2021 NCAA Tournament: Why Loyola-Chicago, Michigan St. are March Madness sleepers to watch
Cinderella runs are undoubtedly one of the best parts of March Madness, even if they have virtually no shot to win the national championship. The only team outside of a top-three seed to win it all in the last two decades was UConn in 2014, a No. 7 seed, but underdogs such as Florida Gulf Coast, George Mason and VCU made themselves household names by stringing together upsets in March.
And although Final Four and national title game appearances are exceedingly rare, it is commonplace for lower-seeded teams to make long runs. From 2010 to 2019, an average of three teams seeded No. 8 or higher made the Sweet Sixteen. One made it to the Elite Eight per year. Only one year, 2019, saw just one of these sleepers make the Sweet Sixteen, so it’s a good bet multiple low seeds will win at least two games.
Whether you’re trying to spice up your bracket or simply looking for potential upsets to watch, it’s good to get familiar with the underdogs who could pull off some shockers in the 2021 tournament.
Here are the teams seeded No. 8 or lower that could make a run over the coming weeks, with insight from those who cover the squads to discuss what makes them dangerous.
Loyola-Chicago - No. 8 seed, Midwest Region
This is a familiar name, isn’t it? Many will remember the Ramblers’ magical run to the 2018 Final Four as an 11-seed — especially because it introduced the world to Sister Jean — on the back of stingy defense and incredibly timely shooting.
Well, as you can probably tell from the seeding, this year’s team is better. That is mostly driven by its dominant defense: Loyola is the top team in the entire nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. They also give up the fewest points and free throw attempts.
This shows two desirable traits in a sleeper:
First, they are elite on one side of the ball, defense in this case.
Second, they control the pace of the game. It doesn’t matter how talented or athletic its opponents are, Loyola won’t let teams run it out of the gym.
Combine those positives with their pedigree, the momentum they have as a regular season and conference champion and Porter Moser’s experience coaching a lower-seeded team deep into the tournament, and the Ramblers feel like the best bet of any sleeper to go on a surprise tear.
Ask the Expert: Shannon Ryan, reporter at the Chicago Tribune
“Overall, it’s Loyola’s defense. They’re top in the nation, they hold teams to just 55 points a game, they’ve held tons of teams to under 50 points and really slow teams down and get to them. Lucas Williamson is the Defensive Player of the Year in the Missouri Valley Conference. They have a lot of the same qualities they had in 2018, but some people say they’re better. They’ve got maybe a little more size, and they’ve got some experience and some good shooters as well. So they could maybe surprise people yet again.”
Utah State - No. 11 seed, South Region
Eleven-seeds bring a lot of value to the table. They have won two or more of their Round of 64 matchups in eight of the last ten tournaments, and 11 of the last 40 made at least the Sweet Sixteen. There are a few reasons why Utah State may be the next team to continue this recent trend.
This is another team that wins with defense. The Aggies boast the eighth-best adjusted defensive efficiency in the nation. A huge part of that is their ability to finish possessions on the glass; Utah State outrebounds teams by 10.3 boards per game, second in the nation to North Carolina. They are well-rounded in this regard, too, winning both the offensive and defensive rebounding margin by around five per game.
Center Neemias Queta is a legitimately frightening presence at the rim. He stands seven feet tall with a 7-foot-4-inch wingspan and ranks third in the nation with 3.2 blocks per game. He’s also the Aggies’ leading scorer and playing his best as of late, averaging 18 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks per game in the Mountain West Conference Tournament.
The Aggies showed they can beat good teams when they took down a No. 6 seed in San Diego State twice during the regular season. Don’t be shocked if toppling Texas Tech is just the start of their tournament run.
Ask the Expert: Shawn Harrison, sports editor at The Herald Journal
“They have to have their complete game going, meaning offense and defense. They’ve got a known guy inside, a big guy that has been consistent all year. I think he will shine in the  NCAA Tournament because he loves the big stage. So it really comes down to their guards. When Brock Miller can hit threes, they are a dangerous team, because it really opens up the court for the guys inside. I think they got better as the season went on, and they’re healthy.”
