2021 March Madness: Time For A New-Age Heavyweight To Rise

This year’s NCAAB Tournament presents a highly unusual situation insofar as the best teams simply aren’t the nation's established, elite powers. 

Move over 'Blue Bloods', this year's tournament is about the nouveau riche- teams which have been good in recent years, but don’t have an entrenched, decades-long presence within the top-tier of the sport. 

This is the central reason why the upcoming edition of March Madness will be so compelling. 

Gonzaga has been a regular and consistent NCAA Tournament team for roughly 20 years, but that’s not the same as being a blue blood. The Zags haven’t been national title contenders for a very long time. They became big hitters in 2015, when they gained a No. 2 seed, reaching the Elite Eight before losing to eventual national champion Duke.  

Gonzaga used to be Cinderella, the cuddly No. 10 or 12 seed who'd knock off high seeds in the early rounds of the tournament. But six years ago, the Zags began their transformation into a high-end program that expects to make the Final Four year on year, and compete for national championships.

Six years is not long enough to establish a blue blood unless that period of time delivers multiple national titles and a level of dominance that's uncommonly overwhelming. 

Consider the example of UCLA under the iconic John Wooden. UCLA was not a blue blood in 1963, one year before winning its first national championship in 1964. However, by the end of the 1960s, UCLA had won fivenational titles, three in a row from 1967 through 1969. The Bruins became a blue blood. Over 50 years later, their fans still expect Final Fours, even though the Bruins haven’t delivered them very often (none since 2008, when Kevin Lovewore the school’s colours). 

Maybe a current college basketball school will become a new blue blood in a few years, but in 2021, no school will earn that exalted status. 

The 2021 national champion could take a step toward royal stature, but it won’t cement that identity. Blue bloods are created over the course of several years, not just one.  

Gonzaga is one such team trying to begin to create a blue blood’s profile. Another school is Baylor, which will be a No. 1 seed in this upcoming NCAA Tournament, but hasn’t made the Final Four since 1950. 

Michigan, another No. 1 seed, has made the national title game twice in the past nine years, but has only one national championship to its credit. These three teams have spent the entire season playing at a higher level than the rest of the competition, but they don’t have the brand name of Duke or North Carolina or Kentucky. They are heavyweight teams expected to make the Final Four, but they don’t have the national brand name which makes casual American sports fans want to watch them. 

A possible Gonzaga-Baylor national championship game will thrill the college basketball diehards and junkies, but it might not create a national splash the way a Duke-Kansas or North Carolina-Kentuckygame would. It is such a weird place for college basketball to be… though not a bad one. Gonzaga is unbeaten and Baylor has just one loss heading into the post-season. Dominant teams that simply lack the glamour of the more famous schools in the sport.

This season in college basketball, those more famous names – and their famous coaches – have fallen into a ditch. Duke is not certain to even make the tournament, meaning 5-time national champion Mike Krzyzewski might be watching from his couch. North Carolina is a bubble team, with Roy Williams struggling with a young team who can’t hit perimeter shots. Kentucky and John Calipari will not make the NCAA Tournament unless they win the SEC Tournament this weekend, while Michigan State under Tom Izzo can also be considered a bubble team.  

If the blue bloods are struggling, someone else has to inhabit the foremost seed lines on Selection Sunday, and thus the theme for this tournament is clear: The best teams in college basketball aren’t Cinderella, and they aren’t blue bloods. 

They're instead new-age heavyweights, waiting to make their mark on the sport and win a transformative title that'll reshape a reputation, and inspire fear from opponents in future seasons. 

Gonzaga has made only one Final Four in its history, while Baylor’s Final Four drought of 71 years is well-known throughout the sport. Yet, these two teams have been viewed as the best of the best in college basketball all season long.

This is an NCAA Tournament backdrop unlike any other… and that factual assertion can be made without even referring to the pandemic, which is a separate plot complication in its own right. 

An NCAA Tournament played in front of very few fans, because of COVID-19 restrictions, will create a far less noisy, far less chaotic atmosphere inside the arenas where games are played. The Final Four will again be played in a football stadium in Indianapolis as is standard practice in this modern era of the NCAA Tournament’s evolution – but there won’t be a crowd of 70,000 or even 30,000 fans for those national semifinals and the national title game in early April. 

