottest team entering the NCAAs. This will be the second most popular national champion pick -- a throwback to the 2004-05 team that made it to the title game. Ayo Dosunmu -- the Masked Mamba, as he's calling himself -- is the star of a team that ranks top-five in defensive efficiency and top-seven in offensive efficiency. Illinois has won 14 of its last 15 games and enters the NCAAs with 12 Quad 1 wins, the most in college hoops. Big man Kofi Cockburn is a modern-day poor man's Shaquille O'Neal. No one can handle him. And Andre Curbelo is a JOY to watch do his thing. This is one of the three best teams in school history.
A loss in the Big 12 semifinals isn't going to preclude me from listing the 22-2 Bears in the 3-slot. This is the best season in Baylor history. Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell are two of the top 20 players in America. The Bears have held at least a four-point lead in 54 straight games, and held double-digit leads in 21 of their 24 games this season. Baylor makes 41.8% of its 3-point attempts, the top rate in the sport. The defense has plummeted since the team went on a 23-day COVID pause in February. Will getting out of the Big 12 return Baylor to its dominant form? Interesting team to track in a favorable region.
We await the status of Isaiah Livers and the stress fracture in his foot. Michigan with Livers in the lineup is good enough to win the national championship. Without him, the calculus changes. I am ranking the Wolverines as though they'll have Livers back in the NCAA Tournament at some point. Juwan Howard coaching his alma mater to the NCAA Tournament is a great storyline. What makes Michigan fun, and Final Four-good, is its ability to move without the ball, shoot consistently from 3-point range and get dominant post play out of one of the five best freshmen in America: center Hunter Dickinson.
The Crimson Tide play a style unlike any other in this tournament. Nate Oats (last seen in the NCAAs getting Buffalo to multiple tournaments) believes in a blistering tempo and a maniacal commitment to defense. Alabama is not just the fifth-best team in this field, it's the most relentless given the way it plays. Gonzaga and Alabama are the only teams whose offensive possessions take less than 15 seconds on average, yet also rank in the top 10 in defensive efficiency. Alabama is No. 1 in the country in points-per-possession defense. Herb Jones is one of the five best two-way players in the sport.
The Hawkeyes are dangerous because they have the best player in the sport (Luka Garza) and the second-best offense, only behind Gonzaga. This season has been a long time coming for Hawkeyes fans, who hope the team's improved play on defense in the past month can lead to a Final Four run. If it happens, it will be Iowa's first since 1980. Joe Wieskamp is a future pro. The rangy wing may well be responsible for a huge 3 in the closing seconds to keep Iowa's season alive this weekend or next.
Kelvin Sampson's Cougars have the No. 1-rated effective field goal percentage defense. Don't think that just because UH comes from the American Athletic Conference that it's not good enough to be a national title contender. Quentin Grimes (a transfer from Kansas) is an 18 and 6 shooting guard who's grown into a top-25 player in the country. Senior DeJon Jarreau complements Grimes' game well, and Sampson has this team playing on a connective string defensively. Very tough out.
The Jayhawks are a bit of a mystery because we don't know who exactly is going to be available for their game this weekend. Kansas has been the No. 2-rated per-possession defensive team in the past month. At full strength, this team is playing like a top-10 unit. I'll rank it as though it will have its full roster available, though clearly that won't be the case. David McCormack is expected to be back, and the big man's success has often correlated with Kansas' dominance. Jayhawks are a No. 4 seed or better for the 20th straight tournament.
I've ranked the Longhorns ninth, but there aren't five starting fives with more talent than Shaka Smart's team. The heart and soul of this team is Andrew Jones, who is not just a star player but also someone who overcame a leukemia diagnosis more than three years ago and helped transform this program. Kai Jones and Jericho Sims are a tantalizing 1-2 big-man duo, while Matt Coleman has the on-ball defensive instincts that make this team a sleeper national title threat. The Horns are yet to win an NCAA Tournament game under Smart, but that changes in a few days.
