Nobody loves a good underdog story more than me. So I can empathize with you as you fill out your bracket why the sudden urge to advance No. 8 seed Loyola Chicago or No. 14 seed Morehead State to the title game might be appealing. I get it. Sometimes to win your bracket pool, you've got to take a strong stance no one else is willing to take.
To that impulse, I will however offer just one word of advice: Resist. Do not get cute. This is how your bracket will turn to rubble before we make it to the second weekend.
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The last three NCAA Tournament winners were No. 1 seeds. Since 2000, 14 No. 1 seeds have gone on to win. And since Kansas star Danny Manning and the Miracles in 1988, only one team outside the top five seeds has actually won it all. The overwhelming history of the tournament suggests the winner will be a team seeded No. 3 or better. So barring a miraculous turn of events, or an unforeseen COVID outbreak, that will hold true in 2021. The truth is that only a sliver of the field actually has the goods to win the whole thing.
So who are they? Well, glad ya asked. They are as follows. Behold, these are the 20 best teams sorted by yours truly from most to least likely to win the chip and odds via William Hill Sportsbook.
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1. Gonzaga | No. 1 seed in West Region
There's a lot to love and nothing to hate about this Gonzaga team. It is the only team in the field to enter the tournament with an undefeated record. And it has accomplished that unblemished record with one of the most potent, well-rounded college basketball rosters of the modern era. If your bracket doesn't have the Bulldogs in the Final Four, you're just trying to zig when in reality you should absolutely ... Zag. [Heh.]
2. Baylor | No. 1 seed in South Region
For much of the season, Baylor -- not Gonzaga -- ranked No. 1 nationally in scoring margin behind the most efficient 3-point shooting attack in college hoops. But the Bears missed three weeks of action for a COVID pause in early February and have yet to return to true form, falling twice in their last seven games since and squeaking out an OT win in that stretch. Still, good luck betting against them! They're shooting a college basketball-leading 41.8% from 3-point range on the season and have the most talented, dynamic backcourt in the country between Davion Mitchell and Jared Butler.
3. Illinois | No. 1 seed in Midwest Region
If there's a hotter team in college basketball entering the NCAA Tournament than Illinois, the list is probably just one-deep (Gonzaga). The Illini head to first round action having won 14 of their last 15 games, including consecutive wins over Iowa and Ohio State in the Big Ten tourney to clinch the postseason championship. Oh, and as a perk, Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn might just comprise the most lethal guard-big duo going. Team is stacked with First Team All-Confidence talents around them, too, including Andre Curbelo and Trent Frazier. If you can't find fun in watching this team you're fun-meter is broken. Highly recommend fixing that before watching them make this run. It is coming and it will be spectacular theater.
4. Alabama | No. 2 seed in East Region
Alabama and the staff of head coach Nate Oats leaned hard into a revolutionary offense built around layups and 3-pointers. And they've groomed one of the most fierce defensive units to back it up. The result is a Crimson Tide team that can live by the 3-point shot, but one good enough that it won't die by it, either. Alabama went just 12-of-36 from 3-point range in the SEC Tournament title game but came up with key stops on defense late to survive an 80-79 battle. If it's not Alabama's day, it can still win. But when it is ... and when this team's really rolling ... look out.
5. Iowa | No. 2 seed in West Region
I've dogged on Iowa all season for its atrocious defense, thinking all along that its flaws on that end of the court would be a significant hindrance to any title hopes. So I'll give this team its flowers: Iowa's defense no longer stinks. It's not the best, I'll admit. But it's serviceable. So when you pair a serviceable defense with Iowa's offense -- which is the second-most efficient in the entire field -- you've got a shot. Especially when Luka Garza and Joe Wieskamp are the catalysts to said offense.
6. Michigan | No. 1 seed in East Region
Michigan crept into Baylor/Gonzaga territory as it closed out its regular-season slate. But a stress injury to star forward Isaiah Livers, the team's minutes leader, throws a real wild card into how the Wolverines will fare in March. He's a very important piece who can defend at a high level and shoot the leather off the ball. Without him for an indefinite period of time, we've got to temper expectations. But this team still has a defensive ace in Franz Wagner, a superstar freshman big in Hunter Dickinson and the supporting cast to patch things up on the fly.
7. Oklahoma State | No. 4 seed in Midwest Region
Oklahoma State won eight of its final 10 games and beat No. 1 seed Baylor, No. 8 seed Oklahoma (twice), No. 3 seed West Virginia (twice) and No. 6 seed Texas Tech in that span. I could probably leave my pitch at that. But I'd be remiss to not mention that this team will have the most talented player in any game it is in, so long as freshman star Cade Cunningham is healthy. The projected No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, he is the most lethal second-half player in this year's field. And unsubstantiated, completely reckless speculation out of Stillwater indicates his actual middle names are "Second Half." I can't independently confirm or deny this. But it's something to keep in mind.
8. Arkansas | No. 3 seed in South Region
Arkansas won 12 consecutive games against SEC opponents before falling to LSU in the SEC Tournament. This team loves to push the pace, win with defense and rely on stars Moses Moody and J.D. Notae to carry them. That combo really worked for the Razorbacks down the stretch of the season and should work well in the Big Dance, too. I am very bullish on their prospects of emerging from the South Regional, as you might've noticed.
