NCAA Tournament 2021: Ranking the Hottest Men's Teams Before Selection Sunday

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMarch 12, 2021

NCAA Tournament 2021: Ranking the Hottest Men's Teams Before Selection Sunday

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Momentum can be a valuable weapon in the men's NCAA tournament.

    A hot streak down the stretch has sent some teams moving up seed lines and improved their overall standing. For other teams, a strong finish will be necessary just to be part of the March Madness conversation, and that includes the long list of mid-major standouts from one-bid leagues who have no choice but to finish strong to earn their spot.

    Ahead we've ranked the hottest teams in the nation heading into Selection Sunday, based on a combination of performance over the last 10 games, quality of opponent and current trajectory. Included is a look at how each team has fared against projected tournament teams over its last 10, based on the Bracket Matrix as of Thursday afternoon.

    We'll start with some mid-major teams on a roll that are still trying to clinch a spot.

1-Bid League Standouts Still Playing for a Bid

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    Colgate guard Jordan Burns
    Colgate guard Jordan BurnsAdrian Kraus/Associated Press

    These mid-major teams are playing extremely well of late, but they will be on the outside looking in for the NCAA tournament unless they can run the table in their conference tournament to claim the automatic bid:

    • Abilene Christian (Last 10: 9-1, Win Streak: 2)
    • Colgate (Last 10: 10-0, Win Streak: 12)
    • Eastern Washington (Last 10: 9-1, Win Streak: 1)
    • Jackson State (Last 10: 10-0, Win Streak: 12)
    • Louisiana Tech (Last 10: 9-1, Win Streak: 5)
    • Prairie View A&M (Last 10: 10-0, Win Streak: 14)
    • Southern Utah (Last 10: 9-1, Win Streak: 9)
    • UC-Santa Barbara (Last 10: 9-1, Win Streak: 2)
    • Weber State (Last 10: 9-1, Win Streak: 6)

1-Bid League Standouts That Have Clinched a Bid

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    Winthrop guard Chandler Vaudrin
    Winthrop guard Chandler VaudrinNell Redmond/Associated Press

    Liberty Flames (23-5, 11-2 in Atlantic Sun)

    Last 10: 10-0; Win Streak: 12

    With tournament experience from their upset win over No. 5 seed Mississippi State two years ago, a mind-numbingly slow tempo and excellent three-point shooting (39.1 percent, eighth in D-l), the Flames are going to be a tough draw in the first round.


    Morehead State Eagles (23-7, 17-3 in Ohio Valley)

    Last 10: 9-1; Win Streak: 7

    Since starting the season with a 4-6 record, Morehead State has ripped off a 19-1 stretch of games capped off by an 86-71 victory over Belmont in the Ohio Valley Conference title game. Don't sleep on freshman Johni Broome (13.9 PPG, 9.0 RPG) as a potential breakout star in March Madness.


    Winthrop Eagles (23-1, 17-1 in Big South)

    Last 10: 9-1; Win Streak: 7

    A 57-55 loss to UNC Asheville on Jan. 29 is the only blemish on Winthrop's resume this year. The fact that 20 of their 24 games have been Quadrant 4 matchups waters down their resume a bit, but there's no ignoring the way this team dominated the Big South field. Senior forward Chandler Vaudrin is one of the most well-rounded players in the country.

8. Wichita State (15-4, 11-2 in AAC)

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    Tyson Etienne
    Tyson EtienneMichael Wyke/Associated Press

    Last 10: 9-1, 1-0 vs. projected NCAA tournament teams

    Win Streak: 7

    It's been a down year for the American Athletic Conference.

    The only clear-cut NCAA tournament team right now is Houston, though Wichita State has pushed itself to the right side of the bubble with a seven-game winning streak. Memphis would also still be alive if it can make a convincing run in the conference tournament.

    The Shockers are the focus here thanks to that aforementioned winning streak, and it includes a five-point win over Houston when the Cougars were sitting at No. 6 in the AP poll.

    Sophomore Tyson Etienne (17.1 PPG, 40.0 3PT%) has led the way offensively all season, and he has tallied 20 points four times during their current seven-game run. He has also received significant support from guard Dexter Dennis of late. The 6'5" junior is averaging 14.4 points and 7.0 rebounds in his last five games, and he had a 20-point, 13-rebound performance against Tulane on March 3.

