March Madness Preview

The brackets for the 2021 NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments were finalized by their selection committees on March 14 and March 15, respectively. The single-elimination tournaments — colloquially known as “March Madness,” a testament to the high-energy play and surrounding media frenzy — whittle down the field of 64 teams (technically 68 teams for the men’s tournament due to the four play-in games) to a single NCAA champion. Teams that win their conference’s tournament are guaranteed a spot in the NCAA tournament while those who come up short must rest their hopes on the discretion of the men’s and women’s selection committees, groups made up of certain Division I school officials and conference administrators, who have the final say on whether or not a team makes the cut. 

Some teams are near-certain selections based on their success during the regular season. For the men’s tournament, Michigan and Baylor (both No. 1 seeds) were among the obvious picks despite failing to win their conference tournament. Other teams, however, exist on the cusp. The last four teams to make the field were Michigan State, UCLA, Wichita State and Drake. Just failing to make the cut, the first four replacement teams are, in order, Louisville, Colorado State, Saint Louis and Ole Miss. Notably, highly pedigreed Duke (9-9 in conference play) and Kentucky (8-9 in conference play) both failed to make the tournament after stumbling to middle-of-the-pack records. The last time both powerhouses missed out on March Madness, Gerald Ford was president and The Four Seasons’ “Oh, What a Night” was ranked Billboard’s number-one single. (The full men’s bracket can be viewed here.)

As for the women’s tournament, perennially dominant UConn and the Pac-12-champion Stanford Cardinal were joined by NC State and South Carolina as the four teams named as No. 1 seeds of their regions. Due to a quirk of the rules, the NCAA’s most dominant team in terms of record won’t be participating in this year’s Women’s NCAA Tournament. California Baptist, despite completing its perfect 24-0 season with a win in the Western Athletic Conference tournament, was denied a spot due to the program’s recent reclassification to the Division I level. The NCAA requires a transition period of four years during which teams are unable to participate in March Madness, so the Lancers championship aspirations will have to be put on hold this year. (The full women’s bracket can be viewed here.)

March Madness doesn’t derive its popularity solely from its exciting in-game play; many fans also enjoy the challenge of attempting to predict the outcome of the tournaments. In 2019, over 17.2 million brackets were entered in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge — a competition in which fans can make up to 25 attempts at predicting the result of every game in the tournament. Despite that impressive level of participation, no one has ever produced a verifiable “perfect” bracket (one in which each game has been accurately predicted), and the odds of creating such a bracket seem fairly insurmountable. In 2014, billionaire investor Warren Buffett pledged to pay $1 billion to anyone who achieved this near-impossible feat. 

The allure of a perfect bracket aside, this year’s March Madness holds a particular significance due to the cancellation of last year’s 2020 NCAA Tournaments in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Even this year, Covid-19 has had an impact within the world of college basketball. Kansas and Virginia’s men’s teams were both held out of their conference tourneys due to positive Covid tests within their programs. The legendary head coach of the UConn women’s team, Geno Auriemma, will likely have to miss his team’s first several March Madness games after testing positive on March 14. Despite the threat posed by Covid-19, officials feel that they will be able to create a safe environment this year by implementing a number of measures aimed at limiting the virus’s spread. 

The men’s tournament is set to begin in Indianapolis on March 18, with the women’s tournament following suit in San Antonio on March 21. Considering last year’s cancellation, it’s safe to say that college basketball fans would be content with a little less madness this time around.