2021 NCAA Tournament: Why Loyola-Chicago, Michigan St. are March Madness sleepers to watch

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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 [2021] 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

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.