1. Let's start with the best teams. In 2011, zero No. 1 seeds made the Final Four, the only time that's happened in the past 13 years. That is not happening again this year. Gonzaga, Baylor, Illinois and Michigan all are solid Final Four picks. If you're looking to leave one out: The Wolverines are the most vulnerable not to make it from that bunch after senior leader Isaiah Livers suffered a foot injury in the Big Ten tournament.
2. When it comes to picking a champion, know this: Eleven of the past 15 tournaments were won by No. 1 seeds. And the past three national champions have been No. 1 seeds: North Carolina (2017), Villanova (2018) and Virginia (2019).
3. In the past five tournaments, a No. 5 seed or lower has made the Final Four. We saw that happen in Minneapolis, when No. 5 Auburn made it to U.S. Bank Stadium. But don't fall in love with any of your 5 seeds. Two reasons:
4. The popular 5-12 upset is legit. Only five times in the modern era of the NCAA tournament has there been a year when such an upset didn't occur. No. 5 seeds lose almost as frequently as No. 6 or No. 7 seeds. In the 2019 NCAA tourney, three of the four 5-12 games were upsets.
5. The No. 5 seeds are the only top-eight seeds to never have won the national title. The only ones to each reach the championship game were Florida (2000), Indiana (2002) and Butler (2010). So you might have Creighton, Colorado, Villanova or Tennessee winning a few, but history says find a Cinderella champion from a different seed.
6. The lowest seed to win the NCAA title game was No. 8 Villanova upsetting John Thompson-coached and Patrick Ewing-led No. 1 Georgetown in 1985. There are some good bets to be had in the 5-8 range. Best No. 8 seed? Maybe LSU, which could take out Michigan.
7. Other mid-level seeds to watch: USC (6), Oregon (7), UConn (7) and Texas Tech (6). They are all seeded lower than No. 5 and capable of making noise this year. Watch out for Trojans 7-footer Evan Mobley and Red Raiders guard Mac McClung possibly leading respective 6 seeds to the Elite Eight.
8. While some sleepers make the Final Four, getting to the title game is a different matter. There have been only six teams lower than No. 5 seeds to reach the title game since 1985. Only three won it all (Nova in '85, sixth-seeded Kansas in '88 and seventh-seeded UConn in 2014).
9. Looking for a Cinderella story in 2021? We're so excited to have March Madness return after a one-year hiatus because of the pandemic that we were willing to go forward even without the charming presence of Sister Jean. And — whoa — wait a minute! Here she is again! She's coming back to the Dance, folks, because Loyola-Chicago, an 8 seed, could be better than the 2018 Final Four squad. Coach Porter Moser has the Ramblers humming again.
10. There's only one Sister Jean, but 12 seed Winthrop could be the Loyola-Chicago of this tourney. If you love double-digit seeds making a run, give these guys a long look. The Big South powerhouse Eagles have the best record (23-1) in the NCAA tournament outside of undefeated Gonzaga. They're a popular upset pick vs. No. 5-seeded Villanova in the first round because Wildcats point guard Collin Gillespie (knee) is out for the season.
11. Sticking with the South Region, it seems No. 1 seed Baylor will have the toughest second-round matchup vs. the winner of North Carolina-Wisconsin. If the Bears can survive that, it wouldn't be surprising to see them advance to a Final Four matchup with Illinois. The Illini, who won the Big Ten tournament, then could exact revenge on an earlier loss this season to reach their first NCAA final since 2005 (also the last time they won the Big Ten Conference tourney).
12. Which stars will shine the brightest in the Big Dance this year? The best player in the field is Oklahoma State's freshman sensation Cade Cunningham, seemingly a lock for the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft. Of course, Minnesota native and fellow frosh Jalen Suggs will have something to say about that as he tries to lead Gonzaga all the way.
13. The one guy in the field who's maybe an even better college guard than either of those freshmen is Illinois star Ayo Dosunmu. Ayo the All-America could meet up with Cunningham in the Sweet 16.
14. But let's not forget about the unsung heroes. Here's one to watch: If Texas reaches its first Final Four since 2003, it will be largely due to Minnesotan Jericho Sims, who is playing the best basketball of his career.
15. So how will this play out? The Zags had been scratching on the door for years, but they reached their first Final Four in 2017, when UNC kept them from an NCAA title. This time around, they are trying to become the first undefeated team since 32-0 Indiana in 1976. Gonzaga coach Mark Few could hold up the trophy and make history again, with Suggs and company cutting down the nets after beating Illinois.
16. Sorry, Big Ten, the 21-year title drought continues.