Eight college basketball teams that can win it all in 2021
photo by: Photo by Chris Tilley
We’ve waited two full years to see another NCAA Tournament bracket, and now that it’s finally out, here’s a quick look at eight teams that could win six games in the next three weeks, some obvious and others not as much.
There are going to be brackets out there that do not have the Zags in the Final Four. But there should not be many of them. Yes, the Zags play in a lousy conference. But this team has proven all season long that it is the cream of the crop in college basketball this season. Beyond the early-season nonconference victories that strengthened its resume, Gonzaga’s roster construction and blend of experience and youth is elite. Simply put: This team is the favorite to win the NCAA title this season, and it absolutely should be.
A lot was made about Baylor missing four Big 12 games and struggling to find its footing after a three-week COVID-19 pause, but the Bears regrouped and finished the regular season strong, only strengthening their case as one of the nation’s top teams. Baylor has a three-headed monster in Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell, who can all do varying degrees of damage against anybody on any night. And Baylor’s strong and athletic frontcourt, headlined by Mark Vital, complements them perfectly. This team plays D, can kill you from 3-point range and is willing to scrap with anybody.
One of the most popular ways to pick a team that can make a run during the NCAA Tournament is to go with one that has an unquestioned star. Iowa has that in likely national player of the year Luka Garza. After bypassing the NBA draft following his junior season, Garza turned in an even better senior year, averaging 23.9 points and 8.4 rebounds to lead the Hawkeyes through the rough-and-tumble Big Ten. There’s more to this Iowa team than Garza. But the 6-foot-11 center gives the Hawkeyes an advantage against anybody.
Playing without their best player, the Illini blasted No. 2 Michigan on its home floor on March 2 to add the strongest of a series of signature wins to their resume. If Brad Underwood’s tougher-than-nails team didn’t have your attention before then, that surely grabbed it. Illinois is fast and physical, battle tested, well coached and playing with a ton of confidence. Beyond that, the combination of elite guard Ayo Dosunmu and bruising big man Kofi Cockburn provides Illinois with a roster than can play any style. The Illini are one of just two teams on this list to finish in the top 10 of KenPom.com’s adjusted offensive and defensive rankings.
5: Loyola Chicago
The last time Porter Moser’s team made the Big Dance, it reached the Final Four as one of those special Cinderella stories. This time, the Ramblers, who were ranked in the AP Top 25 most of the season, are without question one of the better teams in the country. Their defense finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the KenPom efficiency rankings after holding 17 of their 28 opponents to 55 points or fewer. That, combined with a top-50 offense, had Loyola at No. 9 in KenPom’s overall rankings.
I’m not a huge believer in the SEC this season, so Alabama almost didn’t make this list. But this team defends with the best of them (No. 3 in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings) and uses that defense to create easy offense. What’s more, Nate Oats’ squad has one of the best 3-point defenses in the country — that helps you avoid getting upset in March — and shoots it well enough to be in the top 100. Combine that with the fact that ‘Bama’s balanced offense (four players averaging double figures) can be explosive in spurts, and you’re looking at a tough matchup for anybody.
Athletes, size and guards galore. Someone on Twitter recently posed a question: What would Texas’ record be if Kansas coach Bill Self had that roster? Possibly undefeated. That’s not a knock on Shaka Smart, more an indication that the Longhorns’ roster looks an awful lot like what you’d imagine Self wanting his ideal roster to look like. If UT can stay consistent and commit to defending, it can beat anybody.
8: Oklahoma State
Call it the Carmelo Anthony Effect, but there’s just something that tells me that dynamic OSU freshman Cade Cunningham could lead Mike Boynton’s Cowboys on a memorable run this month. The expected No. 1 pick in the NBA draft has everything you could want in a player and then some. He also appears to be due for a few clutch performances, which eluded him a little throughout the regular season. Cunningham is far from the only talented player on OSU’s roster, and the Cowboys’ style of in-your-face defense and blazing speed in the open court could be a recipe for something special.