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March Madness 2021: can anyone stop Gonzaga’s march to the title?

Which team should you hate in place of Duke? Who is this year’s Cinderella team? Our writers break down the bracket for the NCAA tournament Jalen Suggs leads a Gonzaga team many believe will pull off a perfect season. Photograph: James Snook/USA Today Sports Who replaces Duke as arch-villains? Iona. Rick Pitino has resurfaced in New Rochelle despite facing no meaningful consequences from the NCAA following the FBI corruption probe that prompted his messy ouster from Louisville. Must be nice. These Gaels are a Cinderella by weight class only. BAG They’ve got it all: the blue-blood origin story that traces to a musty fieldhouse, the overpaid coach who colors outside the lines, a couple of hustle-playmaking white dudes for Jim Nantz to fall madly in love with. With no Duke or Kentucky in the mix, trust me, Kansas is the Evil Empire. And I’m not just saying that because I went to the workaday school on the other side of the Kansas-Missouri border. (M-I-Z!) AL No one truly can replace Duke; hating the Blue Devils is as venerable of a tradition in US sports as there is. However, many fans will make do with rooting against tainted head coach Rick Pitino, who is bringing his fifth different team, the Iona Gaels, to the men’s tournament. He may not be there long, however: the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champions are facing heavily favored Alabama in the first round. HF Kansas come into this year’s tournament seeded third in the West Region and opposing teams will likely be extra motivated to knock out the loftiest of the blue-bloods in Indianapolis. TF Player to watch Cade Cunningham. Most draftniks have projected the 6ft 8in point guard, whose selfless, stylish game has drawn comparisons to Luka Dončić, as the No 1 overall pick in this summer’s NBA draft. He has posted monster numbers all season, and has also proven reliable in crunch time for the Cowboys. BAG This may very well be your last chance to catch Cam Thomas in an LSU uniform. The 6ft 4in guard has been absolutely brilliant in his inaugural season in Baton Rouge; his 22-plus point scoring average is the fourth-highest in the nation. But it’s how he does it – behind the arc, off the dribble, in traffic – that will leave you convinced that the next time you see him will be at the NBA draft. AL Cade Cunningham is projected by many to be the first pick in the NBA draft. While that doesn’t always – or even often – correlate to tournament success, he will make the Cowboys a much-watch team for as long as they are dancing. HF Many eyes will be on Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs, who has a chance to cement himself as the second-best guard, if not the second-best player, in the draft class. Suggs who is averaging 14.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists has been a lock for the top five in most mock drafts. TF Dark horse team to watch Loyola Chicago. Back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since their charmed Final Four run three years ago, the Missouri Valley Conference champions lead the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency and scoring defense, allowing a scant 55.5 points per game. I expect the ninth-seeded Ramblers to make things extremely uncomfortable for top-seeded Illinois in an intrastate second-round clash on Sunday. BAG Surely many will be tempted to write-off Liberty, a No 13 seed that would’ve made the bracket cut even if they had lost to North Alabama in the Atlantic Sun tournament final. But not only would the Flames have been dancing last year if it hadn’t been for Covid, they enter this year’s draw on a 12-game win streak built on stout defense and stingy turnover margins. AL The 12th-seeded UC-Santa Barbara Gauchos’ last tournament win was in 1990, but they have gone 22-4 this season, including wins in 18 of their last 19 games. Thanks partly to the rise of JaQuori McLaughlin, they have a solid shot at upsetting No 5 seed Creighton in their opening game. After that, who knows? HF Michigan State are one to watch this year, largely due to being handed an No 11 seed. The Spartans’ mix of talent and Tom Izzo’s tendency to get his players to play well in win-or-go-home situations should allow the two-time national champions to at least make the Sweet Sixteen. TF Cade Cunningham can cement his reputation as one of the best players in the college game. Photograph: Kevin Jairaj/USA Today Sports The most vulnerable No1 seed is… Baylor. The Bears won the Big 12 regular-season title for the first time in 71 years and earned the first No 1 seed in the program’s history, but a constellation of factors could see them go out early: they’ve vulnerable on the defensive boards (ranking 288th in defensive rebounding percentage), their offense depends heavily on three-point shooting (which can backfire in a single-elimination format), they’ve been dealt a brutal draw in the South Region and haven’t quite been the same after their 21-day Covid pause. BAG With star forward Isaiah Livers sidelined with a stress injury to his right foot, Michigan – despite a heroic run through the Big Ten tournament – seem ripe to go down as yet another disappointment for a historically underachieving conference. AL Michigan have the top seed in the East but they will be without Livers, their second-highest scorer. That leaves them open for an upset, particularly with No 2 Alabama looking dangerous. HF On the surface, Illinois have the easiest path of any No 1 seed this year, but many of the teams in the Midwest bracket began playing much better basketball towards the end of the season. They face the possibility of facing the most talented player in college basketball, Cade Cunningham, and a very good Oklahoma State team. TF One bold prediction Michigan crash out early. The Wolverines have been on the short list of national title contenders from the early days of the season, but the loss of centerpiece Isaiah Livers to a likely season-ending foot injury will prove fatal to their Final Four hopes. BAG Loyola Chicago does it again. AL No team will forfeit due to failed Covid-19 tests once the tournament begins. Fingers crossed, the NCAA’s attempt at creating a bubble goes as well as the NBA’s during last year’s playoffs, meaning there are no pandemic-related no-contests to come. HF Baylor may be one of the most talented teams in college basketball this year but have been slow to find the same form they showed before the program went on pause due to Covid issues. If they cannot shake off the rust, they might not last past the Elite Eight. TF The Final Four will be … Gonzaga, Florida State, Ohio State, Illinois. BAG Gonzaga, Alabama, North Carolina, Loyola Chicago. AL Gonzaga, Alabama, Baylor, Illinois. HF Gonzaga, Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma State. TF The winner will be… Illinois. Gonzaga came thisclose to breaking through for the program’s first national title back in 2017, when they pushed North Carolina to the limit in a title game marred by dubious officiating. This year’s Bulldogs are even better, but will end one hurdle short of becoming the first unbeaten men’s champion since 1976. The top-seeded Illini, led by the NBA-bound All-American pair of Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, are peaking at the right time and have the perfect balance of offensive firepower and defensive steel to break their own championship maiden. BAG Duke and Kentucky aren’t here. Kansas, Iona and Virginia, they’ve already beat. All the stars are aligned for Gonzaga, and a perfect season would make a fitting end for a formerly underdog program that have seen their high hopes dashed so many times in the past decade. And what better way to do it than in a finals rematch against the Tar Heels – the team that beat the Zags to the 2017 title. AL What a year to be the Person Who Always Picks Gonzaga. After going undefeated in the regular season, the Bulldogs were named the overall top seed. History isn’t necessarily on their side, the last Division I men’s basketball team to pull off a perfect season were the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers. Still freshman point guard phenomenon Jalen Suggs looks like the player to lead them to what would be (somewhat surprisingly) their first national championship. HF Gonzaga have been unstoppable this year, going undefeated. Led by Suggs and projected first-round picks Corey Kispert and Joël Ayayi, Gonzaga have the chance to run the table in March en route to a national title. TF