March Madness 2021: Five mid-majors not to underestimate during opening weekend

Tyler Byrum
·6 min read
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Five mid-majors not to underestimate during the NCAA Tournament originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Mid-major teams often fall under the radar in the weeks leading into the NCAA Tournament. Yet, it's nearly a guarantee that at least one of those programs will make a run into the Sweet Sixteen every season.

George Mason? VCU? Florida Gulf Coast? Loyola-Chicago? There's bound to be another team making that jump in this tournament. 

A lot of the prime mid-majors candidates fell in their conference tournament, missing their chance to go dancing this year. Some made the field only to be rewarded with difficult paths. Many analysts don't see the opportunities for the non-power teams (Gonzaga notwithstanding) as other March Madness's present themselves. 

Still, there are some teams that Power 5 opponents should be wary of. If they look past their matchup, some of these mid-majors will make them pay. 

No. 8 Loyola-Chicago (24-4, 16-2 Missouri Valley)

The Ramblers are the tenth-ranked team in the NET, with the potential to make a second-weekend run but got slotted into a seed where they are due to play a No. 1 seed in the Second Round. 

That's brutal luck for a really solid team. All-American Cameron Krutwig, who was on the 2018 Cinderalla team is the team's do-it-all player. Accompanying him are several solid players that are efficient and have been in every contest they've played this year.

As a roster, they've put together the best defensive unit in the NCAA according to KenPom's defensive rankings. The Ramblers are far and away No. 1 in scoring defense (55.8 points allowed) and have kept opponents to shooting under 41% on the season. 

Looking ahead to a potential second-round contest against Illinois, the Illini have sputtered against strong defensive units. Now, Illinois has looked like a rejuvenated team in the past month and a half of the season, but if they are a step off, Loyola-Chicago is a team that can make them pay. This is not to say the Ramblers will upset the Big Ten Champions, but it should be closer than Second Round games should be for a No. 1 seed. 

Krutwig and head coach Porter Moser are both on the record saying this team is better than the 2018 Final Four squad. With vaccinated Sister Jean heading to Indianapolis, it could be shaping up for another March run. 

No. 13 Liberty (23-5, 11-2 Atlantic Sun)

Since joining the Atlantic Sun conference three seasons ago, the Flames have done nothing but win. Three seasons, three A-Sun regular-season titles and three A-Sun Tournament titles. 

It's been a great stretch of basketball for head coach Ritchie McKay and this season was arguably his best coaching job. Liberty lost four of its top six players from a season ago, one that many pegged to do some real damage in the NCAA Tournament in 2020.

Remember the last Liberty squad the nation saw (2019 March Madness) upset a No. 5 seed in the First Round. Most of those guys were returning and could have even earned a more favorable seed. 

This year, less of the focus on the Flames is on their defense and more about the offense. The team is shooting 49% from the field and 39% from deep, scoring nearly 75 points a game. Junior Darius McGhee now is the leading star on the roster. With 11 20+ point performances on the year, a great shooting performance could be all the team needs to stay competitive in a big game.

Liberty is in a favorable section of the draw to go on a run with No. 4 Oklahoma State and No. 5 Tennessee lined up as their potential first two contests. 

No. 11 Drake (25-4, 15-3 Missouri Valley)

The Bulldogs were one of the final undefeated teams in the country, starting the year 18-0. Although they were tripped up four times in their final 11 games of the season, no one really knows what to expect from Drake in this year's tournament. 

Their only notable nonconference game was against Kansas State, which the Bulldogs closed out with a 10-point victory. Other than that, the only other contests that would be relevant to the NCAA Tournament were against Loyola-Chicago (who won two out of their three contests) and Missouri State. Honestly, had several bubble teams not fell flat in conference tournaments, Drake would likely be out of the tournament. 

Five players have averaged double-figures for the second tournament team from the Missouri Valley. Top scorer ShanQuan Hemphill, however, has been out for a month after breaking his foot. His status is unknown for the First Four but hasn't exactly been ruled out either by head coach Darian DeVries. 

After all, three of the team's four losses came after his injury.

No. 9 St. Bonaventure (16-4, 11-4 Atlantic 10)

Not unlike Drake before them, the Bonnies enter March Madness less tested against the Power 5 conferences than many other teams. One is for certain though, St. Bonaventure was the best team in the Atlantic 10. 

Their starting five does not have a weak link. All five starters average double figures and have relatively positive shooting figures. Led by Kyle Lofton, the offense works inside-out and prides itself on not turning the ball over. All of the Bonnies guards are physical and can attack the lane. A lot of their offense, though, comes on the defensive end and working short possessions.

Osun Osunyinni is one of the premier defenders at the mid-major level. He averages nearly three blocks a game, anchoring their most important group. 

This year the Bonnies have beaten all different types of teams throughout the year. They've even shown the ability to thrive against high ball-pressure teams like VCU (won two of three this season).

A big knock on St. Bonaventure is their depth, but they were able to overcome that to win the Atlantic 10 Championship. If healthy, the Bonnies are a real challenge against most teams, even an injured Michigan team. 

No. 12 Winthrop (23-1, 17-1 Big South)

Defense and a talented backcourt (sensing a theme?) are what makes the Eagles dangerous. Similar to Drake, Winthrop is a strong team especially against the schedule they faced this season. 

Other than beating UNC-Greensboro to start the year, there's no NCAA Tournament-type win on their docket. But aside from a two-point loss to a rival team, their record would be unblemished.

One thing the Eagles do well is their ability to gather turnovers. On the year Winthrop is averaging 7.75 steals per game and force opponents to 13 turnovers a game. Looking at their first-round matchup against Villanova, it could set up nicely for an upset. The Wildcats are without starting point guard Collin Gillespie and haven't exactly lived up to the bill since. 

Defenses like that can carry one through a tournament, it's just a matter of if they can score against complete teams that they never had the chance to do during the regular season.