Ranking college basketball teams has always been more of an art than a science. In fact, we’re not even sure we’d call it an art because pollsters and pundits always seem to get it wrong.
Every year, teams that haven’t gotten a lot of publicity or respect in the polls for most of the season end up surprising us by making a run in the NCAA Tournament to the Sweet 16 and beyond.
Obviously, the 2020-21 season has been like no other college basketball season in recent memory. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to be surprised by teams on the periphery.
While we don’t expect all of these teams to make a tournament run, here are 10 college basketball teams outside the top 25 that we think have legitimate Sweet 16 potential.
UC Santa Barbara
Getting past UC Irvine in the Big West Tournament will be tricky, but who doesn’t want to see a team called the Gauchos make a Cinderella run to the Sweet 16?
Until recently, UCSB had a 13-game winning streak, as they’ve cruised through their conference schedule and will be loaded with confidence. The Gauchos are a team that’s heavy on upperclassmen, including a couple of key players who started their careers at power-conference teams.
They also have a bonafide star in JaQuori McLaughlin, who averages 16 points and 5.4 assists per game. He’s the caliber of player who can lift up a mid-major like UC Santa Barbara on the big stage and make them the darlings of the tournament.
The Rockets are on the cusp of earning an at-large bid if they don’t win the MAC Tournament, so nobody should doubt that this is a team that can do some damage.
The MAC produced the Buffalo teams in 2018 and 2019 that each won a game in the Big Dance and nearly reached the Sweet 16. This year’s Toledo team is built a similar way. The Rockets have a roster that’s full of great athletes who are aggressive and put opponents under pressure at both ends of the floor. They have five players who average at least 12 points per game, including Marreon Jackson and Spencer Littleson, who are both dangerous outside shooters.
With such scoring depth, the Rockets can afford to play unselfishly, meaning the open player is the go-to player. That should make them a tough out and the kind of team that can make a surprise run to the Sweet 16.
The Broncos haven’t quite punched their ticket for the dance, and in a stacked Mountain West, there’s no guarantee they will be able to earn an automatic bid. But if they get in, even if they have to play a play-in game, the Broncos will be a team to watch closely.
Derrick Alston Jr. has an incredible skill set for a 6-foot-9 wing player. The Broncos have size, depth, and experience, so a lot of the ingredients for a deep run are there. They’re also battle-tested after playing in the Mountain West, which is why we wouldn’t be surprised to see Boise flex its muscles on the basketball court.
While they are a modest 12-6 overall, the Eagles could be a dangerous team if they can avoid an upset in the Big Sky Tournament.
Granted, the Big Sky doesn’t produce many teams that are a serious threat in the Big Dance. But Eastern Washington could be the exception, especially after they were denied the opportunity last year.
The Eagles spread the ball around and have five different players who average double figures, which makes them tough to guard. They also average a little over 80 points per game, so it’ll be tough for any team to put them away.
Eastern Washington played three Pac-12 teams early in the season, and while they lost all three games, the Eagles were competitive and won’t be fazed to play a power-conference opponent in the NCAA Tournament, making them a Cinderella candidate to watch.
North Carolina's recent win over Florida State should guarantee the Tar Heels a spot in the NCAA Tournament. As long as Roy Williams does enough to get his team into the Big Dance, the boys from Chapel Hill will be a threat that nobody wants to play, even if they’re a No. 10 seed.
The Tar Heels have the kind of size that allows them to bully teams in the paint, which means they can score on offensive rebounds even when the offense isn’t flowing and they aren’t shooting well.
If the backcourt, which has been up and down most of the season, can put together two good games in a row, North Carolina could punch its ticket to the Sweet 16. After the way they beat defended Florida State and out-rebounded the Seminoles over the weekend, the Tar Heels look good enough to beat any team they might encounter during the first weekend of the tournament.
Shockingly, the Bruins have never even made it to the Round of 32. However, Belmont has been to the NCAA Tournament five times in the past decade and always seems to be a Sweet 16 sleeper.
If Belmont can survive Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament, they will likely be a dangerous No. 13 seed. And keep in mind that 13 seeds are the new 12 seeds.
Center Nick Muszynski was absent in two recent losses but should be back for the OVC Tournament. He’s Belmont’s leading scorer, giving the Bruins a legitimate paint presence amidst a sea of great shooters. He’s the kind of center who allows Belmont to match up against power-conference teams, making them a legitimate Sweet 16 threat.
The Eagles are another team that looks like they’ll be a No. 13 seed, making them dangerous in the Big Dance.
Winthrop has 11 players who average at least 10 minutes per game, so they have a deep rotation that allows the Eagles to play with maximum effort and intensity for 40 minutes, especially on the defensive end. That also means Winthrop has several options when it comes to scoring.
Senior Chandler Vaudrin leads the team in points, rebounds, assists, and steals. Despite averaging just 12.3 points per game, Vaudrin does it all and is the kind of player who can carry a deep and talented supporting cast to the second weekend of the Big Dance.
We know that the Cougars aren’t as good as Gonzaga, but they’re 10-1 against the rest of the West Coast Conference and 19-3 outside of their games against Mark Few’s team.
Purdue transfer Matt Haarms gives BYU a post presence while Alex Barcello and Brandon Averette are both excellent guards who can shoot and distribute the ball with equal efficiency.
Even outside of Haarms, the Cougars have a ton of size in the frontcourt, so they look the part of a power-conference team despite playing a lighter schedule.
BYU has good size, depth, and quality guard play, all of which are characteristics of teams capable of making a Sweet 16 run.
Even in a down year for the ACC, Clemson has rarely been mentioned among the top teams in the league. In fairness, the Tigers had a tough stretch in January that caused them to drop off the radar. But Brad Brownell has his team playing down the stretch, making the Tigers look like a team that could reach the Sweet 16 for the second time in four years.
Offensively, there are literally hundreds of teams that average more points per game than Clemson. But the Tigers get after it defensively better than almost any team we’ll see in the NCAA Tournament.
It may not look aesthetically pleasing, but Clemson might be able to defend and rebound their way to a couple of tournament wins and help the ACC make up for a down season.
The Bruins remain at the top of the Pac-12 standings but still aren’t getting much love from the polls. However, UCLA is a virtual lock to make it to the Big Dance and could end up being one of the most overlooked teams in the field.
The midseason loss of Chris Smith was tough for the Bruins, but they’ve managed to recalibrate and still have four other players who average at least 10 points per game. Johnny Juzang has stepped up and become the team’s go-to scorer. The Bruins also have a surprising amount of depth even after losing Smith.
Point guard Tyger Campbell averages 5.6 assists per game, as the undersized point guard can be pesky for opposing teams to guard. UCLA also shoots 37% from three-point range.
When they heat up from the perimeter, the Bruins are dangerous and are capable of pulling off the kind of upset that can get them to the Sweet 16.
Photo: Getty Images