March Madness 2021: Analyzing Underrated NCAA Tournament ContendersMarch 7, 2021
March Madness 2021: Analyzing Underrated NCAA Tournament Contenders
There is a general sense of the best teams in the country just one week from Selection Sunday.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs have yet to lose a game. Baylor responded to its first loss by getting an overtime win against West Virginia and a win over a streaking Oklahoma State team.
Then there's the Big Ten. The Michigan Wolverines headline the four teams that were in the top seven of the AP's Top 25 poll for Week 15. Meanwhile, Illinois continues to play exceptional basketball after beating the Wolverines and Ohio State Buckeyes in back-to-back contests. Elsewhere, the Iowa Hawkeyes have one of the best players in the country in Luka Garza.
All those teams figure to vie for spots in the Final Four. But what about some of the more under-the-radar contenders around the country?
Let's take a look at some possible sleeper contenders for the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
Bill Self's team hit a little bit of a rut in the middle of the season.
The Kansas Jayhawks went just 3-5 in January. It was hardly the kind of start they wanted in Big 12 action. But the Jayhawks are stringing things together.
Kansas completed a regular-season sweep over Texas Tech on Feb. 20. The Jayhawks suffered a tough overtime loss to the Texas Longhorns in its next game but responded by handing Baylor its first loss of the season.
David McCormack and Jalen Wilson are a handful inside. McCormack had 20 points in 25 minutes against the Bears. Wilson didn't shoot the ball all that well but pulled down 14 rebounds.
McCormack is a big body inside. The junior forward has excellent agility and is also capable of facing up and making mid-range jumpers. He sets the tone for Kansas' offense by getting deep post position and going to work from there.
Senior guard Marcus Garrett could be the X-factor. Garrett is not much of a perimeter threat, but he can break down defenders off the dribble and make plays for teammates. He is also a pest against opposing guards, and the ability to chase top guards should be crucial in March Madness.
The Jayhawks need Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun to heat up from deep. Agbaji, in particular, can be a sniper. If those two get it going, Kansas' inside-out game could be tough to defend against.
This won't come as much of a surprise, but the Virginia Cavaliers thrive when they slow down the game and grind opposing offenses to a halt.
Tony Bennett's team operates in the half court and forces opponents to do the same. The Cavaliers rank sixth in defensive scoring. They also rank 31st in the country in field-goal percentage and 10th in three-point percentage.
That kind of efficiency makes Virginia a threat to go deep. Seniors Sam Hauser and Jay Huff control the paint and also shoot the ball well from beyond the arc. Junior Trey Murphy is another guy who has size and can light it up from deep.
The personnel is beneficial to junior guard Kihei Clark, who relies on his quickness and court vision to make plays and get to the rim. Clark attacks in pick-and-roll and can drive and kick to open shooters.
As always, the question with Virginia will be whether the Cavaliers can score enough to make a run. Hauser is tremendous as a catch-and-shoot guy, but Virginia does not necessarily have a bucket-getter to produce offense in crunch time.
Still, the three-point shooting and stringent defensive scheme will make the Cavaliers a threat in Indianapolis.
The Purdue Boilermakers might not be in the same class as the other Big Ten elite, but they are not the team to sleep on.
For starters, head coach Matt Painter has plenty of recent success in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. The Boilermakers made it to the Elite Eight in 2019 and reached the Sweet 16 in the two seasons prior.
Additionally, Purdue—much like Kansas—can be quite difficult to guard against.
Trevion Williams is one of the more skilled bigs in the country. Williams went into Saturday's game against Indiana averaging 15.6 points and 8.9 rebounds, including 3.4 offensive rebounds. He can also exploit doubles on the block and find the open man, averaging 2.1 dimes per contest.
Williams is at the center of everything Purdue does, but Painter also knows when to draw it up for Sasha Stefanovic. The junior guard went into Saturday's game shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc on 5.1 attempts per game. He runs off screens and routinely knocks down above-the-break triples.
Keep an eye on freshman guard Jaden Ivey and 7'4" center Zach Edey. Ivey is hardly the best shooter, but he is a dynamic athlete and finisher who can score off the bounce. Edey dominated the Hoosiers on Saturday, with 20 points and nine rebounds. He slipped to the rim for easy twos and lobs, and his size makes him tough to handle. Edey can also spell Williams minutes.
Purdue is not flashy. But the Boilermakers have diverse scoring options, and Painter is no stranger to taking underdog teams deep into the men's NCAA tournament.
All stats obtained via Sports Reference unless otherwise noted.