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Roundtable: March Madness final four, champion and dark horse selections

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Amy Bailey | The Daily Wildcat

A member of the Pride of Arizona plays the University of Arizona theme song before the start of the men's basketball game. 

The most exciting time in collegiate sports is here! The Arizona men's basketball team may not be competing in the NCAA tournament this season but that doesn't mean we all can't fill out our brackets and enjoy a few weeks of exhilarating college basketball.

Here are our Final Four, champion and sleeper team picks for the 2021 NCAA March Madness tournament. 

Ari Koslow (@koslow_ari):

Final Four: Gonzaga, Texas, Illinois, Baylor

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It is boring, but I believe that for the most part, the top teams have clearly separated themselves from the rest of the country this season. I have many other upsets throughout my bracket, including Ohio reaching the Sweet 16, Winthrop over Villanova, University of California, Santa Barbara defeating Creighton and Texas Tech reaching the Elite Eight among other games. However, I believe that there is a clear separator in talent for the most part between the No. 1 seeds to the rest of the teams, more so than in years past. 

It amazes me that there are still some people doubting Gonzaga because of the conference they play in. The Bulldogs rolled through an extremely tough non-conference schedule, defeating Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa and Virginia. This is the most complete Gonzaga team I have ever seen, more so than the 2017 tournament when they lost to North Carolina in the championship. Gonzaga was the legitimate No. 1 team in the AP poll every single week this season. 

Texas is my one non-chalk selection in my Final Four. I really liked how they finished the season, and momentum is huge come tournament time. They have a plethora of great guards including Andrew Jones, Matt Coleman III and Courtney Ramey with a pair of reliable forwards in Kai Jones and Jericho Sims, who dominated Oklahoma State in the Longhorns Big 12 championship win with 21 points, 14 rebounds, three steals and two blocks. Coleman also dropped 30 points in that game to make up for poor shooting performances from Ramey and Jones. I have the Longhorns defeating Alabama in the Sweet 16, and then Florida State (who I have defeating Michigan in the Sweet 16 with it sounding like Isaiah Livers will miss the whole tournament) in the Elite Eight. 

My other two final four teams are quite chalk in Illinois and Baylor. The Illini have arguably the best duo in the country in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn. They went a stretch of games with Dosunmu sidelined and still had no trouble at all. They have everyone healthy entering the tournament, and they are ready to make a big run after back-to-back wins over Iowa and Ohio State to win the Big Ten tournament. Baylor was arguably the odds on favorite last season before the tournament was cancelled. They lead the country in shooting from deep and force turnovers at a high rate. 

Championship: Illinois – 85, Gonzaga – 81 

I have Illinois defeating Gonzaga in the championship in the battle of teams who arguably boast the two best duos in the league with Dosunmu and Cockburn for the Illini and Corey Kispert and Jalen Suggs for the Bulldogs. I am expecting this to be a very exciting, high-scoring game that will go down to the wire with Illinois barely holding on in the end. One of the biggest deciding factors in Illinois's run will be the play from freshman guard Andre Curbelo. After starting the season strong with double digit scoring four of his first six games, he hit a bit of a rough stretch scoring the ball in the middle of the year. Curbelo found his groove again late in the year, averaging just under 15 points per game in the final six games for Illinois. If he can establish himself as a third scoring option, that would be huge for the Illini. 

Dark horse: Ohio 

I mentioned them earlier, but I have Ohio reaching the Sweet 16. They are led by junior guard Jason Preston, who is a legitimate NBA prospect. Preston averaged over 16 points per game this season to go along with just under seven rebounds, seven assists and close to two steals. He is the complete package as not just a scorer but also a playmaker for his teammates. Preston averaged just under 23 points per game in the MAC Conference tournament, and it was not just him. The Bobcats had four of their five starters averaging double digit points during the conference tournament, including forwards Dwight Wilson III and Ben Roderick. This is a complete team that had five players average double digit scoring during the regular season and took Illinois (my national champion) to the brink in a two-point loss where Preston scored a game-high 31 points. This is a legitimate threat to a Virginia team that is very reliant on shooting from the outside paired with the COVID-19 protocols they are going through to where they won't arrive in Indianapolis until Friday, the day before the game. After Virginia, I have Ohio beating UCSB (though I would have them beating Creighton as well either way) in the second round before falling to Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. 

