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.
Midwest: #8 Loyola Chicago Ramblers
Sister Jean and the Ramblers have returned to the tournament for the first time since their improbable Final Four Run in 2018 looking better than ever. While March heroes Clayton Custer and Marques Townes are gone, senior big man Cameron Krutwig (who played 24 minutes with 10 points a game for that 2018 team) leads the way on both ends as an All-American selection. Krutwig is the driving force of this team and he will need to be at his best the entire tournament if the Ramblers have a shot. Behind him, Porter Moser does have some nice assets in scoring guards Lucas Williamson and Braden Norris. Loyola’s biggest strength coming into the Dance is their defense as they rank number one in the entire country on defensive efficiency per 100 possessions. This lockdown unit can and will continue their sharpness on that side both behind the arc and in the paint no matter who they play. Their tournament run will depend on how much offense they can get behind Krutwig.
Loyola Chicago caught a break with their first round matchup as while they will be facing off with the ACC champion Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, their best player in Moses Wright will miss the game due to COVID. This will allow the Ramblers to focus in on Tech’s scoring guards in Jose Alvarado and Michael Devoe with less worry about defending the paint. Without their best defender,Krutwig should be able to take advantage inside the three point line and have a monster offensive game. If Williamson, Norris or senior Keith Clemons can make shots behind the star forward, the Ramblers should get to the second round.
There, the hottest team in the country waits. The Illinois Fighting Illini are coming off of a Big Ten championship run and looking at their best all season, with wins over Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan in recent weeks. The key to the game for Loyola will be how their defense holds up against Ayo Dosunmu on the wing who has been absolutely taking over games as of late with elite slashing and knockdown shooting. Krutwig should at least be able to keep Kofi Cockburn in check down low so that his impact is not fatal. To stop Dosunmu, Porter Moser needs to utilize a trap and double strategy so that the masked forward does not get free with open space, which would force him to pass off to Illinois inexperienced starting lineup. While the Illini do have an elite starting five, none of them have any tournament experience which makes any team vulnerable in March. Loyola of course, has several players still left from that 2018 run who know how to win in the Big Dance. Plus, after just coming off a grueling schedule to end the season, one has to wonder just how much to the Illini have left in the tank. If Loyola can hold Dosunmu in check while making outside shots, the Ramblers will be marching on to the second weekend.
In the Sweet Sixteen, the task will only get tougher against Cade Cunningham and the Oklahoma State Cowboys. The 4 seed boasts the nation’s best player and have a team full of junkyard dogs who will stop at nothing to win. Unfortunately for the Ramblers, they do not have a perimeter defender who could matchup with the 6 foot 8 beast of Cunningham, who will be driving and slashing all game. Nobody could stop him this season and no matter how good Loyola defense, they won’t be the firsts. With Krutwig stuck down low on defense, Cunningham and offensive standout Avery Anderson will be able to take over the game from the outside and with a dominant shot blocker in Kaleb Boone down low, the Cowboys will be too much for the Ramblers. While this run won’t last as long in 2018, Loyola Chicago for sure has the ability to make some noise in the bubble and knockout a top team or two. But as they showed us three years ago, a little old school in Illinois and a 101 year old nun are a lot more dangerous in March than you may think.
Keys To Wins: Scoring Depth, Perimeter Defense
X-Factor: Cameron Krutwig’s Defense
Floor: Second Round
Ceiling: Sweet Sixteen
Image: SB Nation