Tuesday, August 3

March Madness bracket busters 2021: top sleeper picks, upsetting predictions for NCAA tournament

The 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament features the return of a prominent Cinderella.

Loyola-Chicago, who wowed the country with a Final Four in 2018, is back in the tournament. Will Sister Jean, now 101, make it to Indianapolis?

The Ramblers are a well-known, and a No. 8 seed suggests they might not be a true sleeper heading into this year’s tournament. Gonzaga and San Diego State, which also won their conference tournaments outside of traditional power conferences, don’t fit that description either.

Instead, we looked at some of the non-major conference teams that were also the top seeds in their respective conference tournaments. Loyola was one of those nine schools and there is statistical evidence to back it up.

In the era of the expanded draw, a total of 59 teams seeded No. 13 or less have had a surprise in the first round. More than half of those teams, 30 of 59, were the No. 1 seed in their conference tournament. Nine of those teams became part of the Sweet 16.

With that in mind, SN breaks down some of those hot sleeper gear to keep in mind when completing your chart. Seven of these teams were the No. 1 seed in their conference tournament:

MORE: Get your March Madness printable media here

March Madness Sleeper Picks, Annoying Predictions

The best bets to get to Sweet 16

Freedom (23-5)

The Flames have won 12 straight games heading into the Big Dance, and the show is 82-16 in the past three seasons. Liberty had a 5-12 upset in 2019, and they have the guard play it takes to make a run with Darius McGhee and Chris Parker. Liberty is one of six Division I teams that averaged fewer than 10 turnovers per game. That efficient game could easily lead to a surprise. That style could make it interesting against Oklahoma State and the Tennessee-Oregon State winner. This is a 5-12 surprise that we like.

UC-Santa Barbara (22-4)

The Gauchos have lost just one game since January 1. This is his first tournament appearance since 2011, but UC-Santa Barbara brings in an experienced team that has won more than 20 games in each of the last four seasons under Joe Pasternack. Jaquori McLaughlin is averaging 16.2 points and 5.2 assists per game. This is a team capable of beating Creighton and challenging the Virginia-Ohio winner. This is the other 5-12 malaise that we like.

15 against 2 | 14 against 3 | 13 against 4 | 12 against 5

Other sleepers that could cause discomfort

Loyola-Chicago (24-4)

The Ramblers won the Missouri Valley Conference. Cameron Krutwig, who was a key player on that Final Four team, is averaging 15 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Loyola-Chicago played only one ranked team this season, a 77-66 loss to Wisconsin, but Porter Moser brings a team to the tournament with the fourth-highest percentage of field goals (50.5 percent) in the nation. Will Sister Jean, now 101, make it to Indianapolis? It’s a tough draw if they make it to the second round against Illinois.

Winthrop (21-1)

The Eagles are back in the tournament for the first time since 2017, and this is the second appearance with ninth-year coach Pat Kelsey. Winthrop has four players who averaged double digits. Chandler Vaudrin, a senior, and DJ Burns, a freshman, are productive at the job, and the Eagles rank in the top 10 in the country in recovery as a result. That is a good formula to take into the tournament for a possible unexpected offer. Villanova is a tough matchup, but the post presence could make it interesting.

MORE: What is the lowest seed to win the NCAA Tournament?

UNC-Greensboro (21-8)

The Spartans won eight of their last 10 games and won the Southern Conference tournament. Senior guard Isaiah Miller is averaging 27.4 points in his last five games, and shot 50 percent from the floor in the SoCon tournament. If Miller continues that hot streak, then UNC-Greensboro will make it interesting for the state of Florida.

Cleveland State (19-7)

Every time the Vikings enter the tournament, it brings back memories of Clinton Smith, Ken “Mouse” McFadden, and the 1985-86 team that made a Sweet 16 run. This team has come a long way since a 55-point loss to Ohio on December 6. Senior guard Torrey Patton averaged 23.3 points per game in the Horizon League tournament, and it has been a remarkable run with second-year coach Dennis Gates. Cleveland State lost a bite 67-61 to Ohio State on December 13. Of the 2-15 matchups, this is the best bet for a surprise.

MORE: Tips for Completing Your March Madness Chart

Hot at the right time

Iona (12-5)

Rick Pitino has the Gaels back in the tournament, and he has a pair of guards in Isaiah Ross (18.4 ppg.) And Asante Gist (13.3 ppg.). If those two can heat up from the 3-point range, then Iona will have a chance. Iona allows too many free throws per game, so they will have to be more disciplined on defense. Pitino will make headlines, but there is substance behind this sleeper. Can they do the unthinkable and pull off a 2-15 upset against Alabama?

Grand Canyon (17-6)

Coach Bryce Drew knows a Cinderella story, right? The Antelopes won the WAC, and the offense revolves around 7-foot center Asbjorn Midtgaard, who is averaging 14.4 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. The Wichita State transfer is critical for a defense that ranks ninth in Division I in points allowed. It’s a tough outing against Iowa and Luke Garza in the first round.

Ohio (16-7)

The Bobcats had two COVID-19 breaks, but won three MAC tournament games by an average of 14.7 points per game. Sophomore coach Jeff Boals has the schedule ahead of schedule, and Jason Preston is averaging 16.6 points, 7.2 assists and 6.8 rebounds per game. He’s one of those players who could emerge as Cinderella’s favorite. The Bobcats beat Georgetown in 2010 and made a Sweet 16 run in 2012. The Bobcats style is an interesting matchup against Virginia. The triples will have to fall.


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