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NCAA Tournament 2021: Sleeper Men's Teams That Could Make Deep Runs

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterMarch 15, 2021

Chris Duarte
Chris DuarteAndy Nelson/Associated Press

There are levels to this game.

During March Madness, the definitions of "sleeper" and "deep run" can vary pretty widely by program and season, and that goes double for this haywire 2020-21 men's campaign.

So when we sat down to find the teams we think could sneak up on the field and surpass expectations, we took an all-of-the-above approach. How could we do anything differently? Given the way this season has unfolded, everyone deserves to be graded on a curve of their own.

From would-be Cinderellas to high majors looking to reach the last game of the season, these programs appear to have the ingredients necessary to surprise onlookers and opponents. And we've gone beyond the brand names to find programs that may be hiding in the shadows now but could swoop in and shred your bracket to confetti. Don't say you weren't warned.

We're searching for teams that look especially hot coming into March Madness, particularly those who are well equipped for tournament play. We also assessed their opening-round matchups. The list begins with mid-majors and works its way up to the power-conference programs.

Ready for March Madness? Here we go.

     

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Winthrop Eagles (South Region, No. 12 seed)

Chandler Vaudrin
Chandler VaudrinNell Redmond/Associated Press

Record: 23-1, 17-1 in Big South

Net ranking: 55

First opponent: Villanova Wildcats

Now is the perfect time for Condescending Wonka. Please, tell me more about how the Big South is not as strong as the Big East!

This is more than just pulling an autobid out of a hat. The Winthrop Eagles can play, and they are a problem. It would not be all that surprising to see them grab the 5-12 upset against the Wildcats and sprint to the Sweet 16.

The only loss Winthrop suffered this season came on the back end of a two-day doubleheader with UNC Asheville. That's the sort of thing you can throw out of the metaphorical record book given how this season unfolded during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Eagles' secret weapon is the kitchen sink with 11 of the 15 players on the roster playing at least 10 minutes per game. For comparison's sake, UNC Asheville only has eight such players. For the nation's top overall seed in Gonzaga—a team frequently lauded for its depth—that number is seven.

Senior floor leader Chandler Vaudrin is the team's rock and best player, leading the way with 12.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 6.9 assists and 1.3 steals per contest. Villanova has a pretty good offense of its own, but it's not particularly deep and doesn't have an overwhelming defensive presence—not to mention the absence of standout guard Collin Gillespie, who was lost for the season to a torn MCL.

If Winthrop can get hot, this upset could happen, as could a defeat of mid-grade Big Ten program in No. 4 Purdue during the next round.

     

San Diego State (Midwest Region, No. 6 seed)

Jordan Schakel (left)
Jordan Schakel (left)Denis Poroy/Associated Press

Record: 23-4, 14-3 in the Mountain West

Net ranking: 18

First opponent: Syracuse Orange

Defense wins championships, and it wins regular games, too. The Aztecs could sneak in through the back door of the Midwest Region and make a strong enough showing to reach the Sweet 16—and perhaps the Elite Eight.

Defense is SDSU's calling card. The Aztecs sit 11th in KenPom.com's adjusted defensive rankings and a molasses-in-January 298th for adjusted tempo.

Experience is invaluable come tournament time, and seniors Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel provide it for SDSU. Besides contributing nearly 30 combined points per game, they and big man Nathan Mensah key a defense that sits eighth nationally with 60.6 points allowed and 16th with a 3.9 turnover margin.

First, they get a dodgy Syracuse team before facing chalk possibilities in West Virginia. Now that's a defensive matchup I'd pay to watch—and bet money the Aztecs would win. If chalk prevails, Houston and yet another defensive rock fight would stand in the Aztecs' path to the Elite Eight. That's not an easy game, but it's not cause for despair, either.

Don't forget that SDSU hasn't lost since Jan. 16, including several back-to-back matchups necessitated by COVID-19. It's hard to argue with that kind of streak until it's no longer a reality.

     

Creighton Bluejays (West Region, No. 5 seed)

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Record: 20-8, 14-6 in the Big East

Net ranking: 25

First opponent: UC Santa Barbara Gauchos

Creighton stumbled on the final hurdle Saturday night when it lost to upstart and timely nostalgia infusion Georgetown in the Big East Tournament. And the Bluejays have consistently been in Villanova's shadow for basically all of recorded time.

