10 Teams Built to Bust Brackets in the 2021 Men's NCAA Tournament
The NCAA tournament is all about matchups. Sometimes you find the right one; other times the wrong one finds you. That's why the teams most likely to win it all aren't necessarily the ones with the greatest strengths, but rather the ones with the fewest and least damaging weaknesses.
Today, we're taking an early look at 10 projected tournament teams on the men's side capable of exploiting a title contender's weaknesses and ruining brackets across the nation.
From turnover-forcing defenses to three-point assaults, unstoppable offenses, star players and everything in between, we've got a wide variety of teams who could cause problems.
All teams on this list were projected for no better than a No. 7 seed in the Saturday morning Bracket Matrix update. That means it would be a sizable upset if they made it to the Sweet 16, but with the right draw, they might be able to make it even further than that.
Worth noting: Duke is not on this list because it was nowhere near the projected field as of Saturday morning. But between the Blue Devils' win over Virginia and the losses by Connecticut, Indiana, Minnesota, Ole Miss, St. John's, Seton Hall, Stanford and VCU, Duke just might sneak in and bust some brackets after all.
Abilene Christian Wildcats
Projected Seed: 14
Back in the mid-2010s, Stephen F. Austin shocked the world twice in three years, winning a game in both 2014 and 2016. The latter of those two seasons, the Lumberjacks had the best turnover-forcing defense in the country, earned a No. 14 seed, upset West Virginia in the first round and came oh so close to knocking off Notre Dame two days later.
Could Abilene Christian follow that same script?
Learning from their Southland Conference rivals, the Wildcats have been forcing turnovers at an increasing rate over the past half-decade. They are currently No. 1 in the nation in defensive turnover percentage, and they also lead the country in average turnover margin by a lot.
They just need to make it translate to "real" competition.
Abilene Christian is averaging better than 10 steals per game, but it only had three in the loss at Arkansas. And while it forced 16 turnovers at Texas Tech, it also committed 22 and couldn't buy a bucket in a 51-44 loss. But the Wildcats could be a colossal headache for a team like Illinois or Alabama that has more than its fair share of sloppiness bouts.
Projected Seed: 7
After a brief COVID-19 pause in early January, Clemson crashed and burned in spectacular fashion. Upon returning to action, the Tigers lost four of their first five games by an average margin of 24.5 points. I can't recall ever seeing a team plummet from inside the top 20 to outside the top 60 on KenPom in the span of two weeks, but that's how ugly it got for a while for Clemson.
Prior to that disastrous stretch, though, the Tigers had one of the best defenses in the country.
They completely shut down Alabama on a neutral court and stifled both Florida State and Purdue en route to two impressive wins by double digits. And in February victories over North Carolina (63-50) and Syracuse (78-61), they've shown major signs of life on that end of the floor again.
This offense isn't good, just to be clear. Clemson shoots just 42.1 percent from the field and averages 65.6 points per game. In both categories, the Tigers are going to be one of the worst teams in the tournament. They don't need much offense when that defense is clicking, though.
The overall metrics suggest Clemson is deserving of something in the Nos. 7-9 seed range, but that's largely because of how dreadful the team was in the second half of January. As long as the Tigers don't slip back into that funk, they are good enough to knock off a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the second round.
Projected Seed: 13
Colgate has become sort of a running joke within the bracketology community because of its absurdly high NET ranking.
The Raiders initially debuted at No. 16 in the NET in early January, and we all just assumed it was a sample-size problem—that after a few more weeks, they would normalize back to some spot well outside the top 25. After all, they had only played two games at that point. Yet, heading into this past weekend, Colgate had climbed up to No. 10 in the NET, even though nobody on the planet honestly believes this is a top-10 team.
How good are the Raiders, though?
It's hard to know, since they have only played four games each against Army, Boston and Holy Cross. However, their efficiency metrics in those games have been great. The Raiders shoot it well, they rarely commit turnovers and they defend the three-point arc at a high level. And it's not like it's just this season. They won 24 games in 2018-19 and gave No. 2 seed Tennessee a run for its money in the NCAA tournament. They also won 25 games last year.
Matt Langel has had a potential bracket-buster brewing for a while now. They still need to secure the Patriot League auto bid, but the Raiders should be headed for something in the No. 12-13 seed range. And while they might not be a top-10 team, perhaps they could upset a pair of top-20 teams to reach the Sweet 16.
