Steve Lavin on teams to watch, players to fear and more in March Madness
By Steve Lavin
FOX Sports College Basketball Analyst
The 2021 NCAA Tournament field is set, and after taking a year off due to COVID-19, March Madness is back with a number of compelling storylines to follow over the next three weeks.
Let’s start at the top. The prohibitive favorite is undefeated Gonzaga (26-0). At the other end of the spectrum, there are some intriguing Cinderella teams to follow, including Georgetown, which enters the tournament as a No. 13 seed with a 13-12 record.
Historically, the Hoyas have not been a program ever thought of as a Cinderella – yet in this tournament, the slipper fits for Patrick Ewing's squad.
Another interesting element to this year's tournament setup is all games being played in the Hoosier state of Indiana, providing an ideal setting for hoops in our heartland.
What should you consider as you fill out your tourney bracket? Let's break it down.
Georgetown's late-season run under coach Ewing puts the Hoyas at the top of my list of the most interesting teams entering the Big Dance.
Over an epic four-day run of dominant play in Madison Square Garden, the Hoyas won the Big East Conference Tournament title and, along the way, became the biggest story in college basketball. The Hoyas enter the NCAA Tournament having won six of their last seven games and are brimming with confidence.
Coach Ewing and his Hoyas are a study in perseverance, as they lost five straight games at one point and were 3-7 in conference play before turning things around late in the season. This past week, we witnessed the rebirth of Georgetown basketball right before our eyes.
The Hoyas' guard play of late has been outstanding. Dante Harris has been dazzling in crunch time, and senior Jahvon Blair comes off the bench to provide a spark as the Hoyas' leading scorer (15.8 PPG).
Georgetown also has an imposing front line, led by Qudus Wahab (12.4 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 1.6 BPG), who provides resistance at the rim and plays an old-school, physical style of basketball that harkens back to Ewing's time dominating the paint during the '80s Hoya Paranoia era.
People might think I've lost my mind, but I believe this Georgetown squad is as dangerous as any team in the East region. When you get to the NCAA Tournament, the teams that are gelling at the right time often make deep runs. I sense an aura of destiny with this Georgetown team, and it’s one of the true feel-good stories coming into the tourney.
When you break down the East, the Hoyas are capable of reaching the second weekend and beyond. There's a potential enticing matchup for Georgetown and Florida State in the second round. Leonard Hamilton's Seminoles are gifted and have quality depth, yet I still believe the Hoyas match up well with Florida State.
More thoughts on the East Region: Keep in mind that Michigan is the most vulnerable of the four No. 1 seeds because of the recent injury to Isaiah Livers. Juwan Howard is deserving of National Coach of the Year honors, and his Wolverines are capable of a run to the second weekend, but don’t be surprised if Florida State or the emerging Hoyas knock off the short-handed Wolverines.
No substitute for experience
When filling out your bracket, give special consideration to coaches with a history of tournament success.
Like in most aspects of life, experience counts. Seek out teams that have coaches who consistently have made deep runs in the NCAA Tournament as steady stewardship is key to navigating postseason conditions.
Coaches and players who are new to this March Madness are more likely to be overwhelmed by the spotlight. Veteran coaches and teams are able to draw on their prior tournament journeys. Experience aids in becoming more efficient at managing emotional fuel, adrenaline and the rush that comes with competing in one of the world's greatest sporting events.
Looking back on my first tournament as head coach of UCLA at 32 years of age, and I can still recall experiencing the games in a sped-up, rapid manner compared to the regular-season games.
Interestingly, fast forward six NCAA Tournaments later, at 38 years old, the game seemingly slowed down. Hence I was able to see with more clarity, make better decisions with regard to substitutions, timeouts, schemes and adjustments.
East will be beastly
The East region is most likely to be turned upside-down early with busted brackets. Here's why:
For one, you’ve got a very dangerous No. 7 seed in UConn. Guard James Bouknight is a lottery-level talent and capable of carrying the Huskies on his back to a tournament run. He has helped elevate his teammates, with R.J. Cole, Adama Sanogo, Isaiah Whaley, Tyler Polley and Tyrese Martin all improving over the course of the season.
