Teams to watch and avoid in your 2021 NCAA tournament bracket
Nathan J Fish/Sun-Ne/USA Today Images

Teams to watch and avoid in your 2021 NCAA tournament bracket

Let me just start by saying that it feels great to have an NCAA tournament again ... even if it will be played in one area and with limited fans. We still get the upsets, the Cinderellas, the great games, and the moments. Oh, and we get to fill out brackets!

As you may have been told, this is a season unlike any other which makes it uniquely more difficult to fill out your brackets. There has been a limited amount of non-conference games and we've seen programs go in and out of pauses. It is hard to rate teams and conferences against each other, and not all games were played under the same circumstances. So we could see teams overseeded and underseeded in the bracket which could lead to more seeding upsets than usual.

So as you look over your bracket to decide who you think could be the sleeper or the team you are targeting as the giant who is ready to fall, here is some guidance about who those teams may be. Here are my sweet sixteen teams to watch and avoid in the 2021 NCAA tournament.

 
1 of 16

WATCH: Gonzaga Bulldogs

WATCH: Gonzaga Bulldogs
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The hate is real. There are still people who feel undefeated Gonzaga is a fraud and that the only reason they have a lofty status is the fact that they play in the West Coast Conference. The WCC has been a top-five conference according to the RPI ... which puts them ahead of the Big East, Pac-12, and the American and neck-and-neck with the ACC. They have beaten Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa, Virginia, and Auburn out of conference and boast three All-American candidates. Their offense is among the best in the nation and most efficient. Sure, the monkey on their back is that the program has yet to win a national championship, but that doesn't mean that this team isn't deserving of their favorite status. Gonzaga can be the first team since Indiana to become undefeated national champions. 

 
2 of 16

AVOID: Iowa Hawkeyes

AVOID: Iowa Hawkeyes
Barbara J. Perenic/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Luka Garza may be the most dominant player of this tournament, leading an Iowa offense that has been outstanding all season. So what's the problem? Defensively, the Hawkeyes haven't been playing like a national championship team, and defense, as you may have heard, wins championships. No, they don't have to be an elite defense, but Iowa has a lot of work to do to even be considered "okay". They are the perfect candidate to watch a team or player go off against them and pull off an upset. 

 
3 of 16

WATCH: Baylor Bears

WATCH: Baylor Bears
Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

I know there are some people that are skeptical of the Bears as they haven't looked like the same juggernaut as they did at the beginning of the season. The February pause evidently affected their flow and they've looked a bit rusty at times. The tournament setting, however, won't allow for a three-week gap between games and the Bears should find their rhythm. Baylor has a star in Jared Butler that leads a nice stable of guys who can get hot all of the sudden -- they lead the nation in three-point shooting and it isn't even close. 

 
4 of 16

AVOID: Ohio State Buckeyes

AVOID: Ohio State Buckeyes
Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Like Iowa, Ohio State is really good but their defense doesn't have the look of a Final Four caliber unit. The Buckeyes can put some nice offensive weapons out there, led by leading scorer E.J. Liddell, but they can get killed on the boards and lack the kind of ball movement that vaults a team like this to a championship. While I'm not putting a ton of stock in their late-game meltdowns against Illinois over the past week or so, it does raise an eyebrow. 

 
5 of 16

WATCH: Michigan Wolverines

WATCH: Michigan Wolverines
Junfu Han via Imagn Content Services, LLC

See. I'm not picking on the Big Ten! The Wolverines played a gauntlet to end the season and held up very, very well. Michigan is still a good defensive team and has an array of ways to score on you. They have an anchor in center Hunter Dickinson and the team is shooting just under 40% from three this year. The pedigree of Michigan is there as well, with the Wolverines reaching the national championship game twice over the past decade. Sure, Illinois beat the stank off them late in the season, Michigan lost 3 of their last 5 games, and Isaiah Livers' injury is a key loss, but that doesn't diminish how strong this team is. Head coach Juwan Howard just might be a Fab Five player that wins an NCAA championship. 

 
6 of 16

AVOID: Villanova Wildcats

AVOID: Villanova Wildcats
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Villanova boasts another efficient offense that shoots (and makes) a lot of threes. But Nova hasn't beaten a ranked team since they beat Texas on December 6th and were knocked out of the first round of the Big East tournament by Georgetown. They are not a high-volume rebounding team and their defense is one of the worst in terms of efficiency in the country. With the late-season loss of Wooden Award finalist Collin Gillespie to a torn MCL, it will be even tougher for Nova to make a deep run. The Wildcats were already just seven deep so fatigue and foul trouble could derail a lengthy tournament run. Yes, Villanova has won the national championship twice in the last four tournaments, but those two titles are the only times they've advanced to the second weekend of the tournament since 2010.

 
7 of 16

WATCH: Kansas Jayhawks

WATCH: Kansas Jayhawks
Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

This is assuming they can play after they dropped out of the Big 12 tournament due to COVID-19 protocols. When a blue blood program gets written off at any point in a season ... as Kansas did during the middle of the year when they lost five of seven games ... people tend to underestimate them in their brackets. Well, the Jayhawks have stormed back and reclaimed their preseason status as a national championship contender. Kansas ended Baylor's undefeated season and have been a much tougher bunch defensively and more efficient on offense. David McCormack has become the guy for Bill Self's team (he missed the Big 12 tournament but should be back for the NCAAs). This may not be as talented a team as Kansas typically trots out in March, but this isn't the dead bird that people kicked around back in early February.

