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Andy Wittry | NCAA.com | March 16, 2021

1 team from each NCAA bracket seed line to pick — and why

Go ahead, pick your bracket based on mascots — here’s how

You've likely either filled out your NCAA tournament bracket (or 10), or you're putting in your final research before filling out your bracket. We're here to help with those final picks.

I went through every NCAA tournament seed line and picked out one team from each seed that you should consider picking to advance, and I broke down the criteria for various seeds, in order to be somewhat realistic.

For No. 1 through No. 4 seeds, I picked one team from each seed line that could potentially win the national championship. For No. 5 through No. 8 seeds, I picked one team that could potentially make the Final Four. For No. 9 through No. 12 seeds, I picked a team that could make a Sweet 16 run. And for No. 13 through No. 16 seeds, I picked the team that's most likely to win its first-round matchup.

No. 1 seed to consider

Our pick: Gonzaga (of course)

Gonzaga is the No. 1 overall seed and it has the chance to become the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976, so you won't be picking a unique champion if you choose the Zags but if your goal is simply to be right, Gonzaga gives you a better shot than any other team.

The Bulldogs' adjusted efficiency margin — essentially meaning how many points it scores on average versus how many it allows, per 100 possessions — is +38.05, per kenpom.com, which is not only significantly better than the second-best efficiency margin in the country (Michigan at +32.22), but it's also better than any other team that has entered the NCAA tournament since 2002.

Gonzaga's dominance this season is just as much of a reason to pick someone else to win the national championship, since the Bulldogs will be a very popular pick, but it will also take some guts to pick against them.

No. 2 seed to consider

Our pick: Alabama

Using the efficiency margin we cited above, the Crimson Tide actually has the lowest efficiency margin of any of the No. 2 seeds at +26.42 (Iowa has the best at +30.33), but Alabama's defense is the second-best in the country on a per-possession basis and its offense, which results in a shot at the rim or a 3-point attempt more than 88 percent of the time, is a paragon of modern basketball.

Just over 47 percent of Alabama's attempts come from behind the arc, which is one of the 20 highest percentages in the country, and that will certainly garner attention and headlines, but it's the fact that it's that end of the floor is where Alabama is actually less efficient is what makes the Crimson Tide a potentially promising pick. They play at one of the fastest tempos in the sport and shoot a ton of threes, yet they're capable of defending as well as anyone in the country. That's a dangerous combination.

Plus, the No. 1 seed in the East region is Michigan, which is currently without senior forward Isaiah Livers, who leads the team in minutes played per game, ranks second in scoring average and third in rebounding average. If he's unable to return this season, the best-seeded team in Alabama's region will be down one of its best players.

The Crimson Tide is on a five-game winning streak and it has won as many as 10 games in a row this season, so if you're looking for a team that has proven it's capable of winning (at least) six in a row, Alabama has done it.

No. 3 seed to consider

Our pick: Arkansas

You could potentially make the case that none of the No. 3 seeds are in a great position to make a deep NCAA tournament run, based upon their predictive metrics. Based on their resumes, they're the No. 9 through No. 12 teams in the country, according to the selection committee, but their adjusted efficiency margins according to kenpom.com are No. 18 (Arkansas), No. 22 (Kansas), No. 26 (Texas) and No. 27 (West Virginia).

Arkansas, based on its advanced metrics and its potential path, could be the team that makes the deepest run from the No. 3 seed line. The Razorbacks had their nine-game winning streak snapped in the SEC tournament semifinals and it was their second nine-game winning streak of the season. This is a team that likes to play fast (No. 17 nationally in tempo) while still defending at a high level (No. 14 defensively). Other than blocking shots (No. 21 nationally in block rate), it's hard to pinpoint what Arkansas is elite at, but the Razorbacks are very solid across the board in almost every consequential metric.

Being seeded on the same half of the same region as No. 2 Ohio State, which doesn't have anyone taller than 6-8 and which lost four games in a row to end the regular season, Arkansas wouldn't face a significant gap in talent or proven performance until a potential matchup against No. 1 seed Baylor in the Elite Eight, if both schools advanced that far. Arkansas coach Eric Musselman took Nevada to the Sweet 16 as a No. 7 seed in 2018, beating No. 2 seed Cincinnati along the way, and there was a potential path to the Final Four, but a one-point loss to Loyola Chicago ended the Wolf Pack's run. Arkansas' region could open up in a similar way if its able to beat a better-seeded team and potentially benefit from an upset of a great team, as many teams in No. 1 seed Virginia's region did in 2018.

