Bracket Breakdown: Hot Takes Edition
Your guide to the best upsets and sleepers in the 2021 bracket
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Nothing says March Madness quite like chicken wings. In fact, wing consumption is so deeply embedded in the traditions of America’s holiest month of hoops that last year’s tournament cancelation led to massive surpluses of wings.
In that spirit, what better way to fill out your bracket than by ordering some wings! And by wings, of course, we mean tournament takes. You’ve ordered wings before, so you know how this works — you’ve got to choose your spice level first. Our menu offers four options, so there’s something for everyone. Well, almost everyone. We don’t do bland around here, so we won’t have any takes that line up with the chalk bracket.
If you want to fill out a bracket with some of these bold predictions, or if you’re just looking to pick the favorites, don’t forget that you can join our ESPN Tournament Challenge group to compete for prizes! The top three finishers will receive a free year’s subscription to our stats site, and the winner will also get their choice of gear (shirt, laptop sticker, etc.) from our shop. Join here!
These takes are for those who want some flavor but have wimpy taste buds. Only slightly less likely than the seed line favorites, these predictions still have a very realistic chance of coming to fruition.
No. 10 North Carolina will beat No. 7 Alabama
It’s not often that a 7-10 game features two likely WNBA draft picks going head-to-head. North Carolina 6-foot-4 center Janelle Bailey announced last week that she’ll declare for the 2021 WNBA draft, and many mock drafts have Alabama’s Jasmine Walker going in the first round. Walker will be a matchup problem for the Heels’ defense — at 6-foot-3 she knocks down 2.9 threes per game at a 40 percent clip. Add in Jordan Lewis and Ariyah Copeland, who both average 15-plus points per game, and Alabama has a formidable big three on the offensive end.
Where North Carolina can pull the upset, however, is on the other end of the floor. The Tide rank outside of the top 100 in defensive rebounding rate and outside of the top 250 in effective field goal percentage and turnover percentage on defense. It’s hard to get stops when you’re not forcing misses or forcing turnovers and you’re also not rebounding the few missed shots you do force. North Carolina isn’t an offensive juggernaut, but its offense is more than capable of putting up points in this matchup. Expect a high-scoring and tightly-contested affair, and don’t be surprised if the No. 10 seed moves on.
No. 2 Baylor will make the Final Four
It’s easy to forget that the Lady Bears are the defending national champions. It feels like a generation ago that they knocked off Notre Dame in the 2019 title game. If they want to become the first team since Breanna Stewart’s UConn to repeat as champions, they’ll likely have to get past Paige Bueckers’ UConn in the Elite Eight first.
Then again, assuming the Geno-less Huskies make it to the second weekend, they could have Rhyne Howard or Caitlin Clark waiting for them, so nothing is guaranteed.
If UConn and Baylor do meet up in the Elite Eight, we’ll finally get to see a matchup that the pandemic robbed us of in January. UConn will be the favorite, and not just by virtue of their better seed, but DiDi Richards might be one of the few defenders in the country who can match up with Bueckers one-on-one. If she can turn it into a game of four-on-four, Baylor could end UConn’s run of 12 straight Final Fours.
Order from this section for picks that have a little extra kick. These takes don’t sting, but they provide enough heat to satisfy your cravings for boldness — or to earn you bragging rights in your office pool.
No. 11 Florida Gulf Coast will beat No. 6 Michigan
FGCU plays one of the most modern styles of basketball of any basketball team at any level. The Eagles essentially take half of their shots from three, half at the rim, and virtually none from anywhere in between. They also love to get out and run and still somehow never turn the ball over.
As much fun as their offense is, though, our ratings give their defense a slight edge. It’s a defense with the unique ability to force turnovers without getting out of rebounding position, a combination that leads to loads of live ball stops. Among tournament teams, only Troy, UConn, and Baylor average more live ball stops per game than FGCU’s 39. For a team as prolific in transition as FGCU, live ball stops can quickly turn into points the other way.
