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The Favorites And Cinderellas Of The Men’s NCAA Tournament

A year after we were forced to take solace in virtual brackets, March Madness is (thankfully) back in 2021 — and so are our men’s and women’s NCAA Tournament forecast models. Click here to read about how the probabilities are generated and read on to see what data points and trends jumped out in our forecast on the men’s side.

You’ll have another day to prepare this year — the first round starts on Friday, rather than the traditional Thursday tip-off — and with any luck, the extra time spent staring at your bracket (and our model, of course) will help you unearth the Cinderella that puts your entry over the top.

East Region

Relative first-round win probability and chances to advance in the men’s NCAA Tournament, according to the FiveThirtyEight model

Chance at…
Seed Team 1st Rd W% vs Seed* Sweet 16 Final Four Title
1 Michigan -2.4% 65.9% 24.0% 4.2%
2 Alabama +0.9 59.6 19.8 3.2
3 Texas -0.4 49.0 11.1 1.4
4 Florida State +3.6 47.0 10.8 1.4
5 Colorado +5.2 37.0 8.0 1.0
6 BYU -8.8 26.2 4.7 0.5
7 Connecticut -6.8 22.2 5.4 0.6
8 LSU +10.9 21.7 5.2 0.6
9 St. Bonaventure -10.9 12.2 2.2 0.2
10 Maryland +6.8 17.7 3.8 0.4
11 Michigan State† +10.3 12.0 2.0 0.2
11 UCLA† +6.9 8.8 1.3 0.1
12 Georgetown -5.2 11.5 1.3 0.1
13 UNC Greensboro -3.6 4.5 0.2 <0.1
14 Abilene Christian +0.4 3.9 0.2 <0.1
15 Iona -0.9 0.5 <0.1 <0.1
16 Mount St. Mary’s† +2.5 0.2 <0.1 <0.1
16 Texas Southern† +2.4 0.1 <0.1 <0.1

*Measures a team’s first-round win probability (according to the FiveThirtyEight model) relative to its seed’s all-time winning percentage in first-round games (1985-2019).

†Play-in team. Relative first-round odds are conditional on the team making the round of 64.

Source: Sports-Reference.com

The big picture: By several metrics, the East is easily the weakest region of the 2021 bracket. No. 1 seed Michigan is rightly its top team in our power ratings — but only by a margin of 0.7 points over No. 2 Alabama, meaning the pair would essentially be evenly matched on a neutral court. And that’s not necessarily a testament to how dangerous the Crimson Tide are; in fact, our ratings think Alabama is the worst of this year’s No. 2 seeds. Michigan is simply the weakest of the No. 1 seeds, with a rating that implies it would be at least a 4-point underdog against any of the other regional top seeds. Accordingly, the East has the smallest chance (14 percent) of any region to produce the NCAA champ. But on the flip side, that could also mean plenty of intrigue along the road to the Final Four, with eight teams carrying at least a 5 percent chance of advancing that far. The top two seeds could have serious obstacles in their paths almost immediately: Michigan with LSU (an unusually strong 8-seed) and Alabama with either No. 7 Connecticut or No. 10 Maryland — both of whom would have at least a 36 percent chance of knocking off the Tide — waiting in the second round. Partly because of this, Texas (No. 3), Florida State (No. 4) and Colorado (No. 5) all have the best Final Four odds in the field for their respective seeds. And don’t forget how strong the play-in 11-seeds (Michigan State and UCLA) look on paper; both are textbook underachieving major-conference teams that could do damage in March. It all adds up to what could be an extremely chaotic region.


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First-round upsets to watch: The East’s most plausible upsets are Maryland toppling UConn in a classic 10-over-7 victory and the No. 11-seeded play-in winner (Michigan State has a 54 percent chance to claim the spot over UCLA) beating poor BYU, whose misfortune in the draw landed it a first-round win probability 9 percentage points lower than the typical 6-seed from history. Fans of deeper-cut upset picks should also keep an eye on red-hot Georgetown, which just won the Big East in a landslide over Creighton and has a 30 percent chance of upending Colorado. And some advanced models that consider similar games or complex statistical patterns have pegged Abilene Christian as a potential 14-over-3 upset candidate versus Texas, which certainly fits with the Longhorns’ pattern of early-round losses. (Although beware: Our model gives the Wildcats only a 15 percent chance, which is exactly the norm for a 14-seed in the first round.)