Does this low-attendance NCAA Tournament mean the best teams will advance, unburdened by a hostile or underdog crowd pulling for an upset? Does this mean underdogs will play relaxed basketball and not get too caught up in the passion of the moment, which a full crowd might intensify? We don’t know. This is all speculation. 

The real variable worth considering in relationship to the pandemic is that teams will have played different amounts of games heading into this tournament. 

Some schools will have played close to 20 games, others 25, others close to the normal 30-game regular-season workload. These differences in games played are due to pandemic-related pauses (or lack thereof) on the schedule. These imbalances might create late-blooming teams who, after a 20th or 23rd game, might settle into a rhythm they couldn’t attain in 15 or 18 games. There could be a No. 7 seed which had its season interrupted by COVID-19, but finally gets enough practice time together to polish and refine its habits at the right time of year, and perform more like a No. 2 or 3 seed at tournament time.  

Anything seems possible simply because the pandemic has removed a normal context from so much of the college basketball landscape. None of us will know where teams stand until the tournament begins, and any mature person will admit that.  

Who will decide this tournament, an event in which the new-age heavyweights have temporarily replaced the traditional blue bloods in college basketball? 

It could be Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert or Jalen Suggs. Kispert has incredible shooting range, while Suggs is the roaring engine behind Gonzaga’s lethal fast-break offence. Those are the two standout players on a loaded, balanced Gonzaga squad. 

It could be Baylor’s Jared Butler, a complete player who relishes taking the big shot on a team of established veterans who play tremendous lockdown defence. 

It could be Franz Wagner, the X-factor for a Michigan team which has noticeable interior size and ample portions of perimeter playmaking.  

The National Player of the Year favourite, Iowa big man Luka Garza, could take the Hawkeyes on his back and make a memorable statement which will resonate for generations in Iowa City, which has waited over 40 years to return to the Final Four. 

The expected No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA draft, Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham, could carry the Cowboys to the promised land before riding off into the sunset. 

The NCAA Tournament is known for being a volatile and unpredictable event in normal circumstances. It has attained legendary status among American sports fans because of the remarkable and surprising moments it has forged over several decades. Will a pandemic tournament at the end of a pandemic season elevate the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in a year when those high seeds aren’t traditional powers? Or, will this historically unprecedented season – which unfolded in an environment these athletes aren’t used to – create an NCAA Tournament in which brackets are busted from start to finish? 

Can the new kids on the block – the new powers in college basketball – withstand the scrutiny and pressure which will become part of their lives this March? Or, will the high seeds feel the same pressure of past NCAA Tournaments even in arenas with very few fans, and crash out of the bracket in this moment of immense opportunity?  

Gonzaga and Baylor might not ever have a better opportunity to win the national championship. Florida State, which hasn't been to the Final Four since 1972, and Alabama, which has never been to the Final Four, know this tournament offers a uniquely realistic path to success and glory. 

The best teams in this tournament have the opportunity of a lifetime and could easily be burdened by the pressure which accompanies such potent knowledge. Will the 19- and 20-year-olds in the centre of this drama be able to rise above the tumult and the shouting?  

We watch every year to find out if the big dogs can handle the heat of March Madness, a single-elimination tournament in which the best team does not always win. This year in a pandemic, the classic March Madness tension points still exist, but on teams which don’t ordinarily find themselves at the top of the mountain when the 68-team bracket is revealed. This introduces several fresh layers of intrigue to a tournament which never has to be oversold, and whose quality always speaks for itself. 

For the first time in two years, let the madness unfold. After the lack of a 2020 edition of the Big Dance, this 2021 college basketball party feels significantly more special. 

If the event lives up to the hype, it will be remembered in ways no previous NCAA Tournament can possibly hope to match. 

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Matt Zemek

Matt has written professionally about US College Football since 2000, and has blogged about professional Tennis since 2014. He wants the Australian Open to play Thursday night Women's Semi-Finals, and Friday evening Men's Semi-Finals. Contribute to his Patreon for exclusive content here.

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