Ryan Wohl (@ryan__wohl)

Final Four: Gonzaga, Illinois, Baylor, Alabama

In such a weird college basketball season and the first March Madness tournament in two years, Gonzaga is looking to go un-defeated and win the national championship to join Indiana as the first team since 1976 to do so. Gonzaga along with Illinios are the clear cut best two teams in the country right now and I believe they both will reach the final four. The Zags have the easiest path to the final four as the Illini, could potentially face future No. 1 NBA Draft pick in Cade Cunningham and his Oklahoma State Cowboys. My other two teams in the final four are Baylor and Alabama. Alabama to me is under seeded as a two seed as they won the SEC tournament last week and are one of the hottest teams In the country right now.

Championship: Oklahoma State beats Gonzaga

I have the Zags beating Alabama and Oklahoma State defeating Illinois in the final four this season. Cade Cunningham will win the national championship season and solidify himself as one of the greatest college players of all time after winning the national championship as a freshmen. 

Dark horse: Oregon

My sleeper team for the tournament is Oregon. They are also being disrespected as a seven seed as they were the best team in the Pac-12 foe most of the regular season but suffered a bad loss to Oregon State in the Pac-12 tournament last week. Chris Duarte will rise to the top as a top five player in the country as the Ducks make a few run in the tournament.

Sean Fagan (@SeanSoCal): 

Final Four: Gonzaga, Michigan, Ohio State, Houston

Gonzaga is the only undefeated team in the postseason, which I believe gives them more to play for. They are set up in a good spot to become the first team every to win March Madness undefeated. Who would not want to see that? I know I want to see that. 

Michigan’s program has been resurrected under Juwan Howard, head coach and former “Fab Five” member. I feel they have the hardest path to the championship out of all four of my picks, but Michigan looks special this year. Winning the Big Ten title was a step in the right direction, and I believe they can ride that momentum into the tournament.

Ohio State is primed to make a huge run in the south, especially now that Kentucky, Duke and Louisville are out of the mix. That frees up Ohio State from having to face a powerhouse team until at least the elite eight. By then, they will have beat enough teams to be ready to face a team such as North Carolina or Purdue.

Houston is who I feel has the easiest path to the final four. I know easy is a strong word, but I believe that the two toughest opponents in their way to the final four are San Diego State and Syracuse. However, they both play each other in the first round, so Houston would only potentially have to face one of them. Then it all depends on if Illinois makes it that far too. 

Championship: Gonzaga defeats Houston 

Dark horse: Loyola Chicago 

Cinderella stories are what make March Madness intense, and Loyola Chicago fits that mold. Their first opponent, Georgia Tech, is a beatable team in the first round. Next up would most likely be Illinois, one of the best teams in the country. Having made it far in the tournament in the past, Loyola Chicago does not strike me as a team that is afraid of Illinois. Look for this team to bust a few brackets along the way. 

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Jordan White (@Jordan_white13): 

Final Four: Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois 

West

This section of my bracket is where many people will disagree with me as I have the Iowa Hawkeyes as the team making it out of the pack instead of the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Why? A guy named Luka Garza. Iowa has a really good team, but the tournament is where the elite players shine. Garza has been arguably the best offensive player in college basketball this year and he is also 6-foot-11 and weighs over 260 pounds. He is a matchup nightmare for most teams and will be looking to solidify his draft stock.

East

Coming out of the East I have the Michigan Wolverines. Not a surprise and a team many people have making it this far in the tournament. The Wolverines ranked top five in the Big 10 in major statistic except for steals. They have a complete roster and a standout star in freshman center Hunter Dickinson, who was able to contain possible Player of the Year Luka Garza in Michigan’s demolition of Iowa. They also have former member of the "Fab Five" and NBA Champion Juwan Howard as their head coach. He is a player’s coach and has every member of the team bought in to his system. However, one of their key players in senior forward Isaiah Livers. This may bring them challenges but I believe Howard will be able to effectively scheme around his absence.

South

Yet another unpopular opinion, I have the Ohio State Buckeyes making it out of the South by defeating Jared Butler and the Baylor Bears. This pick is the one I am least confident about and I am sure the rest of the sports desk is going to disagree with me most here, but I just think they are very well prepared due to the other teams they have had to face all season in conference. They have two great scorers in E.J. Liddell and Duane Washington Jr. who can both catch fire quickly. This team’s last loss was in the Big Ten conference tournament in OT against maybe the best team in the country in Illinois. Watch out for them.

