The 2021 NCAA men’s basketball tournament features the return of a prominent Cinderella.
Loyola-Chicago, which captivated the country with a Final Four in 2018, is back in the tournament. Will Sister Jean — now 101 years old — make her way to Indianapolis?
The Ramblers are a known commodity, 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 the traditional power conferences, do not fit that description either.
Instead, we looked at some of the teams from outside the major conferences who were also were the top seed in their respective conference tournaments. Loyola was one of those nine schools, and there is statistical evidence to back that up.
In the expanded bracket era, a total of 59 teams seeded No. 13 or lower have pulled a first-round upset. More than half of those teams – 30 of 59 – were the No. 1 seed in their conference tournament. Nine of those teams went on to make the Sweet 16.
With that in mind, SN looks at some of those hot sleeper teams to keep in mind when filling out your bracket. Seven of these teams were the No. 1 seed in their conference tournament:
March Madness sleeper picks, upset predictions
Best bets to reach Sweet 16
The Flames have won 12 straight games heading into the Big Dance, and this program is 82-16 over the last three seasons. Liberty pulled a 5-12 upset in 2019, and they have the guard play necessary to make a run with Darius McGhee and Chris Parker. Liberty is one of six team in Division I that averaged fewer than 10 turnovers per game. That efficient play could easily lead to an upset. That style could make it interesting against Oklahoma State and the winner of Tennessee-Oregon State. This is one 5-12 upset we like.
UC-Santa Barbara (22-4)
The Gauchos have lost just one game since Jan. 1. This is their first tournament appearance since 2011, but UC-Santa Barbara brings an experienced team that has won 20-plus games each of the last four seasons under Joe Pasternack. Jaquori McLaughlin averages 16.2 points and 5.2 assists per game. This is a team capable of beating Creighton and challenging the winner of Virginia-Ohio. This is the other 5-12 upset we like.
Other sleepers who could pull off upsets
The Ramblers won the Missouri Valley Conference. Cameron Krutwig, who was a key player on that Final Four team, averages 15 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Loyola-Chicago played just one ranked team this season – a 77-66 loss to Wisconsin – but Porter Moser brings a team into the tournament with the fourth-highest field-goal percentage (50.5 percent) in the nation. Will Sister Jean – now 101 years old – make her way to Indianapolis? It’s just a tough draw if they get to the second round against Illinois.
The Eagles are back in the tournament for the first time since 2017, and this is the second appearance under ninth-year coach Pat Kelsey. Winthrop has four players who averaged double figures. Senior Chandler Vaudrin and freshman D.J. Burns are productive in the post, and the Eagles rank in the top-10 in the country in rebounding as a result. That is a good formula to take into the tournament for a possible upset bid. Villanova is a tough matchup, but the post presence could make it interesting.
The Spartans won eight of their last 10 games and won the Southern Conference tournament. Senior guard Isaiah Miller averages 27.4 points in its last five games, and he shot 50 percent from the floor in the SoCon tournament. If Miller continues that hot streak, then UNC-Greensboro will make it interesting for Florida State.
Cleveland State (19-7)
Any time the Vikings get in the tournament it generates 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 Dec. 6. Senior guard Torrey Patton averaged 23.3 points per game in the Horizon League tournament, and it’s been a remarkable run under second-year coach Dennis Gates. Cleveland State lost a 67-61 nail-biter to Ohio State on Dec. 13. Of the 2-15 matchups, this is the best bet for an upset.
Hot at the right time
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 get hot from 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 get the headlines, but there is substance behind this sleeper. Can they do the unthinkable and pull 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 averages 14.4 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. The Wichita State transfer is pivotal to a defense that ranks ninth in Division I in points allowed. It’s a tough out against Iowa and Luke Garza in the first round.
The Bobcats had two COVID-19 pauses, but they won three MAC tournament games by an average of 14.7 points per game. Second-year coach Jeff Boals has the program ahead of schedule, and Jason Preston averages 16.6 points, 7.2 assists and 6.8 rebounds per game. He’s one of those players that could emerge as a Cinderella darling. The Bobcats beat Georgetown in 2010 and made a Sweet 16 run in 2012. The Bobcats’ style is an interesting matchup against Virginia. The 3-pointers will have to fall.