After a near two year long wait, March Madness is finally here. As the Big Dance makes its return, the time has come for everyone to forecast how this year’s bracket will play out. Every time this tournament gets played, there’s always that one mid-range team for a power conference that makes a deep run. These teams, usually in the 5-11 seed range, have used their experience against top teams in March to have some extended stays in the field. In 2019, 5 seeded Auburn came out of nowhere to win the SEC conference tournament and continued their run all the way to the Final Four, eliminating perennial favorites Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky in the process. In this year’s field, there are multiple candidates who fit that bill that can make some serious noise in this year’s tournament. Here, we give you in four parts all of these possible teams, one in each region, that could be some major bracket busters in 2021, assuming they face the highest seeds possible in each matchup.
East: #7 UConn Huskies
It was tough to go against LSU in this region, but when you take a look at what UConn can bring, you’d see that they have the potential to play much better than their seed suggests. One key statistic supports this. In every year but one since 2002, the national champion has been in the top 20 of both offensive and defensive efficiency, with strength of schedule considered. This year, those teams are Michigan, Illinois, Gonzaga, Purdue, Houston and UConn. While the Huskies are making their first appearance since 2016, this team comes with an experienced Dan Hurley at the helm, who led Rhode Island to tournament wins in 2017 and 2018. UConn struggled mid season with star scorer James Bouknight missing 8 games but were able to stay afloat with a deep and balanced roster. While their only win against a tournament team came against USC in November, they were an RJ Cole free throw and a Tyler Polley three away from beating 5 seeded Creighton twice, not to mention nearly upending Villanova. Behind a now healthy Bouknight comes an impressive combo guard in RJ Cole handling the ball and a physical presence in Tyrese Martin on the wing. Along with them comes a flexible front court as senior big Isaiah Whaley is an outside threat while a newfound force down low in freshman Adama Sanogo has continued to improve. Jalen Gaffney and Andre Jackson are both two way threats off the bench as well. This team’s biggest strength comes in their defense as the Huskies allowed just 65 PPG to opponents, an impressive mark in a power conference. What could derail a run though is their inability to get buckets from multiple guys, which has been an issue both with and without Bouknight.
The Huskies do have a favorable matchup in the first round with Maryland as their elite rebounding and defense match up very well with the Terps weaknesses and should get them through.
A second round game with Alabama will be hard fought as they match UConn’s defense first game along with efficient scoring. The Huskies will need to play their best defensive game of the year to keep up with the high flying Crimson Tide. Keeping the score down and the ball in front of them on defense will be key while getting Sanogo space down low and quality shots behind Bouknight on offense from Martin and Cole would give the Huskies the edge needed to win the game. Also, with Alabama coming off an SEC tournament championship including two close, physical games with Tennessee and LSU, UConn could be able to take advantage of their fatigue and win a defensive battle to get to the Sweet Sixteen.
The challenge would only get tougher there though as the Huskies would likely match-up with the BIG 12 champion Texas Longhorns who are on fire. Again though, Dan Hurley’s outstanding perimeter defense should be able to limit Matt Coleman and the Texas shooters on the outside which would force Jericho Sims to beat them down low, where shot blockers Whaley and Sanogo will be waiting. On offense, considering that the Longhorns play a near identical style of ball to the Huskies, Hurley could exploit Texas’ average perimeter defense with an increased emphasis on three point shots, which Cole, Polley and Gaffney all knock down at a 35% plus rate. On defense, UConn’s elite pressure outside and large presence in the paint could throw the Longhorn offense out of its comfort zone and allow Hurley to rely on their defense to steal an Elite Eight bid.
In the East finals, UConn could see three likely opponents in #1 Michigan, #4 Florida State or #8 LSU. LSU would be the easiest matchup as their high octane offensive attack could be countered with the Huskies exceptional ball stopping skills. And with the Tigers defense allowing more than 75 PPG to opponents, UConn’s inconsistent offense would have a matchup they could thrive in. Florida State would also be a team UConn could take as the Huskies defense would slow down the Seminoles offense while a big performance from Bouknight and Cole/Martin would be enough offense to knock off the ACC runner ups. Michigan is currently in limbo as they are coming off a semifinal loss in the Big Ten tournament with their top scorer Isaiah Livers likely out for the season. This would limit the Wolverines scoring options to Hunter Dickinson and Franz Wagner, whom could both be held down on offense with Martin and Sanogo being reliable options on defense. This would be another defensive grind kind of game for UConn but if they can handle those two scorers while Bouknight, Cole and Sanogo do their thing on offense, don’t be surprised to see the Huskies on the court in April.
While their remarkable run would come to an end against the overwhelming post centered games of Gonzaga or Iowa in the Final Four, a vintage UConn tournament run would prove to the world that this program is well on its way to regaining their former glory. And in case you forgot, the last time the Huskies were a seven seed in the east region, they cut down the nets in 2014.
Keys To Wins: Three Point Shooting, Inside Scoring
X-Factor: Tyrese Martin
Floor: Second Round
Ceiling: National Champions
Image: USA Today