March Madness 2021: Predicting Favorites, Sleepers and Latest Bubble Teams

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistMarch 14, 2021

March Madness 2021: Predicting Favorites, Sleepers and Latest Bubble Teams

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    The Gonzaga Bulldogs have had plenty of teams capable of winning the NCAA men's basketball tournament, but this year's squad may have the best chance to cut down the nets.

    Gonzaga comes into the Big Dance as the lone undefeated team in the country, and it boasts a resume with victories over some of the top teams in the nation.

    The Bulldogs lead a group also including the Baylor Bears, Michigan Wolverines and Illinois Fighting Illini that will be the favorites to win the Indianapolis-based event.

    While it is likely that one of those four teams win March Madness, there is always the chance that a sleeper emerges and claims the title.

    Before the squads hit the hardwood, the field of 68 needs to be determined, which could happen as late as an hour before the Selection Show.

    The Cincinnati Bearcats could be the third bid-stealer to win a conference tournament in the past 48 hours, and that would lead to a more stressful Sunday for the Utah State Aggies, Wichita State Shockers and others.


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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press


    Gonzaga has come close to winning the Big Dance in recent years. It made the championship game in 2017 and advanced to the Elite Eight in 2019.

    The Bulldogs may have their best chance to win this season because they have three National Player of the Year finalists in Jalen Suggs, Corey Kispert and Drew Timme.

    The 26-0 West Coast Conference champion has four players who average more than 11 points per game, and all of them chipped in to beat some of the best teams in the country during nonconference play.

    Mark Few's team beat the Kansas Jayhawks, West Virginia Mountaineers, Virginia Cavaliers and Iowa Hawkeyes before going perfect in WCC play.

    Gonzaga's top-tier talent and performances against the best teams should make it the favorite to win it all over presumed fellow No. 1 seeds Baylor, Michigan and Illinois.

    That status was reinforced in recent weeks, as the three other projected No. 1 seeds experienced slip-ups in Big Ten and Big 12 play.



    While Baylor and Michigan are solid picks to cut down the nets, Illinois is in better form than both teams.

    Illinois reeled off six straight wins to claim the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten tournament and land a spot in Sunday's title game against the Ohio State Buckeyes.

    During that run, the Fighting Illini beat four of the five other Top 25 teams in the Big Ten, and it owns a victory over each of the ranked programs in its conference.

    Brad Underwood's team has the star power to match Gonzaga's trio in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, who both average more than 17 points per game. Cockburn has the physical strength and wide body to battle with any paint players he comes across, and Dosunmu is one of the best playmakers in the country.

    If Illinois continues its winning run in Indianapolis, it could be on a collision course with Gonzaga instead of Baylor and Michigan, who have suffered multiple losses recently.


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    Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    San Diego State

    A year ago, the San Diego State Aztecs were competing for a No. 1 seed with a 30-2 record.

    Brian Dutcher's team still controlled the Mountain West this season, but it was not as dominant as it was last season.

    The 23-4 Aztecs have not lost since January 24 in a conference that, at one point, may have produced four NCAA tournament teams.

    San Diego State extended its 14-game winning streak by beating Utah State in the Mountain West tournament final Saturday.

    Seniors Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel both average more than 14 points per game and are two of the most experienced players to enter the Indianapolis bubble.

    ESPN's Joe Lunardi has the Aztecs listed as a No. 6 seed, so they could fly under the radar while we discuss the tournament-winning merits of the top seeds.

    In addition to their experience, the Aztecs play great defense. They held 12 of their last 14 opponents under 70 points. If they produce the same effectiveness over the next few weeks, the Aztecs could be a surprise participant in the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight.



    The Purdue Boilermakers were eliminated from the Big Ten tournament after one game, but they still have the potential to go deep in March.

    Before losing to Ohio State, Purdue won six of its last seven regular-season games to finish fourth in the loaded Big Ten.

    Purdue has two talented big men in Trevion Williams and Zach Edey who can wreak havoc on any frontcourt. It also possesses a star freshman in Jaden Ivey, who averages 10.5 points per game.

    The well-rounded nature of Purdue's offense, combined with Matt Painter's history of winning in March, could make it a dangerous team in the Sweet 16. Lunardi has Purdue as a No. 4 seed in his latest projection.

    Painter guided the Boilermakers to the Sweet 16 in each of their past three NCAA men's basketball tournament appearances, and they made the Elite Eight in 2019.

    If Purdue banks off the confidence gained during its winning streak, it could extend its Sweet 16 run under Painter.

Bubble Teams

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Utah State

    The Mountain West went from a potential four-bid league to a conference in danger of only having two programs in the Big Dance.

    Utah State's loss to San Diego State on Saturday and the unexpected wins by the Georgetown Hoyas and Oregon State Beavers pushed it to the edge of the bubble.

    Lunardi listed the Aggies as his "last team in" going into Sunday. That status could change if Cincinnati beats Houston in the AAC tournament final.

    The Aggies are in this position because they do not have any good nonconference wins and suffered a few bad losses in Mountain West play.

    Utah State's resume is supported by two victories over San Diego State, which were the last defeats suffered by the Aztecs.

    However, the Aggies went 4-4 against San Diego State, the Boise State Broncos and Colorado State Rams. Boise State and Colorado State fell off the bubble in the past few days.

    With only two wins over surefire March Madness teams, Utah State will be in for a nervous Sunday.


    Wichita State

    Wichita State damaged its resume with two poor performances in the AAC tournament.

    The Shockers barely got past the South Florida Bulls in the quarterfinals and lost to Cincinnati in the semifinals.

    Those results sunk a resume that did not have any bad losses on it before Saturday. Wichita State also owns a win over Houston, which should be a No. 2 or No. 3 seed.

    Wichita State has a power conference win over the Ole Miss Rebels, but they are not expected to make the field of 68.

    The only other victory it has over a Big Dance participant was over the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles at the start of nonconference play, but that should not carry much weight since they play in the one-bid Summit League.

    If Cincinnati beats Houston, Wichita State may be out of luck as the current "first team out." If the Cougars win, it may boost the Shockers' resume enough to give them a slight edge over Utah State.


    Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90Statistics obtained from


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