The Buckeyes have an offense that is talented enough to get it to the second weekend, but the size and defensive issues put a ceiling on this group's big-picture outlook. Some people argue Chris Holtmann doesn't get nearly the credit he should for getting Ohio State back to this level nationally. If you think this is a bruising, win-in-the-60s type of team, no. Ohio State ranks fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency. Duane Washington Jr. and EJ Liddell stir the drink, but Justin Ahrens (43.1% 3-point shooter) is the necessary component to get this team to the Sweet 16 and beyond.
The NCAA ruled more than nine months ago that Oklahoma State would have to serve a 2021 postseason ban due to violations tied to the FBI's investigation that was made public all the way back in 2017. Cade Cunningham was on campus last June when that ruling came down. He remained committed. OSU appealed. That appeal is ongoing. Oklahoma State is here, and it has the projected 2021 NBA No. 1 pick on its roster. Final Four potential. Isaac Likekele and Avery Anderson form a dangerous trio that is capable of beating any team in this tournament. Some slight 2003 Syracuse vibes coming off these Cowboys.
Eric Musselman has achieved in two seasons what some thought might take him four -- or more. Arkansas finished second in the SEC, developed a defense-first attitude while not sacrificing offensive creativity. The Razorbacks frenzy teams into quick possessions and then can drop into fifth gear on offense if they so please. Moses Moody is the name to know. The freshman is one of the top 10 newbies in college hoops.
Bob Huggins has Deuce McBride, a lead guard who is irresistible to watch and someone that is willing and wanting to step up and take the big shots. The Mountaineers haven't reeled off four straight wins since December, but they've got the offense, size, and offensive rebounding numbers to suggest it's doable if the bracket breaks their way. Junior shooting guard Sean McNeil is another potential March Madness star here -- he's averaging three 3-pointers per game in WVU's last 12.
A true Final Four dark horse. Matt Painter has done it again, taking the program to the NCAA Tournament for the sixth straight time. What's different about this team is its youth. Purdue ranks 328th in experience, according to KenPom. Junior center Trevion Williams (15.6 ppg, 9.0 rpg) is a top-20 player nationally, and he's able to do his thing with help from stud freshman Jaden Ivey. The Boilermakers were overshadowed in a deep Big Ten. Think twice if you're considering making them a first-weekend upset victim.
The Wahoos still have some touch-and-go concerns with roster availability, but at full strength the reigning national champs are one of the 15 best teams in college hoops. Tony Bennett won the ACC regular-season title this season for the fifth time in eight years. Kihei Clark continues to guide this offense, but this is a plot twist for Virginia hoops: it's better on offense (12th at KenPom) than it is on defense (32nd). This is made true due to the emergence of transfer 3-point threats Sam Hauser and Trey Murphy, who've combined to make 110 3-pointers at a 43% rate.
If you haven't yet seen 7-footer Evan Mobley, just know that he's good enough and transcendent enough to get USC to its first Sweet 16 since 2007. This is the best USC team in even longer than that. Tahj Eaddy is the team's real long-distance threat, and he's come a long way in a few months. No shortage of confidence with him. The Trojans rank second in 2-point percentage defense (42.2%). If you're looking for a true Final Four dark horse, this is the pick.
The Seminoles have been bumpy as of late, but this is a program with second-weekend runs in its two most recent Big Dance appearances. Future lottery pick Scottie Barnes is the tallest point guard (6-foot-8) in college basketball. He's supported by veterans MJ Walker and RaiQuan Gray. FSU ranks top 10 in 3-point accuracy, top-11 in offensive rebound percentage and top-11 in 2-point percentage defense.
McKinley Wright IV is a top-10 point guard in college basketball and someone who has been waiting for this moment. Colorado blew its Pac-12 title game vs. Oregon State, but don't let that dissuade you from this team's ceiling. Tad Boyle's squad takes smart shots, tends to play up to its competition and ranks in the top 20 in offensive efficiency. This is the school's highest seeding in program history.
