NCAA Basketball Tournament 2021: Predictions for Bracket-Busting Sleeper Teams

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistMarch 15, 2021

NCAA Basketball Tournament 2021: Predictions for Bracket-Busting Sleeper Teams

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    It wouldn't be a Big Dance without some Cinderellas, and this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament will be no different.

    It is the underdogs who put the madness into March Madness and shake up brackets with stunning upsets and Sweet 16 runs. The biggest question every season is which teams will play the role of bracket-busters, and answering that correctly can often make the difference between winning one's bracket pool and coming up short.

    With that in mind, here is a look at some bracket-busting sleeper teams in this year's tournament.

Loyola-Chicago, No. 8 in Midwest

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Poor Illinois.

    The Fighting Illini were dominant throughout the season, won the Big Ten tournament for the best conference in the country and earned a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance. Then they were rewarded with a potential second-round matchup with Loyola-Chicago.

    The Ramblers were the most underseeded team in the entire field at No. 8 in the Midwest Region.

    They finished No. 9 in the country in Ken Pomeroy's pace-adjusted rankings behind the No. 1 defense. They will need that stout defense in the first round against ACC tournament champion Georgia Tech and especially in a possible showdown with Ayo Dosunmu on the outside and Kofi Cockburn on the inside against Illinois.

    This is also old hat for Loyola-Chicago considering head coach Porter Moser and star player Cameron Krutwig were there for the 2018 Final Four run.

    Krutwig can pull Cockburn away from the rim by running the offense from the high elbow, which should open more of the lane for cuts and help the Ramblers on the offensive glass. Actually beating the loaded Fighting Illini will be a tall task, but Loyola-Chicago is talented enough to shock the world.

UC Santa Barbara, No. 12 in West

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    Ronda Churchill/Associated Press

    UC Santa Barbara could advance deep in the tournament because of more than just its own talent.

    Creighton, which is the No. 5 seed in the West Region, looked nothing like a Sweet 16 threat while losing 73-48 to Georgetown in the Big East tournament championship game. The Hoyas were just 9-12 during the regular season but had no problem dispatching the Bluejays.

    Fourth-seeded Virginia is a potential second-round matchup for the Gauchos but has more than just basketball to worry about, as head coach Tony Bennett told reporters the "majority" of the team is quarantining because of contact tracing.

    UC Santa Barbara also has someone who can take over during crunch time with JaQuori McLaughlin.

    McLaughlin scored 22 points in two of the three games in the Big West tournament and can hit from deep, attack the basket and facilitate for teammates when opponents collapse on him. Look for him to challenge Creighton and maybe even Virginia as the Gauchos aim for a Sweet 16 run.

Ohio, No. 13 in West

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    The same concerns for No. 4 Virginia and No. 5 Creighton in the West Region mentioned in the UC Santa Barbara section apply for Ohio, the No. 13 seed.

    The Cavaliers and Bluejays are not exactly the most daunting opponents at that seed level, and Ohio has its own player who can take over at a moment's notice in Jason Preston.

    Preston poured in 27 points in the MAC tournament semifinals win over Toledo and then stuffed the stat sheet with 22 points, seven assists, six rebounds and five steals in the championship game win over Buffalo.

    Ohio reached the Sweet 16 in 2012 as a No. 13 seed with D.J. Cooper leading the way and could do the same this year with Preston as the go-to option.

Winthrop, No. 12 in South

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Winthrop's 23-1 record alone underscores how dangerous it will be as the No. 12 seed in the South Region.

    Its only loss was by two points to UNC Asheville thanks in large part to a balanced scoring attack with four players averaging double figures and strong play on the glass. In fact, the Eagles are No. 11 in the country in total rebounds per game at 40.3 and should be able to compete with Villanova in the opening round.

    They can also push the pace as the 11th team in the country in tempo in Pomeroy's rankings and could wear out a shorthanded Wildcats bunch in that initial matchup.

    Villanova is dealing with injuries to Collin Gillespie and Justin Moore and might run into trouble against a dangerous Winthrop team.

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