1. Gonzaga (26-0)
The Bulldogs enter the tournament undefeated and will look to become the first team since Indiana in 1976 to get through the entire season without a loss. Mark Few has one of the best offensive teams college basketball has seen in some time. Perhaps the only concern is how long it has been since they were truly challenged. They have won 23 consecutive games by double digits.
2. Iowa (21-8)
While Gonzaga is the best team, the Hawkeyes may have the best player in senior center Luka Garza. He has plenty of talent around him to challenge the Bulldogs, though they lost a neutral site meeting 99-88 in December. The Hawkeyes share the ball and are No. 2 in adjusted offensive efficiency, behind only the Bulldogs. Fran McCaffery’s team is very dangerous when it gets hot.
3. Kansas (20-8)
The first challenge for the Jayhawks is just putting a team on the court. Kansas was forced to pull out of the Big 12 tournament because of a positive COVID test, and there was concern about their status for the NCAA Tournament. The Jayhawks did arrive in Indianapolis on Monday, but three players were not on the flight. Kansas didn’t have its best season but is always a threat.
4. Virginia (18-6)
Virginia is another team that was forced to withdraw from its conference tournament because of a positive COVID test. The Cavaliers won’t be able to travel to Indianapolis until Friday, just a day before they open tournament play. Still, the Cavaliers, technically the defending champs, have the system and players to overcome this kind of turbulence and remain a threat.
5. Creighton (20-8)
Coach Greg McDermott was reinstated for the Big East tournament from a suspension levied because of racially insensitive remarks made to his players in the locker room. The Blue Jays responded with a pair of impressive wins but then suffered an ugly loss to Georgetown in the title game. That was a reminder of what happens when the shots don’t fall for the Blue Jays.
6. Southern California (22-7)
The Trojans start four players who are 6-foot-7 or taller, a major reason they are so difficult to score against. USC holds opponents below 40 percent shooting and have more than a plus-7 rebounding margin. Andy Enfield returns to the tournament by surrounding superstar freshman Evan Mobley and sophomore brother Isaiah with several high-impact transfers.
7. Oregon (20-6)
Dana Altman’s teams at Oregon have followed a similar formula: Set expectations high by bringing in talented transfers only to see them take taking some early losses before peaking near the end of the year. This year’s group includes former UNLV guard Amauri Hardy, former St. John’s star LJ Figueroa and interior presence Eugene Omoruyi from Rutgers.
8. Oklahoma (15-10)
Who are the real Sooners? The team that won three consecutive games against top 10 opponents in late January or the one that dropped its final four games of the regular season and enters the NCAA Tournament having lost five of its last six? Lon Kruger certainly hopes it’s the former. The answer may lie in how much help star guard Austin Reaves can get from his supporting cast.
9. Missouri (16-9)
Cuonzo Martin’s team has wins over Illinois and Alabama but dropped six of its last nine games and three straight after victory over the Crimson Tide. The key may be whether enigmatic big man Jeremiah Tilmon can bounce back from a rough stretch that has coincided with the last skid. The 6-foot-10 forward is averaging just 9.3 points and 3.8 rebounds over the last four games.
10. VCU (19-7)
Expectations weren’t particularly high for these Rams, but sophomore Nah’Shon Hyland had a breakout campaign and carried the team with him. VCU is often dependent on how officials decide to call a game. Their pressure can lead to foul trouble and lots of free throws if the game is called tight or enable them to force a bunch of turnovers if the whistles don’t come as fast.
11. Wichita State (16-5)
Isaac Brown may have done the best coaching job in America. He was named interim coach of the Shockers two weeks before the season opener when Gregg Marshall abruptly resigned after an investigation of abuse allegations made by former players and proceeded to lead the team to a tournament berth despite a mass exodus from the program last offseason.
11. Drake (25-4)
The Bulldogs were the talk of the college basketball world when they started the season 18-0 despite a series of COVID-related cancellations. A 7-4 finish dampened expectations, but they still found their way into the tournament as the second team from the Missouri Valley. The reward is a reunion against former league mate Wichita State in an opening-round game.
