After last year’s cancellation, the 2021 NCAA Tournament is set to be one of the most interesting ones yet. That’s because it not only is taking place around Indianapolis to combat coronavirus travel concerns, but it’s also a parity party chock full of talented teams (minus Duke and Kentucky, which should make any blue blood loather happy). But while all of the focus is on top-line title threats like Gonzaga, Baylor, and Illinois, we can’t forget about the next-in-line contenders that could take down the high seeds and spoil your bracket. Let’s take a look at some overlooked teams and why they could make this March Madness more maddening than ever.
In the preseason, Tennessee had all the makings of a potential Final Four team: a stellar coach, loads of young talent, and a penchant for stifling defense. But while that combination proved lethal en route to a 12-3 start, the offense became the team’s Achilles heel. When they shot the ball well, the Volunteers were practically unstoppable (see wins versus Kansas, Kentucky, and Florida). Yet, their scoring inconsistency led to just a 10-7 mark in the SEC. If the offense finds a rhythm, this deep roster — one that flaunts seven players averaging over eight points per game — could take this team past Oklahoma State and perhaps even Illinois.
(6) Texas Tech
Don’t let Texas Tech’s record deceive you, as they’re the only ranked team with double-digit losses for a reason. This is a team not far removed from a National Championship game appearance despite only one player remaining from the defending runner-up (Kyler Edwards). Coach Chris Beard has the prowess to take his Red Raiders back, and he has the talent needed for a deep tournament run. This includes a supreme standout in Georgetown transfer Mac McClung, who can take over a game from all parts of the floor. Texas Tech belongs in the top 10 of the BPI, and when they’re at their strongest as a group, they’re hard to beat.
(6) San Diego State
You can argue that San Diego State played a weak schedule all you want, but that’s not going to faze an Aztetcs squad that only keeps getting better as the year goes on. Part of this was overcoming the loss of an outstanding talent in Malachi Flynn. But with Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel, this team is a two-man show that plays both sides of the ball with expertise and finesse. They’re a suffocating team defensively that ranks in the top 10 in the country in defensive efficiency, yet they also manage to crack the top 40 in offense. West Virginia and Houston better look out, as San Diego State is a team that can hang with anyone.
LSU is another case of a team that had its ups and downs in the regular season, before getting hot in the postseason. We’ve seen a recent trend of this in the SEC, with three teams getting to the Final Four as a five seed or worse: Kentucky in 2014, South Carolina in 2017, and Auburn in 2019. All of this is a good omen for a devastatingly talented Tigers team that looks to be finding their form at just the right time, after making it to their conference championship game against Alabama. Once this team’s biggest weakness, LSU’s over-reliance on three scorers is now a strength that they embrace. When Ja’Vonte Smart is at his best, this team is dangerous.
Wisconsin may not have suffered many bad losses this season, but the Badgers didn’t spot many great wins either. One of the projected premier teams in the Big Ten, this Greg Gard-led group never could land that signature victory. However, nine of their 12 losses overall came to ranked teams, and they’ve recently stuck with some of the top teams in the country: They lost by five to Iowa, four to Iowa, four to Purdue, and five to Illinois. If they can find a way to finish games strong, there’s no question Wisconsin could put Baylor or Ohio State on the edge. With seven solid role players, mostly seniors, it’s possible this team turns into the elite squad we expected them to be.
Other Teams That Could Shake Up the Field
(8) Loyola Chicago: The Ramblers can’t expect another 16 seed to win, so they’ll likely have to go through red-hot Illinois and Oklahoma State. But their strength on both O and D could help them recapture their 2018 magic.
(8) Oklahoma: In January, Oklahoma would’ve been a clear favorite to make a deep tournament run. While they’ve struggled to close out games since, they still have the talent and coaching to take down a top seed.
(11) Michigan State: The Spartans have been a mess for much of the 2020-21 season. However, they do boast four wins against the 10 top — including recent wins against Michigan, Ohio State, and Illinois.
(12) Georgetown: They’re hot at the right time, after a (mostly) season to forget. If they continue to score consistently and play stout defense, there’s no ceiling to what Patrick Ewing’s squad can accomplish.
Featured Photo Credit: Cameron Thomas, LSU (Stephen Lew/USA TODAY Sports); Mac McClung, Texas Tech (Texas Tech Athletics); Nate Reuvers, Wisconsin (Wisconsin Athletics)