9. Texas | No. 3 seed in East Region
Behind the most balanced and complete roster of the Shaka Smart era, Texas won 19 games and capped its pre-NCAA Tournament season with a Big 12 tournament title. This team has the inside-out balance needed to make this Smart's most capable postseason team at Texas, too. Big men Kai Jones and Greg Brown are on the first round draft radar, and the backcourt trio of Courtney Ramey, Matt Coleman and Andrew Jones can trade blows with anyone. Oh, and Jericho Sims? He's coming off a 21 point, 14 rebound outing in the Big 12 title game. Balance: Texas has it in spades.
10. Ohio State | No. 2 seed in South Region
At one point in the season, Ohio State had a surefire No. 1 seed resume. But four consecutive losses to end the regular season put a wet blanket on Buckeyes believers a bit. Now that belief is back, though, after they ran through the Big Ten tourney and pushed Illinois to OT in the title game. This team doesn't have great size and its defense is not a strength, but if it can score and keep pace with Illinois and 7-footer Kofi Cockburn, I'm of the belief it can keep pace with any team in the country in any game.
11. West Virginia | No. 3 seed in Midwest Region
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins has mostly abandoned the "Press Virginia" moniker. The Mountaineers are no longer winning only with defense. Instead, they are leaning heavily on guard talent to win with a top-10 caliber offense. Keep an eye on Taz Sherman, Miles "Deuce" McBride and Sean McNeil, who can all get hot and sink teams with their outside shooting. Big man Derek Culver also keeps this team contending with a true terror in the post.
12. Houston | No. 2 seed in Midwest Region
Houston coach Kelvin Sampson lost preseason AAC Player of the Year Caleb Mills yet still has the Cougars rocking and rolling behind a top-10 offense and a defense that ranks No. 5 in defending inside the 3-point arc. This might be the least hyped a 24-3 team has ever been entering the NCAA Tournament. It doesn't help that they're in the Region of Doom that is the Midwest, but Houston should be taken seriously as a contender to emerge from that bracket.
13. Florida State | No. 4 seed in East Region
Florida State nearly won the ACC regular-season and came just short of winning the league's postseason tourney, too. Coach Leonard Hamilton has dudes all over the floor with enough size, skill and athleticism to catch any team. Big names to watch here with the Seminoles are lottery talent Scottie Barnes, as well as the inside-out duo of MJ Walker and Raiquan Gray.
14. Virginia | No. 4 seed in West Region
That Virginia had to bounce from the ACC Tournament because of COVID issues is a bit of a concern, but we've got to keep the Cavaliers as contenders until we see how that situation shakes out. They are the reigning national champs, after all. And their plodding style of play (they rank last in adjusted tempo in all of college hoops!) combined with their packline defense gives teams a real fit to prepare and play against.
15. Kansas | No. 3 seed in West Region
Kansas will reportedly be without Jalen Wilson, the team's leading rebounder and third-leading scorer, for at least the first round game because of COVID protocols. Not a great sign for the Jayhawks after they, too, had to abandon their league's postseason tourney because of a positive COVID-19 test among their Tier 1 personnel. Still, this is Bill Self, and this is Kansas. And this Kansas team won eight of its last nine entering the NCAA Tournament. Their late-season turnaround warrants immense optimism. They might've flipped the switch at just the right time.
16. Oregon | No. 7 seed in West Region
Am I telling you to throw your bank account at Oregon odds here? No! But is it worth a tiny investment? Maybe! The Ducks are in the vaunted West, where No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga looks to be the overwhelming favorite. But remember: this is the same region with Kansas and Virginia -- both of which are dealing with COVID issues -- so if chaos were the happen ... Oregon might be in position to benefit. Its likely Final Four path would include tilts against No. 2 seed Iowa, No. 3 seed Kansas and No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga. Tough path, to be sure. But the Ducks won 11 of their final 13 games to end the season. They won't be a cakewalk draw for any team in this region.
17. Southern California | No. 6 seed in West Region
USC let the Pac-12 regular-season title slip away from its grasp thanks to three losses in its final six games. So buying into the Trojans requires you to disregard what they have done lately. But it is also requires you to buy fully into what 7-footer Evan Mobley is capable of, which is much more easy to sell. Mobley averaged 26 points, nine rebounds and five blocks in the Pac-12 tournament, and is the type of two-way force who can shift games with his length and effectiveness.
18. Texas Tech | No. 6 seed in South Region
This isn't a vintage Chris Beard team but it is equipped as one of the more ready-made tourney contenders he's had during his tenure at Texas Tech. That's because this team thrives on forcing turnovers and has a star in Mac McClung who is capable of catching fire and trading blows with any player in America.
19. UConn | No. 7 seed in East Region
You might notice UConn is a No. 7 seed and think I am a crazy person. I won't dispute that. But I will fight you if you disagree with UConn's inclusion on this list. The Huskies lost only three times all season with star James Bouknight in the lineup, and four times with him out as he dealt with an in-season elbow injury that required surgery. At full strength, this team is No. 5-seed caliber at worst. Completely different team so long as Bouknight is healthy. And here's a nugget for you: the only program to win a national championship as a No. 7 seed or worse in the last 35 years was UConn in 2014.
20. Purdue | No. 4 seed in South Region
In a year where the Big Ten's top dogs are (deservedly) getting their shine, do not look past Purdue. This team won its final five games of the regular-season and has officially embraced freshmen Jaden Ivey and Zach Edey as their alphas. Now this is a different team from the one we saw much of the season. And the one we saw much of the season was really, really good.