The 2020-2021 college basketball season has arrived at Championship Week. This means that the NCAA Tournament is one week away. The excitement is building, as college basketball has managed to reach the part of the season which was never completed one year ago. This time, we will have the completion of the various conference tournaments. We will have a bracket on Selection Sunday.
We will have March Madness – not with fully packed arenas, but with lots of games and lots of memories soon to be made in a tournament no one will ever forget. If we are to look at some Cinderella candidates, which ones stand out? A Cinderella can’t be a team seeded No. 4 or higher. It has to be No. 5 or lower since no five seed has won the national championship of college basketball. Which squads can surprise and exceed expectations that the NCAA basketball odds makers have put on them?
The Ramblers, you might recall, made the 2018 Final Four as a No. 11 seed. Loyola tied LSU and a few other teams as the lowest seed to ever make the Final Four, a true and ultimate Cinderella story. Many people will tell you this 2021 team is actually better than the 2018 team. One player from the 2018 team, Cameron Krutwig, is now a senior on this squad. He is excellent in the low post.
Loyola-Chicago, coached by Porter Moser, plays lights-out defense and has a playing style that is affectionately described as annoying. It simply isn’t fun to play these guys, because they work very hard at both ends of the floor and force opponents to work diligently and persistently to beat them. Loyola will probably be seeded in the area of No. 7 or No. 8. This is a team the top seeds do not want to face in the second round of the tournament next weekend.
San Diego State
The Aztecs will probably be seeded No. 7. They play rugged halfcourt defense – that’s where it starts for this team. Coach Brian Dutcher has a bunch of tough, hard-nosed players who can win with defense on days when their 3-point shots aren’t falling. That is a tough out in the NCAA Tournament and a team that can muck things up against a skilled higher seed that doesn’t want to get into a true brawl. San Diego State has been pushed by three other teams this season in the Mountain West Conference. It was thought a month ago that the Mountain West could put four teams into March Madness this year. Now, it seems the league will put only two teams into the field. Nevertheless, the trio of Colorado State, Utah State, and Boise State have forced San Diego State to dig deep throughout the regular season. The Aztecs are therefore battle-tested, a reality that can’t be discounted at this time of year.
The Ducks might not be a true Cinderella – they’re not from a small conference – but they will be seeded in the area where a Cinderella can reasonably come from. Oregon will probably be a No. 6 seed, and it will give a No. 3 seed a ton of trouble in the second round.
Oregon coach Dana Altman is one of the best in the business. This season, he was challenged by the fact that the Ducks had multiple pauses in their season due to COVID-19. Oregon was not able to play or practice with much of any rhythm this season.
The Ducks were rusty after their COVID-19 interruption and lost at home to Washington State to fall to 4-3 in Pac-12 play. Yet, the Ducks calmly regrouped and won 10 of their last 11 games to barely beat out USC for the conference championship, the Ducks’ fourth in the past six seasons.
Altman simply finds answers. He gets his teams to play well late in the season. He gets his teams to rise to the occasion in March. Multiple times, Oregon has made the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed in March Madness. If Oregon is a No. 6 seed, the Ducks certainly have the talent to get to the Final Four and cause some trouble. Oregon is the last team in the Pac-12 to make the Final Four, back in 2017.
We see it practically every year: Michigan State turns it on in March under Tom Izzo. In some years, the Spartans are a No. 7 seed. They still make the Final Four, as they did in 2015 at that seeding level. Some years, Michigan State is a 5 seed.
The Spartans still make the Final Four – they reached it as a No. 5 seed in both 2005 and ’10. Some years, Michigan State is a top-three seed and it gets the job done, as was the case in 2019 as a No. 2 seed.
This year, Michigan State will probably be a double-digit seed, 10 or 11. Still, would anyone really want to bet against Tom Izzo in the NCAA Tournament? Michigan State is playing its best ball. The Spartans have – in the past two weeks alone – beaten three teams that are likely to get a top-two seed in the NCAA Tournament: Illinois, Ohio State, and Michigan. If the Spartans can be that good now, just wait until March Madness. They certainly have the ability to make a deep run as a double-digit seed.
The Badgers, a likely No. 8 seed, have lost most of their games over the past three weeks. Yet, they play in the Big Ten, a conference that will put nine teams in the March Madness tournament, Wisconsin will step outside the Big Ten and that should help the Badgers. If their wing players can hit shots – Wisconsin has struggled from 3-point range – the Badgers could suddenly turn around and become a real force. This team is dangerous in March, and coach Greg Gard has gotten this team to the Sweet 16 from low seeding positions before – No. 7 in 2016 and No. 8 in 2017.
The Cougars have never made the Final Four, and with an expected seed near No. 6 or 7, few will expect them to make the Final Four. However, they run an efficient half-court offense. Gonzaga has tested them and forced them to improve over the course of the season. This team is way under the national radar and could surprise some people next week.
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