Sure, the 2021 NCAA tournament may not feature Kentucky, Duke, Indiana, Cincinnati, Louisville, NC State and San Francisco — seven of the 15 programs that have won multiple men's basketball national championships and 26 total championships — but the 68-team field does have schools that lifelong college basketball fans will likely feel warm and fuzzy watching.
Here are some of the NCAA tournament bracket picks that you might be tempted to make if you're an old-school fan of the sport.
Georgetown to win at least one game in the NCAA tournament
Patrick Ewing is coaching Georgetown in the NCAA tournament. That sentence right there is the essence of this story. The former Hoyas great led the program to three national championship games in four seasons, including the 1984 title, and he finished his college career with a remarkable 15-3 record in the NCAA tournament.
The Hoyas haven't been in the NCAA tournament since 2015, and they were often prone to early exits last decade, but now this is Ewing's chance to leave another mark on the program, only this time as a coach. Georgetown will face No. 5 seed Colorado, which earned its best seed in program history, and which is ranked No. 17 on kenpom.com, so Georgetown (13-12) will have its work cut out for it. The Hoyas are good at defending without fouling, as opponents attempt roughly one free throw for every four field-goal attempts, which will be critical against Colorado, which is one of the best free-throw shooting teams in the history of the sport.
Offensively, Georgetown is only ranked No. 85 in terms of efficiency, but it crashes the offensive glass hard (it rebounds roughly a third of its missed shots) and it shoots 36.6 percent from deep. If the Hoyas are hitting from outside, and scooping up a high percentage of the shots that they do miss, then they could win in the 12-over-5 upset.
The winner of Michigan State/UCLA over BYU
A First Four matchup between No. 11 seeds UCLA (11 national championships) and Michigan State (two national championships) is an incredible way to help kick off the 2021 NCAA tournament. Both schools obviously have the brand recognition, but beyond the name appeal, they both have an argument for why each could beat No. 6 seed BYU in the first round.
The case for Michigan State is as follows: the Spartans are sixth in assist rate (calculate as assists divided by the number of made field goals), so even though their offense barely cracks the top 100, they are unselfish. Their bench is responsible for almost 39 percent of the team's minutes, which ranks just outside the top 30 nationally, and juniors and seniors are responsible for 97 out of a possible 135 starts, so this is a veteran group. They generally have good size across the board, too, especially on the wings, with 6-6 Aaron Henry, 6-5 Joshua Langford, and 6-8 Gabe Brown. Plus, the Spartans' recent track record of wins against No. 1 seeds Illinois and Michigan, plus No. 2 seed Ohio State, has to count for something, showing Michigan State's ability to win do-or-die games against better teams.
Michigan State's defense will need to carry it — the Spartans rank 34th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, with a respectable block percentage (12.3 percent of opponents' 2-point attempts are blocked) and defensive 3-point percentage (31.5 percent). That last stat would be critical in a potential matchup against BYU, which makes 37.3 percent of its attempts from deep.
The potential case for UCLA to make the second round comes on the offensive end, which the Bruins rank 26th in efficiency. While they don't attempt a high percentage of threes (just 31 percent of their attempts are from deep), they make 36.7 percent of them. They also do a good job of taking care of the ball, committing a turnover on less than 17 percent of their possessions. UCLA plays at one of the slowest tempos nationally, so its case for an upset bid rests on a low-possession game in which its offense operates at full capacity.
Syracuse to make (another) run as a double-digit seed
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim ranks second all-time in career Division I wins, behind only Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. Since the Orange became an annual NCAA tournament participant in the '70s during its final years as an independent program, coached by Roy Danforth, then Boeheim, Syracuse has been a men's basketball staple. Syracuse, of course, won the 2003 national championship in a Carmelo Anthony-led tournament run, and the Orange lost in the national championship game in 1987 and 1996.
This year, Syracuse is a No. 11 seed and the last two times the Orange was a double-digit seed in the NCAA tournament, it advanced to the Final Four as a No. 10 seed in 2016, then it made a Sweet 16 run as a No. 11 seed in 2018 after starting in the First Four.
Syracuse's 2-3 zone can be a challenge to prepare for, especially on a quick turnaround and for opponents who may not have experience playing against that level of size and length in a zone defense. The Orange will open the NCAA tournament against No. 6 seed San Diego State and if Syracuse wins, it would play the winner of No. 3 seed West Virginia and No. 14 seed Morehead State.
While Syracuse's defense is what gets most of the attention, its offense is actually significantly better (No. 22) than its defense (No. 90) in terms of its national efficiency ranking. Syracuse takes care of the ball, makes a high percentage of its free throws (78.4 percent) and it's above average at offensive rebounding.
Syracuse is by no means guaranteed to win one game in the NCAA tournament, let alone multiple. If it does, we can say that we have seen that story before, as an Orange squad that is among the final at-large teams in the field makes the second weekend, if not further.
Arkansas makes the second weekend, if not the Final Four
In the 1990s, Arkansas was on the short list of the best men's basketball programs in the country, as coach Nolan Richardson led the Razorbacks to the 1994 national championship, then they returned to the national final the next season. There was another Final Four in 1990 and Sweet 16 appearances in 1993 and 1996. It was an incredible run, the likes of which has not experienced since Richardson's tenure ended.
This is just the program's seventh NCAA tournament appearance since 2002 — Richardson's final season — and they've won just three games in the tournament during that span, and never more than one in a single tournament.
But now, in the second year of coach Eric Musselman's tenure, Arkansas is a No. 3 seed, which is the program's best seed since 1995, when they were the national runners-up. This year's Razorbacks have a top-15 defense and the nation's No. 35 offense, while playing at a blistering pace. In the first round, they'll face No. 14 seed Colgate, which spent much of the home stretch of the season ranked in the top 10 due to its dominance in the Patriot League, where eight of 10 teams didn't play a non-conference schedule, making the conference largely detached from other data points in the sport.
A team that's as strong defensively, as tall and that has as many athletic wings and forwards as Arkansas should be a tough out, and likely gives the program its best chance for a deep NCAA tournament run in a long, long time.