There’s a hidden rivalry factor in this game as well. FGCU standout transfer Kierstan Bell began her career at Ohio State, the Wolverines’ biggest rival. (And it’s worth noting that the Eagles are 24-0 this year when Bell plays.) Michigan is more than just the Naz Hillmon show — Leigha Brown is one of the more underrated scorers in the country. But the Maize and Blue have struggled with turnovers for stretches this season, and if they give the ball away in this one they might give the win away as well.
No. 12 Stephen F. Austin will beat No. 5 Georgia Tech
The spice level on this one depends on how much you buy into our ratings. Our model has SFA 7th and Georgia Tech 51st, but it tends to overrate teams that win lots of lopsided games. The Ladyjacks have done just that, beating their opponents by over 28 points per game.
Models like the Massey Ratings and 538 still have the Yellow Jackets as a favorite here, but it’s much closer to a tossup than the seed lines would suggest. Nell Fortner’s bunch will have to contain talented combo guard Stephanie Visscher, a gifted ball handler who can score efficiently from anywhere. Per CBB Analytics, Visscher is in the top ten percent in the nation in shooting percentage at the rim, in the paint, on corner threes, and on above-the-break threes. She can get it done on both ends too — she wreaks havoc at the top of the press and still manages to block 1.2 shots per game, despite mostly guarding perimeter players when the Ladyjacks drop back into man-to-man half court defense and playing at the top when they go to their matchup 2-3 zone.
Lorela Cubaj will be a tough cover for the undersized Ladyjacks, but only if the Yellow Jacket guards can get her the ball. SFA’s denial defense is a tough scout, and it could help them advance in the bracket.
Now we’re getting spicy. No, not 16-over-1 spicy, but spicy enough to get your nose running. True connoisseurs of heat will find their comfort zone here.
No. 3 Arizona will make the Final Four
It’s been five years since anyone other than a No.1 or No. 2 seed made the Final Four, but don’t write off that possibility this year. Parity has been increasing over the last two seasons, and we’ve even seen teams like No. 1 seed Stanford and No. 2 seed Texas A&M lose this year to teams that didn’t make the field. If you want a team below the No. 2 line that could win its next four games, look no further than Aari-zona.
Led by dynamic senior point guard Aari McDonald, the Wildcats have a roster full of experience and leadership. It’s remarkable to consider that Adia Barnes’ program is just three years removed from a six-win season in which it ranked outside of the top 300 in HHS Defensive Rating. This year’s crew ranks in the top ten in the same category and has given Pac-12 opponents fits.
Arizona’s biggest test might be defending the size of N’dea Jones, Ciera Johnson, and Elissa Cunane in potential second-weekend matchups against Texas A&M and NC State. But Arizona’s duo of 6-foot forwards, Trinity Baptiste and Sam Thomas, both play with a toughness that makes up for a lack of inches. As long as one or two of McDonald’s teammates can contribute in the scoring column, this team could make a memorable run.
No. 6 Oregon will make the Sweet 16
After losing five of their last six and barely escaping UC Davis at home in the game before that, few teams are backing into the tournament the way the Ducks are. Couple that with the likely absence of starting point guard Te-Hina Paopao due to injury, and Oregon appears to be ripe for a first-round upset.
The Ducks still have a lot going for them though. Taylor Chavez has proven capable of running the offense when she needs to, and Nyara Sabally might be the most versatile big South Dakota’s Hannah Sjerven will guard all season. And don’t forget that in a potential second-round matchup against Georgia, the Ducks won’t have to win in Georgia’s building as they would in a typical year.
One of the key factors to Oregon’s recent slide has been the shooting of Taylor Mikesell. The Maryland transfer shot over 40% from distance in both of her years with the Terps, and she began this season by making 25 of her first 53 threes. She’s made just 11 of 53 since.
If Mikesell can find her stroke again and Oregon can get one or two bonus triples from Sabally or Sedona Prince in the first weekend to pull Sjerven and Georgia’s Jenna Staiti away from the rim, Kelly Graves could get his team through the first weekend. After all, he’s already made four Sweet 16s as a No. 7 seed or lower.
Only the bravest of souls dare venture into this section. These takes, while unlikely, have the potential to completely shake up the bracket. If you enjoy the physical pain of pure heat, you’ve come to the right place. If not, then you better have some milk ready.
