The days between Selection Sunday and tournament tipoff bring about a perennial bracket question: Will the No. 1 overall seed win it all?
Although often appearing to be the obvious choice, the No. 1 overall seed hasn’t been crowned champion of the NCAA men’s tournament since 2007 and has only made it to the Final Four twice in the last 10 years.
Predicting the top-ranked team will lose before the Final Four has paid off in each of the last four years — but be wary of that this time.
While top-ranked teams often fall short, No. 1 Gonzaga has what it takes to cut down the nets in April.
Current favorites, odds to win the men’s 2021 NCAA Tournament
According to PointsBet, Gonzaga leads the way as the clear favorite to win it all:
- Gonzaga (+130)
- Baylor (+240)
- Houston (+450)
- Michigan (+550)
- USC (+1400)
- UCLA (+2200)
The year of the Zags
From start to finish, Gonzaga (26-0) has shown few weaknesses. Mark Few’s Bulldogs opened their season with a 102-90 win over then-No. 6 Kansas and closed it with an 88-78 victory over BYU in the West Coast Conference Tournament. In between, the Zags beat then-No. 3 Iowa 99-88 and then-No. 16 Virginia 98-75.
Led by three players on the 2021 Wooden Award National Ballot, Gonzaga is difficult to guard. Those three players — senior small forward Corey Kispert, freshman guard Jalen Suggs and sophomore forward Drew Timme — combine for 52.2 points per game.
Kispert, who leads the team in scoring with 19.2 points per game, also collected AP first-team All-American honors. Suggs and Timme made the second team, and junior guard Joel Ayayi rounded out the group with an honorable mention nod. Gonzaga was the only program with four players on the AP All-America teams.
The four All-American honorees lead a high-scoring and efficient offense: The Zags’ 92.1 points per game leads the nation by a significant margin. Colgate, the only other team averaging over 85 points, trails with 86.3. Meanwhile, the Zags have held opponents to an average of 69.1 points per game — an average margin of victory of 23 points.
The Bulldogs’ field-goal percentage (55.1%) is also first in the nation, well ahead of Stephen F. Austin’s 52.1%.
For good reason, Gonzaga hasn’t lost a game in over a year, but every team the Zags meet in the tournament will try to change that.
What would it take to beat Gonzaga?
BYU (20-6) gave Gonzaga its toughest test of the season in the WCC Tournament championship. The Cougars capitalized on Gonzaga’s first-half shooting struggles to go on an 11-0 run and take as much as a 14-point lead. BYU led by 12 at the half, but Kispert hit three deep shots in a row as the Zags pulled within three. The Cougars fought to maintain a lead, but Gonzaga went ahead with seven minutes remaining and didn’t trail again.
After BYU shot 68% in the first half, Gonzaga added full-court pressure in the second, holding the Cougars to 25 points in the second half.
Teams have struggled to defend Gonzaga in transition, and the Bulldogs’ scoring distribution makes them hard to defend. Gonzaga has only scored fewer than 80 points on two occasions and has broken 100 on five. Beating them almost certainly requires an opponent to build a quick lead, then maintain it by shooting better than the Zags and breaking 80 points.
A potential meeting with Baylor in the championship could easily spoil the Bulldogs’ perfect run, as the Bears’ high-powered offense averages 84.4 points per game. The two teams were originally supposed to meet in December, but the game was canceled due to COVID-19 protocols.
A prospective Elite Eight matchup with Iowa could also be trouble for Gonzaga, as Hawkeyes center Luka Garza could overwhelm the Bulldogs in the paint.
Recent history of the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament
The top-ranked team in the NCAA men’s tournament has often struggled on its road to the Final Four.
The last time the top overall seed made it past the Elite Eight was in 2015, when top-ranked Kentucky clinched a Final Four berth before being knocked out by eventual champion Wisconsin. Since then, top overall seeds Kansas (2016) and Duke (2019) lost in their respective Elite Eights, while Villanova (2017) lost in the second round and Virginia (2018) was the first one-seed to be upset by a 16-seed.
A top-ranked team hasn’t taken home the men’s tournament trophy since 2007, when Billy Donovan’s Florida team beat one-seed Ohio State 84-75 in the national championship.
More importantly, a men’s team hasn’t finished the season undefeated since Indiana in 1976.
If Mark Few’s Gonzaga team does it this year, it would go down as the best team in program history — and one of the best in the history of the tournament.
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