Michigan State - No. 11 seed, East Region
The First Four was solidified to two 11-seed and two 16-seed matchups in 2015. From that season through 2018, one 11-seed from the First Four won its Round of 64 game in each tournament. Call this a gut feeling, but I think the trend will return from a three-year hiatus.
This is a reputation and big-game results pick. Yes, Michigan State has Tom Izzo, and it’s always great to have a coach with a track record of success in the NCAA Tournament when trying to make a surprise run.
But this is also a team that showed it can go blow for blow with the best teams in the nation down the stretch, scoring victories over No. 3 Illinois, No. 6 Ohio State and No. 4 Michigan in the final two weeks of the regular season.
Next to the murderers’ row of Big Ten competition they faced for much of the year, two games against a sputtering UCLA squad and the third-ranked No. 6 seed in BYU won’t look nearly as difficult to the Spartans.
Led by older players in junior Aaron Henry, redshirt junior Joey Hauser and graduate student Joshua Langford, the Spartans have the experience to stay poised in critical situations. Izzo has led middling teams on tournament runs before, and the bracket is set up to give him an opportunity to do so again.
Ask the Expert: Chris Solari, Michigan State sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press
“It’s Tom Izzo and Aaron Henry. You’ve got the veteran experience as a coach, and you’ve got the type of player who does so many different things well when he’s playing within himself and can elevate guys around him to get to another level, as we saw over the last seven games of the regular season when they beat Illinois, Michigan and Ohio State. Ultimately, that’s it. When it comes down to it, those are gonna be the two guys that can get them into the second weekend of the tournament.”
Liberty - No. 13 seed, Midwest Region
This is a long shot that is entirely reliant on one thing: shooting.
Liberty has the sixth-best mark from behind the arc in the nation and three players who shoot at least 40% from deep on 3.8 attempts or more per game in Darius McGhee, Chris Parker and Elijah Cuffey. If they get hot, the volume shooting could overwhelm a few higher-seeded opponents.
McGhee is certainly the type of player who could capture hearts in the “Big Dance.” He’s a 5-foot-9, 160-pound flamethrower who shoots 41.3% on eight 3-point attempts per game. Don’t be surprised if he has a few huge games on the biggest stage, as he did in leading the Flames to this year’s ASUN regular season and tournament championships.
Their 3-point shooting sounds like a great recipe for an upset or two, but there are a few reasons to be a bit skeptical of a run happening here.
First: The likelihood of both first-round upsets and sustained runs goes sharply down after you look below No. 11 seeds.
Second: Although the Flames do have good raw defensive numbers, playing in the ASUN doesn’t do their adjusted ratings any favors when projecting them against better opponents, especially in their matchup with Oklahoma State and likely top NBA Draft pick Cade Cunningham.
But there is another factor in Liberty’s favor: The last time an NCAA Tournament was held, the Flames took down No. 5 seed Mississippi State by shooting 12-of-25 from three and limiting possessions. They did ultimately run out of gas against a No. 4 seed in Virginia Tech.
As was the case with Loyola-Chicago, this is a good approach for less talented teams looking to pull off a string of upsets. If you’re looking for a true dark horse, Liberty may be your team.
Ask the Expert: Jon Manson, founder of A Sea of Red
“I think it’s [coach] Ritchie McKay. His demeanor, the team really follows after him there. They have championship DNA, championship pedigree. They won’t be rattled when they’re down by two points with a minute left, you know that they’ve been there. McGhee’s the ultimate X-factor in my opinion, a five-nine guard who’s just been on a torid scoring pace the last month or so of the season. If he’s able to make five-plus 3-pointers in a game, they can beat anybody.”
Honorable Mentions: No. 8 LSU, No. 9 Wisconsin, No. 10 Maryland, No. 11 Syracuse, No. 12 Georgetown