Midwest

This pick is to literally nobody’s surprise except those that think Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham can will his team to the Final Four on his own. The Illinois Fighting Illini will make it out of the Midwest. Like Michigan they have a very complete team and a star duo in guard Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn. Dosunmo has been my favorite player to watch all year and he’s playing with a black mask on right now due to a facial injury. All real basketball fans know how the elite players show up when the mask is on. Need I say anything more?

Championship: Michigan defeats Illinois 

The team I have winning it all? Michigan. I believe they will beat Iowa again in the Final Four due to Hunter Dickinson’s ability to guard Luka Garza. They will then play Illinois in the final game. Last time they played, the Fighting Illini embarrassed the Wolverines without Dosunmu. However, I believe Juwan Howard will rally the team around that fact and be able to push them past their limits and lead them to the championship. Michigan is the only one seed this year that has ever won a championship and I believe they will win it again.

Dark horse: Ohio 

There is always that one team that ruins everyone’s bracket. This year, that team is the Ohio Bobcats and star player Jason Preston. They play a COVID-19-ridden Virginia team the first round that they will take advantage of. In the next round I have them playing Creighton, who although is a good team, they are not great. I am also not a fan of some of the comments made by Creighton head coach Greg McDermott and would love to see him lose. In the Sweet 16, the Ohio Bobcats will beat the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Although they have been the number one team all year and accomplished a perfect season, I am one of those people that believes everyone loses eventually. This is a trap game for the Bulldogs, there is no way they should ever lose to a team like Ohio. This will be their downfall.

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Bryan Savic (@bryan_savic): 

Final Four: Virginia, Alabama, Villanova, Illinois 

I strongly feel that Virginia will be representing the West region in the Final Four. A team that everyone continues to overlook and has been flying under the radar all year. The defending national champions still sport one of the best defensive systems in all of college basketball that makes it difficult for any team to score more than 60 points whenever they play the Cavaliers. Not to mention, they are still led by one of the best head coaches in college basketball in Tony Bennett. I would had picked Gonzaga here if it weren’t for their history of always falling short in either the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight. I love Mark Few, but something tells me were going be running the same narrative with this year’s team as well. 

In the East, I’m going with the team that traditionally has been a football powerhouse throughout the program’s history. That is right, the Crimson Tide of Alabama will be rolling all the way to the Final Four. A team that continues to receive no love, in large part due to being in the shadow of the football program for years now. That narrative will change, at least for a month when Forrest Gump’s alma mater makes its first ever Final Four in school history.

In a surprise pick, I’m going with Villanova in representing the South region at the Final Four. Another team that has flown under the radar all year, but I think will end up shocking a lot of people. People for some reason act like Jay Wright got lost at sea. Actually, he’s still the head coach of one of the most promising basketball programs in the entire nation. One of the best coaches in college basketball will lead a formidable guard duo in Bryan Antoine and Collin Gillespie who are excellent facilitators and can shoot the lights out from downtown. This two headed monster will give teams plenty of headaches and ultimately spearhead their team to a Final Four berth.

In the Midwest region, I have Illinois making a Final Four appearance and making it all the way to the championship game. The Fighting Illini will ride their physical specimen, Kofi Cockburn, as they have been all season, to score points in the paint in bundles and rack up a ton of rebounds. The 7’0 giant will be complimented by the astonishing play of guards Ayo Dosunmu and Trent Frazier. 

Championship: Illinois – 78, Alabama – 75

Dark horse: Loyola Chicago 

This small school from the Windy City made a Cinderella run to the Final Four back in 2018. Something tells me that they have another magical run in them. However, I don’t think the Ramblers from Loyola Chicago will punch its ticket as one of the final four entrants but will certainly play the role of bracket buster in this year's NCAA men’s basketball tournament. In my Dick Vitale voice, “The Ramblers are going crazy baby.” Trust me, everyone’s going to be going crazy when Loyola Chicago upsets Georgia Tech in the first round of tournament play. If they win, millions of brackets will be obliterated as I’m sure not many people had the Ramblers advancing to the next round. Yes, Georgia Tech is coming off an impressive ACC Championship game victory over Florida State. That is great and all, but it just so happens that they are running into the wrong team at the wrong time.

