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 [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

No. 16 Xavier beats No. 17 Providence 85-83 in OT thriller

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CINCINNATI — Jack Nunge had 23 points and 14 rebounds as No. 16 Xavier held off No. 17 Providence 85-83 in an overtime thriller Wednesday night.

Colby Jones and Souley Boum each scored 20 for the Musketeers, who won a first-place showdown in the Big East without injured forward Zach Freemantle.

Noah Locke had 22 points and Ed Croswell added 21 for Providence (17-6, 9-3), which had beaten Xavier three straight times.

A layup by Boum put the Musketeers (18-5, 10-2) ahead 82-79 with 51 seconds remaining in overtime. A turnover by the Musketeers led to a layup by Devin Carter that cut Xavier’s lead to one with 24 seconds left.

Boum hit one of two free throws, and Jared Bynum’s 3-point attempt from the left corner rimmed out at the buzzer as the Musketeers held on.

Xavier played its first game without Freemantle, the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer. He is expected to miss four weeks with a left foot injury, the same foot that required surgery in 2021.

Jerome Hunter, who has excelled off the bench for the Musketeers, made his first start of the season and scored nine points with eight rebounds. Xavier had used the same starting lineup in each of its previous 11 Big East games.

Things started well for the Musketeers. who went on a 12-1 run to build a 25-11 lead.

With Boum on the bench with two fouls, the Musketeers didn’t have a field goal in the final 4:18 of the first half and the Friars pulled to 39-35 at halftime.

Providence outscored Xavier 8-2 to start the second half and took its first lead, 43-41, with 17:41 left.

There was a frantic finish to the second half, with Adam Kunkel’s 3-pointer putting Xavier ahead 76-73 with 55 seconds left. But then Bynum banked in a tying 3 and Boum missed two long shots to send the game to overtime.


Providence: The Friars, who won their first Big East regular-season title last year, entered the night tied atop the conference standings with Xavier and No. 14 Marquette, which hosted Villanova later. Providence was picked fifth in the preseason.

Xavier: Hunter, who averages 14 minutes, left with three minutes remaining in OT with an apparent cramp in his right leg. With Freemantle out, Hunter played 36 minutes.


Providence: Hosts last-place Georgetown on Wednesday.

Xavier: Will host St. John’s on Saturday.

Florida upends No. 2 Tennessee 67-54 behind Colin Castleton

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Colin Castleton had 20 points and nine rebounds, Kyle Lofton added 14 points and Florida used a 13-0 run late in the second half to upend No. 2 Tennessee 67-54 on Wednesday night.

The Volunteers, playing with their highest ranking in four years, lost for the first time in five games. They had won nine of 10.

Tennessee (18-4, 7-2 Southeastern Conference) looked like it had taken control midway through the second half. They outscored Florida by 10 points in the early going to take a six-point lead.

But the Gators (13-9, 6-3) stormed back behind Castleton, who scored 11 of 14 points as Florida rallied. The senior had a dunk, two free throws, a three-point play, a layup and a short jumper – essentially putting the team on his back down the stretch.

Myreon Jones and Will Richard chipped in nine points apiece for the Gators.

Zakai Ziegler led the Vols with 15 points on 6-of-19 shooting. Olivier Nkamhoua added 11 points and nine rebounds for the vistors, who also got 11 points and eight boards from Vescovi Santiago.

Florida led 27-21 at halftime, just the fifth time the Volunteers has trailed at the break this season. Tennessee rallied to win three of the previous four.

The Gators were red hot to start, making six of their first eight shots – including all three from 3-point range – while building a 17-4 advantage. But they quickly cooled against the nation’s best defense, missing nine of their next 11 as Tennessee made cut it to 22-21.

The Vols had it going coming out of the locker room, with Ziegler getting into the paint and making things happen. But it was short-lived – thanks mostly to Castleton.


Tennessee surely will drop a few spots in next week’s AP Top 25 college basketball poll.


Tennessee: The Volunteers gave up 10 points in the opening four minutes of the games, a rare sluggish start for the nation’s best defense. Tennessee had held four of its first eight SEC opponents scoreless at the first media timeout, roughly the first four minutes of games. It was a sign of things to come.

Florida: The Gators have been resilient much of the season, and this was arguably the most impressive comeback of the season for coach Todd Golden’s team. The Gators squandered a 13-point lead early and a six-point advantage in the second half. But they rallied when it mattered.