Interestingly, when Bouknight was out with an elbow injury, his teammates benefited from learning to play well in his absence and therefore gained more confidence along the way. The Huskies are now back at full strength and playing a confident and cohesive brand of basketball.
Also in the East is Michigan State, led by the veteran OG Tom Izzo, who has been to eight Final Fours and won the NCAA title with Mateen Cleaves and the Flintstones in 2000.
After some early struggles, the Spartans have played well of late, and they're hungry. I think they're going to move past UCLA in Thursday's opening-round game because of veteran Aaron Henry and Joshua Langford. Henry is playing the best basketball of his career. Watch out for Sparty.
In addition to these teams in the East, we must not overlook the destiny team – Ewing's Hoyas, with a number of players who are hitting on all cylinders.
The East bracket is going to be the most topsy-turvy, with more upsets and more unpredictability than any other region in the tournament.
Bank on the Big 12
But the conference boasting the most contenders is the Big 12. What specifically impresses me about the Big 12 this season? Stellar guard play, speed, skill, length and tournament coaching experience.
The Big 12 has six coaches who have been to the Final Four, and that's not including Scott Drew, who will likely become the seventh coach when Baylor punches through this year.
The Southeastern Conference also has six coaches who've been to the Final Four. The Pac-12, on the other hand, only has one coach who has reached the final weekend, and that's Dana Altman with the Oregon Ducks.
The Big Ten, surprisingly, only has one coach who has reached the Final Four and won a national championship, and that's the aforementioned Izzo. Head coaches in basketball are the equivalent of jockeys in horse racing: The knowledge of how to advance to the winner's circle is key.
So, if you're handicapping the bracket, give consideration to the teams coming out of the Big 12. The rugged competition within the league and the variety of styles of play over the course of the season help to "sharpen the axe" of Big 12 teams in preparation for March.
I'm bold on the Big 12 squads advancing through the brackets.
The "home" team
Purdue is the only program from the state of Indiana represented in the tournament field. The Boilermakers’ campus in West Lafayette is only an hour from Indianapolis, hence the familiarity with the state and the various playing venues will be advantageous.
Matt Painter, as a No. 4 seed, has his team poised for a deep tournament run. Earlier this season, the prevailing thinking was next year would be Purdue’s time to chase the championship, yet instead the Boilermakers are ahead of schedule.
Purdue has five underclassmen, including four freshmen, in its rotation. Trevion Williams is the best passing big man in the country, a player who is a terrific scorer, but who genuinely enjoys the thrill of the pass. Jaden Ivey is an emerging star with the skill, speed, length and confidence to positively influence the game at both ends of the court. Another key to the Boilers' success is Sasha Stefanovic, who dealt with some COVID issues, but has returned to form and is knocking down 3s from all angles on the perimeter.
This Purdue team is a handful for opponents. Don't be surprised if the Boilermakers take full advantage of playing in their home state and make a run to the Final Four.
It's Gonzaga's year
Top-ranked Gonzaga has a big challenge ahead. The good news is, Jalen Suggs is as gifted a point guard as there is in the country, a top-five pick in the upcoming draft if he elects to pursue his dream of playing in the NBA.
Coach Mark Few has spent the past two decades mastering his craft as a teacher and a coach. He has had an unparalleled degree of success and previously led the Zags to the national title game, yet has also experienced being upset in the tourney by lower seeds. He will draw on these diverse experiences to best prepare his Zags as they close in on the goal of cutting down the nets in Indianapolis.
Gonzaga has the balance of size, strength, skill and quickness. The Bulldogs are led by Suggs, who is complemented by a veteran core of players. The Zags will be attempting to become the first undefeated national champion team since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers.
This is the year Gonzaga wins it all.
Steve Lavin is a college basketball analyst for FOX Sports. He was the head coach at both UCLA (1996-2003) and St. John's (2010-15). In 11 full seasons as head coach, he led 10 teams to the postseason, including eight NCAA Tournament appearances and two NITs. During his time at UCLA, Lavin boasted a 10-1 record in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. He was an assistant coach on UCLA's 1995 national championship team that finished with a 32-1 record.