Nearly one year ago, the sports world was shocked and heartbroken by the sudden cancellation of the NCAA Tournament. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2019-20 season was the first year in the tournament’s 81 year history that it was not played and an official championship game did not occur. Fans, players, coaches, and media alike were left wondering how long it would take to see college basketball return.
Amazingly, we would see them reemerge once again in late 2020. Despite some bumps in the road, with a number of conferences dealing with rescheduling, postponements, and sometimes even cancellations of some games due to COVID infections, we’ve been fortunate enough to see a mostly complete regular season of college basketball.
But the best part is–the tournament will be played once again this year, with a full field of 68 Division I Men’s basketball teams, all chasing that elusive national title. The entire tournament will be held in various arenas and stadiums located throughout the state of Indiana. Most of the games, including the Final Four and National Championship Game, will take place at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis. It will be the culmination of a season and a tournament unlike any other before.
With the big questions of when, where, and if the games will be played now finally answered, it’s time to predict what teams will make it to “The Big Dance”. There are 68 bids to the NCAA Tournament. 32 are granted automatically from the champions of each conference’s end of season tournament, with the remaining 36 at-large slots picked by a selection committee. The teams are then seeded 1-16 and divided into 4 regions.
In this article, I’ll be predicting the teams most likely to make the tournament in each of the seven largest division 1 basketball conferences. In addition to forecasting the at-large bids, I’ll also make a prediction on each conference’s own tournament champ.
American Athletic Conference (AAC, The American)
Locks: 1 (#7 Houston)
On the Bubble: 3 (Memphis, Wichita St., SMU)
Predicted Tournament Winner: #7 Houston
Being the smallest of the 7 biggest conferences, the AAC is the least likely to send more than one team to the NCAA tournament. Although the Houston Cougars, currently ranked 7th, have been the only team to garner national attention, a couple of other squads have quietly built solid resumes.
Wichita State and Memphis, the 1 and 3 seeds in the AAC tournament, are the biggest threats to Houston capturing the auto bid. The Cougars, a top 10 team, will be in regardless of their performance in the league tourney. So, if either of the two others gives them a formidable challenge or wins it outright, the American could be a two or even three-bid conference if Houston doesn’t make it to the title game. Still, the likeliest scenario is that Houston wins the tournament and is their only team sent to March Madness, with the Tigers and Shockers left just outside the bubble.
Atlantic Coastal Conference (ACC)
Locks: 5 (#15 Florida State, #16 Virginia, #22 Virginia Tech, Clemson, Louisville)
On the Bubble: 5 (GA Tech, Syracuse, Duke, UNC, NC State)
Predicted Tournament Winner: #15 Florida St.
Like many of the other Power 5 conferences, this year has been a weird one for the ACC. The usual powerhouses that could make the Final Four any given year are almost nowhere to be seen, with UNC, Duke, and Syracuse all on their last legs trying to claw into the field. While one of them may sneak in, it’s very likely that if none of them can pull off a shocker and win the ACC tourney, they could all be left on the wrong side of the bubble.
Florida St. has picked right up where it left off from last season, continuing to establish itself as one of the ACC’s newest premier basketball programs. Virginia, who is technically still the defending NCAA champion from their win back in 2019, is set to earn a decent seed, along with fellow Virginia school VT, tournament regular Louisville, and football powerhouse Clemson.
I’m taking the safe bet and projecting Florida St. as the ACC postseason victor–but these Power 5 tournaments tend to be unpredictable, as there are often many formidable teams fighting for their bids. UNC or Georgia Tech could catch fire and make an impressive run to the title, or Virginia could beat out FSU in a close battle for league supremacy. Only one thing is certain: this will surely be a tournament worth watching.
Big Ten Conference (B10)
Locks: 6 (#3 Illinois, #4 Michigan, #5 Iowa, #9 Ohio State, #20 Purdue, Wisconsin, Maryland
On the Bubble: 2 (Rutgers, Michigan St.)
Predicted Tournament Winner: #4 Michigan
Amidst a season of uncertainty, the Big 10’s basketball dominance remains a constant in the world of collegiate athletics. By far the strongest conference in the country this season, the B10 is on track to send a ridiculous 7 teams as virtual locks to the NCAA Tournament, 5 of which are ranked nationally in the Top 25 and 4 that could earn 1 and 2 seeds, making up 4 of the 8 best teams in the entire field of 68. 2 more teams, Rutgers and Michigan St., still remain on the bubble but maintain a reasonable chance of making it in, which would bring the league total to a deafening 9 teams.
The astounding combo of both high quality and quantity of teams in the conference cannot be overstated. Any team from this conference could make a serious run to the end, and this should be by far the most entertaining and intense battle for the automatic bid in the postseason conference tourney. There are no bad picks for the winner among the nine squads listed above.
However, I’m gonna have to pick Michigan. Coached by UM legend Juan Howard and led by freshman standout Hunter Dickinson, they’re playing perhaps their best basketball all year down the stretch. This comes even after they were sidelined by a COVID outbreak for weeks. The Wolverines are a force to be reckoned with.
