NCAA Tournament 2021: Low Seeds with Best Chance at a Deep Run After Round of 64
The NCAA men's basketball tournament is down to 32 teams, and nine of them are seeded 10th or higher. The first two days of play produced some major upsets and intriguing matchups for the second round, which begins Sunday and will conclude Monday night, with all games taking place in the greater Indianapolis area.
This was a different year with an uneven playing field coming into the tournament this week, but once in Indianapolis, all bets were off. Conferences and school sizes mattered little, as No. 15 Oral Roberts took down No. 2 Ohio State on Friday and No. 14 Abilene Christian hooked No. 3 Texas with two final free throws late Saturday night to earn bragging rights in the Lone Star State.
With so many low seeds still remaining, we'll take a look at some that have the potential to go deep in the tournament. Get the glass slippers ready for a Cinderella candidate.
No. 13 Ohio (West Region)
No. 4 Virginia was unable to defend its title last year with the cancellation of the tournament. A year prior, the Cavaliers suffered a shocking loss as the top seed in the region to No. 16 UMBC.
Virginia nearly didn't even get a chance to play in this tournament because of a positive COVID-19 test during the ACC tournament. But the program went through the protocols, quarantined until Thursday and received the negative tests necessary to play Saturday.
None of that should diminish the performance of the Ohio Bobcats. The Bobcats outrebounded the Cavaliers 38-29, and they dominated in the paint with 26 points. Ben Vander Plas keyed the run, and Ben Roderick had some key buckets, but it was Jason Preston who starred, nearly registering a triple-double with 11 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists.
It's also Preston who could help spur the Bobcats past No. 5 Creighton on Monday night. Vander Plas said: "Confidence is a huge thing for us. I think you guys might be able to see it, but we're out there playing free, playing confident. I know me especially, over the past couple weeks, I've been talking a lot to Jay [Preston] about P.J. Tucker, how he goes out and guards 1 through 5, plays with irrational confidence. That's what I've been trying to do, just go out there and just play free."
Creighton's win over UC Santa Barbara was unconvincing, and despite finishing fifth in the MAC, Ohio could be on the way to its first Sweet 16 since 2012.
No. 11 Syracuse (Midwest Region)
Syracuse, like UCLA, might be an underdog this year, but it has a player getting red-hot at the right time.
Many are still wondering how Syracuse even made it into the tournament after a lackluster season in which the Orange finished eighth in the ACC. Louisville finished ahead of them in the conference standings but was left out of the tournament field.
Buddy Boeheim, the son of longtime Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, doesn't seem to care. He's scored at least 26 points in four of his last five games and has scored 30 or more in his last two, including 30 in the Orange's first-round convincing 78-62 win over San Diego State.
The next opponent is No. 3 West Virginia. Jim Boeheim spent many years coaching against Bob Huggins and the Mountaineers in the Big East before Syracuse moved to the ACC and West Virginia to the Big 12. Huggins' team is ranked No. 10 in adjusted offense, so expect this one to be a shootout, with Buddy potentially being the difference-maker once again.
No. 12 Oregon State (Midwest Region)
The surprise winner of the Pac-12 tournament last weekend notched another unexpected victory against No. 5 Tennessee in the first round and will now face No. 4 Oklahoma State.
Suddenly, all that ailed the Beavers throughout most of the season has been fixed. Oregon State is shooting 48.5 percent from the field over the last eight games, well over its season average of 43.5 percent. The improvement stems from strong post play, and the game plan is simple: Get the ball inside and let the bigs kick it out.
Roman Silva, at 7'1", is the focal point, and he finished 8-of-8 from the field for 16 points and added three blocks.
"We know he's got an advantage in there," coach Wayne Tinkle said in his zoom press conference. "First of all, he posted deep. He threw it on target. A lot of times, we want him to go seal these big strong guys, and we're throwing the ball all over the place. We rifle it to him, and he's going to catch it, and he's going to score it."
There are few teams hotter than the Beavers right now. If they can outshoot the Cowboys, they could make it to their first Sweet 16 since 1982.
No. 13 North Texas (South Region)
North Texas took down No. 4 Purdue by packing the paint. It bothered the Boilermakers enough to settle for bad shots and shoot just 36.2 percent from the field. Meanwhile, North Texas couldn't miss, with the Mean Green shooting 47.5 percent en route to the program's first-ever NCAA tournament win.
North Texas' field-goal defense ranked among the top 40 this year, and its shooting performance was in line with its season average. The difference was a strong performance at the line: North Texas went 13-of-15, including a perfect 10-of-10 mark in overtime. Javion Hamlet scored 24 points, Thomas Bell and Mardrez McBride added 16 each, and James Reese scored 13.
But it was the post defense that set the Mean Green up for success.
"They just took it away and made our [big] guys be passers," Purdue coach Matt Painter said in his postgame Zoom press conference.
Next up for North Texas is No. 5 Villanova. The Wildcats are without their best player, Collin Gillespie, and they lost three of four heading into the tournament without him. Nova typically hits a lot of threes and struggled to do so during that stretch.
And the Mean Green can force teams into bad shots...just ask Painter.
No. 11 UCLA (East Region)
It's been a tumultuous decade in Westwood.
The Bruins, one of college basketball's historically elite teams, haven't reached the Final Four since 2008 when Ben Howland was at the helm. Then Steve Alford took over and the Bruins went to three Sweet 16s but no further. Now the coach is Mick Cronin, a Cincinnati native in his second year with the program, leading a group made up of some Alford holdovers and a few of his own recruits.
So it was only natural that many had Michigan State advancing past the Bruins in the First Four. It was easy to pick a team in the vaunted Big Ten, especially one that logged key wins down the stretch. The Bruins, meanwhile, ended their season with four straight losses.
But they've now grabbed two wins in a row, and they could use that momentum to dance into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2017.
After knocking out Michigan State, the Bruins led No. 6 BYU wire to wire Saturday night. Johnny Juzang returned from an ankle sprain to play 39 minutes and drop 27 points on the Cougars. He made eight of his first 11 shots, including a trio of threes, to help the Bruins grab a first-half lead.
But Juzang was a role player in the second half with the Cougars double-teaming him. He played that role well, but UCLA clearly has other options besides the sophomore guard, such as guards Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Jules Bernard.
The Bruins now get No. 14 Abilene Christian and should win if they keep up their hot shooting and pound the glass.