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Ranking the 2021 Cinderella Candidates That Could Bust Your Bracket

Which teams should have the top seeds in the men's NCAA tournament on upset alert?

March Madness is officially back, with all 68 teams officially locked into the 2021 men’s NCAA tournament bracket and games set to tip off Thursday with the First Four. Inevitably, a team you’ve never watched this season will shock the sports world and introduce itself with an upset win or two in the Big Dance. Which Cinderella teams could blow up your bracket? We ranked the 10 most likely clubs to do just that.

1. San Diego State (No. 6 seed, Midwest Region)

The Aztecs might not be a national title contender like they were before the pandemic ended their season in 2019–20, but San Diego State is as dangerous as any mid-major in the country right now. By the time they tip off in Indianapolis, Brian Dutcher’s team will not have lost in over two months. The Aztecs also have experience beating high-major teams, beating both UCLA and Arizona State comfortably in nonconference games earlier this season.

SDSU is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country, led by 47% shooter Jordan Schakel on the wing. Add in a well-schooled defense and lots of experience, and the Aztecs have all the makings of a team that can win multiple games. The first-round matchup against Syracuse is very appealing, and SDSU’s potential second-round matchup would be against a West Virginia team that has struggled of late.

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2. St. Bonaventure (No. 9 seed, East Region)

Just 25 teams in the country rank in the top 50 in both offensive and defensive efficiency per KenPom. One of those 25 is St. Bonaventure, the Atlantic 10 regular-season and tournament champion that will be an absolute handful in the East Region. Mark Schmidt’s team starts five juniors who rarely leave the floor—bench minutes account for just 10% of the Bonnies’ minutes, the lowest mark in the country. But those five juniors are terrific: Kyle Lofton is as steady as they come at the point, Osun Osunniyi is one of the best rim-protecting bigs in the land, Dominick Welch and Jaren Holmes are big-time scorers and Jalen Adaway is an elite glue guy.

The Bonnies are tough, incredibly well-coached and can beat you in so many ways. Beating Michigan in a potential second-round matchup will be an incredible challenge, but with Isaiah Livers out, the Bonnies have a real chance for a Cinderella run.

St. Bonaventure's Jaren Holmes soaks in the confetti after an A-10 championship win

St. Bonaventure's Jaren Holmes soaks in the confetti after the Bonnies' A-10 championship.

3. Loyola Chicago (No. 8 seed, Midwest Region)

A Final Four run like what the Ramblers went on in 2018 requires a little bit of luck, but this year’s Loyola team is even better than the one that became national darlings three years ago. The Ramblers are the No. 9 team in America per KenPom, significantly better than the 2018 team that finished at No. 31. They are keyed by one of the nation’s best defenses, a group that concedes fewer points per game than anyone in the country and ranks second in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric.

On offense, everything runs through senior big man Cameron Krutwig. Krutwig is college basketball’s Nikola Jokić, an elite passer who makes the Ramblers go in the half-court. He’s surrounded with high-level shooters and ballhandlers who play smart and unselfish basketball. The challenge: Loyola was dealt a brutal draw. An opening-round matchup against a hot Georgia Tech team is far from a cake walk, and a win there sets the Ramblers up against an Illinois team that can overwhelm them athletically at every position.

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4. Ohio (No. 13 seed, West Region)

Since 1992, just three college basketball players have averaged at least 16 points, six rebounds and seven assists per game: Jason Kidd, Denzel Valentine and Jason Preston. Preston leads the way for a Bobcats team that surged through the MAC tournament as a No. 5 seed to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since the program went all the way to the Sweet 16 in 2012. He’s the type of player that can single-handedly will a team to an upset, and he nearly did so in November when he posted 31 points and eight assists in a 77–75 loss at Illinois.

The Bobcats are explosive on offense and are battle-tested from playing in a tough MAC. Add in the fact that first-round foe Virginia will be in quarantine until Thursday ahead of a Saturday game, and the Bobcats feel like a great bet to win at least one game in the Dance.