12. UC Santa Barbara (22-4)
The Gauchos have had quality teams the past decade but finally make their first NCAA appearance since 2011. Santa Barbara has a strong inside-outside presence with league player of the year JaQuori McLaughlin and forward Amadou Sow providing more than enough offense for a stingy defense. The combination has worked to the tune of 18 wins in their last 19 games.
13. Ohio (16-7)
The Bobcats bring a high-powered offense to Indianapolis after winning three games over higher-seeded teams in the MAC tournament. That run was even more unexpected considering Ohio had been on a two-week COVID pause before the event. This is their first appearance since 2012, when they advanced to the Sweet 16.
14. Eastern Washington (16-7)
The Eagles entered the season as favorites in the Big Sky and lived up to expectations by winning 13 of their final 14 games and earning just the third NCAA bid in school history. Shantay Legans has a solid offensive team, but Eastern Washington is fairly pedestrian on defense and is one of the worst teams in the nation at forcing turnovers.
15. Grand Canyon (17-6)
The basketball program rose to prominence with former NBA star Dan Majerle at the helm, but he was never able to take the final step and get an NCAA appearance after it gained eligibility for a bid in 2017. Bryce Drew has brought the Antelopes into the field in his first season. The team has done it with defense and rebounding.
16. Norfolk State (16-7)
The Spartans haven’t been to the tournament since 2012, when they pulled a stunning upset over Missouri as a No. 15 seed. Robert Jones has an experienced team with four seniors and a junior in the starting lineup. Norfolk State shoots a high percentage from the 3-point line and does a good job protecting the lane despite not having a starter over 6-foot-9.
16. Appalachian State (17-11)
The Mountaineers limped into the Sun Belt tournament but got hot at the right time. Appalachian State made a tournament-record 44 3-pointers in four games, including 10 in an upset win over Georgia State to earn the automatic berth. Grad transfer Michael Almonacy hit 20 on his own and scored a career-high 32 points in the title game.
Four players to watch
Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga: The freshman arrived in Spokane with insanely high expectations and somehow exceeded them. He averages 14.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists and, perhaps more impressively for a freshman, has been consistent on both ends of the floor.
Sam Hauser, Virginia: The Cavaliers needed a scorer on this year’s team, and they just so happened to have one becoming eligible after sitting out a transfer season last year. The former Marquette star stepped in and led the way, scoring 16 points per game on 52 percent shooting, including 43.4 percent on 3-pointers.
Evan Mobley, USC: The 7-foot freshman and certain lottery pick swept the awards in the Pac-12. Mobley was named player of the year, freshman of the year and defensive player of the year. He had identical stat lines of 26 points, nine rebounds and five blocks in each of the two conference tournament games.
Jason Preston, Ohio: He is a tremendous player, but his story is even better. Preston was raised by a single mother who died of cancer when he was a junior in high school. Though he averaged just two points per game, he found a way to a prep school and posted a highlight video on Twitter. Ohio offered him a scholarship after contacting him via direct message.
Three best potential matchups
Gonzaga vs. Iowa, Elite 8: Yes, these teams played early in the season, and the Bulldogs led comfortably for the entire second half in a 99-88 win. But March is different. This rematch could be fun.
Gonzaga vs. USC, Elite 8: While Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham is expected to be the top pick in the draft. Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs and USC’s Evan Mobley are in the mix to go at No. 2
Kansas vs. Wichita State, Round of 32: The intrastate rivals stopped playing each other in 1993 with the Jayhawks claiming they had nothing to gain by continuing the series. Fate brought them together in 2015 with Wichita State gaining a victory in the NCAA Tournament.
Two bracket busters
UCSB: The Gauchos haven’t really played anybody, so it’s tough to tell how good they are. But there is plenty of talent, and they are well-coached. They also draw a reeling Creighton team that looked vulnerable in the Big East tournament and then could get a Virginia squad derailed by COVID-19.
Oregon: The Ducks appeared to have things figured out before the puzzling performance in a Pac-12 tournament loss to Oregon State. If that was more bump in the road than sign of things to come, Dana Altman’s team could pose a threat to Iowa and beyond.
One left standing
USC: Could this pick look regrettable in a few days? Sure. The Trojans could lose in the opening round. But they do have plenty of talent and a superstar in the middle who will be playing in his only NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga is the best team in the country and actually looks to have a smooth path to the finals. But that’s just too easy.