March Madness
(Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen)

We are less than five weeks away from March Madness 2021. Here’s a prediction of how the season ends for each of the Week 12 AP Top 25 programs. Obviously, this is purely speculative based on the teams’ seasons thus far. More precise predictions will be made once the bracket is released. As more of the season plays out, predictions for individual teams may change.

25. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Rutgers has rebounded from a rough patch in conference play, going from a five-game losing streak to a four-game winning streak. If anything, it just proves that they’re really good against middling teams and not so great against upper-tier opponents. They feel like a group that’s good for about one game in the NCAA Tournament and then flames out against a better team.

Prediction: Round of 32

24. Purdue Boilermakers

Purdue has been wildly inconsistent this season in their play. They’ve lost to Miami and Maryland, but beat Ohio State twice. I could honestly see them losing the first game against a mid-major, but I’ll hedge my bets and give them a win in the first round. Mid-tier Big Ten teams are probably top-tier in most other conferences, but I don’t have a ton of confidence in the Boilermakers.

Prediction: Round of 32

23. Oklahoma State Cowboys

Oklahoma State is an extremely challenging matchup. Up until recently, none of the top Big 12 teams had blown them out, and they played everyone really close. Cade Cunningham has been proving why he is a consensus top pick for the 2021 NBA Draft. However, the Cowboys are not without their weaknesses. They have a few puzzling losses, including two to TCU. On the other hand, they have marquee wins against Texas Tech, Texas, and Kansas. I think they have Sweet Sixteen potential, but because they will likely wind up with a draw that puts them against a No. 1 seed in the Round of 32, I expect them to only make it that far.

Prediction: Round of 32

22. Loyola-Chicago Ramblers

Loyola-Chicago is billed as one of the top mid-majors this season, but as of now I think they’ll lose their first March Madness contest. Other than the Ramblers and the Drake Bulldogs, the Missouri Valley has some really bad teams. Loyola has an inexcusable loss to Indiana State, and they lost to the only power conference team they faced, falling by 14 to Wisconsin. Their tempo ranks 312th in the country, which doesn’t provide a ton of leeway if they fall behind in a tournament game.

Prediction: Round of 64

21. Wisconsin Badgers

I’m not entirely sure why the Badgers have slipped so far in the AP Poll. They were regarded as a top-five team for most of the season, and they don’t really have a bad loss yet (Penn State and Maryland are solid teams that can beat almost anybody). They are the No. 11 team in KenPom and were No. 7 in the Preseason AP Poll, which believe it or not is actually a decent predictor of March Madness performance. Their current ranking is super low in my opinion, and they have the veterans to make a deep run in March.

Prediction: Sweet Sixteen

20. USC Trojans

I really think USC is in here as the token Pac-12 team, because ‘The Conference of Champions’ is super weak this year. Evan Mobley has been phenomenal, but I’m not totally sold on the Trojans as a tournament threat. Whatever, I’ll give them a win for now.

Prediction: Round of 32

19. Creighton Bluejays

It seems like people always sleep on the Big East schools come tournament time, and there’s always one or two of them that make a respectable run. The Bluejays haven’t been awe-inspiring of late, but they have the star power in Marcus Zegarowski to upset some higher-seeded opponents and wind up in the Sweet Sixteen.

Prediction: Sweet Sixteen

18. Virginia Tech Hokies

The Hokies might be the hardest team for me to pin down out of the whole Top 25. They’ve beaten Villanova and Virginia, but have gotten absolutely smacked around by Pitt, Syracuse, and Penn State. I have no idea what version of Virginia Tech shows up in the NCAA Tournament. They’re also No. 36 in KenPom, so I’m evidently not the only one that isn’t as high on them as the AP voters.

Prediction: Round of 32

17. Florida State Seminoles

Florida State is in second place in the ACC, but it seems like no one is really talking about them. They have the No. 15 offense per KenPom and are also seen favorably in the Haslametrics performance ratings. Before their recent loss to Georgia Tech, the Seminoles were the winners of five straight. All I’m saying is that these guys are sneaky good and I wouldn’t be shocked at all if they made a run to the Elite Eight.