West Region

Relative first-round win probability and chances to advance in the men’s NCAA Tournament, according to the FiveThirtyEight model

Chance at…
Seed Team 1st Rd W% vs Seed* Sweet 16 Final Four Title
1 Gonzaga -0.3% 89.2% 54.5% 27.3%
2 Iowa +0.1 70.9 17.9 5.6
3 Kansas +2.9 53.1 6.9 1.5
4 Virginia +7.1 50.9 7.0 1.7
5 Creighton +17.6 41.3 4.9 1.1
6 Southern California +10.0 35.6 3.8 0.7
7 Oregon +1.8 19.2 2.2 0.4
8 Oklahoma +8.3 6.5 1.1 0.2
9 Missouri -8.3 4.1 0.5 0.1
10 VCU -1.8 8.8 0.6 0.1
11 Wichita State† -7.5 6.0 0.3 <0.1
11 Drake† -13.8 2.6 0.1 <0.1
12 UC Santa Barbara -17.6 4.4 0.1 <0.1
13 Ohio -7.1 3.4 0.1 <0.1
14 Eastern Washington -2.9 2.8 <0.1 <0.1
15 Grand Canyon -0.1 1.2 <0.1 <0.1
16 Appalachian State† +0.5 0.1 <0.1 <0.1
16 Norfolk State† +0.2 <0.1 <0.1 <0.1

*Measures a team’s first-round win probability (according to the FiveThirtyEight model) relative to its seed’s all-time winning percentage in first-round games (1985-2019).

†Play-in team. Relative first-round odds are conditional on the team making the round of 64.

Source: Sports-Reference.com

The big picture: The West is home to Gonzaga, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament and the favorite to capture its first national basketball championship in school history. According to our model, the Bulldogs are more likely to make the Final Four (55 percent) than not — though they also have a 73 percent chance of not winning the title and seeing their bid for men’s basketball’s first undefeated season since 1976 fall short.1 Within the region, the biggest threat to end the Bulldogs’ quest is No. 2 Iowa, which has a relatively manageable path to the Elite Eight and a 30 percent chance of knocking off Gonzaga if the teams meet up. But the Zags will probably have to fight their way through the cream of this region’s crop no matter what. Relative to historical norms for their seeds, the rest of the top teams in the West all have a better-than-average chance to escape the first round. No. 4 Virginia (assuming it can put its COVID-19 problems behind it) and No. 5 Creighton are particularly dangerous, and the two teams could be on a second-round collision course. Both rank among Ken Pomeroy’s top 20 — higher than No. 3-seeded Kansas — and both are in the top half of the West bracket with Gonzaga. Kansas, Virginia and Creighton are among the four best teams in the field seeded below No. 2,2 according to our ratings. So Gonzaga will face its obstacles en route to perfection — though the Zags are also strong enough that it probably won’t matter. In our historical Elo ratings, which go back to 1950, only 19 other teams have been rated higher going into an NCAA tournament than the Bulldogs are right now.

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related: 2021 Men’s March Madness Predictions Read more. »

First-round upsets to watch: Because of the strength of its top contenders, the West doesn’t offer many opportunities for early upsets. Only two teams outside the top eight seeds — No. 9 Missouri (43 percent versus Oklahoma) and No. 10 VCU (38 percent versus Oregon) — have even a 30 percent chance of winning their first-round games. Perhaps No. 11 Wichita State, with its low-turnover style and ability to get to the free-throw line, could theoretically pose problems for high-flying Southern California if it beats Drake in the play-in round … but probably not. (The Trojans would have better than a 70 percent chance in that matchup, according to our model.) The real excitement is more likely to come in the following round, with USC boasting a solid chance of unseating the Jayhawks (44 percent) and Creighton having the very real potential to end Virginia’s season (46 percent).