Football coach Billy Napier watched the game from a few rows behind Florida’s bench alongside his two sons and receiver Ricky Pearsall. Former Florida tennis star Ben Shelton, the NCAA singles champion in 2022, also was in attendance. So was former Gators and NFL quarterback Doug Johnson.


Tennessee hosts No. 25 Auburn and former coach Bruce Pearl on Saturday.

Florida plays at Kentucky on Saturday. The Gators have lost seven of eight in the series.

No. 8 Kansas avenges earlier loss to No. 7 Kansas State, 90-78

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — Jalen Wilson had 20 points, Kevin McCullar Jr. added 16 points and 13 rebounds, and No. 8 Kansas avenged a loss to Kansas State just a couple of weeks ago with a 90-78 victory over the seventh-ranked Wildcats.

Dajuan Harris Jr. scored 18 for the Jayhawks (18-4, 6-3 Big 12), who built a 12-point halftime lead before coasting to their 17th straight home win over the Wildcats in the 10th matchup of top-10 teams in series history.

Kansas has rebounded nicely from a rare three-game skid that included the overtime loss to Kansas State, and made sure to avoid taking back-to-back losses in its storied home for the first time since the 1988-89 season.

Markquis Nowell scored 23 points and Keyontae Johnson had 22 to lead the Wildcats (18-4, 6-3), who were trying for their first regular-season sweep of their biggest rival in four decades. Nae’Qwan Tomlin added 11 points and David N’Guessan had 10.

In their first meeting on Jan. 17, the Wildcats raced to a big early lead and controlled the game until late in the second half, when the Jayhawks forced overtime — only for Kansas State to win on Johnson’s alley-oop dunk.

It was the Jayhawks who controlled the rematch.

They used a 16-7 run in the first half that included a technical foul on Kansas State coach Jerome Tang to build a 32-19 lead. And when Johnson answered with eight straight points for the Wildcats, and the lead was eventually trimmed to four, the reigning national champs pulled away again down the stretch.

It was 37-32 when Wilson hit back-to-back 3-pointers and Zach Clemence added one of his own. And by the time Wilson made two foul shots with about 10 seconds left, Kansas had built a 49-37 lead that it took to the break.

The Wildcats briefly got within six in the second half before the Jayhawks stretched their lead to as many as 16.


Johnson had to sit with two fouls just 2 1/2 minutes into the game. Only problem? The crew of John Higgins, Kip Kissinger and Marques Pettigrew gave one to the wrong player. By the time they corrected their mistake, the Wildcats’ leading scorer had unnecessarily ridden the bench for several minutes.


For the first time in more than 15 years, more Kansas students redeemed tickets than there was space available inside Allen Fieldhouse. The overflow had to watch the game on screens in the adjacent Horejsi Family Athletics Center, where the Jayhawks play volleyball games. Those students also got refunds and concessions vouchers.


Kansas State’s three losses in league play have been to ranked teams on the road: TCU, Iowa State and Kansas. And with a more forgiving second half to the Big 12 schedule, the Wildcats remain firmly in the conference title hunt.

Kansas got its mojo back with its win over Kentucky last weekend. This victory over another bunch of Wildcats was crucial because the road doesn’t get any easier for the Jayhawks, who are in the midst of three straight games against teams ranked 13th or better.


Kansas State returns home for another top-10 showdown Saturday against No. 10 Texas.

Kansas hits the road for the third time in four games against No. 13 Iowa State on Saturday.

BC beats No. 20 Clemson 62-54; Tigers fall into ACC tie

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BOSTON — Makai Ashton-Langford had two key driving baskets in the closing two minutes and finished with 15 points to help Boston College beat No. 20 Clemson 62-54 on Tuesday night.

Jaeden Zackery added 13 points for the Eagles (11-12, 5-7 Atlantic Coast Conference). BC held Clemson to one field goal — and that came with 18 seconds left — in the final 13:16.

Hunter Tyson led Clemson (18-5, 10-2) with 22 points and Chase Hunter had 12. The Tigers fell into a first-place tie atop the ACC with No. 6 Virginia.

The Eagles used a 5-0 spurt — with T.J. Bickerstaff hitting a free throw and getting a driving layup — to pull ahead 50-45 with just over five minutes to play.

Clemson sliced it to 50-47 before Aston-Langford made his two big baskets. He followed that by making two free throws with 32 seconds left.

