The NBA draft withdrawal deadline has come and gone. Pandemic permitting, the official countdown to the 2020-21 season is underway. With that we can post a realistic bracket for the 2021 NCAA tournament, along with several take-it-to-the-bank observations (provided it's your bank, not mine!):
Baylor becomes the latest and last No. 1 overall seed for offseason Bracketology purposes. The truth is we'll have three co-favorites -- Baylor, Gonzaga and Villanova -- when the time comes to officially vote a preseason No. 1. A sensible case can be made for any of the them. My take is that the Bears weathered the NBA evaluation process a shade better than the Zags or Wildcats and will be the most intact of the trio whenever a new season begins.
There remains a clear gap between our top three teams and a large group of contenders vying for the final No. 1 seed position. Michigan State made a brief appearance in that spot a week ago after reports Xavier Tillman Sr. might come back to East Lansing. Instead, Tillman heads to the draft and the Spartans have to navigate what will be a loaded Big Ten. Now that the conference has so many contenders, we'll make the safe play and return a re-loaded Virginia -- still defending national champions, by the way -- to the top line.
Let's not overreact in anointing the Big Ten as the top conference for 2020-21. Key returnees at Iowa (Luka Garza) and Illinois (Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn) have sent shockwaves throughout the country. The Hawkeyes and Illini join Wisconsin, Sparty and Ohio State as potential top four seeds next March, but the Big 12 has just as many in that range. The fivesome of Baylor, Kansas, West Virginia, Texas Tech and Texas is just as formidable as the first five from the Big Ten.
Last season's three-way tie atop the Big East -- Creighton, Villanova and Seton Hall -- figures to evolve into a two-way race this year between the Wildcats and Bluejays. The Pirates lead a cluster of Big East bubble teams also featuring Marquette, Providence, Butler and Xavier. UConn returns to the league in between the top two teams and the bubble bunch, meaning the at-large battles in the middle of the conference may be the fiercest in the country.
The SEC may be without a first-tier national championship contender, but the conference is deep. After the top three or four teams, throw a blanket over the likes of Arkansas, Alabama, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Mississippi State and Auburn. No more than half will make the NCAA field, and we may yet add Georgia to the list of tourney hopefuls.
NBA decisions went well for UCLA and Arizona State, giving the Pac-12 two more Sweet 16 contenders along with Oregon, the likely preseason favorite. Arizona and Stanford should also be NCAA tournament teams, with Colorado and Utah also in the hunt.
Outside the Power 5 and Big East, Memphis made the biggest move with the monster signing of 6-10 center Moussa Cisse. The Tigers now have enough to chase the NCAA bid that was likely to elude them a year ago, although it remains to be seen if another round of preseason hype will translate into on-court success. Another major in non-Power 5 clothing, Dayton, gets Jalen Crutcher back, but will have to recapture last year's glory without the great Obi Toppin. Both Richmond and Saint Louis rate ahead of the Flyers in the Atlantic 10.
The best of the true mid-majors will come from the Missouri Valley Conference, where Loyola Chicago and Northern Iowa will battle it out. If you're looking for a deeper sleeper, how about Yale? The Bulldogs never got to host the canceled Ivy League tournament, but return the best player in the Ancient Eight in senior center Paul Atkinson.