Cinderellas are what makes March Madness so special and these five dark horses in the 2021 NCAA Tournament field are primed to make a storied run.
College basketball’s field of 68 has been set and March Madness is finally back. With the 2021 NCAA Tournament bracket having been revealed on Selection Sunday, we can welcome back the best time of year in the sport after the tournament was canceled last year at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To be sure, the NCAA Tournament will have to still navigate the virus as March Madness will take place in a centralized location, Indianapolis. Moreover, there are replacement teams in place among the First Four Out that could fill in if a program has a positive test within it. But at the end of the day, we still have the opportunity to watch teams vie for a National Championship and see if another Cinderella dark horse emerges.
Cinderella stories are arguably the best part of March Madness. The moments given to fans by UMBC upsetting Virginia or Florida Gulf Coast bringing Dunk City to life, among many other instances, are times that will never be forgotten in college basketball lore.
So as we look at the 68-team bracket for the 2021 NCAA Tournament, these are five dark horses who have the potential to be this year’s Cinderella team in March Madness, some who are going overlooked and a couple who were simply under-seeded.
March Madness 2021 dark horse No. 5: UConn Huskies
Seed: 7 – East Region | First Round Matchup: 10 Maryland Terrapins
This is undoubtedly a team that got a bad beat in terms of their seeding. To be sure, UConn was not a juggernaut this season as they did go just 15-7 overall and 11-6 in the Big East, though that mark was good enough for third in the conference in the regular season.
But what stands out about the Huskies is that they are a far better team than their seed, even if they were up at something like the No. 5 line. The majority of their losses came without their best player, James Bouknight, who was limited to 14 games this year. With the star guard on the floor, this team is absolutely capable of beating almost any team in the NCAA Tournament field.
Not only should UConn quite easily beat Maryland now that Bouknight is back, but the Huskies have a legitimate shot to push No. 2 seed Alabama and virtually every team in the East Region.
March Madness 2021 dark horse No. 4: Loyola-Chicago Ramblers
Seed: 8 – Midwest Region | First Round Matchup: 9 Georgia Tech
After beating Drake, the other team from the Missouri Valley Conference to make it into the NCAA Tournament, for the second time this year, it seemed as if Loyola-Chicago was headed for a much higher seed than they earned. Yet, they came in as a No. 8 and that, frankly, is hard to believe. And the Ramblers have the possibility to make them look foolish.
People will certainly remember the program’s previous Cinderella run with Sister Jean on the sidelines but this team might be even better in 2021. Senior big man Cameron Krutwig, who was part of that team, leads the way for a Ramblers team that is ranked No. 9 in KenPom’s efficiency rankings and first in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom.
They’ll be tested in a defensive struggle with the Yellow Jackets but, if the Ramblers can get started off well, they have the experience and the formula to knock off some big fish in the tournament.
March Madness 2021 dark horse No. 3: Liberty Flames
Seed: 13 – Midwest Region | First Round Matchup: 4 Oklahoma State
Some people might look down upon Liberty as the Atlantic Sun Tournament champions due to the fact that the title game was forfeited in favor of the Flames due to COVID-19. But in all likelihood, they were headed to a victory in that game as they dominated the conference for much of the year, posting an 11-2 record in league play and a 23-5 record overall.
Liberty didn’t just cruise past cupcakes to that record either. They notched wins over Mississippi State and South Carolina convincingly while also hanging tough with Purdue and Missouri in non-conference play. That’s the sign of a team that has the ability to hang with anyone in March Madness.
Led by sharp-shooting guard Darius McGhee who has NCAA Tournament breakout star written all over him, the Flames have a tough opening draw against Cade Cunningham and the Oklahoma State Cowboys but they have the look of a team ready to challenge some heavy hitters in March.
March Madness 2021 dark horse No. 2: UC Santa Barbara Gauchos
Seed: 12 – West Region | First Round Matchup: 5 Creighton Bluejays
Winners of the Big West Tournament, the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos dominated their conference throughout the year. They didn’t lose at home throughout the entire year as they ran to a 22-4 overall record and a 15-3 conference tally and they barely broke a sweat to punch their automatic bid to the Big Dance.
When you look for a Cinderella team in March Madness, one of the big things that always comes into play is the 3-point shooting and the Gauchos can fill it up from deep, shooting over 35 percent from beyond-the-arc as a team and with three players at 38.5 percent or better. That type of long-range game could aid them a great deal.
UC Santa Barbara draws a talented Creighton team in the First Round but the Bluejays have been struggling a bit of late. If the Gauchos can catch fire, they can knock off the Big East foe and then ride that momentum to fry some even bigger fish.
March Madness 2021 dark horse No. 1: Winthrop Eagles
Seed: 12 – South Region | First Round Matchup: 5 Villanova Wildcats
Much like the Gauchos, there isn’t a strong body of work for Winthrop in terms of high-quality opponents that they’ve played. We didn’t see the Eagles play any power conference teams this season but, to be fair, they handled their business like a dominant mid-major should when they don’t have any of those bigger non-conference challenges on the slate.
Winthrop finished the year going 24-1 with the one loss coming in a back-to-back against UNC Asheville and that was only by two points. The Eagles otherwise dominated the Big South like a team that’s vastly superior to the rest of the league they were playing in and that’s ready to take on March Madness.
The Eagles draw Villanova in the First Round, which is more than favorable given that the Wildcats limp into the tournament. But Winthrop plays at a frenetic pace and has multiple guys that can beat you with four players averaging double figures in scoring. That’s a recipe for upsets in the NCAA Tournament and why the Eagles should be circled as a Cinderella possibility.
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