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2021 NCAA Tournament Favorites to Fade, Sleepers to Back



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March Madness is finally here, but which teams should you trust in your brackets? Each year there seems to be a mix of favorites that do well, along with a few sleepers that go far. Let's go through each region and point out the favorites to fade, and the sleepers to consider. 

West Region

The West Region features Gonzaga, who is the No. 1 seed for the entire tournament. The next highest seeds in this region includes Iowa, Kansas, Virginia and Creighton. Two Pac-12 teams round out the top seven seeds, as USC is No. 6 and Oregon is No. 7.

Favorite to Fade - Iowa Hawkeyes

Plenty of NCAA Tournament previews will cite that having a top 20 defense is a common trait of most recent national champions. There have been teams that have started the tournament outside that benchmark and got there by the end of the six-game title run, but teams in Iowa’s range simply do not cut down the nets.

The past eight NCAA champions have all finished the season in the nation’s top 11 in defensive efficiency. Iowa enters the tournament at No. 50, not even cracking the top six in the Big Ten. 

Losing Jack Nunge in late February also weakens the team compared to the season numbers and much of the glowing offensive efficiency statistics were boosted with four non-conference wins outside the nation’s top 300.

Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio State had only one win outside the nation’s top 300 combined, as Iowa’s placement in the quartet of national contenders on the No. 1 or  No. 2 line from the Big Ten is the most suspicious. Iowa also benefited from one of the weakest schedules in the Big Ten, and in the six toughest games the Hawkeyes faced, they picked up only one win. 

WAC champion Grand Canyon is not a simple draw in the 2/15 pairing. In the last tournament appearance for the conference, New Mexico State lost by just one-point against Auburn - a team that wound up making the Final Four in 2019.

The Antelopes grade as nearly a top 100 squad, and beat Nevada while playing close with Arizona State and Colorado in non-conference play. They are coached by Bryce Drew, who knows a few things about NCAA Tournament upsets.

Kansas is also lurking in the bottom half of the West bracket and the Jayhawks were looking like the best team in the Big 12 down the stretch, winning eight of the past nine games before having to withdraw from the Big 12 Tournament. The path for the Hawkeyes looks difficult while Fran McCaffrey will need to top his total Iowa NCAA Tournament wins in the previous 10 seasons to get to the Final Four.

Sleeper to Back - Oklahoma Sooners

Oklahoma’s first game with Missouri is a tightly lined contest, as the marketplace may be shy on a team that has lost five of its last six games with only a narrow win over Iowa State. Four of those five losses were against high-end Big 12 foes however and they were all competitive games.

Oklahoma has five top 30 wins this season which not many teams seeded at No. 8 usually can claim. Two of those games were true road games and being in numerous close games this season could pay dividends for this veteran group. 

Four upperclassmen start for Lon Kruger and Oklahoma joined only Texas and Baylor as top five teams in the Big 12 on offense and defense. Oklahoma does not foul often as they usually don’t hand opponents a great deal of free throws and this was a team that handled a tournament style run in January, beating three highly ranked teams in succession with wins over Kansas, Texas, and Alabama.

The Sooners are not an amazing shooting team, but they defend the paint well and will force teams to hit three-point shots. The Sooners had the lowest turnover rate in the Big 12 as well. 

Many will mention a rather favorable path ahead for top seeded Gonzaga in the West, and certainly the Sooners will need an amazing performance to get that upset if they have the opportunity. If Gonzaga does falter, someone else will be handed that great path.

Add that the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds Kansas and Virginia both had COVID-19 situations last week, and could be short-handed. There is potential for a team seeded rather deeply to make a run to the Final Four.

Gonzaga is not as good a three-point shooting team as you might expect and in five of the last 10 tournaments the Bulldogs were ousted in the round of 32, including as a No. 1 seed in 2013.

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South Region

The South Region sees Baylor as the No. 1 seed, but a difficult draw overall. Both North Carolina and Wisconsin are tough matchups in a potential Round 2 game against the Bears. Ohio State is the No. 2 seed in this region, followed by No. 3 Arkansas and Big Ten-foe Purdue at No. 4. Villanova, Texas Tech and Florida round out the next three seeds.

Favorite to Fade - Baylor Bears

The Bears team that started the season 17-0 seems to have lost something in the three-week layoff in February. Since returning to action the Bears went just 5-2 and struggled in several close games even with teams at the bottom of the Big 12.

