basketball-men-d1 flag | March 14, 2021

2021 NCAA bracket: What's different this year

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

The NCAA announced Jan. 15 how it will handle the 2021 NCAA bracket for the DI men's basketball championship, which will be held entirely in Indiana. The NCAA later announced on Jan. 19 preliminary round dates.

The TL/DR version is the top four seeds will be handled the same and so will the First Four. The changes will come in how the rest of the bracket is completed. Teams will be placed in the bracket based on rankings without the usual considerations for geography. This is called using the "S-curve" to fill the bracket. There will be 37 at-large selections (one more than normal) and 31 automatic qualifiers (one fewer than normal).

Here's a break down of what is in the releases and how this season's NCAA bracket and tournament will be different than any that has come before.

  • Because this year's event will be in Indiana, the overall seed list will be the main determination for the bracket. In a typical year, geographic proximity to hosting sites in the early rounds helps determine bracketing decisions. That won't be a factor in 2021 because all tournament games will be in Indiana. The overall seed list is a ranking of all 68 teams in the tournament.
  • The S-curve will again be used by the committee when it comes to seeding, but it will be on a grander scale this year. As usual, the top four seeds on the overall seed list will be placed in four separate regions (the four No. 1 seeds). From there, however, things change.
    • The S-curve will be used for the rest of the bracket, which means the overall No. 5 seed (the top No. 2 seed) will be in the same region as the overall No. 4 seed (the final No. 1 seed) and the overall No. 6 will be placed with the overall No. 3, etc. You can read the complete breakdown in the NCAA's release here.
    • The committee intends to stay true to its existing bracketing principles, including not matching up teams from the same conference early in the tournament. You can read the circumstances under which conference teams might meet in the full release.
  • There was a deadline on Saturday, March 13, for teams to attest their availability to play in the NCAA tournament based on medical protocols. You can find more information about that and other bracket news here with Andy Katz's interview with NCAA Vice President of Basketball Dan Gavitt.
  • There will be 37 at-large selections this season, one more than the usual 36. The Ivy League is not playing this season, meaning there will be 31 automatic qualifiers.
  • Usually the tournament is spread out throughout the country, from the First Four (Dayton) through the Final Four (most recently in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2019). The NCAA first announced the move to a single site Nov. 16.
    • Host sites for 2021: 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 First Four will be played on one day in 2021: Thursday, March 18. Previously, the First Four played out over two days — the Tuesday and Wednesday after Selection Sunday.
  • First- and second-round games will be played out over two days each, though shifted one day. For 2021, the first round is set for Friday, March 19 and Saturday, March 20. The second round is scheduled for Sunday, March 21 and Monday, March 22. In the past, the first and second rounds lasted Thursday through Sunday.
  • The Sweet 16 will be played on Saturday, March 27 and Sunday, March 28, with all eight games played at separate times. In the past, regional semifinal games had some overlap.
  • The Elite Eight will be held Monday, March 29 and Tuesday, March 30.

HISTORY: See every NCAA bracket since 1939 with stats and records | What is March Madness 

But some things will remain the same. The field of 68 teams will again begin with the First Four, which will work the same as it would in a normal year. The No. 65 overall seed will play No. 66 and No. 67 will meet No. 68. The other First Four participants will again be made up by the last four at-large selections.

This year's Selection Sunday is today, March 14. The Final Four is set to be played on April 3 and 5.

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