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NCAA | January 15, 2021

New bracketing principles adopted for 2021 NCAA tournament

How the 2021 NCAA bracket will work, explained by Andy Katz

The NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee adopted new bracketing principles, effective only for the 2021 championship, as a result of the entire tournament being played in Indiana.

While the participating schools’ geographic proximity to the sites hosting preliminary rounds largely drives the committee’s bracketing decisions in a typical year, this year’s bracket will be mostly determined by the overall seed list, which is the committee’s ranking of the 68 teams participating in the event.

The method, commonly referred to as the S-curve, involves the same first step the committee would normally use, which entails putting the top four teams on the seed list in the four separate regions. From there, however, things will be different in 2021. The overall No. 5 seed will be placed in the same region as the overall No. 4. The overall No. 6 will be placed with the overall No. 3. The overall No. 7 seed will be paired with the overall No. 2, and the overall No. 8 will be in the same region as the top-seeded team. The next step would be to place the third-seeded teams, with the overall No. 9 seed joining the Nos. 1 and 8 seeds in one region, the No. 10 seed being placed with the Nos. 2 and 7 seeds, the No. 11 seed going to the same region as the Nos. 3 and 6 seeds, and the No. 12 seed joining the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds. The first quadrant of tournament teams is completed by placing the fourth-seeded teams in each region as follows: the overall No. 13 with Nos. 4, 5 and 12; No. 14 with Nos. 3, 6 and 11; No. 15 with Nos. 2, 7 and 10; and No. 16 with Nos. 1, 8 and 9. The process repeats itself for teams seeded 5-16, using the overall seed list to place teams in their respective regions.

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The First Four matchups will work the same as they would in a normal year, with the overall Nos. 65 and 66 teams playing, and the overall Nos. 67 and 68 teams facing each other. The other First Four games will feature the last four at-large teams on the committee’s final seed list playing one another.

The committee’s intent will be to stay true to the S-curve for placing teams on the bracket, though the following existing principles will still be applied accordingly:

  • Each of the top four teams selected from a conference shall be placed in different regions if they are seeded on the first four lines.
  • Teams from the same conference shall not meet before the regional final if they played each other three or more times during the regular season, to include the conference tournament.
  • Teams from the same conference shall not meet before the regional semifinals if they played each other twice during the regular season, to include the conference tournament.
  • Teams from the same conference may play each other as early as the second round if they played no more than once during the regular season, to include the conference tournament.
  • If possible, rematches of nonconference regular-season games should be avoided in the First Four and first round.

“As the committee discussed this topic, it became clear that the S-curve bracketing option makes the most sense, given the unique circumstances with which this tournament will be played,” said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball. “In a normal year, bracketing is done with consideration given to keeping as many teams as close to their campus as possible, reducing team travel and providing as many fans as possible an opportunity to watch their favorite teams participate in The Big Dance. But this year only, with the entire tournament being played in Indiana, the committee believes this different approach is optimal.”

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The committee will be charged with selecting the best 37 at-large teams to join the automatic qualifiers from the 31 conferences playing this season. Selection Sunday is March 14, and the Final Four will be played April 3 and 5. Exact preliminary-round playing dates will be announced later.  

March Madness games will be played at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indiana Farmers Coliseum and Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, along with Mackey Arena in West Lafayette and Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington. The tournament will be hosted by Ball State, Butler, the Horizon League, Indiana, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and Purdue.

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