NCAA Tournament 2021 Predictions: Best Upset Picks for Every Men's Region
After a wild Conference Championship Week that saw surprise teams like Georgetown and Oregon State punch bids to the Big Dance, it's safe to say we're officially ready for March to get mad.
As you're filling out your men's bracket(s) this week, you'll probably want to pick a few surprises, both for the sake of variety and because, well, there's always a few in the first weekend of the tournament.
Before the first round tips off Friday, we're guiding you through the smartest possible upset options in each of the four regions, defining an "upset" as a victory by a team seeded no better than No. 11.
West Region: No. 12 UC Santa Barbara over No. 5 Creighton
Greg McDermott is back coaching Creighton after a brief suspension for racially insensitive comments. But either his team was actively protesting his reinstatement against Georgetown or it was just not ready to play as the Hoyas smacked the Bluejays, 73-48.
That has the Bluejays in a bit of a rough spot heading into their first-round matchup against UC Santa Barbara, one of the best low-major teams in the country.
In his Sunday writeup on the Gauchos, B/R's Kerry Miller put the team in recent historical context:
"UCSB finished the season in the top 75 on KenPom, which is no small feat. Only two other Big West teams have done that in the past eight years: 2018-19 UC Irvine, which upset Kansas State in the NCAA tournament, and 2015-16 Hawaii, which upset California in the first round of the dance. A continuation of that trend is a strong possibility."
One team is 18-1 since New Year's Day, and the other has lost three of six with a coach who recently returned from the aforementioned suspension. UCSB seems to be in a much more comfortable place than Creighton and is in a prime spot to catch the Big East heavyweight off-balance this weekend.
West Region: No. 13 Ohio over No. 4 Virginia
This, of course, assumes Virginia will be ready to go when the first round arrives.
Tony Bennett's squad had to pull out of the ACC tournament due to a positive COVID-19 test and will have to clear all the necessary protocols over the next several days in order to defend its title (for whatever that's even worth nearly two years removed from that storybook run).
While the lack of practice time and awkward preparation sessions will further complicate the team's first-round matchup against Ohio, it would have been a challenge regardless. From Ohio making the Sweet 16 in 2012 to Buffalo's toppling of Arizona in 2018, the MAC has often delivered a champion capable of becoming a Cinderella, and the Bobcats could be the latest in that line.
They nearly beat top-seeded Illinois at the beginning of the season, have won nine of their last 10 despite myriad canceled games breaking that streak into three separate spurts and boast one of this year's chief candidates to get an NBA draft boost in Jason Preston.
After averaging 2.0 points as a high school senior, the point guard has blossomed into one of the nation's best floor generals, averaging 16.6 points, 7.2 assists and 6.8 rebounds as a junior and matching All-American Ayo Dosunmu in that aforementioned nailbiter against Illinois.
With Virginia's defense a notch below its typical world-beating standards, we could see Preston slice and dice his way to victory and etch Ohio's name in the history books once more.
East Region: No. 12 Georgetown over No. 5 Colorado
The Colorado Buffaloes are playing quite well right now and have a potential game-breaker on their roster in point guard McKinley Wright IV. However, like most other college basketball fans, we're obsessed with whatever Patrick Ewing has his Georgetown Hoyas doing at the moment.
As recently as a week ago, picking the Hoyas to make March Madness at all, let alone win at least one game, seemed outlandish. They weren't exactly preseason favorites, and they were 9-12, had lost four of eight and just seemed like a temporary obstacle in the way of a better club like Villanova or Creighton heading into the Big East tournament.
Lo and behold, Georgetown caught fire at the perfect time, winning the requisite four games in as many days—including victories over the Wildcats and Bluejays—to take the whole darn thing.
If momentum exists in sports, Georgetown will prove it this weekend. Colorado isn't exactly slumping, having won six of its last seven, but the Hoyas held their Big East tournament opponents to 42.2 percent shooting from the field and are as locked in defensively as any team in the country.
Let's try to ride their wave for as long as possible.
East Region: No. 14 Abilene Christian over No. 3 Texas
After many years of underachieving with future lottery picks like Jarrett Allen and Mo Bamba, head coach Shaka Smart has finally helped a Texas team achieve its potential this year.
Led by experienced guards like Andrew Jones, Matt Coleman III and Courtney Ramey and buttressed by two NBA-caliber big men in Greg Brown and Kai Jones, the Longhorns went 19-7, finished third in the Big 12 and won their conference tournament.
Unfortunately, a combination of momentum and luck of the draw ensured that such good fortune may not continue much longer.
Despite beating two accomplished clubs in Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, Texas won neither game convincingly and isn't far removed from a stretch in which it lost six of 10 games. That may not bode well in a first-round matchup against intrastate opponent Abilene Christian, which has been rolling through opponents for several months and has only lost once since Jan. 23.
Sure, the Southland Conference isn't exactly the Big 12. But you play who you play, and the Wildcats have dominated their competition thoroughly, to the point that they lead the nation in turnover margin.
