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.
South: #8 North Carolina Tar Heels
It’s weird to refer to North Carolina as a sleeper team since they are usually perennial favorites in this tournament. In 2021 though, the Tar Heels have had to scratch and claw to get back to the bracket after they would’ve missed it last year. Roy Williams wins his games this year on the glass as Carolina leads the nation with 14 offensive rebounds a game and are second in the country with 43.1 in total. Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot do most of the work in that sense with more than 6.5 rebounds a night each, not to mention a combined 24 PPG between the two. The Tar Heels biggest weakness comes on offense as they turn the ball over just as much as they gather assists and are among the worst shooting teams in division 1. Guard Caleb Love is their main source of points but he shot a horrible 26% from three this year and is the team’s leader in assists with just 3.6 per game. Day’ron Sharpe and RJ Davis are both nice scorers as well but are highly inconsistent and prone to cold shooting nights, as is the rest of the team. However, UNC has of course been tested all season playing in the ACC and have stepped up to win big games as of late, seen in their wins against rival Duke, 4 seeded Florida State and 10 seeded Virginia Tech in their last six games. Entering the tournament playing well and with the experience this team has will be crucial to any sort of tournament success but luckily for the Tar Heels, their possible schedule is rather favorable towards their momentum and style of play.
Friday, North Carolina meets a fellow Power 5 squad in Wisconsin. UNC holds an advantage in this game as the Badgers enter the tournament having lost seven of their last ten games while barely escaping a loss to a very weak Penn State team in the conference tournament. Catching Wisconsin on a cold streak and adding in the factor that the Badgers will be thoroughly outsized and outworked down low by the Tar Heels bigs, UNC should be able to take the first round matchup by playing their style of ball.
Next up, North Carolina will take on the regular season Big 12 champion Baylor Bears. Baylor shoots the lights out of any arena they step into and with the Tar Heels perimeter defense not necessarily being one of their strengths, the Bears will get their normal amount of shots up. However, if Carolina can execute their preferred style of bully ball and score 35+ plus points in the paint, they will be able to keep up. It will be key for UNC to control the pace and not allow Baylor to get their guys running around open on the outside, which Roy Williams has emphasized with this team all year. If UNC can slow the game down, stay in the face of Baylor’s shooters and use Brooks and Bacot as the focal points of the offense down low, Carolina could knock out one of the favorites in a high 60s, low 70s score kind of game. Plus, Roy Williams has been to the tournament much more than Scott Drew and the upstart Bears, a key factor when looking at possible sleeper teams.
Assuming the Tar Heels reach the second weekend, they will likely come up against one of college basketball’s most consistent teams in Purdue. The Boilermakers are a team that will not beat themselves, making very few mistakes on both sides of the ball. Trevion Williams will be the guy UNC needs to stop if they are going to win this game as the 6 foot 10 forward can score with ease down low. However, matching him up with Brooks or Bacot could be able to limit his offensive and rebounding impact and force Purdue to turn elsewhere for points. Carolina will need someone to step up and make shots from outside of 15 feet which the only guys who could be trusted there as of now are Davis and Kerwin Walton. If they can get hot from outside while holding down the paint like they have all year, Carolina will reach the elite eight for the first time since 2017.
There, a tough matchup with a versatile Ohio State squad will decide who heads to the Final Four. The Buckeyes are a team that excels on all areas of the floor with a deep roster led by star forward EJ Liddell. Again though, Ohio State is not a plus rebounding tea and scores most of their points from the outside. Carolina can take advantage of this like they did against Florida State to slow the game down. Getting physical in the paint and playing well perimeter defense will be the keys to a win over the Buckeyes and if Carolina can execute when it counts, Roy Williams will surely be off to yet another Final Four. A matchup against Illinois will be this team’s downfall as Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn will be too much to handle as the dynamic duo made a mockery of Big Ten defenses all season long. UNC’s run will likely end against the Illini but with them being a classic blue blood program with one of the greatest college coaches ever at the helm, never count out the Tar Heels.
Keys To Wins: Perimeter Defense, Shooting
X-Factor: Caleb Love’s Turnovers
Floor: Second Round
Ceiling: National Championship
Image: USA Today