Chris Beard's Red Raiders are a moving target, no doubt about that. This team has proven it's capable of beating, and losing, to just about any legitimate opponent. But if you want a team to watch for pure entertainment value, there are few better than these guys. Crazy effort, they crash the glass, and then there's 6-2 dynamo Mac McClung, who has never seen a shot or dunk attempt he didn't love. Perhaps this is the exact type of team that's poised to make noise now that it's out of the grind of the Big 12.
LSU's fantastically entertaining showing against Alabama in the SEC title game clinches their top-20 status. Defensively there is no doubt plenty of room for concern. But between Cam Thomas, Trendon Watford and Javonte Smart, the Tigers' ceiling is the Final Four IF they play with any semblance of defensive want-to. Will Wade's team wants to beat you 97-85 every time out.
The Bluejays absolutely face-planted in the Big East final vs. Georgetown, a result that most everyone rightfully made about the Hoyas. But for Creighton, another strange loss in a season with a few of those peppered in. Greg McDermott's team is a bit tough to predict. If Marcus Zegarowski can show up and show out, this is a second-weekend team.
The Wildcats would be 10-12 spots higher were Collin Gillespie available to play. But due to an MCL, he's not. Nova has lost all three games since his injury and looked like a shell of itself in the process. Gillespie is not the team's best player, however. That is Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who is one of the 10 best defenders the sport has. If he can step up, and if Justin Moore can settle himself running the point, Nova is obviously capable of winning a couple of games -- without any of the pressure to do so.
I can't help but still rank the Volunteers inside the top 25. The temptation is there. Yves Pons is a top-10 defender. Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer are a highly talented freshman duo. Is this their moment? Tennessee ranks fourth in adjusted defensive efficiency. Rick Barnes doesn't like his team shooting 3s, so this group doesn't have a realistic Final Four shot, but UT is loaded with dudes. They can turn off your water. Will we see the preseason top 10-level team show up this week?
Where to slot these Ramblers? The metrics, the coaches, the players, they all say this season's team is clearly better than the 2018 Final Four squad. I believe that to be true as well. Loyola Chicago has Cameron Krutwig, an All American-level center who started in that Final Four in San Antonio. But this group, rated No. 1 in defensive efficiency at KenPom, is also more athletic and bigger overall. I don't rate the team as high as KenPom, but it is one of the 25 best in this field of 68.
The Ducks have occasionally entered the NCAAs with a lower seed but sporting a roster good enough to make a run. We saw it two years ago when Dana Altman's team was the only double-digit seed to make it to the Sweet 16. This is a different group from that one, but the result could wind up the same if Oregon locks in and shows off its array of shooters and wing attackers. Few teams rely as much on guys standing 6-5 to 6-8 like the Ducks.
Curious as to how much love BYU gets after pushing Gonzaga for almost 40 minutes in the WCC title game. The Cougars' most recognizable player is 7-foot-3 Matt Haarms, formerly of Purdue. Alex Barcello is 'The Guy,' though. He shoots 48% from 3 and plays the most minutes. Mark Pope's squad does everything at a good-to-great level except forcing teams to turn the ball over.
Mountain West regular-season and tournament champions. This team would have been a No. 2 seed a year ago. It's still pretty good now; the program has a 53-6 record in the past two seasons. SDSU has won 14 in a row by an average of 18.4 points. Matt Mitchell has stepped up to be the star for Brian Dutcher's team this season, but I'd keep an eye on senior Jordan Schakel. He's made 46.6% of his 161 3-point attempts. The team still wins on defense, but it's got more dynamism on offense than in years past.