There's also a compelling case to be made for No. 3 seed Texas — although the Longhorns are in the same region as our pick for the No. 2 seed that's capable of making a title run, Alabama — but for as talented as it is, Texas has also operated on thin margins. Fourteen of its 26 games have been decided by six points or fewer, in addition to a double-overtime loss to Oklahoma State. While the Longhorns are 10-5 in those 15 games, it's tough to expect a team to sustain that many close victories in the NCAA tournament.

No. 4 seed to consider

Our pick: Oklahoma State

Let's be clear: Oklahoma State's path to the Elite Eight, let alone a national championship, is incredibly difficult. In the first round, the Cowboys will face a Liberty team that ranks in the top 10 nationally in 2-point percentage and 3-point percentage, and the Flames do a great job of taking care of the ball. There are multiple Big 12 teams this season that aren't nearly as good as Liberty. Then, No. 5 seed Tennessee, which arguably has two of the 20 most-talented freshmen in the country in Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer, potentially awaits Oklahoma State in the second round, before a potential meeting with No. 1 seed Illinois in the Sweet 16.

So the path ahead for Oklahoma State is treacherous, but the good news is that Oklahoma State might have the most talented player in the NCAA tournament in freshman Cade Cunningham, who's a 6-8 point guard who shoots better than 41 percent from three and who attempts 5.5 free throw attempts per game. NCAA.com has found that roughly a third of the teams that made the Elite Eight last decade had a primary ball-handler who was an All-American, so Oklahoma State obviously checks that box.

It's a bit of an annual trope to ask "Who could be the next Carmelo Anthony/Kemba Walker/Shabazz Napier/insert March Madness legend here?" but that question is asked because in a 68-team, single-elimination tournament, elite talent can carry a team a long way. The Cowboys have a top-25 defense and they do a good job of crashing the offensive glass and getting to the free-throw line, which is a must for a team that shoots just 33.8 percent from three.

Based on its NCAA tournament draw, Oklahoma State might have the lowest floor of any No. 4 seeds — Virginia's COVID-19 challenges aside — but given the singular talent that Cunningham is and just how well the Cowboys have played in the last month-plus (a nine-point win over Baylor, sweeps of West Virginia and Oklahoma, plus a win over Texas Tech), Oklahoma State might have the highest ceiling of any team on the No. 4 seed line.

No. 5 seed to consider

Our pick: Colorado

This is Colorado's best seed in program history — seriously! — and it's the best by three seed lines, too, which is pretty remarkable. The Buffaloes are ranked No. 17 on kenpom.com, which is actually better than all four No. 3 seeds and No. 4 seed Oklahoma State. If you value experience, Colorado ranks ninth among NCAA tournament teams in that metric and four of the eight teams with more experience than the Buffaloes are double-digit seeds.

Colorado's first-round matchup is against No. 12 seed Georgetown, which itself is one of the best stories of the NCAA tournament as former Hoya great Patrick Ewing led his alma mater back to the NCAA tournament after an improbable Big East tournament run. But the Hoyas were a nearly unanimous pick to finish in last place in the Big East preseason poll and they needed the automatic bid to qualify, so Colorado arguably got a favorable first-round draw.

While No. 4 seed Florida State is elite offensively, and incredibly long and athletic, the Seminoles have also lost three of their last five games and in mid-February they needed overtime to escape a Wake Forest team that finished 3-15 in the ACC. For as good as Florida State's best basketball is, the 'Noles could also be vulnerable, as could No. 1 seed Michigan if Isaiah Livers doesn't return from his injury.

FiveThirtyEight gives Colorado an eight percent chance of reaching the Final Four, which certainly qualifies as a long shot, but that's still better than fellow No. 5 seeds Tennessee (six percent), Creighton (five percent) and Villanova (four percent).

No. 6 seed to consider

Our pick: USC

Look, we get it. Playing in the same region as undefeated Gonzaga isn't a good sign for anyone's Final Four chances, especially a team that's not a relative peer that's on the No. 2 or No. 3 seed line. But any No. 6 seed making the Final Four is unlikely, so sharing the West region with the Zags shouldn't be disqualifying, especially given USC's No. 14 ranking on kenpom.com, thanks to a top-20 defense and top-30 offense.

