There are a ton of different ways to break down the 2021 NCAA Tournament, and there's no doubt that in preparation for your bracket and bracket game entry you have plenty of systems to analyze the field. Well we're offering another one for you here as the tournament is set to tip off, picking one team for every seed as the best.
This is not the same as "most likely to advance," necessarily, though the teams that have been selected do line up with some of the predictions in my own expert bracket. Instead of judging teams against their draw or their path to the Sweet 16 or Final Four, we're judging them against their neighbors on the official seed list. That seed list is available, sure, but who wants to follow what the selection committee thinks after years and years of calling them to task for their decisions. Teams are often seeded based on their entire resume, which includes results that happened back in December or January. Those results matter here, but not as much as the quality of team we believe is showing up to Indianapolis in pursuit of a national championship.
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Here are our picks for the best team on each seed line:
No. 16 seeds
Top team -- Drexel, Midwest Region: The CAA had teams play anywhere from seven to 18 games in conference play this year, with Drexel on the low end of the spectrum playing just nine and going 4-5. But the league's best offense showed up in the conference tournament and the Dragons were able to make a run to the title even from their lower seed and that offense -- top-100 in offensive efficiency and top-50 in both 3-point and 2-point shooting percentage -- is the reason Drexel is the pick.
No. 15 seeds
Top team -- Iona, East Region: Rick Pitino is back in the NCAA Tournament while Louisville and Kentucky are not, but that tasty storyline is not the reason the Gaels are the pick. Pitino has gotten this group of Iona players from being a defense-optional, wide-open team (that was very good under Tim Cluess) to buy in on the defensive end. A COVID-19 pause had Iona sidelined for seven weeks between games, but they're coming off four straight wins in the conference tournament and playing well.
No. 14 seeds
Top team -- Colgate, South Region: The Patriot League also had some strange scheduling but just because Boston University was the opponent for five of Colgate's 14 wins doesn't mean we should take the 14-1 record for granted. Colgate plays fast, ranks No. 3 in the country in 3-point shooting percentage and hasn't lost since Jan. 3.
No. 13 seeds
Top team -- Ohio, West Region: The Bobcats have a real pro prospect in 6-foot-4 point guard Jason Preston, a player who can both get his own bucket and help facilitate for others. Ohio went to Illinois earlier this season and held a lead with less than two minutes remaining before losing 77-75. Preston had 31 points, eight assists and six rebounds in that defeat.
No. 12 seeds
Top team -- Winthrop, South Region: KenPom's ratings would point to Georgetown here, a team that ranks 30 spots ahead of the Eagles, but I'm respecting the record. Winthrop went 23-1 with a style that can exhaust opponents, playing at a break-neck pace (No. 11 adjusted tempo in the country) and going almost full line-change style with substitution patterns to keep fresh legs on the floor. The only team to beat Winthrop this year did so by slowing the game down, which makes the matchup with Villanova enticing, but if the Eagles control the pace we could see them in the Round of 32.
No. 11 seeds
Top team -- Drake, West Region: With an 18-0 start, Drake was one of the top stories of the early college basketball season. The Bulldogs were not only winning but covering the spread regularly, and finished the season with the second-best record in the country against the spread. That's not as much the reason Drake is the pick, but a comment on how the team has been exceeding expectations of the oddsmakers and market all season. This is a top-20 offense in the country with a regular season win over Loyola Chicago and an efficiency margin comparable to 10-seed Virginia Tech and 9-seed Virginia Tech.
No. 10 seeds
Top team -- Maryland, East Region: I think this argument is between Maryland and Rutgers. The two teams split the regular season series, rank three spots away from each other in the KenPom ratings (Maryland at No. 31, Rutgers at No. 34) and each have wins against both Illinois and Purdue. Though Maryland took a couple bad losses to close the regular season, I think the Terps' form has been just a shade better than Rutgers over the last month, so Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins and the rest of Mark Turgeon's group get the nod.
No. 9 seeds
Top team -- St. Bonaventure, East Region: I think this might be one of the worst seed lines comparable to the teams on either side, but that doesn't diminish the accomplishments of the Bonnies here in 2021. Mark Schmidt's team plays great defense and has just one double-digit loss (back on Feb. 6 at Saint Louis) on its 16-4 profile.
No. 8 seeds
Top team -- Loyola Chicago, Midwest Region: A top-10 KenPom team with a 24-4 record walks into a bar and the NCAA Tournament selection committee gives it a seeding that represents being outside of the top 25 teams in the country. The Ramblers rank No. 1 among all Division I basketball teams in defensive efficiency and their under-seeding is disruptive not only to Georgia Tech, but No. 1 seed Illinois should the in-state foes meet in the second round.
No. 7 seeds
Top team -- UConn, East Region: This is rating the Huskies with James Bouknight, arguably the most talented player in the Big East, as opposed to the Huskies without Bouknight, which went 4-4. With the 6-5 sophomore in the lineup, UConn was 10-2 in the regular season with the only losses coming to Creighton in overtime and at Villanova by eight.
No. 6 seeds
Top team -- USC, West Region: There weren't a lot of opportunities for quality wins in the Pac-12 this year and that's why you see the best teams in the league landing outside of the top five seed lines. Evan Mobley is going to be one of the top three picks in the 2021 NBA Draft and the Trojans, though they stumbled a bit down the stretch, have the kind of team that can string together a couple of wins and wind up playing for a spot in the Final Four against Gonzaga.
No. 5 seeds
Top team -- Creighton, West Region: Player availability is a huge factor here, with Villanova getting downgraded because of the loss of Collin Gillespie and Creighton being a much better team with Marcus Zagarowski in the lineup. The Blue Jays are going to be a popular pick to lose in the first round based on the way it got routed by Georgetown in the Big East final, but I think they are the most capable, thanks to a potent Zagarowski-led offense, of making it through to the Sweet 16.
No. 4 seeds
Top team -- Purdue, South Region: The Boilermakers have gotten better as the year has progressed, in part because a group of talented young players have settled into their roles and helped make Purdue one of the most dangerous teams coming out of the Big Ten. Travion Williams is one of the best big men in a league full of them, worthy of mention alongside Luka Garza and Kofi Cockburn, while freshman guard Jaden Ivey has emerged as a reliable double-digit scorer throughout the year.
No. 3 seeds
Top team -- Arkansas, South Region: After starting 2-4 in SEC play, things clicked for Eric Musselman's Razorbacks. Arkansas ran off 11 wins in 12 games, including over both Alabama and LSU, with the only defeat coming by four points at Oklahoma State in the SEC-Big 12 challenge. Freshman Moses Moody has been a breakout star and I think the consistency of performance since mid-January beats out the ups-and-downs of all three Big 12 teams on this seed line.
No. 2 seeds
Top team -- Alabama, East Region: My pick to win the national championship is obviously going to be my pick for the top team on its respective seed line, and I think the Tide are closer to being on the 1-line than being grouped in with the other 2-seeds. Unfortunately, the thing about seeding is, you can only have four of them. So my fifth No. 1 seed is my top No. 2 seed.
No. 1 seeds
Gonzaga | Michigan | Baylor | Illinois
Top team -- Gonzaga, West Region: No. 1 overall seed and no reason to call the committee out for missing on this one. The Zags are striving to become the first team since 1976 to finish as undefeated NCAA Tournament champions and their performance has been impressive enough to back up the record no matter who is on the schedule.