2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament: Title Favorite, Dark Horse and Sleeper Picks

After heavy disruptions to the 2020 calendar, fans have been blessed to see NCAA basketball back on the schedule this season as we move closer towards March Madness.

The landscape is still taking shape as to which teams will figure in the end-of-season tournament, with Gonzaga edging ahead early on as +300 frontrunners to lift this year’s NCAA title, per Caesars. A lot of basketball is still to be played between now and the scheduled final on April 5, however, and plenty can change before then.

Coed recently dissected the potential favorites to clinch this season’s NBA crown, but which schools are in with a chance of dominating the college scene in 2021?

Early Favorite: Gonzaga Bulldogs (+300)

It wouldn’t be an NCAA season unless Mark Few and the Gonzaga Bulldogs figured among the title contenders, but this could be the year they finally convert that promise into a championship.

Gonzaga have topped the West Coast Conference 19 times in their 21 seasons since Few took charge in 1999, winning the WCC Tournament in 16 of those and never failing to make the post-season draw. We shouldn’t really be surprised at their quality given they entered the term as the top-ranked side by the Associated Press, but the product has nonetheless been a joy to watch:

https://twitter.com/ESPNStatsInfo/status/1353088449054724097

Now 15-0, the Bulldogs have won six from six against teams in their conference, with forward Corey Kispert leading their offense on 20.6 points per game. Guard Joel Ajayi has also contributed well with 12.5 points per game and a team-high 7.5 rebounds, while Jalen Suggs has set standards in assists (4.9 per game) and steals (2.3).

Despite Few’s prolific record 22 seasons into the job, his only visit to the Final Four came in 2017 when his side finished as runners-up to North Carolina (71-65). The old adage dictates that stability breeds success, and Gonzaga under their incumbent coach is about as stable as it gets.

Dark Horse: Iowa Hawkeyes (+1200)

Like aforementioned Gonzaga, Iowa are hoping to make only their second NCAA championship in 2021, though theirs has been a longer wait considering the only previous appearance was 65 years ago.

Plenty of talk has circulated around Big Ten conference leaders Michigan so far, but there’s also a lot to like about the team just behind them in 12-3 Iowa. The Hawkeyes’ stock took a hit after they lost to Minnesota in overtime on Christmas day, with their other losses so far coming at No. 1 Gonzaga and Indiana:

Fran McCaffery’s side have largely held their own against seeded opponents this campaign, and their +1200 odds could quickly tumble. Those chances look better considering center Luke Garza, the NCAA’s top Division I scorer, is averaging 26.9 points per game (at least four more than any other player as of January 28).

Sleeper: Ohio State Buckeyes (+5000)

Speaking of Big Ten teams in contention, let’s not forget the Ohio State Buckeyes as they target a return to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2013. 

It’s easy to discount a team that lost four of its first 15 games, but Ohio State underlined their quality with a recent 74-62 win over Wisconsin, who were seeded at No. 10 entering the game:

Sure, coach Chris Holtmann’s side are still fifth in their conference and have gone 7-4 against Big Ten teams, but they’ve also won as many games as any other direct rival so far this season (13). That affords Ohio State time to make up for any slip-ups so far given their peers are bound to make mistakes of their own. 

Keeping sophomore forward E.J. Liddell fit will be critical considering he leads the team in average points (15), rebounds (6.8) and blocks (1.1), but there’s potential to be seen from the college last crowned NCAA champions in 1960.

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