No. 7 Iowa State will make the Sweet 16
Texas A&M has had a season for the ages, going 23-2 en route to its first SEC regular season title in school history. But it’s done so with a bevy of close wins and somewhat of a disregard for guarding the arc.
It’s the latter point that could play a role if the Aggies meet Iowa State in the second round. The Cyclones have at least four shooters on the floor at all times, and the offense is built to launch. Iowa State is one of three teams in the nation (along with High Point and Central Michigan) to shoot better than 35% from three while taking over 40% of its shots from deep.
Teams that shoot a lot of threes can be inconsistent, and Iowa State is no exception. The Cyclones have been inconsistent on the defensive end as well. But when you’re trying to pull an upset, inconsistency can be a positive if it means a higher ceiling. Iowa State’s shown this season how high its ceiling is — at their best the Cyclones beat Baylor on the road and took West Virginia apart. If that version of Bill Fennelly’s squad shows up this weekend, no opponent is safe.
No. 6 Rutgers will make the Elite Eight
Arella Guirantes came back to school for this moment. The All-Big Ten senior could have entered last year’s WNBA draft, but she knew her “journey here at Rutgers wasn’t finished.” Guirantes has been on a mission this year, and she’s putting up eye-popping numbers. The do-everything guard is averaging 20.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.1 steals, and 1.9 blocks, numbers unmatched by anyone in the six seasons in the Her Hoop Stats database.
The pandemic has affected every team this season in one way or another, but the Scarlet Knights were hit particularly hard when they had to miss over a month of action in January and early February. They burst back onto the scene, however, rattling off nine wins in a row before falling to Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament. That loss notwithstanding, this is one of the hottest teams in college basketball, and C. Vivian Stringer is a coach you don’t want to bet against.
Of course, this take can’t be combined with our previous take of Arizona making the Final Four, since they’d have to face each other in the second round. Get your popcorn ready if that matchup happens, because watching Aari McDonald try to break Rutgers’ pressure will be pure theater. Regardless of the outcome, the winner could be primed for a run.
Bonus irresponsibly dangerous take
The hottest pepper in the world is the Carolina Reaper, which, according to pepperhead.com, is 200 times hotter than a jalapeño. If you’re foolish enough to make it this far, the Carolina Reaper of takes awaits you.
No. 14 Middle Tennessee State will beat No. 3 Tennessee
In 1998, No. 16 seed Harvard defeated No. 1 Stanford 71-67 . It remains the only time a team seeded worse than No. 13 has won a game. But that game was far less mismatched than such games typically are. Harvard had the nation’s leading scorer in Allison Feaster, and two of Stanford’s top three scorers and rebounders had gotten injured the week before.
If you like your wings volcanically hot, take a chance on Middle Tennessee State to upset Tennessee. MTSU head coach Rick Insell should have no problem knowing his opposing coach’s tendencies — he once coached Kellie Harper in AAU ball.
Then there’s MTSU’s best player, Anastasia Hayes, who’s a rare power conference talent on a No. 14 seed. Don’t believe it? She started her career at none other than the University of Tennessee itself, averaging 9.3 points and 3.5 assists in her freshman season before transferring. Her numbers this season put her in some exclusive company, as she and Caitlin Clark are the only players in the last seven seasons to average over 26 points and five assists per game. No doubt she’ll be geared up to face her former team.
Extra motivation from the in-state rivalry aside, MTSU presents a tricky matchup for the Lady Vols. The Blue Raiders take over 40 percent of their shots from deep, a top-ten mark in the nation, and when they do go inside they draw fouls at a top-five rate. They also rank fifth in the country in turnover rate. Against a Tennessee defense that doesn’t force a lot of turnovers to begin with, MTSU will be getting a shot up on almost every possession. And given how Insell likes to play, most of those shots will be from deep.
If the shots aren’t falling, this one could get out of hand fast. But if MTSU gets hot from three, it will be a recipe for neutralizing Tennessee's length and interior shot blocking ability, and it might just be enough to make history.
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