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5 under-the-radar March Madness teams you need to know about

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March 17th, 2021

The 2021 NCAA Tournament already made unique history, as Duke and Kentucky both got left out of the Big Dance for the first time since 1976.  

Also notable about 1976 is the Indiana Hoosiers won the NCAA Tournament to complete an unbeaten season. No team has since been able to achieve the feat, but No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga, at 26-0, hopes to be next.

While the Bulldogs have been the most dominant team in college basketball this season, the one certainty about March Madness is that nothing goes as planned.

A few under-the-radar teams will head into the tournament riding a wave of momentum and could upset a powerhouse along the path to the Final Four.

Before you finalize your March Madness bracket, take a moment to learn more about five sleeper teams you likely haven’t been watching.

No. 8 Loyola-Chicago

Conference: Missouri Valley
Head coach: Porter Moser
Record: 24-4

Following its magical Final Four run as a No. 11 seed in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, Loyola-Chicago enters the 2021 tournament with a bit more respect.

Returning from that Final Four squad are leading scorer Cameron Krutwig (15 points per game) and senior guard Lucas Williamson (8.2 points per game), who also play a key role on Loyola's top-ranked scoring defense (55.8 points allowed per game).

On offense, the Ramblers rank ninth in effective field-goal percentage (56.3%) and boast two sharpshooters, Braden Norris and Keith Clemons, who hit more than 40% of their shots from behind the arc.

Three of Loyola's four losses in the regular season came by five points or fewer. Then-No. 12 Wisconsin handed the team its most lopsided defeat in December, when the Ramblers let the Badgers hit 10 of 18 from three-point land in a 77-63 road loss.

No. 11 Utah State

Conference: Mountain West
Head coach: Craig Smith
Record: 20-8

A 68-57 loss to San Diego State in the Mountain West Championship game nearly kept Utah State out of the NCAA Tournament.

Now the Aggies are a hot upset pick against 2019 runner-up Texas Tech, which faces a size mismatch in its first-round contest.

Seven-foot center Neemias Queta averages 15.1 points, 10 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks per game for the Aggies, and poses the greatest threat for the Red Raiders.

While both teams shoot around 44% from the field and around 34% from three, the Aggies rank second in the country in rebound margin and seventh in defensive efficiency.

No. 12 Winthrop

Conference: Big South
Head coach: Pat Kelsey
Record: 23-1

In his ninth year as head coach, Pat Kelsey has the Eagles in perfect position for an upset of No. 5 seed Villanova.

The Eagles suffered just one loss this season — a two-point decision against UNC Asheville — and meet a Villanova squad that dropped its previous two games, after the loss of star point guard Collin Gillespie to injury.

The 2021 Big South champion hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since it downed No. 6 Notre Dame in 2007, but the senior leadership of guard Chandler Vaudrin (12.2 points, 7.2 rebounds per game) could put Winthrop over the top.

The Eagles rank ninth in the country in rebound margin, 30th in points per game (79.5), and are 10-1 against the spread in their last 11 games as an underdog.

No. 12 UC Santa Barbara

Conference: Big West
Head coach: Joe Pasternack
Record: 22-4

With 18 victories in their last 19 games, the Gauchos earned an NCAA Tournament berth for the sixth time in school history and will look for their first win in the tourney since 1990.

Head coach Joe Pasternack completed his fourth straight 20-win season since he joined UCSB in 2017. An Indiana alum, Pasternack learned from legendary coach Bob Knight, whom he worked under at IU as a team manager.

On Friday, the Gauchos will play No. 5 Creighton, which has suffered first-round losses in each of its last two NCAA Tournament appearances.

Senior guard JaQuori McLaughlin (16.2 points per game, 40.4% from three) will be the difference-maker for the Gauchos, who average 76.5 points per game and hold opposing offenses to 62.8 points per contest.

No. 13 Ohio

Conference: MAC
Head coach: Jeff Boals
Record: 16-7

The Bobcats are more dangerous than they appear, based on their regular-season record.

Back in November, this team took top seed Illinois down to the wire in a 77-75 defeat in Champaign.

In the second half of the season, COVID-19 upended Ohio's schedule and forced the cancellation of nearly all of its games in February. Since returning to play, Jeff Boals' squad has hit its stride and will head back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012, when it fell to North Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen.

On Saturday, Ohio will confront a Virginia team that has had its own COVID-19 issues. 

If the Cavaliers play, they will need a strong defensive effort to take down Ohio's balanced lineup, which features five players averaging double figures, including junior guard Jason Preston, a 40% three-point shooter.