Texas ranks 240th in turnovers per game, so this matchup may present a ripe opportunity for Abilene Christian to make a name for itself on the national stage.
South Region: No. 12 Winthrop over No. 5 Villanova
It was all going according to plan for Villanova.
Jay Wright's club had won 13 of 15 games to start its season and was in prime position both to win the Big East and compete for its third national title in a decade. Then Collin Gillespie, the team's latest star point guard and a co-Big East Player of the Year, tore his MCL.
The Wildcats have lost both games since Gillespie went down. And while the two defeats were by a combined three points, they had also lost three of their previous eight, so they weren't exactly firing on all cylinders even before his injury.
To pile on the pressure, though, Nova drew a tough opponent in Winthrop.
Making their 10th tournament appearance this century, the Eagles are frequently a tough out in the first round. Considering this iteration is 23-1 and won its three conference tournament games by 77 total points, it'll likely prove no exception.
Led by jumbo point guard Chandler Vaudrin, Winthrop is versatile, deep and disciplined, and it would be a challenge for most any first-round opponent, let alone one dealing with as much personnel turmoil as Villanova.
It's not like the Wildcats are fatally depleted. They've still got Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Justin Moore and Jermaine Samuels leading the way. But they're heading into the most important time of the year without their most important player, which could spell doom quickly.
South Region: No. 13 North Texas over No. 4 Purdue
Trevion Williams has been excellent all season for Purdue, flying under the radar in a conference headlined by several nationally renowned big men. But he is the Boilermakers offense, which could pose trouble against the North Texas Mean Green, who have lived up to their nickname all year.
North Texas has been an excellent defensive team this season, holding six opponents to fewer than 60 points and hanging with several high-powered nonconference foes in Arkansas, Mississippi State, West Virginia and Loyola Chicago. Most importantly for Purdue's purposes, though, the Mean Green are fresh off harassing a talented big man.
In the conference's championship game against Western Kentucky, Grant McCasland's club erased Conference USA Player of the Year Charles Bassey, limiting him to 13 points on 3-of-12 shooting while fouling him out. Considering Williams is one of Purdue's two double-digit scorers and the team struggles when it gets in an offensive hole, that upset formula could matter in this matchup.
Matt Painter has seemingly cracked the March Madness code of late, making three consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearances and reaching the Elite Eight in 2019. To continue that streak, though, he'll need contributions from the whole Boilermaker team, not just his best player.
Midwest Region: No. 13 Liberty over No. 4 Oklahoma State
This is probably a blasphemous suggestion since Oklahoma State has been winning close games against top competition all season long and boasts Cade Cunningham, the presumptive top pick in the 2021 NBA draft and one of the players most likely to singlehandedly lead his team to a title.
But putting the Cowboys in the upset conversation isn't so much downplaying their accomplishments as it is a show of respect for Liberty, one of the most consistently threatening low-majors of the last half-decade.
The last time we had an NCAA tournament, the Flames made waves, upsetting Mississippi State and hanging with Virginia Tech for most of their second-round matchup. Two of their current starters—leading scorer Darius McGhee and forward Elijah Cuffee—played big minutes in those games and boast the requisite postseason experience to keep a level head under the bright lights.
In addition, it helps that this team is full of willing and proficient shooters. Heading into the tournament, Liberty ranks seventh in three-point percentage and 12th in three-point attempts. Only Oral Roberts, VMI and Iowa join them in the top 20 for both categories.
Oklahoma State is a legitimate threat to win a championship if Cunningham can play his very best for three consecutive weekends. But before the Cowboys can cut the nets, they'll need to escape a pesky Liberty club.
Midwest Region: No. 11 Syracuse over No. 6 San Diego State
This isn't a betting guide, but if you place one wager on anything other than the outcomes, bet the under on total points scored here.
Both San Diego State and Syracuse boast stingy defenses, with the former allowing 70-plus points just four times and Jim Boeheim's signature 2-3 zone paying dividends for the latter, though not to the same degree as it has in his best seasons. And while Brian Dutcher's Aztecs are clearly the better team, matching that talented defense with a balanced, multi-level scoring attack, watch out for the Orange.
Syracuse has become somewhat of a bubble darling in recent years, making four of the last five tournaments but never notching any seed greater than No. 8. Nevertheless, Boeheim has continued to make waves in March, reaching the Final Four in 2016 and the Sweet 16 in 2018 despite putting together disappointing regular seasons.
The recipe is there for this campaign to proceed similarly given that the coach's son, Buddy, is presently on a hot streak not seen in Central New York—pardon the potential blasphemy—since the halcyon days of Carmelo Anthony.
Over his last nine games, Buddy Boeheim is averaging 21.3 points on 50.7/47.3/87.5 shooting splits. He hasn't done much more than put the ball in the basket, but doing that efficiently might very well be the most important skill in March.
As always, the moral of the story is to never underestimate a Hall of Fame coach this time of year, especially when he's got a star scorer capable of ending games with a well-timed hot streak.