We’ve waited two years for this, but it’s finally here. March Madness is upon us, and that means predictions are an absolute requirement.
The First Four begins Thursday, and the first round tips off Friday, continuing through Saturday. Every game will be played in Indiana. It’s being played in a bubble. Some things might be wonky about the 2021 March Madness, but it’s plenty close enough to the real thing to fill our empty hearts after 2020.
So, let’s get into the bracket and make some March Madness predictions, shall we?
March Madness Predictions
Illinois-Oklahoma State Will Be One of the Best Games of the Tournament
Of course, Illinois and Oklahoma State will have to make it to the Sweet 16 first for this game to even happen, but heading into the bracket reveal, I was planning to pick both of these teams to go to the Final Four. That’s no longer possible, but I’ll still slot them both into the Sweet 16, even if I think Illinois got stuck with an unfortunate potential matchup in the second round with Loyola Chicago.
If I’m right and we get to see these two on the floor pitted against one another, expect fireworks. There aren’t very many teams in the country that are hotter than these two at the moment, and they both feature some of the most marquee teams in this March Madness. Please, give me Ayo Dosunmu and Cade Cunningham dueling one another with drives, jumpers and magically dimes that make you remember why this time of year is so special.
I’d love to see Oklahoma State try to guard Kofi Cockburn. Kalib Boone is responsible for 1.2 defensive wins shares – the second-most among Cowboys defenders – and has a 8.3 block percentage (meaning an average of 8.3 shots are blocked while he’s on the floor), but he’s also 6-foot-9, 210 pounds, which is dwarfed by Cockburn’s 7-foot, 285-pound frame. Boone is an excellent defender, but is he capable of slowing Cockburn down? It would likely need a team effort to keep Cockburn from bullying down low.
Predictive metrics don’t like Oklahoma State much, which is part of why the committee gave the Cowboys a No. 4 seed as opposed to the No. 3 seed they were presumed to have locked up. But from the eye test, it’s clear to see that this team could be poised for a deep run this postseason.
We Will Have a First-Time Champion
This isn’t the boldest March Madness prediction this year, which is strange. But that’s what happens when Duke, Indiana, and Kentucky all miss the tournament, North Carolina is a No. 8, UCLA and Michigan State barely scrap in, and the top contenders are largely non-traditional programs.
Three of the four No. 1 seeds have never won a national championship, and the one that has – Michigan – hasn’t won since 1989. The only No. 2 to have won a title in the past is Ohio State, and that was in 1960. Kansas has won three, but Arkansas is the only other No. 3 seed to have climbed the mountain top, and that was in 1995.
The point is, the biggest challengers for the 2021 crown are teams that have never reigned supreme. While it’s possible, I don’t think Michigan, Ohio State, Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma State or Virginia will win the national title, and those are the only top-four seeded teams to have won before. Therefore, we’re looking at another first-time winner after the 2019 Cavaliers became the first program since Florida in 2006.
James Preston Will Be the Face of the 2021 Cinderella
You can’t make March Madness predictions without naming a Cinderella, can you?
No. 13 seed Ohio is in the tournament after winning three games in three days in the MAC Tournament as the No. 5 seed in that event. Leading the way was junior guard James Preston, who scored at least 19 points in each game of the conference tournament, including a 27-point, 5-of-9 three-point performance in the semifinal against top-seeded Toledo. For the season, Preston is averaging 16.6 points, 7.2 assists, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.2 steals, plus he shoots 40.8 percent from deep.
We have seen plenty of guards like him take mid-major, double-digit seeds on legendary runs in March Madness, and the stage is set pretty nicely: Ohio’s first round matchup is against No. 4 Virginia, which will be coming off a COVID-19 pause and will only be able to restart practice later this week. The game is Saturday.
We’ve seen the impact COVID-induced pauses can have on teams, even if the number of cases among personnel is limited. This Virginia team isn’t as prolific defensively as some of its recent iterations, ranking 33rd in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric 38th in T-Rank. Conversely, the Bobcats are 29th in offensive efficiency in KenPom and 30th in T-Rank. Virginia also lost three-straight late in the season before winning three in a row over Miami (FL), Louisville and a buzzer beater to knock off Syracuse in the ACC Tournament – two teams that aren’t dancing, and one that just barely is.
Ohio also looked fantastic in the MAC Tournament. The team made at least eight triples in each game of the tournament, and it did this against the No. 4 seed, the No. 1 seed, and the No. 2 seed in the event. Ben Vander Plas and Dwight Wilson are playing some great ball, too, and they have the firepower to outscore a lot of teams in this tournament, especially with their recent form.
So, put it all together, and add in a coach in Jeff Boals who gained plenty of tournament experience as a long-time assistant at Ohio State under Thad Matta, and this is a prime candidate for a No. 13 over No. 4 upset. In the next round, Ohio could see either Creighton or UC Santa Barbara. Creighton has the situation with head coach Greg McDermott looming over its head and were thoroughly dominated in the Big East Tournament Final by Georgetown (though that could mean nothing), and if UCSB wins, that’s a double-digit seed standing between the Bobcats and the Sweet 16. Not too shabby.
In December 2019, I traveled to Athens, Ohio, with Mark Donahue to cover Purdue coming to town for a non-conference showdown. The Bobcats were outmatched, but I saw the raw beginnings of a team that could do some damage in the MAC and beyond. I didn’t know it would happen this fast, but what I saw then and what I’m seeing now, I am a firm believer in the Bobcats.
How would a possible Sweet 16 matchup with Gonzaga go? Well, I wouldn’t predict Ohio to come out on the right side of that one, but I do foresee Preston and the Bobcats becoming one of, if not the Cinderella of this March Madness.
I have to give a guess for how I think this tournament will unfold, right? Here’s what I’m going with in my bracket:
Cinderella: 13 Ohio
First No. 1 Seed Down: 1 Michigan
Number of 12 over 5 Upsets: 3
West Regional Final: 6 USC vs 1 Gonzaga
East Regional Final: 4 Florida State vs 2 Alabama
South Regional Final: 3 Arkansas vs 1 Baylor
Midwest Regional Final: 2 Houston vs 1 Illinois
Final Four: 1 Gonzaga, 2 Alabama, 1 Baylor, 1 Illinois
National Champion: 1 Illinois