    The Shockers would be a dangerous team slotted in the Nos. 11/12 seed range, prime candidates to parlay their current momentum into a first-round upset.

7. Loyola-Chicago Ramblers (24-4, 16-2 in MVC)

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    Cameron Krutwig
    Cameron KrutwigCharlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Last 10: 9-1, 2-1 vs. projected NCAA tournament teams

    Win Streak: 6

    The Loyola Ramblers have emerged as the cream of the crop in the Missouri Valley Conference in recent years, and they punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament with Sunday's 75-65 victory over Drake.

    It was the third time this season they had played Drake after splitting their two regular-season matchups, which accounts for the Ramblers' only loss during a 17-1 run leading up to the NCAA tournament.

    Their only other games above the Quad 3 and Quad 4 lines during that stretch were two road victories over Missouri State (NET: 93) and a win away from home over Indiana State (NET: 120), but they have built some clear momentum nevertheless.

    Senior center Cameron Krutwig was a true freshman starter during the team's unlikely run to the Final Four in 2018. Now he's one of the most complete post players in the country, averaging 15.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals.

    That said, defense is this team's calling card. Its 55.5 points allowed per game are the lowest in the nation.

6. San Diego State (20-4, 14-3 in Mountain West)

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    Jordan Schakel
    Jordan SchakelRoss D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Last 10: 10-0, 2-0 vs. projected NCAA tournament teams

    Win Streak: 11

    The COVID-19 pandemic robbed the San Diego State Aztecs of a golden opportunity to make a deep tournament run last year when they finished the regular season with a 30-2 record and at No. 6 in the final AP poll.

    Mountain West Player of the Year Malachi Flynn moved on to the NBA during the offseason, but this year's Aztecs team is still awfully good and playing its best basketball right now.

    Seniors Matt Mitchell (15.4 PPG, 5.5 RPG) and Jordan Schakel (14.4 PPG, 46.4 3PT%) have filled the void Flynn left behind, and the rotation can go 10 deep with an experienced group hungry to make up for last year's missed opportunity.

    The Aztecs' two wins against projected NCAA tournament teams both came against a Boise State squad located squarely on the bubble after losing three in a row to close out the regular-season slate.

    While that lack of quality wins keeps them from ranking any higher, this is going to be an extremely tough draw for a No. 1 seed in the second round if they stay on the No. 8 line when brackets are released.

5. Oregon Ducks (19-5, 14-4 in Pac-12)

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    Chris Duarte
    Chris DuarteAndy Nelson/Associated Press

    Last 10: 9-1, 2-1 vs. projected NCAA tournament teams

    Win Streak: 5

    With three losses in four games and a 9-4 record overall, Oregon was trending in the wrong direction at the start of February and in danger of slipping out of the NCAA tournament picture.

    The Ducks have since gone 10-1 in their last 11 games, with the only loss coming against a strong USC team on the road. 

    They picked up Quad 1 wins against Colorado and Arizona during that stretch, and they also knocked off a UCLA team that will be dancing in March.

    It's reminiscent of the 2018-19 Oregon team that had won eight in a row entering the NCAA tournament, including an impressive run through the Pac-12 tournament before reaching the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed in March Madness.

    This year's squad will be seeded much higher by the committee, and with four seniors and two juniors in the rotation, experience is on their side.

    Chris Duarte (17.3 PPG, 4.7 RPG) was just crowned Pac-12 Player of the Year, and he's one of five players averaging at least 10 points for a long, athletic Ducks team poised to make a NCAA tournament run.

4. Baylor Bears (21-1, 13-1 in Big 12)

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    Jared Butler
    Jared ButlerEric Gay/Associated Press

    Last 10: 9-1, 6-1 vs. projected NCAA tournament teams

    Win Streak: 3

    After stumbling a bit following a three-week layoff amid a COVID-19 outbreak, Baylor is back to looking like one of the nation's best teams.

    The Bears won by only five points against Big 12 doormat Iowa State in their return to action on Feb. 23, and they then suffered their first loss of the year in a 13-point blowout against Kansas five days later.

    Since then, they have an overtime victory against West Virginia, an 11-point win over Oklahoma State and a dominant 88-73 showing against Texas Tech to wrap up the regular season.