Big Twelve Conference (B12)
Locks: 7 ( #2 Baylor, #10 West Virginia, #11 Kansas, #12 OK State, #13 Texas, #20 Texas Tech,, #25 Oklahoma)
On the Bubble: N/A
Predicted Tournament Winner: #10 West Virginia
Outside of the B10, the B12 may just be sending the best group in all of college hoops. While they don’t have the most representatives, all 7 teams set to earn bids are as solid as they come. Each is ranked in the AP Top 25, all safely inside the field. No bubble teams to be found.
What’s perhaps most intimidating about this group is the coaches leading each of them. Late tournament experience is not hard to find here–Bob Huggins (WV), Bill Self (Kansas), Shaka Smart (Texas), Chris Beard (TTU), Scott Drew (Baylor), and Lon Kruger (OU) have all advanced to at least the Elite 8, with 5 of the 6 having been to the Final Four as well.
They may not have the same numbers as the Big 10; but I would be hard pressed to bet against at least one of these teams making it near the end. As for the tournament, I’m not going to bet against West Virginia. Coaching and team combined, I think they have the best combo of experience and talent to leave the conference postseason as the clear winner of the B12.
The Big East Conference
Locks: 3 (#14 Villanova, #17 Creighton, UConn)
On the Bubble: 3 (Xavier, Seton Hall, St. John’s)
Projected Tournament Winner: UConn
The most famous conference in basketball, the Big East will play its annual tournament in the historic Madison Square Garden. The league is not the strongest this season, but still has a few competitive entrants hopeful to win big this March.
Villanova, the 2016 and 2018 national champion, is back in the top 10, knocking on the door of the 1 and 2 seed lines. While they’re not the best of the best, never underestimate Jay Wright and the Wildcats, who enter the BE postseason bracket at the top of the standings.
Meanwhile, Crieghton has also had one of their best years of late, posting a respectable 14-6 conference record. However, any possible success this March could be in jeopardy, with the team embroiled in a national scandal. Coach Greg McDermott was suspended by the program after making racially insensitive remarks to his team during a practice, saying “Guys we got to stick together. We need both feet in. I need everybody to stay on the plantation. I can’t have anybody leave the plantation.” A number of Creighton players later spoke in a video that was shown before the Blue Jays’ season finale, saying how deeply the comments hurt them and asking “Let’s not be okay with racism”. With McDermott’s future with the team unclear, the road ahead may prove to be a bumpy one.
But the real wild card here is the Connecticut (UConn) Huskies, a member of the original Big East Conference (1979-2013). They rejoined the new Big East at the start of the season after departing the AAC, and finished an impressive 3rd place. With a program seemingly back on track under 3rd year coach Dan Hurley, I’m picking UConn as my winner of the conference tourney. While they aren’t the best team on paper, they’ve had incredible success in their league tournaments in the past, both in the old Big East and the AAC. With Villanova not quite up to its usual form and Creighton suddenly sidetracked, I see this as the perfect opportunity for the Huskies to make a statement entering the dance.
Pacific 12 Conference (Pac-12)
Locks: 4 (#23 Colorado, # 24 USC, Oregon, UCLA)
On the Bubble: Stanford
Predicted Tournament Winner: Oregon
I’m going to be honest–the Pac-12 is boring this year, pretty much like it always is. They’ve got a few decent teams, with Colorado ranked at the tail end of the AP poll and USC having a good year.
I’m gonna take Oregon as my pick for the Pac-12 tourney, since they have become a regular player in March as of late, and look rock solid as ever. With other west coast regulars like Utah, Arizona, and Cal rendered non factors this time around, I believe the Ducks’ extensive postseason resume gives them an advantage over their lesser experienced counterparts like the Buffaloes and Trojans.
Southeastern Conference (SEC)
Locks: 6 (#6 Alabama, #8 Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Florida, LSU
On the Bubble: Ole Miss
Predicted Tournament Winner: #8 Arkansas
This very well might be the weirdest season of SEC basketball I’ve been alive for. Their conference titan, blue blood school Kentucky, wasn’t even close to being a good team this year. South Carolina and Texas A&M, frequent NCAA participants, are also nowhere to be found. Auburn, who made the Final Four just two seasons ago, is notably absent.
But the biggest surprise of all has to be the sudden emergence of Alabama. A program that has not sniffed relevance since the departure of NBA star Collin Sexton, has caught lightning in a bottle, becoming a title favorite and the #1 SEC team.
(They really had to ruin college football AND basketball by being annoyingly good.)
Nevertheless, there are other fantastic teams capable of big things this March
. There are some familiar faces, like Florida, LSU, and Rick Barnes’ Tennessee team, all back again. Missouri is also back, making it in for the first time since 2018. The other major force, however, is #8 Arkansas, led by their superb backcourt duo of Moses Moody and J.D. Notae.
Alabama has been so great this year, I find it hard to pick against them. But, the Razorbacks have won 11 in a row in SEC play, including an 81-66 victory over the Crimson Tide. I won’t bet against their hot streak, so they’re my pick to win the SEC Tournament. We can rest assured knowing that an Alabama-Arkansas meeting in the championship, if it does happen, will be must-see TV.
Other Possible Multi-Bid Conferences
West Coast Conference (WCC): #1 Gonzaga, BYU
Missouri Valley Conference (MVC): #18 Loyola-Chicago, Drake
Atlantic 10 (A10): St. Bonaventure, VCU, Saint Louis (bubble), Richmond (bubble)
Mountain West Conference (MWC): #19 San Diego St., Colorado St., Boise St. (bubble), Utah St. (bubble)