NCAA Tournament 2021: The Biggest Potential Cinderella Teams in the Field of 68

Abbey MastraccoContributor IMarch 15, 2021

NCAA Tournament 2021: The Biggest Potential Cinderella Teams in the Field of 68

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Before Stephen Curry was a household name, he was busting brackets with the Davidson Wildcats in 2008. That remarkable run to the NCAA men's basketball tournament's Elite Eight came just two years after the George Mason Patriots' own Cinderella run to the Final Four. 

    Brad Stevens took back-to-back Butler squads to the title game, losing the 2010 contest on a half-court miss by Gordon Hayward. Stevens was rewarded for his success by the Boston Celtics, who hired him as head coach in 2013.

    Everyone loves a good Cinderella story, and with the margin for error so thin in a 68-team, single-elimination gauntlet, the NCAA tournament is primed for them. 

    Who could forget Ron Hunter, the coach of Georgia State, falling off his chair in celebration during the Panthers' upset over No. 3 seed Baylor in the 2015 tournament? Hunter was using a rolling stool after rupturing his Achilles tendon during the team's Sun Belt Conference championship celebration, and the images of him rolling through the hallways and out to the sidelines provided more than one shining moment. 

    The Panthers may not have made a deep run, but that doesn't mean we won't root for other double-digit seeds to make it to the end. 

    The potential for busted brackets seems higher than usual this season with so many COVID-19 pauses. There were two big Saturday surprises with Oregon State winning the Pac-12 tournament and Georgetown winning the Big East. Some teams have played mostly conference schedules and others haven't played full schedules, so it's time to see if some mid-major magic is in store for 2021.


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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Record: 13-12

    Conference: 7-9 Big East

    Best wins: Creighton (twice), Seton Hall (twice), Villanova

    NCAA tournament seeding: No. 12 seed in the East Region

    Opening-round opponent: No. 5 Colorado

    It's a story scripted for March: Former New York Knicks great Patrick Ewing returned to Madison Square Garden and led the eighth-seeded Hoyas to an improbable run through the Big East tournament. Adding to the story, he did it on the 49th anniversary of Georgetown hiring late coach John Thompson. The Basketball Hall of Fame coach transformed the program into a national power with the help of Ewing in the mid-'80s. 

    One could make the argument that Georgetown is a blue blood program, but the Hoyas have been in an NCAA tournament drought. The last appearance came in 2015, and their last Big East title came in 2007. The league's coaches picked them to finish last. Georgetown's No. 8 seed speaks to its play during its 13-12 regular season.

    The Hoyas were not expected to make the tournament this year. 

    Georgetown can shoot threes and rebound well. The Hoyas grabbed 5.1 more rebounds than their opponents per game, led the league in defensive rebounds with 28.5 per game and were third in offensive boards with 11.7. 

    The Hoyas have a balanced attack with Jahvon Blair leading the way in scoring at 15.8 points per game. The senior guard came off the bench for 18 points in the Big East title contest against No. 17 Creighton. Big man Qudus Wahab notched a double-double with 11 points and 12 rebounds, and Chudier Bile matched his season-high mark with 19 points. 

    Georgetown became the highest seed to win a Big East tournament since UConn won as a No. 9 seed in 2011. The Huskies went on to win it all that year, so if Ewing can keep this group rolling, then anything is possible.


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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Record: 12-5

    Conference: 6-3

    Best wins: Siena, Monmouth (twice)

    NCAA tournament seeding: No. 15 in the East Region

    Opening-round opponent: No. 2 Alabama

    Iona head coach Rick Pitino didn't want to start the season on time. He urged the NCAA to be more cautious when it came to mitigating COVID-19 and to hold the NCAA tournament in May. 

    Perhaps Pitino was right about pushing the season back by a few months. COVID-19 issues decimated several teams, and programs were forced to shut down while players and personnel were treated and quarantined. The 68-team field seems a little unequal as games played totals fluctuate wildly by school.

    Pitino's program is an example. The Gaels were forced to shut down for 51 straight days and then had the last week of their season wiped out as well. Nine players, two coaches—Pitino included—and two team personnel tested positive. Iona is located in New Rochelle, which became the epicenter of the New York area's coronavirus outbreak a year ago. It was right around the time Pitino took over one of the best programs in the MAAC. 

    Former head coach Tim Cluess stepped down for health reasons last spring after guiding Iona to four straight MAAC titles and coaching the Gaels to the conference title game for the seventh year in a row. This is the first time Pitino isn't taking over a program that needs rehabilitation. Maybe that will work in his favor. Pitino has proved to be one of the best coaches in the country, and he has a good team.

    The Gaels were one of the best defensive teams in the MAAC this season, holding opponents to 39.9 percent shooting. They were even better at shutting teams down from three-point range (30.1 percent). They play an aggressive 2-3 zone and crash the glass with three players who average more than five rebounds per game. Nelly Junior Joseph leads the charge with 7.6 per game, while Isaiah Ross tops the team in scoring with 18.4 points per game.

