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5 Dark Horse Mid-Major NCAA Tournament Teams for 2021

Jason Preston, Ohio

While there's still plenty left to happen in the 2020-21 college basketball season, we now stand less than a month away from the 2021 NCAA Tournament and all the glory of March Madness. As it's been well over a year since the last NCAA Tournament (thanks, COVID!) this year could be especially exciting and chaotic. There are always "Cinderellas" that emerge during March, just one of the many reasons it's such a fun and unpredictable time. Obviously we don't know the complete Field of 68 just yet but through educated guesses, we can develop a solid group of potential "Cinderella" teams. Again, these teams don't have their tickets to the Big Dance punched right now, but I firmly expect they'll still be able to create plenty of noise. (* Note = In previous editions of my annual "Dark Horse Tournament Teams" I've included teams from high-major or power conferences, but I'll only be sticking to teams considering mid-major or low major this year. They don't get as much media attention, but they still have important roles to play come March.)

Loyola-Chicago Ramblers (19-4 overall, 14-2 conference)

Conference: Missouri Valley

Last NCAA Tournament Appearance: 2018

Projected Seed: 6-10

The last time Loyola-Chicago gained entry to the NCAA Tournament, you might remember what happened. The Ramblers went on a miraculous run to the Final Four, only to fall to Michigan one step away from the National Championship Game. There are several key remnants from that 2018 squad, from the unofficial mascot (Sister Jean) to the head coach (Porter Moser) and even many of the players. This 2021 edition plays much differently, however. While the 2018 club was one mainly led by a collection of high-scoring guards, this current edition is defensive-oriented and runs most of their offense through the post. The Ramblers allow under 58 points per game and rely primary on veteran big man Cameron Krutwig, a unique, old-school big who was around during the Final Four run. It's not exactly a super flashy team or one that will run you out of the gym, but they play to their strengths and they execute really well. Clearly it's effective, as they've jumped out to a 19-4 overall record and a No. 21 ranking in the latest AP Poll. In fact, Loyola is playing so well that they've lost just one game since dropping to Indiana State in early January. Now, the Ramblers are probably going to be a fairly popular "dark horse" pick because of their recent Tournament success but there's more reasons to like them than just that. They're extremely well-coached, have loads of veteran experience, and I also love the way they play defense. Plus, they just happen to play in one of the few mid-major leagues that is likely to have multiple NCAA Tournament bids.

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (15-4 overall, 8-2 conference)

Conference: Conference USA

Last NCAA Tournament Appearance: 2013

Projected Seed: 10-14

From the early to mid-2000s, Western Kentucky was a common NCAA Tournament fixture, as they made the Big Dance seven times from 2000-2013. Since then, the Hilltoppers have regularly been near the top of the C-USA standings, but unable to return to the Field of 68. This 2021 team looks different, and a big reason for that has to do with forward Charles Bassey. It's not often you see former five-star prospects and legit NBA talents spend multiple years at a place like WKU, but Bassey is an interesting case. He arrived as a highly touted, likely one-and-done recruit who averaged 14.6 PPG in his first year on campus. Bassey made a somewhat surprising decision to return for a sophomore season that was eventually doomed by a leg injury. That forced him to return for a third year in Bowling Green, and he has made the most of it. He ranks in the Top 5 in C-USA scoring and field goal percentage and leads the league in blocks and rebounds. He's the type of athlete you simply do not see very often in the mid-major leagues and even against many larger programs, he will probably be the best player on the court. To be fair to Western Kentucky as a whole, he isn't the sole reason they are on this list. WKU also has a proven head coach on the sidelines in former Mississippi State head man Rick Stansbury, who has played in the Tournament six times but is still looking to make the event's second weekend. In addition, the Hilltoppers have shown they can beat some genuinely great basketball teams. They beat Memphis and SEC favorite Alabama earlier in the year and gave West Virginia all they could handle in a six-point loss. They're likely to land somewhere in the 12-14 seed range, which is prime upset territory in the first round. However, they will have to hold off the rest of the C-USA, which includes sneaky teams such as North Texas, UAB and Louisiana Tech.

Iona Gaels (8-5 overall, 6-3 conference)

Conference: Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

Last NCAA Tournament Appearance: 2019

Projected Seed: 13-16

Out of all the teams on this list, Iona is the one with the worst shot at causing serious damage in March, but yet they're still a fascinating team. Part of that has to do with the fact that their coach is some guy named Rick Pitino, but it goes beyond just that. Pitino and his character overshadow anything else about Iona basketball, namely the fact that this program has been incredibly successful over the past decade. They've played in four straight NCAA Tournaments and six in total since 2012 and are pretty clearly the program to beat in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC). This year's team is far from perfect at an 8-5 overall record, but they are in a good spot in the league standings and have a lot of pieces to like. For one, they have a dynamic lead guard in Isaiah Ross, who averages 20.5 PPG and shoots over 40% from three-point range. In addition, fellow guard Asante Gist is the type of complementary piece every top scorer needs, and Nigerian freshman Nelly Junior Joseph can dominate when he manages to stay out of foul trouble. It's not a very deep team, but it's a top line that can go out and get hot and create some chaos if things go right. Iona is also a program with some March demons to slay, as they haven't advanced past the first round since 1980, and have only one Tournament victory under their belt. Who better to slay those demons than a guy like Pitino?