Don't be fooled by the record entirely, or the seed. Oklahoma has wins over Alabama, Kansas, West Virginia and Texas. At one point it was ranked in the top 10. The defense has been sagging as of late, so OU will need All-Big 12 guard Austin Reaves to combine shooting forces with fellow senior Brady Manek. The not-so-secret weapon is the emerging alpha De'Vion Harmon. He's 6-2 yet is shooting almost 60% on his 2-point shots.
Dan Hurley's Huskies play with an edge, an aggression -- and a silkiness -- all at once. James Bouknight is the star. He'll be a first-round pick in a matter of months. But UConn's got more than Bouknight. RJ Cole can drop it in from 3, and the frontcourt combo of Tyler Polley and Isaiah Whaley (each 6-foot-9) make for a switching nightmare on the perimeter. Could be a trendy Sweet 16 choice.
Coming off its first conference tournament title since 1993, the Yellow Jackets outpaced everyone's expectations this season. This team hasn't lost since Feb. It has the best player in the ACC, Moses Wright, and a point guard who is impossible not to root for in Jose Alvarado. The Ramblin' Wreck is in the field for the first time in 11 years and are riding a 12-game winning streak.
The Badgers have been an inconsistent rollercoaster for much of the past two months. Same maxims still apply to this school, though. Sound defensively, efficient, good near the rim, capable bigs. And a point guard in D'Mitrik Trice who would make my list of the five most reliable players to have the ball in their hands with less than 10 seconds remaining in a tie game.
An overlooked team after a one-and-done in the ACC Tournament thanks to a loss against Miami. Brad Brownell's Tigers have beaten Alabama, Florida State, Purdue, Maryland, North Carolina and Syracuse this year. The matchup they've been handed isn't totally favorable, but it's not unthinkable this team gets to a Sweet 16. Aamir Simms is a high-level two-way player that will play in the NBA next year.
Missouri has had some strange results, beating elite teams and taking odd losses. But at least they're back in the NCAAs, which Mizzou fans have been craving. Jeremiah Tilmon has been around since Michael Porter Jr. was on the roster. He's got old-man game that pairs well with spunky Xavier Pinson. Tigers pay their rent by scoring close to the rim.
The Tar Heels and Kansas Jayhawks have the most wins in the NCAA Tournament since 2010 (24 apiece). UNC is just built differently -- literally. Roy Wiliams has four guys 6-10 or taller who get real minutes. And the team is fast, as always. Deficiencies, sure, but this is a top-15 defensive outfit with a deep bench and a Hall of Fame coach. I can't guarantee the Tar Heels will be a hard out, but it's more likely than not that's the case. 
What Hokies team are we going to see? This team has played just three games in the past five-plus weeks. Virginia, Villanova, Clemson -- all tournament teams that VT took down during the season, but we'll see how much rust still exists later this week. Mike Young nearly made the Sweet 16 with Wofford two years ago. Now he's got former Wofford Terrier Keve Aluma blossoming into a power-conference problem.
The Bulldogs were THE mystery team on Selection Sunday. The committee rewarded them, and as I anticipated, a nod of approval would come with a First Four appearance. Drake is better than where it's seeded. The Bulldogs were 20-6-1 against the spread vs. D-I teams this season. Most importantly, its best player, ShanQuan Hemphill, is back. Unfortunately, Drake doesn't have its starting point guard, Roman Penn, because of injury. This team is certainly capable of winning a game or two, though. Darian DeVries was a top-10 coach this season.
Mike White's team isn't great at any one thing, but it can shape-shift a bit and make games into a fistfight (metaphorically speaking). Sophomore Tre Mann is the marked man in terms of who's most likely to step up in a big-game spot, though center Colin Castleton is a tough scout and a matchup problem for many teams. If UF can tap into its instincts, utilize its athletes and take advantage around the rim, it can outperform its seed.