Prediction: Elite Eight

16. Tennessee Volunteers

Tennessee has an unbelievable defense, ranking first in the nation per KenPom’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency metrics. However, their offense has lacked a spark all season, and I think that will seriously hinder them in March. At the end of the day, all it takes is one slow start offensively, and that’s something the Volunteers are extremely prone to.

Prediction: Round of 32

15. Iowa Hawkeyes

After a hot start, the Hawkeyes have gotten banged around pretty badly. They spent a good portion of the season in the AP Top 5, but they have lost four of their last five games in Big Ten play. Luka Garza will more likely than not be the National Player of the Year, and he is a major reason why Iowa ranks first in the country for Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. However, the Hawkeyes rank 122nd for efficiency on the defensive end of the ball. In a March Madness scenario, that discrepancy almost guarantees they’ll find themselves in a shootout they will inevitably lose. Their ceiling is a Final Four appearance, but we haven’t seen evidence of that ceiling in a long time.

Prediction: Sweet Sixteen

14. West Virginia Mountaineers

West Virginia seems underrated this year. Three of their five losses are to teams currently ranked in the AP Top 15. Bob Huggins’ squad is always a tough out in March Madness, although I think they will suffer from the lack of paint presence created by Oscar Tshiebwe transferring midseason. However, they have a solid offensive system that will allow them to hang with almost anyone.

Prediction: Sweet Sixteen

13. Texas Longhorns

After the Longhorns defeated Kansas by 25 points in Allen Fieldhouse on January 2, they became a popular pick for the Final Four. However, they’ve taken a pretty big step back recently, dropping four of their last six. Those two wins were against Kansas State, which isn’t super impressive since the Wildcats are barely good enough to be a Division I program. Texas is still a really dangerous team, but I think they peaked at the wrong time. On the other hand, Shaka Smart has a Final Four pedigree, and good coaching goes a long way in the tournament. I’ll give them a Sweet Sixteen for now in light of their recent struggles.

Prediction: Sweet Sixteen

12. Oklahoma Sooners

Oklahoma sort of came out of nowhere this season and they are currently 7-4 in a loaded Big 12 conference. They have solid wins against West Virginia, Texas, and Alabama, but they haven’t been consistently great to the point where I feel comfortable putting them further than the Sweet Sixteen. The Sooners are the sort of team that will make any game competitive, which gives me confidence they can win at least two tournament games.

Prediction: Sweet Sixteen

11. Alabama Crimson Tide

At this point, the SEC is Alabama’s to lose. The Crimson Tide are 11-1 in the conference, their only conference loss coming at Missouri by three points. After a dominant stretch to start the new year, Alabama has eased their foot off the gas a little bit. They’re still the second-best team in Defensive Efficiency, and I’m not super worried about their ability to score buckets. Nate Oats has done an incredible job coaching Alabama, and I think they can definitely make the Elite Eight in March.

Prediction: Elite Eight

10. Missouri Tigers

As I was writing this article, Missouri got blown out by Ole Miss, which kind of confirmed my original suspicions that the Tigers aren’t very good. A team that is supposedly Top-10 shouldn’t be 6-4 in the SEC. Missouri is currently projected as a No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the tournament, which just reminds me of 2012 when they got upset in the first round by No. 15 Norfolk State. Missouri is No. 29 in KenPom and doesn’t rank in the top 30 for either Offensive Efficiency or Defensive Efficiency. I think they get bounced in the second round.

Prediction: Round of 32

9. Virginia Cavaliers

The Cavaliers only have three losses this season – a fluke one-point upset by San Francisco in the second game of the season, a loss to No. 1 Gonzaga, and a conference loss on the road to a ranked Virginia Tech team. Other than that, it’s been business as usual for Tony Bennett’s squad. Offensively, they are much better than expected. Defensively, they might not be as staunch as they usually are, but I trust them to pull it together for the tournament. Virginia is still really good, and if any ACC team makes a run in March Madness, it’s them.