    They spread the floor and distribute the ball effectively, but going up against Alabama won't be the same as facing a MAAC opponent. It's a steep climb, but Pitino has led two other programs to the Final Four, so he knows what the Gaels are up against.

UC Santa Barbara

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    Ronda Churchill/Associated Press

    Record: 22-4

    Conference: 15-3

    Best wins: UC Riverside

    NCAA tournament seeding: No. 12 seed in the West Region

    Opening-round opponent: No. 5 seed Creighton

    UC Santa Barbara didn't do itself many favors with a soft nonconference schedule, but the regional travel may have helped in other ways. The program did not have to pause operations for COVID-19. The school opted not to go out of state for nonconference contests and instead played most of those games in the Los Angeles area, which is about 90 minutes south of Santa Barbara.

    The only postponements came when Long Beach State had to shut down for coronavirus concerns within its own program. 

    The three Big West losses came to the league's best teams: UC Irvine (twice) and UC Riverside (once). The Gauchos needed to get past the UC Irvine hump, and they did exactly that to win the conference title. 

    The Anteaters were good enough to bust some brackets two years ago, and the Gauchos could be primed to do the same.

    Sharpshooting guard JaQuori McLaughlin, a transfer from Oregon State, shot 40.5 percent from behind the arc in the regular season. Ajare Sanni shot 39.8 percent from three-point range off the bench. And as a whole, the Gauchos don't miss much from the field. They led the Big West with a 48.5 field-goal percentage that was good enough for 21st in the country.


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    John Munson/Associated Press

    Record: 14-1

    Conference: 11-1

    Best wins: Army (three times)

    NCAA tournament seeding: No. 14 seed in the South Region

    Opening-round opponent: No. 3 Arkansas

    The NET rankings have favored Colgate all season thanks to some fluky pandemic scheduling. It was sort of a mathematical outlier based on the winning percentage of a conference that only had itself to beat up on. The Patriot League only let Army and Navy schedule nonconference games, and the rest of the league began on Jan. 2 or later, playing a limited schedule to cut back on travel. 

    The Raiders weren't even the top seed in the conference tournament last week. That honor went to Navy. But Colgate showed its mettle by beating plucky underdog Loyola Maryland in the championship game.

    The Raiders run an efficient offense heavily predicated on strong three-point shooting. They don't turn the ball over a lot, and when they do, they can defend the three well on the other end. They had the best three-point defense in the NCAA this season as opponents shot only 26.4 percent against them.

    Colgate's first-round matchup against Arkansas should be nothing short of a shootout. Both teams like to spread the floor and shoot a lot of threes.

Loyola Chicago

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Record: 24-4

    Conference: 16-2

    Best wins: Drake (twice)

    NCAA tournament seeding: No. 8 seed in the Midwest Region

    Opening-round opponent: No. 9 seed Georgia Tech

    It might be tough to classify Loyola Chicago as a Cinderella team considering the Ramblers have a higher seed than their first opponent. But Georgia Tech won a power conference tournament to earn a bid it would not have otherwise have claimed, and Loyola-Chicago comes from the two-bid Missouri Valley Conference. 

    The darlings of the Dance in 2018 are back to try to replicate that magic. They have three seniors left from that team, and Lucas Williamson and Cameron Krutwig have become key leaders. Williamson said he's confident this current Ramblers squad could beat the Final Four team from three years prior.

    It's a bold claim, but this squad is better and deeper than the 2018 iteration. 

    It's no easy task for Loyola or Georgia Tech to advance deep into the bracket. The winner will likely have to take on No. 1 seed Illinois, which would set up an in-state battle just one state over, as well as a clash between two of the most efficient teams from the field. 

    Sister Jean believes in the Ramblers, and it's tough not to root for them after they made a name for themselves three years ago.

Oregon State

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    Record: 17-12

    Conference: 10-10

    Best wins: Oregon, USC, UCLA, Colorado

    NCAA tournament seeding: No. 12 seed the Midwest Region

    Opening-round opponent: No. 5 seed Tennessee

    The Beavers used a stunning run through the conference tournament in Las Vegas last week to earn their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2016. Much like Georgetown, Oregon State was picked to finish last in the Pac-12 in preseason polls. Needing three wins in three days, the team showed grit by knocking off UCLA, Oregon and Colorado. 

    Its first-round opponent, Tennessee, could be without forward John Fulkerson, who missed the SEC tournament's semifinal round as he underwent surgery for facial fractures in Knoxville. The senior has been a key part of the Vols' lineup while averaging 9.5 points and 5.5 rebounds. 

    Teams that get hot at the right time can do some damage, but it's unclear what to make of Oregon State. History is working against the Beavers, who have lost their last seven NCAA tournament games.