Beware the Bonnies. Mark Schmidt has done it again, getting his team to the NCAAs for the third time in what is considered the hardest job in the Atlantic 10. Bona has a tough-as-nails trio of Osun Osunniyi, Jalen Adaway and Kyle Lofton. This is the best defensive team Schmidt's ever had, and it's going to force its will upon its first-round opponent.
The Spartans' high-end wins vs. Ohio State, Illinois and Michigan proved they were going to get in. But that loss total means Tom Izzo's team is plenty capable of having its struggles vs. tournament-level teams. MSU's key to making a run relies upon Aaron Henry. He's been an improved player for most of the past month; no coincidence Michigan State became a tournament team when that happened.
Among the most intriguing teams in the field. The Eagles are 23-1, their only loss coming by two at home to UNC Asheville. Pat Kelsey's team is one of the fastest in college basketball and has four players averaging between 9.0 and 13.0 points. Chandler Vaudrin is the rare case of a player who leads his team in points, rebounds, assists and steals. Even better: there's a guy on this roster named Adonis Arms. Serious Cinderella potential.
No at-large team has more losses than Maryland, which checks into the field with a 16-13 record. The Terps are fascinating, though. Wins at Illinois, Wisconsin and Rutgers. Beat Purdue and Michigan State as well. I think this team has a wonderful triumvirate of Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins and Darryl Morsell. It does seem like the group is better than its record, but we have to take the record into account, even in the deep Big Ten.
So many great stories, we can't overlook this being Rutgers' first NCAA Tournament since 1991. Steve Pikiell was hired to make the near-impossible happen, and he's done it in his fifth season (though Rutgers easily would have made the tournament in 2020). Ron Harper Jr.'s game is an inspiration to couch dwellers everywhere. Geo Baker is a joy. It's great to see a team finally make it back after two generations away.
Craig Smith has kept Utah State at an NCAA Tournament level all three seasons on the job. The Aggies were one of the last teams in, but they have one of the five best defenders in college basketball in Neemias Queta. The 7-foot junior from Portugal averages 15.1 points, 10.0 rebounds and 3.2 blocks. Game-changer doesn't even begin to describe his presence and impact.
The Bruins break through despite losing four in a row. Mick Cronin took Murray State and Cincinnati to the NCAA Tournament and this is his first trip to the Big Dance with UCLA. These Bruins have a methodical offense-first approach, but they're so far down the list because they have just one win over a top-40 KenPom team (home vs. Colorado).
A buzzer-beating loss to Virginia was not how Syracuse's season was supposed to end. Jim Boeheim is coaching in his 35th NCAA Tournament. For the fourth straight appearance SU is a No. 8 seed or worse. Buddy Boeheim has developed into the type of player that could be a preseason First Team All-ACC guy come next fall. If you want to trust SU in a close game, you might have good reason: the team shoots 78.4% from the foul line, the best in school history.
The Rams couldn't keep up with St. Bonaventure in the A-10 title game, but no matter: they were safe anyway. Mike Rhoades' team -- led by Nah'Shon "Bones" Hyland -- turns teams over on 13.1% of their possessions, which is the second-best rate in the nation. Vince Williams is a good 3-and-D guy, and the Rams have been in this spot before. Double-digit seed, perhaps a little overlooked. This school knows March magic.
Conference USA champs -- the Mean Green! This team is dancing for the first time in 11 years after beating Western Kentucky in overtime to get to its fourth tournament in school history. Grant McCasland's group played tough vs. NCAA Tournament teams Arkansas, West Virginia and Loyola Chicago earlier this season. This team wants to grind out games and force you into the mud. More often than not, they succeed.
Isaac Brown took over as interim coach in November after Gregg Marshall resigned. Then he took Wichita State to a regular-season AAC title behind league co-player of the year Tyson Etienne. Alterique Gilbert and Dexter Dennis make for a fun wing trio that tends to get its points more from the outside than in. It's a house-money situation for a team that's wildly overshot expectations.