Prediction: Final Four

8. Houston Cougars

I don’t know what to make of Houston. They look good in a lot of metrics, but I’m still not convinced with them. Part of the reason why is that they’ve lost to both Tulsa and East Carolina (ECU is really bad). I definitely think they’re good enough to make a Sweet Sixteen, but anything beyond that feels like a stretch. They have one good win against Texas Tech, but that’s about it. Ultimately, I’m just not sure about the Cougars yet.

Prediction: Sweet Sixteen

7. Texas Tech Red Raiders

Texas Tech have bounced around the Big 12, getting quality wins and taking quality losses. They are 3-5 against teams, currently ranked in the Top 25. That sort of record indicates to me that once they meet a higher seed in the NCAA Tournament, they might not be as equipped to win as their current AP ranking would suggest. Mac McClung has been really fun to watch, so hopefully we get to see him in the second weekend of March Madness.

Prediction: Sweet Sixteen

6. Illinois Fighting Illini

It looks like the Fighting Illini are getting hot at the right time. They have won eight of their last 10 games in the Big Ten, which is no easy feat. Ayo Dosunmu has been excellent lately, and Illinois seems to finally be delivering on their preseason Final Four aspirations. I think they can get there. They’ve played the fifth-hardest schedule in the entire country, and they will be the better for it.

Prediction: Final Four

5. Villanova Wildcats

I’ll say it: Villanova are frauds this year. They got a massive speculative pass after taking a month off for a COVID-19 pause. Not to say that’s their fault, but they essentially got to reserve their spot in the AP Top 5 until they returned to play, which is absolutely ludicrous. Their defense falls outside the KenPom top 50, which I think is a pretty exploitable flaw. After their recent 11-point loss to St. John’s, I could easily see the Wildcats falling to a scrappy low-seed power conference team in the second round.

Prediction: Round of 32

4. Ohio State Buckeyes

Ohio State and Villanova are extremely similar as far as efficiency metrics are concerned. The difference between them is that Ohio State is more efficient on offense, and they have played a significantly tougher schedule. They are ahead of Iowa and Wisconsin in the Big Ten, and that means we need to take the Buckeyes seriously. Depending on the matchups, an Elite Eight is not out of the question at all.

Prediction: Elite Eight

3. Michigan Wolverines

I’m shocked that Michigan is as good as they are. Juwan Howard has done a fantastic job getting the most out of the Wolverines, and they only have one loss on the season. Freshman center Hunter Dickinson has been way better than I thought he would be out of the gate. However, the Wolverines have so exceeded their expectations that I’m somehow wary of them in a tournament setting. Also, they have been on a month-long COVID pause, so it remains to be seen if they can be as sharp coming back from that. I ultimately picked Illinois and Virginia to make it to the Final Four above Michigan.

Prediction: Elite Eight

2. Baylor Bears

I think if they played 100 games against each other, Gonzaga would win more games than Baylor. That being said, the national championship game is not a series, it’s just one game. Baylor only has to beat Gonzaga once, and I think they can do it. The Bears are third in the nation for both Offensive Efficiency and Defensive Efficiency. They are undefeated in the Big 12, which is really hard to do. Although Baylor has frequently choked in March Madness, I think this year’s team is different. Jared Butler is making a case for National Player of the Year, and Baylor has the cast to get it done.

Prediction: National Champion

1. Gonzaga Bulldogs

I really love Gonzaga, and I think they are the most fun team to watch in the country. They will most likely finish up their regular season undefeated, led by their high-powered offense and a top-five defense to match. I don’t think they’ll have much trouble in the NCAA Tournament for the first few games. My one reservation with the Zags is that they’ve had very slow starts in a few of their WCC games. That might just be boredom, but if they start slow against a team like Baylor, things will not end well for them. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Gonzaga is legit this year. They played five power conference teams in their non-conference schedule and dispatched all of them. I hate not predicting them as my National Champion, but maybe I’ll switch it up in future weeks.

Prediction: National Runner-Up

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