The Trojans' defense can be stifling, as they hold opponents to  42.2-percent 2-point shooting, which could be very beneficial if they were to meet the Zags in the Elite Eight, which is admittedly quite a far projection to make at this point. Freshman Evan Mobley went for the trifecta — Pac-12 Player of the Year, Pac-12 Defensive Player of  the Year and Pac-12 Freshman of the Year — after averaging 16.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and 2.2 assists per game. He might be the most talented player in the NCAA tournament this side of Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham and Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs.

In USC's half of the West region, No. 2 seed Iowa has the 36th-best defense among the 68 teams and No. 3 seed Kansas unfortunately is not currently operating with a full roster due to COVID-19 issues, so USC, based upon its talent and its efficiency margin, might be more on par with those caliber of teams than a typical No. 6 seed would be.

No. 7 seed to consider

Our pick: UConn

What happened the last time UConn was a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament? I kind of forget.

Oh, that's right. I remember now.

I'm not saying the stars are aligning for UConn's fifth national championship in the last 22 NCAA tournaments, but the Huskies, ranked No. 16 on kenpom.com with a top-25 offense and defense, are arguably better than their seed line. Much of the reason is because sophomore James Bouknight, who could've been a serious Big East Player of the Year candidate if healthy, played just 14 of the team's 22 games so far this season.

The Huskies are aggressive on the offensive glass, rebounding almost 37 percent of their misses, and their opponents have had an effective field goal percentage of 46.2 this season, which ranks 28th nationally. Opposing teams are making just 31.6 percent of their threes. This is a team that, at its best, beat aforementioned USC, plus UConn has rattled off winning streaks of five and four games, so even in a shortened season, they've proven capable of winning the number of consecutive games that a Final Four run would require.

FiveThirtyEight puts UConn's Final Four chances at five percent, but if you were to fill out 20 brackets, each with an independent, five-percent chance of success, like UConn to the Final Four, then one of those picks might land.

No. 8 seed to consider

Our pick: LSU

No. 8 seeds have advanced to the Final Four almost four percent of the time, which is actually more often than No. 6 and No. 7 seeds. It's certainly unlikely but by no means impossible, especially because if they're able to beat the No. 1 seed in their region in the second round, they've already beaten the best team in the region.

You can actually form a reasonable argument for why each of the four No. 8 seeds this season could potentially make the second weekend, for various reasons. Oklahoma beat four top-10 teams in the month of January. North Carolina, despite its 18-10 record, has had as many as three players record a double-double in a single game, thanks to being the No. 1 offensive rebounding team in the country (they grab 41 percent of their misses) and having the seventh-tallest average height. Loyola Chicago enters the NCAA tournament with the No. 1 adjusted defensive efficiency in the country. Texas Tech finished the 2019 NCAA Tournament with the No. 1 defense and it lost in the national championship game, as did Gonzaga in 2017.

But the pick here is LSU, which has a top-five offense fueled by some high-level talent, like Cameron Thomas, Javonte Smart, Trendon Watford and Darius Days. At risk of repeating the same refrain, No. 1 seed Michigan is currently not at full strength and if LSU plays the way it played in the SEC tournament final, where it narrowly fell to Alabama 80-79, then it can play with one of the best teams in the country.

No. 9 seed to consider

Our pick: Wisconsin

Reminder, from the No. 9 seeds through No. 12 seeds, we're identifying the team that's most likely to make the Sweet 16 from each seed line. Wisconsin, given its first-round matchup against North Carolina, might fall in the trap for many fans of team that isn't considered to make the second round, much less the Sweet 16, because of North Carolina's name and its pair of recent wins in the ACC tournament.

But Wisconsin's adjusted efficiency margin ranks in the top 10 in the country, according to kenpom.com. The Badgers' record is just 17-12 after playing in the gauntlet that was the Big Ten this season, but their only flaw, really, was losing to really good teams. Their last seven losses came against teams ranked in the top 15 on kenpom.com, which is where nine of their 12 losses fell, too.

Wisconsin has a top-15 defense, it takes better care of the ball than every team in the country but one (with a 13.5-percent turnover percentage), and it ranks in the top  25 in experience and minutes continuity. A Sweet 16 run would almost assuredly require a win over No. 1 seed Baylor but Wisconsin has just enough 3-point shooting (36 percent as a team) to potentially keep pace with the Bears.

No. 10 seed to consider

Our pick: Rutgers

Rutgers hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 1991 and it hasn't won a game in the tournament since 1983 so man, this would be something if the Scarlet Knights made the second weekend as a double-digit seed in their first appearance in 30 years. Ranked No. 34 on kenpom.com, Rutgers arguably has the efficiency profile more fitting of a No. 7 or No. 8 seed, rather than a No. 10 seed, and it boasts a top-20 defense. This is a team that beat NCAA tournament teams Syracuse, Maryland and Illinois consecutively in December, then Purdue two games  later, and five of its top six players in terms of minutes played are juniors or seniors.