The bid-thievin' Beavers. This is just the second time in 31 years that Oregon State has made the NCAAs. And for a team that was picked last in the Pac-12 in the preseason, what a season for Wayne Tinkle's team. Statistically, the Beavers are mostly average across the board. That tells you how good a job Tinkle did coaching this team. If another upset is going to happen, minutes-eater, senior Ethan Thompson will have to rise to the moment.
No team in the NCAAs has played fewer games this season than the 14-1 Raiders, who won the Patriot League and did not play a nonconference game. In fact, Colgate has among the fewest games played for an NCAA Tournament in the 82-year history of the event. Matt Langel's crew is led by Jordan Burns, a senior sniper who shoots 41% from 3 and 89% from the foul line. This team also loves to run, and they will push the gas no matter the opponent.
Quite clearly one of the best stories of this tournament. Patrick Ewing guided his alma mater to the NCAAs after winning four games in four days as a No. 8 seed in the Big East bracket. The Hoyas are Big East champions for the first time since 2007. They're dancing for the first time in six years. At 13-12, the Hoyas are an OK team with a great opportunity. Can the magic continue? Sophomore big Qudus Wahab has been a different player this month, averaging 14.3 points.
The Gauchos are good, folks. UCSB is back for the first time in a decade, getting there with arguably as much balance on both ends of the floor as any mid-major in the field. At 22-4, UCSB is one of the older teams in the field, and they're led by seniors JaQuori McLaughlin and Devearl Ramsey. If you're looking for a legitimate Cinderella candidate that's not likely to be too trendy, this is your team. 
The Flames made the NCAA Tournament two years ago, and won the automatic bid for the 2020 tournament that never was. So this continues to be the class of the Atlantic Sun. The 23-5 Flames haven't lost in two months and boast the No. 4 effective field goal percentage offense, clocking in at 57.4%. The Flames play slow but can score 75 points in a 63-possession game. Liberty has won 12 in a row by an average of 14.8 points.
The Wildcats, by way of the Southland, are rolling. They knocked off top-seeded Nicholls State by 34 points in Saturday's Southland championship game. It's the second straight tourney appearance for ACU, which has newfound success under coach Joe Golding. They're going to be a pest in the first round. Nobody forces more turnovers per possession than ACU, which induces giveaways 26.7% of the time.
Georgetown is not the only school with an alumnus who is coaching his alma mater in this year's NCAA Tournament. Jeff Boals was on the Ohio team in 1994 that made the NCAAs, and now he's got a potential future NBA player in SG Jason Preston (16.6 ppg, 7.2 apg, 6.8 rpg, 1.6 spg), who has a wild story. Initially intended to enroll in college as an everyday student, but playing a year of prep basketball, and a homemade highlight tape that got in the hands of Ohio, landed him there. Now he's one of the best mid-major players in America.
Wes Miller has the Spartans in the NCAAs for the second time in four years. A rising star in the coaching ranks, Miller has a bona fide mid-major star of his own on this roster: 6-foot guard Isaiah Miller. The fearless senior is one of the most aggressive ball-in-his-hands players in this tournament. Backcourt teammate Keyshaun Langley is a terrific complementary player, and then there's 7-1 Hayden Koval, who can and will match up with most centers (with a few exceptions at the top of the sport).
Bryce Drew was unfairly pushed out at Vanderbilt two years ago. Now he has the Lopes in their first NCAA Tournament. The WAC champs went 17-6 with only one double-digit loss (by 10 points). GCU is savvy around the rim and has a frontcourt that averages better than 55% shooting from 2-point range.
The Eagles are dancing for the first time in a decade. The last time they got there, they were a No. 13 and upset fourth-seeded Louisville. How they got here is impressive: two wins in a week's time over top-seeded OVC favorite Belmont. But this is the team that should be representing the OVC. Preston Spradlin's group is 23-7, has lost one game since Dec. 21 (the only other team that's true of is Gonzaga) and is among the best defensive teams in mid-major hoops. Name to know: Freshman center Johni Broome.
