March Madness: 5 NCAA tournament teams ripe for upsets

Henry Bushnell
·4 min read

When CBS unveils the bracket for the 2021 NCAA men's basketball tournament at 6 p.m. ET on Sunday, all analysis and regional breakdowns will come with a caveat: Nobody knows anything.

Or, at least, we don't know as much as we typically do at this time of year, when we set out to find overrated and underrated teams entering March Madness. One of the many offshoots of this COVID-infected season has been a dearth of non-conference games, and therefore a dearth of cross-reference points. How can we tell how good a given team and its opponents are in the grander scheme of college basketball if they've spent 80% of their seasons beating up on one another?

All of which is to say that this now-annual column is a bit more speculative than usual. But the goal, as ever, is to highlight teams who'll be overseeded on Sunday, and whom your school should hope to draw in the first or second round.

We've picked out five of them.

Ohio State

19-8, 13-8 Big Ten | Projected seed: 2 | KenPom: 7

There was a time, perhaps as recently as two weeks ago, that Ohio State looked like a No. 1 seed. Its offense was prolific. It had won at Illinois and Iowa, and seven straight overall, and 10 of 11. It went toe-to-toe with Michigan in arguably the highest-quality game of the entire 2020-21 college hoops season.

Aaaaand ... it didn't win the rest of the regular season.

The losing streak only spanned four games. Three were against top-10 teams. But it was enlightening. The Buckeyes' offensive numbers – fourth nationally in adjusted efficiency – seem deceptive. They've scored 0.97 points per possession over their last three, and their rotation seems to be in flux.

The Big Ten is unforgiving, and Ohio State fully deserves a No. 2 seed. But this team is a bit too ordinary to be impervious to an opening weekend upset.

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 6:  Justin Ahrens #10 of the Ohio State Buckeyes controls the ball against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Value City Arena on March 6, 2021 in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 6: Justin Ahrens #10 of the Ohio State Buckeyes controls the ball against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Value City Arena on March 6, 2021 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Houston

21-3, 14-3 AAC | Projected seed: 2 | KenPom: 6

By all accounts, this is the best Houston team in decades – probably since Phi Slama Jama. Results support that statement. Advance metrics support that statement. To some, the eye test does too.

But the Cougars have beaten a grand total of one tourney lock, and zero since the end of November. Since the onset of February, they're 1-1 against the KenPom top 80, with the win coming via buzzer-beating heave against NIT-bound Memphis.

They have a proven coach (Kelvin Sampson) and athletes, and their top-10 defense is probably opponent-proof, but there's absolutely no guarantee they'll be able to beat up NCAA tournament teams on the glass like they have the AAC. Without rebounding 40 percent of their own missed shots, they're nowhere near an elite offense. So they could be in for some March slogs.

Villanova

16-6, 11-5 Big East | Projected seed: 5 | KenPom: 14

Villanova didn't fit the profile of a vulnerable tourney team, and perhaps would've been considered a Final Four contender two weeks ago. Then starting point guard (and Ryan Arcidiacono clone) Collin Gillespie tore his MCL in a March 3 win over Creighton. Nova scored a season-low 52 points in its first game without him. In that game, a loss to Providence, Justin Moore, another starting guard, severely sprained his ankle. He returned for Thursday's Big East tournament quarterfinal ... which Nova lost to sub-.500 Georgetown.

So, the Wildcats are limping into the postseason, and aren't the same team that won their conference and earned a likely top-five seed.

Tennessee

17-7, 10-7 SEC | Projected seed: 6 | KenPom: 24

The Vols' NCAA tournament résumé rests on three victories, all at home, all of which look much better now than they did at the time: A season-opening win over Colorado, a five-point defeat of Arkansas in early January, and a beatdown of Kansas in late January during a stretch when the Jayhawks lost five of seven.

Based on that, they could snag a No. 6 seed or better. But since the start of February, they've been thoroughly mediocre. They've barely scored a point per possession in conference play, and are 3-4 against NCAA tourney teams since the turn of the year. They're ripe for a first-round brickfest and upset.

Missouri

16-8, 9-8 SEC | Projected seed: 8 | KenPom: 50

The Tigers lost five of seven heading into the SEC tournament. They can't shoot, and foul a ton without forcing turnovers. They'll be the easiest out of anybody in the 8-9 seed range.

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