Midwest Region

Relative first-round win probability and chances to advance in the men’s NCAA Tournament, according to the FiveThirtyEight model

Chance at…
Seed Team 1st Rd W% vs Seed* Sweet 16 Final Four Title
1 Illinois -1.6% 78.9% 43.5% 14.7%
2 Houston +2.1 71.7 22.8 5.5
3 West Virginia +5.6 49.7 7.7 1.2
4 Oklahoma State +0.7 40.7 4.4 0.5
5 Tennessee +10.2 44.2 5.6 0.8
6 San Diego State -1.8 31.9 4.7 0.7
7 Clemson -18.4 10.7 1.3 0.1
8 Loyola of Chicago +6.7 12.1 3.1 0.4
9 Georgia Tech -6.7 8.7 1.9 0.2
10 Rutgers +18.4 17.1 2.6 0.3
11 Syracuse +1.8 17.0 1.7 0.2
12 Oregon State -10.2 10.0 0.5 <0.1
13 Liberty -0.7 5.1 0.1 <0.1
14 Morehead State -5.6 1.4 <0.1 <0.1
15 Cleveland State -2.1 0.5 <0.1 <0.1
16 Drexel +1.6 0.3 <0.1 <0.1

*Measures a team’s first-round win probability (according to the FiveThirtyEight model) relative to its seed’s all-time winning percentage in first-round games (1985-2019).

Source: Sports-Reference.com

The big picture: Illinois earned the No. 1 seed in the Midwest as one of the hottest teams in the country down the stretch of the season — only Georgetown added more to its Elo rating over the past month — capping things off with a thrilling Big Ten championship victory over Ohio State. With their exceptional balance (No. 7 in KenPom offense and No. 5 on defense), the Fighting Illini have the second-best national title probability of any team in our model, trailing only Gonzaga.3 But they aren’t the only quality team in the region, not by a long shot. No. 2 Houston is the nation’s fifth-best in our power ratings, with a higher rating than a No. 1 seed (Michigan). The AAC champion Cougars — who have put together their best season since Phi Slama Jama — would have a legitimate chance to knock off Illinois in a hypothetical Elite Eight matchup, at 38 percent. No. 3 West Virginia has remade itself into an offense-first contender, while No. 5 Tennessee has definite Sweet 16 potential (and the same goes for No. 6 San Diego State, provided it can survive its first-round date with Syracuse). Even further down the seed list, No. 8 Loyola of Chicago — remember them? — is woefully under-seeded; Pomeroy ranks it as the ninth-best team in the country. The Ramblers’ opening matchup with ACC champion Georgia Tech should be one of the tournament’s best first-round games from a competitive standpoint. And last but not least, Rutgers and Syracuse (Nos. 10 and 11) are two of the three best double-digit-seeded teams in the field according to our power ratings.4 So while Illinois is the clear favorite, the Midwest is a deep region with no shortage of candidates to disrupt a chalky bracket.


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First-round upsets to watch: No. 10 Rutgers over No. 7 Clemson (58 percent probability) is the most likely opening “upset” not just in the Midwest, but in the entire bracket this year. The Scarlet Knights rank eight slots ahead of the Tigers in Pomeroy’s ratings, with better efficiency on both offense and defense. Aside from that relatively easy call, Georgia Tech (45 percent) is a decent upset pick against Loyola in the 8-9 game, and No. 11 Syracuse looks solid (39 percent) despite a tough opponent in San Diego State. And for a real long-shot pick, some systems see Liberty (against Oklahoma State) with better upset potential than the typical 13-seed from history, which traditionally beats the 4-seed only 20.7 percent of the time.