Rutgers is projected to beat No. 7 seed Clemson in the first round, according to both kenpom.com and FiveThirtyEight, and a potential second-round matchup against No. 2 seed Houston would pit the Scarlet Knights against a team that plays at one of the slowest tempos in the country. A slow tempo means fewer possessions and fewer possessions means a smaller margin for error for the better team, which could put Houston at risk of losing earlier than one might expect a No. 2 seed to exit the tournament.

No. 11 seed to consider

Our pick: Syracuse

This pick is educated based on both the past and the present. Yes, Syracuse has won multiple NCAA tournament games in each of its last two tournament appearances when it was a double-digit seed — a Final Four run as a No. 10 seed in 2016 and a Sweet 16 berth in 2018 as a No. 11 seed — but the Orange, with their 2-3 zone defense, also rank No. 41 on kenpom.com entering the tournament, which is one spot ahead of No. 7 seed Clemson.

And for as much attention as Syracuse's defense gets, its offense ranks No. 22 nationally, thanks in large part to a group that makes its free throws (78.4 percent shooting) and takes care of the ball (15.9-percent turnover rate, which ranks 31st). Syracuse, if it advances to the second round, would likely face No. 3 seed West Virginia and the Orange's zone could potentially limit what the Mountaineers are great at — offensive rebounding and drawing fouls.

No. 12 seed to consider

Our pick: Winthrop

Winthrop's first-round opponent, No. 5 seed Villanova, lost co-Big East Player of the Year Collin Gillespie to a season-ending knee injury and the Wildcats are 0-2 without him. Winthtrop is 23-1 on the season, and you'll likely hear those two stats in succession sometime during the television broadcast. The Eagles play fast (11th nationally in tempo), they rank in the top 12 in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage and they force a lot of turnovers. Their two-point loss two UNC Asheville prevented the 2021 NCAA Tournament from featuring two undefeated teams, along with Gonzaga, and that kind of record is impressive regardless of conference affiliation.

No. 13 seed to consider

Our pick: North Texas

A reminder that from the No. 13 seeds through No. 16 seeds, I'm picking the team on each seed line that's most likely to win its first-round game. North Texas, ranked No. 71 on kenpom.com, is the highest-ranked of any of the No. 13 seeds and it enters the Big Dance on a four-game winning streak, including back-to-back wins over top-100 KenPom opponents in Louisiana Tech and Western Kentucky.

Earlier in the season, North Texas played Arkansas, Mississippi State and West Virginia in consecutive road games, so if you value double-digit seeds that have already played top-end talent, the Mean Green check that box. North Texas ranks in the top 40 in offensive effective field-goal percentage and in the top 20 in defensive effective field-goal percentage.

No. 14 seed to consider

Our pick: Colgate

Colgate, its No. 9 NET ranking and all, will finally have the opportunity to show what it can do outside of the Patriot League. The Raiders played a conference-only schedule and went 14-1 overall, sweeping the league's regular season and conference tournament titles, while producing an offense that ranks fifth nationally in both effective field-goal percentage and turnover percentage.

FiveThirtyEight gives Colgate a 24-percent chance of victory against No. 3 seed Arkansas.

No. 15 seed to consider

Our pick: Grand Canyon

Under first-year head coach Bryce Drew, Grand Canyon will make its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance after the Antelopes swept the WAC's regular season and conference tournament titles. Defensively, they hold opponents to an effective field-goal percentage of 44.9 percent and they rank in the top 15 in defensive rebounding percentage, so there's reason to believe they could potentially slow down Iowa's offense more than one might expect.

Of course, No. 15 seeds have less than a six-percent chance of winning in the first round, so it happens just more than once every five years, on average. Iowa is 3-4 in the NCAA tournament during Fran McCaffery's tenure.

No. 16 seed to consider

Our pick: The winner of Mount St. Mary's/Texas Southern

This, of course, is the most unlikely of all of our picks, for obvious reasons. But I'll use UMBC's upset of No. 1 Virginia to inform this pick. Virginia was without De'Andre Hunter when it lost to UMBC and Michigan is currently without Isaiah Livers, who leads the team in minutes played per game. If a No. 16 seed is to beat a No. 1 seed this year, the most obvious reason would be that the No. 1 seed isn't at full strength.

 
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