But this is still a team with a lot to like. What they've got you can't bottle in stores, but people wish they could. If you're thinking shooting, you're not necessarily wrong. But more than that, they have balance.

In the case of the former, they led the Big East with 36.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc. The Bluejays are also No. 32 in the nation with a 47.6 field-goal percentage, and Christian Bishop ranks second in the conference with 67.2 percent shooting from the floor.

But more importantly, they get it done through remarkably consistent performances from their starting five, all of whom average double figures. Marcus Zegarowski leads the team with 15.5 points per game, but anyone can get hot and go off on any night. And maybe, more than one will start going off at the same time.

Creighton should stave off the 5-12 upset, at which point it would likely face defensive juggernaut Virginia, which isn't quite as good as it's been in recent years. It would need to get hot, but it can happen since it can make it a game of whack-a-mole seemingly at any given time.

And with that 48-point egg out of their system after the Georgetown loss, these Jays might have blue skies ahead.

     

Oregon Ducks (West Region, No. 7 seed)

Eugene Omoruyi (left) and Chris Duarte
Eugene Omoruyi (left) and Chris DuarteAndy Nelson/Associated Press

Record: 20-6, 14-4 in Pac-12

Net ranking: 34

First opponent: VCU Golden Rams

Even though they fell hard to reviled Oregon State in the Pac-12 semis, the Ducks still ended their reason winning six of their final seven. Plus, they're still led by Chris Duarte, who paced the conference in true shooting percentage (65.4), effective field-goal percentage (63.0) and steal percentage (3.3).

It's hard to know how a team will perform after an extended pause. But after COVID-19 kept the Ducks sidelined for the better part of three weeks in the middle of the season, they came back to go 11-2 in the meat of their conference schedule.

Bricked-up small forward Eugene Omoruyi has been a load for opposing defenses. Now matching Duarte for the team scoring lead at 16.7 points per contest, he provides steady, well-rounded production. Both are seniors and won't let themselves or the team get rattled easily.

VCU is a tough out, but it's not hard to picture the Ducks getting past the Rams and then toppling the good-but-not-flawless No. 2 Iowa Hawkeyes before touching down in the Sweet 16. The No. 3 seed in this part of the region is Kansas, always a worthy postseason opponent but one that hasn't been its usual dominant self this season.

Could an Elite Eight be in the offing? Oregon would have to make a lot of noise, but I've heard ducks are good at that.

     

Oklahoma State Cowboys (Midwest Region, No. 4 seed)

Cade Cunningham (right)
Cade Cunningham (right)Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

Record: 20-8, 11-7 in Big 12

Net ranking: 29

First opponent: Liberty Flames

Don't let that loss to Texas in the Big 12 tourney final throw you off. This OSU team could make a run to the Final Four—and maybe the first national title game in the program's last 70 years.

As should be evident, Cade Cunningham isn't exactly flying under the radar here. Even without playing his best game, he sunk Baylor almost singlehandedly in the final moments of the Big 12 semis, hitting timely threes and a beautiful dish in the final moments to seal the win.

The rest of this Cowboys team is definitely more anonymous, but it's as battle-tested a group as there is. OSU beat both Oklahoma and West Virginia on back-to-back nights. That can't be easy to do, especially since both programs were ranked at the time.

Isaac Likekele and Avery Anderson III round out the backcourt, with the former making teams pay for doubling Cunningham by hitting 44.4 percent of his threes.

This team can guard, too. It's the best in the Big 12 at defending the three, allowing opponents to shoot just 31.9 percent from beyond the arc.

After Liberty, the Cowboys' path is relatively manageable until they come smack into a potential collision with Ayo Dosunmu and Illinois. That's the sort of thing that almost feels fated to happen given that he and Cunningham are both pegged for lengthy NBA careers.

Back in the here and now, OSU has the talent, the tools and the toughness. Maybe the Cowboys aren't as stacked from front to back as other teams, but with Cunningham playing up to every inch of his NBA potential, no one should fence them in during March Madness.

     

All statistics courtesy of the NCAA or Sports Reference unless otherwise noted.

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