Final Four, national championship picks from 34-person ESPN panel
The Gonzaga Bulldogs are a clear betting favorite to win the 2021 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, as Mark Few’s undefeated group tries to pull off college basketball’s first undefeated season since the Indiana Hoosiers in 1975-76. The Zags are also expected to own the Tournament Challenge consensus when ESPN’s audience has taken on the exercise to fill out a March Madness bracket — or several brackets. But Gonzaga, which has reached the national championship game only once in its history — and lost — still has its naysayers.
ESPN’s group of men’s college basketball commentators, analysts and writers made their own predictions soon after the bracket was announced on Selection Sunday. Gonzaga was the overwhelming choice, with Baylor and Illinois also receiving strong backing to play their way into the Final Four in April, but ESPN’s bracket selectors also conveyed that strange things can happen in a single-elimination format. A number of unusual — but certainly plausible — choices found their way onto the list. Below we take a look at several trends among the nearly three dozen ESPN professionals who made their picks of which teams will reach Lucas Oil Stadium on April 3 — and who will cut down the nets on April 5.
Gonzaga: Don’t overthink it?
A total of 32 out of 34 respondents had Gonzaga coming out of the West region, by far the broadest consensus of any of the NCAA tournament’s four regions. The only other choice out of the West was second-seeded Iowa, which has made three Final Four trips in its history, most recently in 1980. That jibes with ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, which has Gonzaga as the top choice out of the West (a 48.0% possibility) and Iowa as No. 2 (27.5%). No. 4-seed and defending national champion Virginia (3.6%) and No. 5 seed Creighton (2.4%) and No. 3 seed Kansas (2.4%) are farther down the list, per BPI.
Predictors aren’t feeling Michigan in the wild, wild East
Clearly college basketball observers are nervous about top-seeded Michigan in the East, with three losses in its final five games and the uncertain injury status of star Isaiah Livers giving bracket-fillers pause. Only one ESPN respondent — Hall of Fame broadcaster Dick Vitale — liked the Wolverines to reach the national semifinals. The beneficiaries of the uncertainty around the Wolverines were Texas, Alabama and Florida State. A total of 11 predictors think the Longhorns will reach the Final Four for the first time since 2003, 10 have the second-seeded Crimson Tide reaching the semifinal stage for the first time, and nine like Florida State (9 picks). UM fans still looking for reason to believe should note that Juwan Howard’s group is still the overwhelming BPI choice to be in the semifinals at Lucas Oil Stadium, at 36.5% to come out of the East.
No surprise: It’s Baylor in the South
Baylor spent most of the 2020-21 season as the nation’s No. 2 team, and the squad’s lengthy COVID-19-related pause in February didn’t do much to move ESPN’s group of predictors off the Bears. A total of 22 out of 34 ESPN bracket-fillers picked Scott Drew’s team out of the West, as the program tries to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1950. The next-most popular pick out of the South was No. 2 seed Ohio State, which had eight believers in its chances to be playing into April, followed by three Arkansas supporters. BPI pegs Baylor with a 40% chance of reaching the Final Four, the second-best odds behind only Gonzaga.
Experts love Illinois in the Midwest … but BPI has other thoughts
Much of the college basketball-viewing public got a close look at Illinois on Sunday evening, as the Fighting Illini were busy finishing off Ohio State for the Big Ten title while the world awaited the selection show on CBS. Illinois subsequently received the No. 1 seed in the Midwest as expected, and 31 of 34 ESPN responders rewarded its late-season performance by picking Brad Underwood’s team to reach the Final Four. That’s not surprising — but BPI’s take on the situation might be. It’s the Houston Cougars who are the top BPI choice out of the Midwest, at 39.3% to reach the Final Four to Illinois’ 32.4%. Despite the analytics, not a single ESPN predictor selected Kelvin Sampson’s squad to reach the Final Four — though two responders thought Cade Cunningham and Oklahoma State could reach the national semifinal stage.
And for the title … it’s the Zags
Of the 32 selectors who picked Gonzaga to reach the Final Four, 23 of those have the Zags winning the title. Baylor and Illinois were tied as the second-most popular choice with five selections each, and ESPN analyst Malcolm Huckaby weighed in with the only true out-of-the-box choice: Leonard Hamilton and Florida State holding the trophy aloft at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 5. BPI agrees with Gonzaga (23.4%) and Baylor (13.5%) as 1-2 to win the title, but neither the Fighting Illini nor the Seminoles come in at No. 3. It’s Houston — which to reiterate did not elicit a single Final Four pick among our panel — that is BPI’s third-most likely national championship choice at 13.2% (just a fraction behind Baylor). A complete look below at the Final Four and championship picks of all 34 ESPN responders:
Jay Alter: Gonzaga, Florida State, Baylor, Illinois (champion)
Debbie Antonelli: Gonzaga (champion), Alabama, Purdue, Illinois
Jason Benetti: Gonzaga (champion), Alabama, Baylor, Illinois
Roxy Bernstein: Gonzaga (champion), Texas, Ohio State, Illinois
Paul Biancardi: Gonzaga, Alabama, Baylor, Illinois (champion)
Jay Bilas: Gonzaga (champion), Alabama, Baylor, Illinois
Jeff Borzello: Gonzaga (champion), Texas, Baylor, Illinois
Kevin Brown: Gonzaga (champion), Alabama, Baylor, Illinois
Kris Budden: Gonzaga (champion), Texas, Baylor, Illinois
Jordan Cornette: Gonzaga, Texas, Baylor, Illinois (champion)
Mike Couzens: Gonzaga (champion), Alabama, Baylor, Oklahoma State
Dalen Cuff: Gonzaga (champion), Texas, Baylor, Illinois
Dan Dakich: Gonzaga, Florida State, Ohio State, Illinois (champion)
Rece Davis: Gonzaga (champion), Texas, Baylor, Illinois
Wes Durham: Gonzaga (champion), Florida State, Ohio State, Illinois
Jimmy Dykes: Gonzaga (champion), Alabama, Baylor, Illinois
LaPhonso Ellis: Gonzaga, Florida State, Baylor (champion), Illinois
Sean Farnham: Gonzaga (champion), Texas, Ohio State, Illinois
John Gasaway: Gonzaga (champion), Florida State, Ohio State, Illinois
Seth Greenberg: Gonzaga, Texas, Baylor (champion), Illinois
Tom Hart: Iowa, Florida State, Arkansas, Illinois (champion)
Rich Hollenberg: Gonzaga, Texas, Baylor (champion), Illinois
Malcolm Huckaby: Gonzaga, Florida State (champion), Baylor, Oklahoma State
Joe Lunardi: Gonzaga (champion), Alabama, Baylor, Illinois
Danny Manning: Gonzaga (champion), Texas, Baylor, Illinois
Myron Medcalf: Gonzaga (champion), Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois
Mike Morgan: Gonzaga (champion), LSU, Ohio State, Illinois
Kevin Negandhi: Gonzaga, Florida State, Baylor (champion), Illinois
Doug Sherman: Gonzaga (champion), Florida State, Arkansas, Illinois
Anish Shroff: Iowa, Florida State, Baylor (champion), Illinois
Dan Shulman: Gonzaga (champion), Alabama, Baylor, Illinois
Chris Spatola: Gonzaga (champion), Texas, Baylor, Illinois
Dick Vitale: Gonzaga (champion), Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois
Brooke Weisbrod: Gonzaga (champion), UConn, Ohio State, San Diego State
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