Colorado State Rams
Projected Seed: 12
Putting your faith in teams who live and die by the three is a terrifying proposition, but so is betting against them.
Consider this your official warning that Colorado State takes and makes a ton of threes.
The Rams attempt more than 45 percent of their field goals from beyond the arc, and they make better than 38 percent of those shots—this in spite of a disappointing 3-of-17 effort in their most recent game at Wyoming. Each of their five leading scorers averages at least 3.0 three-point attempts per game.
There are a lot of reasons this team is barely in the projected field and barely in the top 75 on KenPom. The Rams commit more turnovers than they force, they rarely get offensive rebounds and, as a whole, the defense is not that good. And in their worst loss of the season, they were held to 33 points against Saint Mary's.
But if you're searching for a team capable of stroking its way to an upset or two, you could do a whole lot worse than Colorado State.
Projected Seed: 12
Would it be OK if I just type "James Bouknight" a few dozen times before moving on to our next team?
With a healthy Bouknight, Connecticut has been a more-than-formidable foe. He has scored at least 18 points in seven of eight games played, in which the Huskies are 6-2 with an impressive win over USC and a pair of close losses to Creighton and Villanova.
Because he's a big-time scorer from New York City who plays for Connecticut, you're inevitably going to hear people compare him to Kemba Walker, provided Connecticut even gets into the tournament. But that's a lazy comp. They both shoot a ton and draw a lot of fouls, but Bouknight is a ball-dominant wing who stands four inches taller than Connecticut's heroic point guard from a decade ago. If you want to compare him to a guy who carried his team to a national championship game, former Texas Tech star Jarrett Culver is a much better choice.
In addition to Bouknight, Connecticut—as it so often did throughout Jim Calhoun's years at the helm—excels in both the offensive rebounding and shot-blocking departments. Isaiah Whaley averages 3.0 blocks per game. Tyrese Martin pulls down better than three offensive rebounds a night. Adama Sanogo is a solid contributor in both categories.
We've already seen this program win a national championship from the No. 7 seed line. Perhaps its next trick will be reaching the Sweet 16 as a double-digit seed. If Bouknight is cooking, it's well within the realm of possibility.
Projected Seed: 9
Loyola-Chicago isn't going to sneak up on anyone like it did three years ago. Not only is that run to the 2018 Final Four still fresh in the minds of all college basketball fans, but this year's Ramblers are ranked in the AP Top 25 and have climbed all the way up to No. 10 on KenPom.
That latter factoid is because they have the most efficient defense in the country.
Between their elite defense, their slow pace of play and a general lack of offense in the Missouri Valley Conference, the Ramblers are on a Virginia-like run of holding 13 consecutive opponents to 58 points or fewer. They don't allow second chances, they don't commit fouls and they rarely commit live-ball turnovers that lead to fast-break opportunities.
Even in the 77-63 loss at Wisconsin back in mid-December, the Ramblers held the Badgers to 38.5 percent shooting inside the arc and allowed just six offensive rebounds. However, it was an unfortunate night in the three-point luck department with Wisconsin canning 10 of 18 attempts.
In addition to that great defense, the Cameron Krutwig-led Ramblers also have one of the most efficient two-point attacks in the country. Gonzaga is leaving everyone in the dust in that category, but at 58.6 percent against D-I opponents, Loyola-Chicago is comfortably ranked in the top 10.
Maybe the Ramblers won't make another deep run, but it's hard to imagine a scenario in which they get blown out. Even if they wind up as the No. 8 or No. 9 seed that draws Gonzaga or Baylor in the second round, they're going to put up a valiant fight.
Projected Seed: 8
LSU's defense is quite bad. The Tigers have allowed at least 75 points in more than half of their games, including a particularly ugly 105-75 loss to Alabama in which the Crimson Tide made 23 three-pointers. They also allowed 80 to each of South Carolina, Mississippi State and Nicholls State and 81 to SIU-Edwardsville, none of which is anything close to potent on offense.
But the Tigers do have one of the most efficient offenses in the country.
Freshman sensation Cameron Thomas is a scoring machine, averaging nearly 23 points per game. He is flanked by Trendon Watford, Javonte Smart and Darius Days, who combine for almost 45 points a night.
Yes, they allow 75 points more often than not, but they also eclipse 80 on a regular basis. Heck, they got to 80 with 10 minutes to spare against Auburn over the weekend. It's not hard to envision this team catching fire and dropping 100 on a title contender.
