In so many ways, the 2020-21 men's college basketball season has been one of the strangest ever. Empty gyms. COVID pauses. Rejiggered schedules. Struggling bluebloods. The many oddities have disrupted fandom and made team assessment more difficult than ever in the modern era.
And yet in so many ways, March Madness will be more refreshing than ever. Because, come Sunday, like always – but unlike last year – we'll have a bracket to dissect. We'll have Final Four paths to analyze, upsets to pick.
And, like always, we'll have a select group of teams that strike fear into anybody who is drawn alongside them.
The goal of this now-annual column is to identify those teams. And, by extension, to inform rooting interests when CBS begins to reveal this year's bracket (Sunday, 6 p.m. ET). In essence, it's a list of the soon-to-be-underseeded. The squads who'll stand above their seed-line peers, and present unjustly difficult matchups for anybody unfortunate enough to face them on the NCAA tournament's opening weekend.
Let's get to it.
OK, so this one's obvious. Of course you'd rather not face a No. 1 seed. But perhaps you don't realize just how big the difference is between facing any old No. 1 and facing these Zags.
Let's look at Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency numbers. The gap between Gonzaga and Baylor, the likely second No. 1 seed, is roughly as wide as the gap between Baylor and USC, a projected No. 6 seed.
The gulf between the Zags and Alabama – the top projected No. 2 seed, who just won an SEC tournament quarterfinal by 37 points – is roughly equivalent to the gulf between Alabama and Xavier, who went 6-8 in the Big East and won't even sniff the NCAA tournament field.
In short, if Gonzaga is in your region, you have significantly longer odds of making the Final Four.
The Ducks are 34-8 in the month of March dating back to 2016. Before a flukey Pac-12 semifinal loss to Oregon State on Friday, they were 15-1 over the last three seasons, with the only loss coming in 2019 to eventual national champion Virginia.
And they appear to be on another late surge. They won 10 of 11 to close the regular season, including four victories over tourney teams.
They start five upperclassmen, and have narrowed their rotation over the past month to a senior-laden crew that clearly clicks – especially on the offensive end. All five starters shoot 36% or better from deep, and have actually improved, even against tougher competition, as the season has worn on.
Oregon will be a tough out, as it always seems to be.
The superficial numbers will tell you UConn is pretty good, not great. But the real UConn? With everybody healthy and available? Those Huskies are 11-3, with the only losses coming to Creighton – once in OT, once by three points – and at Villanova.
Sophomore guard James Bouknight missed eight games in January and February with an elbow injury. Beforehand and since returning, he's been one of the better volume scorers in the country. With an active frontcourt attacking the offensive glass, Bouknight is the type of ball-dominant guard who could spearhead a March run.
Remember the Ramblers? March darlings of three years ago? They're back. Same coach. Same big man. And, according to some advanced metrics, they're even better.
They're a different team than the one who made the 2018 Final Four, though. Cameron Krutwig was a freshman center on that squad, which at times went to a five-guard lineup. It played stifling perimeter defense, and worked outside-in for clean looks at the rim.
Now, Krutwig is one of the best players in college basketball, and the focal point of much of what Loyola does. He's a brilliant passer from the high and low post, and a handful with his back to the basket.
The constant, though, remains defense. That's why these Ramblers are once again a threat for a two-week run in March. They just play remarkably sound basketball. They wall off dribble penetration. They don't foul. They rebound as a team. They'll be seeded modestly because of their soft Missouri Valley schedule. But don't let that fool you; this team is legit.
Three wins over top-10 teams in the season's final two weeks.
Enough talent to make the preseason top 15.
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