Gonzaga and Baylor are clearly the best two teams in college basketball. They have been ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in every AP Top 25 poll since the preseason. They are a combined 34-0 with a combined average margin of victory of 23.5 points per game. If any team is going to win the 2021 NCAA Tournament, they will likely have to beat at least one, if not both of these powerhouse programs. This begs two questions:
How can they be defeated?
Which teams have the ability to do it?
I took a deep dive into answering both of those questions.
How To Beat Gonzaga & Baylor In The 2021 NCAA Tournament
Let’s examine the tools needed to defeat either of these two dominant teams.
First, it must be a strong defensive team. Both Gonzaga (94.3 ppg) and Baylor (87.2 ppg) are elite offensive teams. It is impossible to envision another team in college basketball outscoring either program. A worthy adversary needs to be able to limit their scoring, which involves defensive pressure and rebounding. In Gonzaga’s closest game this year, Saint Mary’s outrebounded the Bulldogs 32 to 29, while forcing the Zags into one more turnover (11 to 10).
Second, the team needs to shoot well from beyond the arc. The three-point shot is the great equalizer, and has been the foundation of almost every historic NCAA Tournament upset. In Baylor’s three closest games this season, the Bears allowed a combined 42% (23 of 55) from beyond the arc. Baylor’s “no-middle” defense forces teams away from interior and puts a premium on an opponent’s ability to hit outside shots. It is difficult to see any team find success against either Baylor or Gonzaga without having a strong day from deep.
Lastly, teams need to limit turnovers and make free throws. These fundamental parts of basketball are even more important when facing a team that has superior talent. Giving extra chances to an explosive offense such as the Bears or Bulldogs is yet another avoidable obstacle that severely limits the upset possibility. This is critically important for smaller schools, who are unlikely to even approach the roster talent of Gonzaga or Baylor. In VCU’s Elite Eight upset of Kansas in 2011, the Rams shot 77.3% (17 of 22) from the foul line compared to the Jayhawks 53.6% (15 of 28).
With those three areas serving as the foundation, here are the only teams with the projected ability to stun either of the two dominant teams in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
(All statistics from KenPom).
Which Teams Can Beat Gonzaga & Baylor In The 2021 NCAA Tournament?
Alabama Crimson Tide
Offensive Ranking: 21st
Defensive Ranking: 8th
3P Accuracy: 36% (77th)
Offensive Turnovers: 13.8 per game (197th)
Free Throw Shooting: 71% (161st)
— Alabama Men’s Basketball (@AlabamaMBB) January 20, 2021
The Crimson Tide have shown an ability to score with anyone in the country. Their SEC-record 23 made three-pointers against LSU clearly illustrated their potential. Alabama is one of the few teams in the country that can accurately boast of an offense that can match Baylor or Gonzaga. Their offense ranks 21st overall but is actually better in SEC play. Alabama ranks first in adjusted offensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage, and 3P percentage against conference opponents. Head coach Nate Oats‘ squad is also elite at pressuring the ball on defense. They allow the lowest 3P percentage (26.8%) and 2P percentage (42.1%) in SEC play.
The negatives? The turnover numbers on both ends of the court are average, and they generate almost 41% of their points from 3P, 11th-most in the country. If they go cold from beyond the arc, they are an early-round upset target. Currently, they are playing without 6-foot-10 senior forward Jordan Bruner (7.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg) who is recovering from meniscus surgery. His rebounding ability is critical for a team that is below average on the defensive boards. Once fully healthy, the Crimson Tide are one of the few teams with the overall profile to give either Gonzaga or Baylor a serious challenge. All they need to to do is get hot from beyond the arc.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Offensive Ranking: 7th
Defensive Ranking: 17th
3P Accuracy: 39.7% (10th)
Offensive Turnovers: 13.2 per game (149th)
Free Throw Shooting: 70.1% (184th)
LET'S GOOOOO pic.twitter.com/oJkbabTgMU
— Illinois Basketball (@IlliniMBB) February 3, 2021
Illinois fits the National Champion metric profile with a ninth-best rating in adjusted-offensive efficiency and a 17th-best defensive efficiency ranking. Anchored by 7-foot sophomore center Kofi Cockburn, the Illini hold opponents to a 16th-best 44% from inside the arc. Illinois is also incredibly strong on the boards, ranking 29th in defensive rebounding and 47th in offensive rebounding efficiency per KenPom.