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5. Winthrop (No. 12 seed, South Region)

The 23–1 Eagles absolutely cruised through the Big South this season, winning 13 conference games by 10 points or more and winning their three conference tournament games by an average of 25.7 points. Pat Kelsey’s club will take on Villanova, a banged-up squad that will definitely be without starting point guard Collin Gillespie and could be missing starting shooting guard Justin Moore. That could pose issues for Villanova against a Winthrop team that ranks in the top 25 nationally in forcing turnovers. The Wildcats traditionally take care of the ball extremely well, but without Gillespie, Winthrop could fluster Jay Wright’s club with its high-intensity defense. Remember the name Chandler Vaudrin, a constant triple-double threat at the point guard position.

6. Georgetown (No. 12 seed, East Region)

The Hoyas are already one of March’s best stories after their miracle run through the Big East tournament to steal an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, but they might not be done yet. Once 5–10 on the season and 3–7 in the Big East, Georgetown started to show signs of life by winning four of six to close the regular season before exploding with four wins in four days at Madison Square Garden.

Capping that run was a dominant display Saturday night against an excellent Creighton team to clinch the Hoyas’ bid. With a terrific big like Qudus Wahab and a playmaking guard in Jahvon Blair anchoring things, Georgetown certainly has the talent and confidence to make a run in the NCAA tournament. The x-factor is grad transfer forward Chudier Bile, who is averaging 12 points, six rebounds and shooting 47% from three in Georgetown’s last 10 games.

Utah State's Neemias Queta

7. Utah State (No. 11 seed, South Region)

The Aggies were sweating out the Selection Show as much as any team, but the committee rewarded them with not just a bid but also a bye into the first round. This team’s hallmark is defense and rebounding, relying on the interior duo of Neemias Queta and Justin Bean to maul teams on the interior. Queta in particular has had a special season in 2020–21, improving as a passer and post scorer en route to being named first-team All-Mountain West this season. Queta is also an elite shot blocker, which should make Texas Tech’s life difficult on the interior. The only thing Utah State lacks is a true playmaker in the backcourt, which could be an issue against an athletic Texas Tech team that is so well-schooled defensively at keeping the ball out of the middle of the floor.

8. UC Santa Barbara (No. 12 seed, West Region)

Joe Pasternack has loaded up the UC Santa Barbara roster with higher-level talent than you’d typically find in the Big West, many of whom once played for high-major programs. The result: a 22–4 breakthrough season to bring the Gauchos to the Big Dance.

The leader for UCSB is JaQuori McLaughlin, who started 35 games in two seasons at Oregon State before transferring south to Santa Barbara. McLaughlin is an elite floor-general who knocks down 40% of his threes and takes care of the ball extremely well. McLaughlin and fellow senior Devearl Ramsey are also catalysts on the defensive end, thanks to their ability to force turnovers. Add in frontcourt pieces like Amadou Sow (a first-team All-Big West selection) and Miles Norris (Oregon) and the Gauchos have the talent to push Creighton to the limit.

9. Liberty (No. 13 seed, Midwest Region)

The Flames pulled a 12–5 upset over Mississippi State in the most recent NCAA tournament, and Oklahoma State should be on upset alert this week. Few teams in the country are as well-coached as Liberty is under Ritchie McKay, running a Virginia-style Pack-Line defense and highly efficient offense reliant on elite perimeter shooting.

Perhaps most critically, Liberty has an elite wing defender in Elijah Cuffee who could potentially slow down likely No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham. Liberty knocked off Mississippi State and South Carolina and played tight with Purdue early in the season. Drawing an Oklahoma State team that many believe is underseeded as a No. 4 isn’t the ideal matchup, but the Flames will be dangerous.

10. Abilene Christian (No. 14 seed, East Region)

One of the most impressive stories in college basketball is the emergence of the Abilene Christian program under Joe Golding. Golding inherited the program when it was a struggling Division II one at a school known more for football, but has helped the Wildcats successfully transition to Division I and now has a team that can win a game in the NCAA tournament.

Golding, whose relationship with Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard has been well-documented, has built a mid-major version of the Red Raiders in Abilene. The Wildcats are as tough to crack as anyone on the defensive end, leading the nation in forcing turnovers and landing in the top 30 nationally in defensive efficiency per KenPom. Abilene played highly competitive games against Texas Tech and Arkansas in the nonconference and should create headaches for Texas with its unique style of defense.

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