Trailing by 10 midway into the second half, the Tigers went on a 10-0 spree, tying it at 45 when RJ Godfrey hit both ends of a 1-and-1.

The Eagles had opened a double-digit lead twice in the opening six minutes of the second half, the later 45-35 on Prince Aligbe’s foul-line jumper with 14:12 to play.


Clemson: Off to a solid start in conference play, the Tigers were tested on the road for the second straight game after edging Florida State by a point on Saturday. It hasn’t been easy for them away from home with a 4-3 record and with three away matchups against North Carolina, North Carolina State and Virginia to go, they’ll need to get it straightened out of they’re going to won the ACC regular-season title.

Boston College: The Eagles proved when they play defense that they’re a tough out in coach Earl Grant’s second season. A little more offense could make them very dangerous for top ACC teams to play.


In the first half, Clemson’s man-to-man defense smothered the Eagles’ offense for the opening 10 minutes, holding them in single digits in scoring until just about the same time the student section finished filling up late, bringing some energy to a very quiet building.

BC’s players then responded, closing the half with a 22-4 spree that turned an 11-point deficit to a 30-23 halftime edge.


Both teams were missing key players. Guard Brevin Galloway, Clemson’s fourth leading scorer at 10.6 points per game, was sidelined with an abdominal injury. For BC, guard DeMarr Langford Jr., who logs big minutes at the point, was out with a knee injury.


Clemson: Hosts No. 23 Miami on Saturday.

Boston College: Hosts Syracuse on Saturday.

South Carolina tops women’s AP Top 25; Ohio State tumbles

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It was a rough week for Ohio State, which lost all three of its games and tumbled down the AP Top 25 as a result.

The previously unbeaten Buckeyes fell from second to 10th in The Associated Press women’s basketball poll released Monday after losing to Iowa and Indiana, two top 10 teams, as well as Purdue. Ohio State fell two games back in the Big Ten Conference standings.

South Carolina remained No. 1 for the 32nd consecutive week. The Gamecocks, who were again a unanimous choice from the 28-member national media panel, have the fourth-longest streak ever atop the poll. Only UConn (51 and 34 weeks) and Louisiana Tech (36) have had longer runs at No. 1.

Stanford moved back up to No. 2 in the poll and the Cardinal were followed by LSU, Indiana and UConn in the top five. LSU is the only other undefeated team in women’s basketball besides South Carolina, which visits UConn for a top-five showdown on Sunday.

Iowa jumped out four spots to sixth with Utah, Maryland and Notre Dame coming in ahead of Ohio State. The Hawkeyes started the season No. 4 in the poll.

The Fighting Irish split a pair of games last week against ranked opponents, routing Florida State before falling to N.C. State.

“There’s a lot of parity right now, which is great, great for the game,” Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey said. “The game is growing, which is what you want. But yeah, I mean, every night, especially the ACC, the ACC is the strongest league and, you know, we have just a tough stretch every night.”

One week after falling out of the rankings, Texas re-entered the poll at No. 24. The Longhorns routed then-No. 14 Oklahoma and Oklahoma State last week. South Florida also came in at No. 25. Colorado and Illinois fell out of the poll.


No. 25 South Florida continued its streak of being ranked for at least one week every season since the Bulls entered the poll for the first time in 2015.

“For us not being in a so-called football five conference, that’s a huge accomplishment,” South Florida coach Jose Fernandez said. His team has won 10 consecutive games and has 20 victories this season. The team’s four losses have all come against ranked opponents (Michigan, Villanova, Ohio State and N.C. State).

“This group has been fun to coach. We always play a great non(equals)conference schedule,” Fernandez said. “We won on the road at Texas, beat Alabama, beat Arkansas. We challenged ourselves in November and December.”


Cameron Brink carried Stanford to a win over Oregon with a triple-double that included 10 blocks. It was the first triple-double in NCAA Division I women’s basketball featuring double-digit blocks since Tamari Key did it for Tennessee in an overtime win against Texas on Nov. 21, 2021.

No. 20 Oklahoma’s Taylor Robertson set the all-time NCAA women’s career record for 3-pointers when she hit her 498th in a loss to Iowa State on Saturday. Robertson has 503 entering this week. The all-time NCAA record, men or women, is held by Antoine Davis of Detroit Mercy, who has 534 and counting.