South Region

Relative first-round win probability and chances to advance in the men’s NCAA Tournament, according to the FiveThirtyEight model

Chance at…
Seed Team 1st Rd W% vs Seed* Sweet 16 Final Four Title
1 Baylor -1.1% 71.8% 40.6% 13.3%
2 Ohio State +0.1 70.1 18.9 3.8
3 Arkansas -8.7 40.4 7.0 1.0
4 Purdue +1.2 49.7 7.3 1.1
5 Villanova +10.9 36.5 4.1 0.5
6 Texas Tech +4.2 38.1 6.9 1.1
7 Florida -2.8 17.8 2.2 0.2
8 North Carolina -4.0 11.7 3.7 0.6
9 Wisconsin +4.0 16.3 5.9 1.1
10 Virginia Tech +2.8 10.9 1.0 0.1
11 Utah State -4.2 14.2 1.5 0.1
12 Winthrop -10.9 7.1 0.3 <0.1
13 North Texas -1.2 6.7 0.2 <0.1
14 Colgate +8.7 7.3 0.4 <0.1
15 Oral Roberts -0.1 1.1 <0.1 <0.1
16 Hartford +1.1 0.1 <0.1 <0.1

*Measures a team’s first-round win probability (according to the FiveThirtyEight model) relative to its seed’s all-time winning percentage in first-round games (1985-2019).

Source: Sports-Reference.com

The big picture: After running its record to 17-0 to start the season, Baylor had a COVID-19 pause and dropped two of its final six games before the tournament (including a tough loss to Oklahoma State in the semis of the Big 12 Tournament). But the Bears are still one of the best teams in the field — they rank third in our power ratings, trailing only Gonzaga and Illinois — and they are still favorites to emerge from the South, despite a stacked lineup of regional foes. The tests will come early, with Baylor set to face either North Carolina or Wisconsin coming out of the 8-9 matchup. Both are among the most under-seeded teams in the tournament, and the winner could give the Bears a lot more trouble than you’d expect for a top seed in the second round.5 And look out for No. 4 Purdue or No. 5 Villanova if they survive the first round as well; both rank among KenPom’s top 13 teams in the country, though the latter is reeling after losing second-leading scorer Collin Gillespie for the season. Meanwhile, No. 2 Ohio State overcame a late-season losing streak to impress in the Big Ten tourney, taking eventual conference champion Illinois to overtime in the title game. But the Buckeyes’ half of the South bracket contains a number of potentially tough opponents — from Texas Tech, the best 6-seed in the field, to Arkansas (No. 18 in KenPom) and even Colgate, a surprisingly dangerous Cinderella candidate. Because of the many pitfalls in their way, the South’s top two seeds have less than a 25 percent chance of facing off in the Elite Eight with a Final Four appearance on the line.

First-round upsets to watch: As mentioned above, Wisconsin was badly under-seeded as a No. 9 and therefore has the best first-round win probability (55 percent) of any seeding underdog in the South. Among underdogs in both our model and in terms of seeding, the best odds belong to No. 10 Virginia Tech over Florida — 42 percent, slightly better than the long-term average for 10-seeds against No. 7s (39 percent). And of course, fans of truly under-the-radar upset candidates should take a long look at No. 14 Colgate: The Patriot League champs have just lost once all season (granted, in 15 games), and many statistical systems are giving them much better odds to beat Arkansas than the historical average for 14-versus-3 matchups.6 If Colgate does engineer the upset, it would even have intriguing statistical possibilities against Texas Tech and Ohio State, so the Raiders are certainly worth at least considering as a secret Cinderella this year.

Check out our latest March Madness predictions.


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Footnotes

  1. To be fair, even Kentucky in 2015 — the strongest pre-tournament favorite we’ve ever projected in our model — had a 59 percent chance of not winning. (And in fact, ended up not winning.) They call it March Madness for a reason!

  2. Along with South No. 9 seed Wisconsin.

  3. There’s an 11 percent chance we get an Illinois-Gonzaga championship, the best odds for any combination of teams in the bracket.

  4. The other is East No. 10 Maryland.

  5. Our model gives Baylor a 73 percent chance of beating the 8-9 winner; the historical success rate for 1-seeds in the second round is 86 percent.

  6. The long-term success rate for 14 seeds in the first round is just 15 percent. Our model gives Colgate a 24 percent chance, and that’s on the low side compared with other approaches such as play-by-play simulation, adjusted scoring margins and decision-tree analysis.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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