C.J. Lala (@cjlala43): 

Final Four: Gonzaga, Florida State, Arkansas, Oklahoma State 

Dark horse: LSU

One sleeper team to watch out for that could bust some brackets is LSU. They are hot at the right time and if they can get out of the first-round vs. St. Bonaventure, they will come up against an injured top seeded Michigan team where I think they can pull off the upset.

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Jake Faigus (@jake_faigus): 

Final Four: Gonzaga, Alabama, Ohio State, Illinois 

Championship: Gonzaga def. Illinois 

My picks in this year’s NCAA Tournament were hard in some instances, but also very easy in others. My take on the Final Four in Indianapolis is that it’ll be made up of Gonzaga, Alabama, Ohio State and Illinois. 

I think Gonzaga plays Illinois for the National Championship. I think Gonzaga pulls off the win and ties 1976 Indiana in total wins without a loss. Gonzaga has been the best team all year, and this team isn’t a fraud like many people usually think of when they think of Gonzaga. They boast three All-Americans on their roster and have done nothing but dominate their competition all year.

I think Texas gets to the Final Four because they are one of the more talented teams in the tournament. They have a great mix of experience and talent that few teams have. I also think their coach’s experience, Shaka Smart, is a difference-maker for the Longhorns. 

Ohio State is a team that was struggling a bit before the end of the season before they ended up in the Big Ten Tournament Final. I think their region sets them up well, and that they’ll be able to ride that to the Final Four. 

Illinois has been the hottest team in the country not named Gonzaga. They’ve separated themselves in what was the best conference in college basketball all year, in the Big Ten. Illinois is the surest bet in the tournament next to Gonzaga, so a title game between these two would be the best possible outcome in this tournament. 

Dark horse: USC

The best sleeper to look at is USC as a six seed. I picked them to go to the Elite Eight because they have one of the best players in their country in Evan Mobley. I think they have the ability to cause issues for the winner of Wichita State vs. Drake, Kansas and Iowa. The size of USC with Mobley can cause issues for Luka Garza especially if they play Iowa in the Sweet 16.

Patrick Carr (@pfcsports99): 

Final Four: Gonzaga, Alabama, Illinois, Baylor 

Is it Christmas time or just March Madness? I can’t tell because these next weeks are my Christmas. After COVID-19 taking last year’s tournament we all deserve this more than anything. This year is priming up to be a fantastic tournament with a new crop of teams running the table, not your typical blue bloods. I could go on and on about college basketball and the tournament especially, but I will just get right to the juicy stuff. 

Out of the West region, I think Gonzaga will be the final four representative. The Zags have looked dominant all year with three All Americans in Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs and Drew Timme, with Suggs also a projected top 5 NBA Pick. Gonzaga almost feels like destiny this year as they have already beat Kansas, Iowa and Virginia who all reside in their conference. 

Coming out of the East, I have Nate Oats and Alabama. Oats has done a tremendous job building this program so quickly and has a legit two way star and Herbert Jones. Bama is playing great basketball currently and has an outstanding defense while shooting a lot of threes and layups. 

Illinois is potentially the hottest team in America right now and will be coming out of the Midwest. Ayo Dosunmu is probably the best closer in the nation and Kofi Cockburn is dominant inside. With Andre Curbelo’s recent ascend into a legit third star role they are as dangerous as anyone currently. A potential Illinois vs. Oklahoma State matchup with probably the two best point guards in the country in Ayo and Cade Cunningham, really has the college basketball fans Salivating. 

Out of the South, and my National Champion pick I have the Baylor Bears. Baylor has the best backcourt in the country and a very experienced one for that matter. For the majority of the season the Bears had the best defense in the country as well, but a COVID-19 pause seemed to disrupt things. This week off should give them their legs back, just in time for them to beat Gonzaga in an absolute classic of a national championship game.

Championship: Baylor defeats Gonzaga 

Dark horse: St. Bonaventure 

My big upset pick is St. Bonaventure going to the Elite Eight. The Bonnies do have a tough opening round against the surging LSU Tigers but after getting by them they play the struggling Michigan Wolverines without their steady senior Isaiah Livers. The Bonnies are a veteran team who is top-50 in offensive and defensive efficiency.


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