If you feel like you've been burned by those types of teams before, you likely have. The great offense/terrible defense combo typically doesn't fare well in the Big Dance.
In the past five NCAA tournaments, there have been eight teams ranked in the top 10 in adjusted offensive efficiency and ranked outside the top 110 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Seven of them lost in the first round, each allowing at least 80 points in that loss. But 2015-16 Notre Dame was quite the exception to that rule, making a run all the way to the Elite Eight. It's not likely, but it has been done.
Projected Seed: 10
One of these days, Oregon is going to play a game at full strength, and it's going to be beautiful.
The Ducks' projected seed is a bit bubble-y because of bad home losses suffered to Oregon State and Washington State. But the former was played without three of their best players (Chris Duarte, Will Richardson and LJ Figueroa), and the latter was played without another key cog (Eric Williams Jr.). Have to believe they are much better than a No. 10 seed when they aren't short-handed.
All four of those guys were available for the recent 75-64 road win over Arizona State, though Williams (zero points in 15 minutes off the bench) clearly wasn't at 100 percent for that one. (He subsequently missed Oregon's wins over Arizona and Colorado.)
Despite all those lineup inconsistencies, Oregon has been impressive on both ends of the floor. The Ducks are ranked in the top 50 in both adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency.
Usually under Dana Altman, the Ducks have thrived on either offense or defense, but not both. If their current marks stand, it would be just the third time in the past decade that they finished the year ranked in the top 70 in both categories. The previous two times, they went to the 2016 Elite Eight and the 2017 Final Four.
Even before finding that little research nugget, I already felt like Oregon was the biggest Elite Eight threat of this bunch. I would not want to be the No. 1 or No. 2 seed that draws this team in the second round.
Projected Seed: 10
Stop me if you've heard this before—as in most of the seasons for the past decade—but VCU ranks among the best turnover-forcing defenses in the nation. Per KenPom, the Rams rank seventh in turnover percentage on defense. That's the sixth time in the past 10 years that they have ranked in the top eight, and the ninth time that they've ranked 33rd or better.
A new wrinkle, though, is that VCU also ranks in the top 10 in block percentage.
At the start of play Saturday, the Rams were averaging a combined 15.5 blocks and steals per game, good for first in the country. The only other team with a mark better than 14.4 was Memphis at 14.6, so they already had a convincing lead. And then they added 18 more Saturday afternoon against George Mason.
VCU lost that game, though, thanks to an offense that has struggled all year long.
VCU is a bizarro version of LSU: top 15 on defense, but outside the top 100 in offensive efficiency. And that makes the Rams tough to trust. They were in a similar boat two years ago, ranking seventh on defense and 177th on offense, and that team lost by 15 in the first round of the NCAA tournament. While this year's team isn't that bad on offense, that's not a good omen.
But a team that averages better than 15 momentum-shifting defensive plays per game has to be considered a serious threat to pull off a big upset.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Projected Seed: 12
Western Kentucky is the quintessential Cinderella candidate.
Veteran guards? Taveion Hollingsworth and Josh Anderson are both seniors with more than 1,000 career points. Check.
Three-point sniper? Luke Frampton is sitting at 41.8 percent and already has four games with at least four makes. Check.
A star player with NBA potential? Charles Bassey was a McDonald's All-American three years ago and may well be a lottery pick in a few months. Check.
Experience playing in close games? The Hilltoppers are 9-3 in games decided by six points or fewer. Kind of wish they would have blown out a few more of their Conference USA foes. But still. Check.
Battle-tested during nonconference play? The Hilltoppers won at Alabama, won neutral-site games against Memphis and Northern Iowa, knocked off Rhode Island at home and almost beat West Virginia in South Dakota. Check. Check. Check.
Bassey has scored in double figures in every game and has 12 double-doubles on the season. He's also averaging better than three blocks a night and is inevitably going to make an impact on whomever draws Western Kentucky. As long as the Hilltoppers can avoid a disastrous night in the turnover-margin department (which does occasionally plague them), they're going to at least put up a big fight.
We'll see how the matchups shake out on Selection Sunday, but as long as Western Kentucky gets into the tournament, it is arguably the top candidate to be the last mid-major standing. (Gonzaga is not a mid-major, just so we're clear.)