Bryant Bulldogs (12-5 overall, 8-4 conference)

Conference: Northeast

Last NCAA Tournament Appearance: Never (D-I Level)

Projected Seed: 13-15

If you aren't merely satisfied by the offenses at some of the big boys in college basketball, such as Gonzaga or Iowa, perhaps a fun small-school like Bryant may be more to your liking. The Bulldogs have one of the most explosive offenses in college basketball, averaging 85 points per game with an offense that never wants to stop running. It's an offense that not only puts up points, but does so in a very balanced way. They have four guards averaging double-digit points per game that can all shoot from both three-point territory and at the free throw line. It's a group that is a little undersized without a traditional big man beyond 6'8" forward Hall Elisias, but their ability to get out in transition and also shoot the ball can overwhelm even quality defenses. It's going to be interesting to see whether they can get out of the Northeast Conference with the auto-bid; beyond Wagner, who is currently in first place in the league, both Merrimack and Sacred Heart appear to be firmly in the mix. If the Bulldogs are able to win the conference, it would qualify them for their first NCAA Tournament appearance at the Division I level. They've appeared in the Division II Tournament seven times from 1978-2008, but this team appears to be in serious contention for the best team in school history. Any group with this type of offense is one to watch when March rolls around, and while they'll never go on a serious run in the Big Dance they could be the type of team to create some first weekend chaos.

Ohio Bobcats (11-6 overall, 7-4 conference)

Conference: Mid-American 

Last NCAA Tournament Appearance: 2012

Projected Seed: 13-16

Unless you happen to be an Illinois basketball fan, you've probably never of Ohio guard Jason Preston. The junior is an absolute superstar, and his numbers back that up. He leads the Bobcats in scoring (16.4 PPG) and assists (7.4 APG) and is second in both rebounds and steals, while shooting 52% from the field. In case you're wondering if he's only doing it against mediocre MAC competition, simply go back and watch that Illinois-Ohio game, where Preston went for 31 points and eight assists against a team seriously battling for a No. 1 seed. Preston alone would warrant a spot for Ohio on this list, but this team goes beyond just one player, much like Western Kentucky. Their entire starting lineup can all score, and they're actually a much deeper team than most mid or low majors. In addition, this is one of the best passing teams you'll find anywhere in college basketball that puts a ton of pressure on opposing defenses. It's not an elite shooting team but much like Bryant, they still find ways to put up a ton of points and they actually match up really well against just about any type of defensive scheme. Ohio's basketball program is also one that has proven they can win some games when they reach the NCAA Tournament, even if they aren't a highly regular participant. The last time they were playing in March Madness they upset Michigan and South Florida en route to the Sweet 16 in 2012, and they also won a game in 2010. Obviously teams from a decade ago shouldn't dictate your thoughts on this current squad, but this is not a program completely unaccustomed to some level of March success. Much like others on this list, the actual tougher part might be just reaching the Big Dance. The Bobcats are currently fourth in the MAC, beyond quality teams such as Toledo and Akron. It will take work to get there but with Preston leading the charge, this is certainly a team to keep an eye on.

Others to Watch

Belmont Bruins (24-1 overall, 18-0 Ohio Valley Conference) -- Regular NCAA Tournament participant is always a popular upset pick, but this team's schedule has been very weak en route to a 24-1 mark.

Liberty Flames (19-5 overall, 10-2 Atlantic Sun Conference) -- Liberty made this post a year ago, and the Flames are once again dangerous. Despite being tied for first in the A-Sun, Liberty is the prohibitive favorite as the top team in the league this year, Bellarmine, is ineligible for the 2021 NCAA Tournament as they transition from Division II.

Drake Bulldogs (23-2 overall, 14-2 Missouri Valley Conference) -- One of the final undefeated teams of the 2020-21 season, Drake could be in play for an at-large bid even if they don't win the Missouri Valley.

UMBC Retrievers (14-5 overall, 10-4 America East Conference) -- The Retrievers were the one of the stories of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, and they look ready to cause some damage once again in '21.

Winthrop Eagles (20-1 overall, 17-1 Big South Conference) -- Winthrop has long been a regular NCAA Tournament qualifier, and their lone loss came by just two against UNC-Asheville.

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