Baylor finished as the nation’s top three-point shooting team at nearly 42%, but they have shot almost five percent below that average in those last seven games. 

Scott Drew deserves a ton of credit for building this program to a national contender after stepping into the aftermath of an ugly situation, but after Elite Eight runs in 2010 and 2012 the Bears have not made it back that far (despite being a top six seed four different times, including taking recent losses to teams seeded at No. 7, No. 12, and No. 14 in three of his last four tournaments).

Baylor’s offense has amazing numbers, but the Bears also played a softer non-conference schedule than most this season, with seven wins outside the nation’s top 150 while the Bears don't have a championship caliber defensive pedigree with the acclaimed individual performances of Mark Vital and Davion Mitchell.

 

Hartford does not figure to be a threat in the opening round, but Baylor is not likely thrilled with the 8/9 pairing adjacent to them. As usual, heavyweights North Carolina and Wisconsin face off.

The Tar Heels seemed to be peaking late in the season with several notable wins. Wisconsin humiliated Baylor in the 2014 tournament, and feels a bit underrated as a No. 8 seed given that the 3-7 run to close the season featured six losses vs. No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, most of them coming in competitive games.

Sleeper to Back - Purdue Boilermakers

Purdue finished ahead of Ohio State in the Big Ten standings, and finished behind Iowa simply because they played one fewer game. The Boilermakers had some early ups-and-downs, but closed the regular season on an 11-3 run with two of the losses on the road by a combined total of four points.

The Boilermakers beat Ohio State twice while also beating Wisconsin, and they didn't look out of place as a top threat in their lone Big Ten tournament game, taking Ohio State to overtime. 

The Boilermakers are one of only six teams nationally with top 25 offense and defensive efficiency rankings and three of the others are No. 1 seeds. With Trevion Williams and Zach Edey, the Boilermakers also have size and height that few teams can sufficiently counter.

This is a young team with no seniors, but it was a group that seemed to improve as the season went along and has considerable depth to work with. Purdue has an excellent three-point defense as well which should help prevent an upset loss in the opener. 

Purdue’s last NCAA Tournament game was an overtime loss to eventual national champion Virginia in the Elite Eight in 2019, and while the case for a No. 3 seed was there for this team, this is an attractive landing spot. North Texas is the strongest rated No. 13 seed, but the Mean Green had two key injuries down the stretch and lost the final three regular season games before four wins in the Conference USA tournament (including a few narrow escapes).

A round of 32 draw likely through Villanova is also less demanding than it sounds, with the recent injury to Collin Gillespie as Purdue has a reasonable shot to win several games while also being the ‘home’ team in this tournament.

East Region

The East Region has Michigan as the No. 1 seed, but the Wolverines will be without star player Isaiah Livers. Alabama is the most popular pick as the No. 2 seed in this region, while Texas enters as the No. 3 seed after winning the Big 12 Tournament. FSU, Colorado, BYU and UConn round out the top seven seeds in this region.

Favorite to Fade - Texas Longhorns

Winning just two games in the Big 12 Tournament by a combined total of six points, Texas has boosted the Longhorns to a No. 3 seed. Texas has plenty of quality wins on the resume beating Kansas twice as well as some of the other quality Big 12 teams, plus a non-conference win over North Carolina.

The Longhorns did lose seven games this season and can struggle with turnovers and free throw shooting, things that generally come into play when the lights shine brighter. 

The efficiency data has Texas outside the top three in the Big 12 on both sides of the ball while also suggesting that Texas played the weakest schedule of all ten Big 12 teams. Shaka Smart is yet to win a NCAA Tournament game for Texas, as the Longhorns lost in the Round of 64 in both of his appearances and both losses came to smaller conference teams.

 

Abilene Christian is an imposing opening draw for Texas, as the Wildcats didn't look out of place in competitive December losses at Texas Tech and at Arkansas. This is an appealing draw for this veteran team facing the marquee program in the state of Texas, and Abilene Christian was in the NCAA Tournament more recently than the Longhorns were.

The Round of 32 draw of either BYU or the Michigan State/UCLA winner will be a challenge too while Alabama, Connecticut, and Maryland are all formidable teams in the bottom of the East.

Sleeper to Back - FSU Seminoles

Leonard Hamilton has five NCAA tournament wins in his past two trips to the Big Dance, while unfortunately last season’s 26-5 squad didn't get an opportunity as this has been an elite program the past few seasons.

