The 2021 NCAA men’s basketball tournament far exceeded the expectations of many viewers. From the first round to the championship game, the tournament had no shortage of upsets and Cinderella stories. The tournament was just the second time in history that a First Four team made it to the Final Four, with the 11th seed University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Bruins going on an incredible run. The Bruins knocked off 11th seed Michigan State University, 14th seed Abilene Christian University, 2nd seed University of Alabama and the 1st seed University of Michigan, before facing off in a thrilling Final Four matchup against undefeated Gonzaga University. In arguably the best game of the tournament, Gonzaga’s freshman phenom Jalen Suggs made a game-winning three to send the Zags to the championship game against the powerhouse Baylor University.
The championship game between Gonzaga and Baylor featured two No. 1 seeds and squads that were respectively ranked first and second nationally in the polls for most of the year. It is not often that the two best teams in college basketball meet in the title game. Gonzaga, sitting at 31-0, was the clear favorite entering the contest. Nevertheless, with stifling defense and clutch shot-making, Baylor completely dominated on all fronts, upsetting Gonzaga 86-70 and winning the program’s first-ever national championship. Bears’ star guard Jared Butler was named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. He finished with 22 points and seven assists, the first player since Syracuse University’s Carmelo Anthony in 2003 to go 20 and seven in a title game.
Baylor’s title was the culmination of a decades-long overhaul of the program, after coach Scott Drew was hired in 2003 following immense controversy; the program received one of the harshest penalties ever handed out by the NCAA after the murder of Patrick Dennehy by his teammate Carlton Dotson and the subsequent cover-up by the coach and other team officials. Drew has completely changed the landscape of Baylor basketball. “I remember being 30-point or 40-point underdogs,” Drew said. “Credit those guys who won three games that year. There’s a lot of sweat and sacrifice that led up to this. This is their championship as much as ours. That’s why this is a ‘we thing.’“
Another great storyline in this year’s tournament was that of Oral Roberts University. As the 15th seed, the Golden Eagles knocked off both 2nd seed Ohio State University and 7th seed University of Florida, before eventually falling to 3rd seed University of Arkansas in the Sweet Sixteen. Oral Roberts sophomores Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor were perhaps the most exciting scoring duo during the tournament, who combined to an average of almost 55 points a game. Abmas was the nation’s leading scorer during the regular season, and he displayed that scoring talent in the tournament, putting up 29 points against Ohio State, 26 against Florida and 25 against Arkansas.
Another March Madness highlight was the performance of Pac-12 teams in the tournament. The conference combined for a record of 13-5, which tied for the 22nd-best winning percentage in tournament history. Most notably, double-digit seeds Oregon State and UCLA reached the Elite 8 and Final Four respectively. Perhaps the best overall player performance in the tournament came from UCLA’s Johnny Juzang, who scored 137 points during his team’s run, the most in the tournament. The University of Kentucky transfer had a big rebound season for the Bruins, averaging 16 points per game during the regular season and 23 points per game in the tournament.
After COVID-19 had major impacts on this past season, the NCAA will hope to return to some semblance of normal next season, with vaccinations rapidly being distributed across the country. Early projections indicate that Gonzaga is expected to make a return to the title game. Despite seeing Suggs and Corey Kispert depart, the Zags will add the nation’s top-ranked player in Chet Holmgren and North Carolina transfer Walker Kessler to pair with a potential returning All-American in Drew Timme.