Led by junior guard Ayo Dosunmu (21.2 ppg, 41.1% 3P) and senior Trent Frazier (10.2 ppg, 40.2% 3P), Illinois ranks ninth in the country in 3P accuracy (39.7%). Their kryptonite is a lack of forced turnovers, ranking just 296th with an average of 11.7 per game. Illinois has the advantage of having faced Baylor earlier this season, in an 82-69 neutral-court loss amplified by Cockburn foul trouble. Their combination of offense, rebounding, and inside-outside balance make the Illini a legitimate threat in the NCAA Tournament.
Florida State Seminoles
Offensive Ranking: 13th
Defensive Ranking: 35th
3P Accuracy: 37.9% (34th)
Offensive Turnovers: 14.3 per game (232nd)
Free Throw Shooting: 73.2% (93rd)
You get a dunk 👆 You get a dunk 👉 Everyone gets a dunk 👇
— Florida State Men’s Basketball (@FSUHoops) January 28, 2021
Every year, Florida State is a trendy pick to reach the Final Four. Since losing the 1972 National Championship game to UCLA, the Seminoles have reached five Sweet 16s and two Elite Eights, but no Final Fours. Their defense is always stout under head coach Leonard Hamilton, and this year is no different. Florida State ranks Top 35th in overall defense, 2P percentage allowed, and defensive block percentage. Curiously, this team is forcing turnovers at a much lower rate than years past. The Seminoles rank 130th with an average of 14.2 per game.
They are prolific from deep, shooting almost 38% as a team led by senior M.J. Walker (44.6%) and junior Anthony Polite (53.3%). The Seminoles make their free throws and are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country (11.8 per game). Hamilton’s team does have tournament history on their side. In the 2018 NCAA Tournament, they defeated No. 1 Xavier and No. 4 Gonzaga en route to the Elite Eight. While it’s difficult to project enough consistency to defeat both Baylor and Gonzaga, neither team will want to see the Seminoles in their bracket.
Offensive Ranking: 8th
Defensive Ranking: 7th
3P Accuracy: 37.7% (36th)
Offensive Turnovers: 12.9 per game (123th)
Free Throw Shooting: 76.8% (27th)
— Michigan Men's Basketball (@umichbball) January 20, 2021
Prior to their COVID shutdown, head coach Juwan Howard‘s team was among the hottest in the country. Outside of a January 16th stumble at Minnesota, the Wolverines were almost as dominant as Gonzaga or Baylor. They are a guard-heavy roster surrounding 7-foot-1 freshman Hunter Dickinson, averaging 15.1 ppg and 7.2 rpg. Michigan is the top 3P shooting team in Big Ten play (39.1%), with four players shooting 37% or better from beyond the arc. Senior forward Isiah Livers is the best of the group, averaging 44.6% from 3P on 74 attempts.
Michigan features the best 2P percentage defense in the country, holding opponents to just 40.1% from 2P. The Wolverines are not as strong on the boards and surprisingly rank dead-last in offensive turnovers within conference play. However, with their shooting ability, Dickinson on the interior, and a solid defensive identity, Michigan has as good a chance as any team to take down the nation’s top two teams.
Loyola Chicago Ramblers
Offensive Ranking: 40th
Defensive Ranking: 6th
3P Accuracy: 36.1% (69th)
Offensive Turnovers: 11.9 per game (59th)
Free Throw Shooting: 72.8% (107th)
— Loyola Men's Basketball (@RamblersMBB) January 17, 2021
If you are looking for a mid-major run in this year’s NCAA Tournament, Loyola Chicago is again your best bet. Just three year’s removed from their magical run in 2018, the Ramblers are back again and look just as strong as their former version. Loyola Chicago is uber-efficient on offense, ranking eighth in effective field goal percentage and fourth in 2P efficiency (59.5%). The latter is buoyed by superior big man Cameron Krutwig, a leftover from the 2018 team. Krutwig is the centerpiece of the Ramblers offensive attack, and averages 15.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1.2 steals per game.
Similar to Michigan, head coach Porter Moser surrounds Krutwig with a bevy of three-point specialists. They have an extraordinary seven players averaging 35% or better from deep, all with at least 20 attempts. This doesn’t include second-leading scorer Tate Hall at a respectable 33%. The Ramblers are relentless on defense, holding Missouri Valley opponents to a microscopic 28% from deep and 43.7% from inside the arc. They limit their offensive turnovers and force defensive turnovers at one of the highest rates in the country. While the level of competition argument will always linger with mid-majors, the Ramblers have proved to be a worth nemesis against any opponent come 2021 NCAA Tournament time.