    Jared Butler (17.1 PPG, 5.0 APG) is one of the most complete players in the nation, senior guard MaCio Teague (15.7 PPG) provides a reliable second option, and NBA draft prospect Davion Mitchell (13.9 PPG, 5.7 APG) is a dynamic player in his own right.

    The talent is there, and the Bears are trending back in the right direction. It's just hard to rank them any higher considering their last 10 games have been more like two different five-game stretches with a lengthy intermission in between.

3. Gonzaga Bulldogs (26-0, 15-0 in WCC)

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    Young Kwak/Associated Press

    Last 10: 10-0, 2-0 vs. projected NCAA tournament teams

    Win Streak: 26

    The last time the Gonzaga Bulldogs lost a basketball game was Feb. 22, 2020.

    That's a winning streak of 30 games stretching back to last year, and they've steamrolled their way to an undefeated regular season following an 88-78 victory over BYU in the West Coast Conference title game.

    Detractors will point to a lack of competition beyond the Cougars in the conference, but the Bulldogs were not exactly struggling with tournament-bound teams during non-conference play. They beat Kansas by 12 points, Iowa by 11 points, Virginia by 23 points, and they've failed to win by double digits only once all seasonan 87-82 victory over West Virginia.

    If Corey Kispert (19.2 PPG, 44.4 3PT%) and Drew Timme (18.7 PPG, 7.1 RPG) are Batman and Robin, then standout freshman Jalen Suggs (14.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 4.5 APG) is the best Alfred the Butler in the country right now.

    Throw in versatile junior guard Joel Ayayi, former 5-star recruit Andrew Nembhard and 6'8" sophomore Anton Watson, who went off for 23 points in a game against Portland earlier this year, and this stacked team is rightfully mentioned among the NCAA tournament favorites.

2. Arkansas Razorbacks (21-5, 13-4 in SEC)

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    Moses Moody
    Moses MoodyMichael Woods/Associated Press

    Last 10: 9-1, 4-1 vs. projected NCAA tournament teams

    Win Streak: 8

    Since enduring a rocky 1-4 stretch in January, the Arkansas Razorbacks have rattled off an 11-1 record entering the SEC tournament.

    The only hiccup was a four-point loss to Oklahoma State in which the Cowboys shot a blistering 50.8 percent from the field and still couldn't pull away.

    During one four-game stretch in February, Arkansas beat Missouri on the road in overtime and then knocked off Florida, Alabama and LSU in succession at home. The Razorbacks also beat Ole Miss in late January, and the Rebels are not out of the NCAA tournament conversation.

    The 15-point win over Alabama, who sits comfortably on the 2-seed line right now, was a clear statement victory after the Crimson Tide walloped them by 31 points back in January.

    Freshman Moses Moody (17.5 PPG, 5.7 RPG) is going to be a lottery pick, and he receives plenty of support from upperclassmen JD Notae (12.9 PPG), Justin Smith (12.5 PPG, 6.8 RPG) and Jalen Tate (10.9 PPG, 4.0 APG).

    The arrow is pointing straight up for the Razorbacks heading into the postseason.

1. Illinois Fighting Illini (20-6, 16-4 in Big Ten)

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    Ayo Dosunmu
    Ayo DosunmuDarron Cummings/Associated Press

    Last 10: 9-1, 4-1 vs. projected NCAA tournament teams

    Win Streak: 4

    The Illinois Fighting Illini are rolling.

    They enter the Big Ten tournament with back-to-back road wins over projected No. 1 seed Michigan and projected No. 2 seed Ohio State, and they have gone 11-1 in their last 12 games.

    The Big Ten Conference has a staggering nine teams projected for a spot in the NCAA tournament field, and the Illini have managed to navigate conference play with a stellar 16-4 record.

    Along with their victories over the Buckeyes and Wolverines earlier this month, they also picked up a pair of wins against a good Wisconsin team while taking care of business against some of the conference cellar dwellers over their last 10 games.

    The 23-point victory over Michigan on the road without All-American candidate Ayo Dosunmu might be the most impressive win any team has put on its resume this year.

    A nine-point loss to Michigan State is their only recent blemish, and that doesn't look as bad as it did at the time given how the Spartans have played down the stretch.

    The Illini are bona fide title contenders, plain and simple.