NCAA Tournament 2021: Top Sleeper Teams Heading into March Madness
Everybody knows who the favorites are heading into the 2021 NCAA men's basketball tournament. Gonzaga is undefeated after winning the West Coast Conference tournament. Baylor has only one loss and won the Big 12 regular-season championship for the first time in program history. And the Big Ten is stacked with top teams, including Michigan, Illinois and Iowa.
But there are also some sleeper teams heading into March Madness. While several high-profile conference tourneys still have to take place, it's not too early to look ahead, considering the 68-team field for the NCAA tourney will be set by Sunday evening.
While top-seeded teams typically fare well, others often make surprising runs deep into the tournament. For example, UConn won the national title as a No. 7 seed in 2014, while VCU (2011) and Loyola Chicago (2018) previously reached the Final Four as a No. 11 seed.
So which under-the-radar teams should you keep an eye on this March? Here's a look at three teams that could be in store for surprise runs.
BYU has been a bit overshadowed by Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference this season, but the Cougars have played well. They're 20-6, and half of their losses came against the Bulldogs, including their most recent in the WCC tournament championship game on Tuesday night.
However, BYU played a competitive game in that most recent loss to Gonzaga, as it was tied with only four minutes, 20 seconds to go. However, the Bulldogs pulled away late and held on for an 88-78 victory to prevent the Cougars from pulling off a huge upset.
Although BYU didn't win the conference tourney, it will receive an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament from the selection committee. ESPN's Joe Lunardi is projecting the Cougars to be a No. 7 seed, and if that's where they end up, they could potentially upset a No. 2 seed in the second round of the tourney.
Led by the trio of senior guards Alex Barcello (15.9 points per game) and Brandon Averette (11.5) and senior forward Matt Haarms (11.3), BYU has an experienced core that could help it make a bit of noise later in March. The Cougars haven't played in the NCAA tournament since 2015, and they haven't reached the Sweet 16 since 2011, so the program is due for a strong showing.
A lot of the attention in the SEC has been on Alabama and Arkansas this season. And for good reason. The Crimson Tide (21-6) and Razorbacks (21-5) are both playing better than they have in years, and they could be poised for deep NCAA tournament runs.
However, that's allowed Tennessee to go a bit under the radar with the SEC tournament set to get underway Wednesday. The Vols haven't quite lived up to preseason expectations, as they went 17-7 with a 10-7 conference record during the regular season. And they haven't won consecutive games since early February, going 3-3 over their past six games.
But Tennessee's strong defensive play could help it get hot during March Madness. The Vols are allowing only 62.7 points per game, which ranks first in the SEC. Also, freshman guard Jaden Springer has had an impressive debut season, leading the team with 12.4 points per game while shooting 48.4 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from three-point range.
In the last NCAA tournament, which was held in 2019, coach Rick Barnes guided Tennessee to the Sweet 16. Although this year's Vols squad hasn't been as strong throughout the season (Lunardi is projecting them to be a No. 6 seed), they may not have reached their peak just yet.
It may have been a down regular season for Michigan State, but it's always hard to count out coach Tom Izzo and the Spartans in March. He's led the program to the Final Four eight times during his tenure, which began in the 1995-96 season.
This season, Michigan State is 15-11, having gone 9-11 in Big Ten play. It's the first time the Spartans had a sub-.500 conference record over Izzo's 26 seasons as coach. They're the No. 9 seed for the Big Ten tournament, and they'll need to knock off some tough teams if they hope to win the conference tourney for the fifth time in 10 years.
Even if Michigan State doesn't make a surprise run to the Big Ten tournament title, it appears to be in good shape to earn an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament, especially after notching an upset win over Michigan in its regular-season finale. Lunardi is projecting the Spartans to be a No. 11 seed, which would be their lowest seeding in program history (they've been a No. 10 seed three times).
Not only does Michigan State have Izzo, but junior forward Aaron Henry has had a strong season, leading the team with 15.5 points per game. So while the Spartans may not be a popular pick to make a deep run this March (like they often are), they could end up surprising by having a strong showing anyway.