Maybe the best alliterative combination of school and moniker in college hoops: Drexel Dragons. Coach Zach Spiker has the program in the NCAAs for the first time since 1996. We love to see schools either make it for the first time in history or end decades-long Dance droughts. The CAA champs have a mid-major star in Cameron Wynter (16.8 ppg, 5.3 apg). These guys like to win games in the low 60s, so we'll see if they can dictate the pace in their first round matchup.
It's the program's third NCAA Tournament appearance (2004, 2015, 2021), as the Eagles won the Big Sky and clinched their 13th win in a 14-game stretch. The Eagles can fly, often playing 73- or 74-possession games. They score, too: six players have an offensive rating of 110.0 or greater at KenPom.
Dennis Gates is the face of one of the best stories in this tournament. He took over Cleveland State less than two years ago when the program was a shambles and had just three players on the roster. Now the Vikings are in the NCAAs by virtue of being the first top-seeded team to come out of the Horizon League in six years. Gates is a hot name on the coaching circuit, too, and could well land a power-conference job before the NCAA Tournament is over.
Dangerous Cinderella candidate. ORU has college basketball's leading scorer, Max Abmas (24.2 ppg), who's dropped two 40-point games this season. They've also got a good one in Kevin Obanor. Coach Paul Mills has quietly put together a nice squad out of Tulsa, Oklahoma here. Real ones know this team gave strong games to Oklahoma State, Wichita State and Arkansas earlier this season.
Tubby Smith, Lon Kruger, and now Rick Pitino. The only coaches to take five schools to the NCAA Tournament. Pitino gets Iona in the Big Dance in Year One, though this is the program's seventh appearance in 10 years. They've taken the roughest road here possible. Multiple COVID pauses, including one that lasted 51 days. Stop and go for much of the season, but here they are. Improbably, Pitino has made his way back and he's got a team that's only played 17 games but won six straight by an average of 11.7 points.
The last time, and the only time, Norfolk State made the NCAA Tournament was 2012. It was a No. 15 seed. Remember what happened? Kyle O'Quinn and the Spartans upset No. 2 Missouri 86-84, doing so as a 21.5-point underdog. Now Robert Jones, in his eighth season, has the MEAC champions flourishing. Junior SG Joe Bryant's 3-point range has pushed this team into a top-35 team nationally from beyond the arc.
First NCAA Tournament in school history for the Hawks, who won the America East championship in their home gym, doing so a year after their championship game appearance was canceled due to the pandemic. If a 16-seed is going to have a shot at pulling off an upset, it needs its opponent to shoot poorly from 3 (among other things). Hartford ranks ninth in 3-point defense by allowing (mostly mid-major) teams to make just 28.7% of their treys.
I have great news for App State fans in 2042: you're going to be back in the NCAA Tournament! This is the Mountaineers' third appearance in the Big Dance, and the frequency is coming in 21-year intervals: 1979, 2000, 2021. Dustin Kerns has done a great job with this team, turning around a 1-6 finish to the regular season by winning four games in four days in the Sun Belt tournament. The team's forte is forcing turnovers, inducing opponents to cough it up on 24% of their possessions, which ranks 38th in the sport.
One of seven Lone Star State teams in the field (most in state history), Johnny Jones' Texas Southern group represents the SWAC and is in the field for the ninth time in school history. The Tigers have won 14 of 15, doing so by grabbing a league-best 33.5% of their offensive-rebound opportunities. Senior PG Michael Weathers is the engine.
The NEC champs aren't that unfamiliar with the Big Dance; they last made it in 2017. This is their sixth trip, and they've twice won First Four matchups. Dan Engelstad's team has good size for a low-major group, and if you want another reason to root, well, did you see Mountaineers star Damian Chong Qui's unexpected video call with his dad on CBS over the weekend? What it's all about.