Thomas: Nine teams to watch in March Madness
Aidan Thomas | Wednesday, March 3, 2021
Just hours before I wrote this sports authority, the calendar flipped to March.
This is a beautiful thing because, COVID-allowing, March means March Madness, which simply may be the best sporting event in all sports at all levels. This year, while there are a few mainstays at the top of the rankings, the chaos has been real. Just this past week, 18 of the top 25 teams in the AP Poll all suffered defeats at some point, with a pair of top-five teams (Ohio State and Illinois) falling to a Michigan State team that was previously 4-9 in Big Ten play. February was absolute insanity, and that has college basketball fans salivating for the pure chaos that could ensue in March.
We mentioned those mainstays at the top of the rankings; Gonzaga, Baylor and Michigan have a combined two losses, and all three are virtual locks to be one-seeds in the NCAA Tournament. However, if we know anything, being a top seed is hardly a guaranteed Final Four or national championship berth. In fact, it’s no longer even a guarantee to escape the first round (sorry, Virginia). So which teams could potentially stop the march of the clear top three? We take a look at a few possible contenders, with teams tiered by projected seeding.
4 Challengers (2-3 seeds)
- Houston Cougars
Houston leads the nation in opponent field goal percentage, as they’ve held opposing squads to a pathetic 36.6% from the field. Defense can win you games in March, and against Gonzaga and Baylor, whose elite offenses pose trouble for every team, it will be vital. Against Michigan, arguably the top defense in the country, it teams must control the Wolverines offensively in order to eke out a victory. Houston has that ability, but strength of schedule is definitely a concern.
- Alabama Crimson Tide
This one is somewhat clear: The three-point shooting of Alabama can lift them to victory over any team. This is a squad that has scored 100+ points on multiple occasions, thanks to their prolific ability from beyond the arc. We have seen the Tide lose when their shooters are cold, which makes them a much more dangerous bet. But if this team is hot, they can beat anyone in the country.
- Illinois Fighting Ilini’
One of my current Final Four picks, Illinois may end up stealing a 1-seed, and they’re going to be extremely dangerous in the tournament. They have the star power to succeed in March, and with Kofi Cockburn, they control the glass, ranking first among all Power-5 teams in defensive rebounds. With a sneaky good offense and a defense that doesn’t give up many second chances, the Illini are well-positioned for March success.
- West Virginia Mountaineers
West Virginia simply doesn’t have a bad loss, and they’re one of the seven teams in the top 25 that avoided a loss this past week. A gutsy and miraculous comeback victory at Texas has the Mountaineers flying high, and people forget that this West Virginia squad stayed within five points of Gonzaga, the Bulldogs’ lowest margin of victory to date. Since losing by 14 to Kansas in December, the Mountaineers have lost four games by 12 points. West Virginia is a near lock for the Sweet 16 given their consistency against lower-ranked teams, and I really like their odds to take down a giant come March.
3 Dark Horses (4-8 seeds)
- Kansas Jayhawks
It’s weird to consider Kansas a dark horse in March, but as of now they’re a projected 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament. However, don’t be fooled. This team is going to be dangerously under seeded due to a slow start, but Bill Self’s squad is capable of going toe-to-toe with anyone right now. They emphasized that by handing Baylor their first loss in their last game. The Jayhawks have won six of seven, with the only loss being an overtime defeat to Texas. You think one of those No. 1-seeds wants to see the Jayhawks in the Sweet 16?
- Purdue Boilermakers
Purdue is a 5- or 6-seed depending on who you ask, and boy does this team have talent. The Boilermakers are 11-6 in a cutthroat Big Ten, and they swept Ohio State in two meetings with the possible top overall seed this season. Purdue has won five of seven and three straight, so they feel like they’re rounding into form at the right time, and this battle-tested squad with a clearly elite ceiling has a chance to make some serious noise.
- BYU Cougars
I dipped into fringe Cinderella status for the last team of this category. BYU is a projected 8-seed, and wow, I would not want to face them in the Round of 32. Outside two losses to Gonzaga, one by just 11 points, the Cougars have lost just twice since December 1st, by a combined seven points. They’re 19-5 overall, shoot nearly 49% from the field, and are a top-5 team in the nation at collecting defensive rebounds. As far as 8-seeds go, this is not one that should be taken lightly.
2 Cinderella Squads
- Loyola Chicago Ramblers
The Cinderella that is almost not a Cinderella. Loyola Chicago stunned everyone with their run to the Final Four as an 11-seed back in 2018, and now they have a lot of seniors from that magical run that are ready for another go at it. The Ramblers have a stifling defense and are going to be an incredibly dangerous 11-12 seed in March that could easily be in the Sweet 16.
- LSU Tigers
LSU is going to be a sneaky dangerous squad come March. This team has an explosive offense, although they at times play a somewhat defense-optional approach. However, when you score 104 points, as LSU just did against Auburn, you can afford that. The offense may not be consistent enough to merit Final Four type attention, but if LSU gets their shooters hot and starts rolling, you’re not going to find too many top-10 teams that want to see the Tigers warming up on the other end of the court as a 9- or 10-seed.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.