Florida State played a short schedule this season with only 15 ACC games and five non-conference games, but it was a quality path with seven top 50 caliber wins. Few teams can compete with the size and depth of this roster, and this is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the nation.

Florida State shot over 40% in ACC play from long range and unlike the 2018 Elite Eight team, this is a good free throw shooting team. While the overall defensive numbers do not map out as successfully as expected, given that this was a top 15 defense nationally last season, Florida State is still a nationally elite team defending shots inside the three-point arc.

Blocked shots are routine with Balsa Koprivica and RaiQuan Gray patrolling the paint, and this squad had a substantial lead in the ACC Championship much of the way before losing narrowly with half as many free throw attempts as Georgia Tech.

Michigan is a bit of a question mark as a No. 1 seed right now with Isaiah Livers likely out of action, and the once 18-1 Wolverines have now lost three of the past five games as this could be a good landing spot for Florida State as a No. 4 seed.

The Southern Conference champion is always a threat as UNC Greensboro should have the Seminoles on upset alert but Colorado is not an overly intimidating No. 5 seed, as the path for Florida State is reasonable in the East region. The Seminoles are a No. 4 seed yet are among the eight teams with the shortest odds to win it all in the early numbers.

Midwest Region

The Midwest Region features one of the hottest teams in the country in Illinois. Cade Cunningham and the Oklahoma State Sooners might see a blockbuster matchup in the Sweet 16. Oregon State is the No. 12 seed after winning the Pac-12 Tournament, taking on No. 5 Tennessee. Houston, West Virginia and San Diego State are also top seeded teams in this region.

Favorites to Fade - Houston Cougars

Houston has incredible numbers and routinely produced blowouts this season, but still lost three games to mediocre American teams.

All three losses came on the road, as Houston didn't produce a top 50 road win all season and didn't have a single top 20 win all season. Kelvin Sampson has rebuilt the Cougars into a juggernaut, but they have been bounced by power conference teams in the past two tournaments. 

The 2019 squad that made the Sweet 16 before a narrow loss to Kentucky had produced several notable non-conference wins on the way to a 33-4 record. This year’s team didn't get that opportunity or experience with only a narrow win over Texas Tech in November standing out, and a key player for the Red Raiders missed that game.

The AAC was not as strong this season as in 2019, and the regular season path for Houston was the weakest of those 11 teams as they only played Memphis once. Clemson and Rutgers don't look overly intimidating, but both were accustomed to battling through much tougher paths in major conference play while West Virginia and San Diego State will be considered Elite Eight threats in Houston’s path in the bottom of the Midwest region.

Add that Illinois has looked like arguably the best team in the country in recent weeks, and this is a difficult draw for a Cougars team that will face the pressure of being a No. 2 seed for the first time since 1984.

Sleeper to Back - Loyola-Chicago Ramblers

The Ramblers are one of the top statistical defenses in the nation, though the team fell to a No. 8 seed as quality wins are a bit scarce on the resume. Loyola-Chicago lost its two toughest non-conference games, but they have an appealing first round draw.

Georgia Tech was squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble before winning the ACC tournament, doing so with only one meaningful win. Loyola-Chicago will be the vastly superior defense in that 8/9 clash, and should be a threat to move on and will have a chance to give a popular national contender a challenge.

Illinois looks like a dangerous team right now, but the Illini did lose six games this season and may be riding a bit high with a Big Ten tournament run to cap a big late season run filled with high-profile wins. Drawing the Illini would be a highly appealing draw for obvious reasons given the shared state of the schools. Also, the 16-win Big Ten campaign for Illinois came through the 14th-rated Big Ten schedule.

Loyola-Chicago hasn't lost a game in regulation since early January, and only once all season has Loyola-Chicago lost by more than five points. The very deliberate pace of the Ramblers could frustrate a still young Illini squad as well. Illinois went just 2-3 when failing to top 72 points this season, and Loyola-Chicago allowed that many points only three times in 28 games. 

A lot would have to go right for the Ramblers to make another big NCAA Tournament run as they did with a Final Four run in 2018 as a No. 11 seed. While Illinois is the clear favorite in the Midwest, the Ramblers are on the short list of possible teams to get there in the Midwest even if the heavy lifting will need to come early in the Dance.

The bottom of this bracket doesn't feature a slam dunk Final Four contender, as the team with the best shot to beat Illinois might catch them early. The Round of 32 set-up can be favorable with a short-turnaround in-between games, particularly when facing a team with a unique style like the Ramblers.



  
 
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