 
8 of 16

AVOID: Virginia Cavaliers

AVOID: Virginia Cavaliers
Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

The defending champions are a very talented team with a few remnants of their 2019 title team hanging around. Point guard Kihei Clark was a starter on that team and is comfortable in the playmaker role than being a scorer. Transfer Sam Hauser provides the scoring while center Jay Huff provides the paint presence for the ACC champs. Good, huh? Well, the typically crushing defense has not been as formidable as years past and while they have some really nice players, they really don't have that guy who you just give the ball to and let him get you a basket. That 2019 team had three of those guys. Add in that the Cavaliers have been known to under-perform in the tournament (I know, they won the last tournament, but they also needed three miracle finishes to do so) plus their COVID issues at the ACC tournament and I just don't like hitching my wagon to them as a Final Four squad. 

 
9 of 16

WATCH: Houston Cougars

WATCH: Houston Cougars
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Cougars kind of have that look of Texas Tech of a couple of years ago. They are a very solid defensive team that can choke an opposing offense. Their own offense is far from a work of art, but they are one of the best rebounding teams in the country and fight hard for second and third shots. They also just added senior Fabian White Jr, who missed much of the season recovering from a torn ACL he suffered in May. Quentin Grimes is a name to watch in this tournament. 

 
10 of 16

AVOID: Florida State Seminoles

AVOID: Florida State Seminoles
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

I love what Leonard Hamilton has done at Florida State, and he is truly one of the best coaches in ACC history. Of course, Hamilton has yet to get his Seminoles to the Final Four and I don't think that happens this year. Scottie Barnes will be a long-time NBA pro and guys like RayQuan Evans and M.J. Walker are the kinds of wings that normally carry you far in the tournament. Florida State did spank Virginia, but that's their only big-time win of the season and the Seminoles actually finished with a losing road record in ACC play. I know that there's a lot of love for them as a team that could make a run to the Final Four, but I'm just not buying it. 

 
11 of 16

WATCH: Oklahoma State Cowboys

WATCH: Oklahoma State Cowboys
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

I'm on the Cade Cunningham/Cowboys bandwagon, too. Sure, the NBA's top overall pick (which Cunningham is expected to be) hasn't had great tournament success (if they get there at all) but he's truly put this team on his back and has them rolling at the right time. Avery Anderson III has come on strong of late, giving the Pokes a second option as a scorer. Here's a wild fact for you: Oklahoma State ended their season playing against eight straight ranked opponents. The Cowboys were 6-2 in those games, with the losses coming to Baylor and then Texas in the Big 12 title game. 

 
12 of 16

AVOID: Creighton Bluejays

AVOID: Creighton Bluejays
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Having a late-season distraction like the suspension of head coach Greg McDermott for one game could either be a galvanizing force or one that fractures the team. Sure, they looked great in their finale against lowly Butler (ending a two-game losing streak) but can the Bluejays maintain that in Indy? Star Marcus Zegarowski went for 32 points in that game and is a guy who can put a team on his back, but he's been inconsistent this season. With their first Big East title on the line, they laid an egg against 8th-seed Georgetown which raises some flags. While McDermott is back coaching, the controversy is a major distraction that a team with high hopes doesn't need entering March Madness.

 
13 of 16

WATCH: Illinois Fighting Illini

WATCH: Illinois Fighting Illini
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The Illini have two star-caliber players in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, who lead one of the best two-way teams in the nation. Dosunmu's shooting has been much better this year and he's becoming a triple-double threat most nights. Illinois can beat you in a variety of ways (big, small, fast, punishing) and have that guy who you can put the ball in their hands and make plays in big moments. During the tournament, that's gold. They ended the regular season by pounding Michigan in Ann Arbor and using a late comeback to topple Ohio State in Columbus. This team is for real. 

 
14 of 16

AVOID: Arkansas Razorbacks

AVOID: Arkansas Razorbacks
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The Razorbacks were rolling late in the season, including a beatdown of Alabama in Fayetteville. Freshman Moses Moody is a stud and heads up a deep team of transfers, freshmen, and holdovers that are a dominating rebounding team and a fiery offense. What worries me is that they are much better at home than they are away from Bud Walton Arena. The Hogs went 16-1 at home and just 5-4 on the road during the regular season (and note that 17-to-9 home/road split). As you may have heard, the entire NCAA tournament is in Indiana so will this late-season uptick travel to the Hoosier state?  With their lack of experience, they may struggle in Indy.

 
15 of 16

WATCH: North Carolina Tar Heels

WATCH: North Carolina Tar Heels
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

To me, there is no team in this tournament with a range of high ceiling and low floor than the Tar Heels. Last month, the Heels looked like zombies in a home loss to mediocre Marquette (a game they scheduled at the last minute) and days later upset Florida State. Lose to Syracuse, and then blow out Duke. They put a 42-point beating on Notre Dame and beat a physical Virginia Tech team before barely succumbing to a rested Florida State in the ACC tournament. This is a very young team that boasts four big men that help make the Heels one of the best rebounding teams in the nation -- by any metric. Carolina could fall flat, or they could be tough enough to pull off an upset or two and make a run to the second weekend of the tournament. The Heels have been an 8th-seed three times before -- and they upset the No. 1 seed in their bracket two of those times.

 
16 of 16

AVOID: Pac-12 teams

AVOID: Pac-12 teams
Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

I'm not hating on the league, but the "conference of champions" doesn't look as if there is a serious contender in the mix. The Pac-12 hasn't won a national championship since Arizona, then of the Pac-10, did so in 1997. That title, and UCLA's in 1995, are the league's only two championships in the last 45 years ... which extends to the end of the John Wooden dynasty Bruins. In fact, the only Pac-12 team to reach the Final Four last decade was Oregon in 2017. Could one of the teams make some noise in the tournament? Possibly. Evan Mobley could try to carry USC, or McKinley Wright IV  goes off a few times to move Colorado down the line. UCLA could beat Michigan State and BYU. However, after watching Oregon State knife through to a Pac-12 title, none of them should be relied on in your brackets to make a big run.

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