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Dan Ippolito

As Casino City's associate editor, Dan produces and edits all of our weekly newsletters, and he writes about the gaming industry for our websites and the GPWA Times Magazine. Dan graduated from Marist College in 2017 with a degree in Communications and a concentration in Sports.

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Top 10 teams we think can win the NCAA men's basketball tournament

15 Mar 2021

By Dan Ippolito
“Madness” doesn’t even begin to explain what teams have had to go through in this unprecedented college basketball season.

After Selection Sunday took place yesterday and the bracket was set, teams are now ready to get into the tournament action after the 2020 tournament was cancelled due to COVID-19. The entire tournament will be played in Indiana with the majority of games happening in Indianapolis. Fans will be allowed but only at 25% capacity. While it may not be a full house, the intensity won’t be lessened as teams are hungry for the title. And the betting handle is expected to be off the charts.

Whether you’re placing bets online or in-person, take a look at the10 teams we think have a shot to cut down the nets when the Final Four comes to an end on 5 April.

10. Purdue
Winners of seven of their last 10, the Purdue Boilermakers are the No. 4 seed in the South region. They will take on the winners of the C-USA conference tournament, 13th-seeded North Texas.

Purdue stands out with their one-two-punch of Trevion Williams and Jaden Ivey. At 6-foot-10, Williams averages 15.6 points per game and nine rebounds per game. One aspect of Williams’ game that isn’t talked about enough is his passing ability. When he starts to get in a groove teams tend to double him in the post, but Williams has shown time and time again that he can handle the pressure and kick out to an open shooter, and Purdue has several of them. It was no fluke that Williams was selected to the Big Ten’s First Team.

If you do somehow force Williams into foul trouble, don’t think you can take a breather because getting up from the bench is 7-foot-4 freshman Zach Edey. As you’d expect, Edey is a force around the rim and a tough guard since most players covering him have at minimum a five-inch difference to make up.

That’s just the two centers on the team, we haven’t even touched on the guard play yet. Like Edey, Ivey was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team. Ivey has been playing his best basketball as of late, scoring in double figures in eight of his last 10 games.

The Boilermakers, 50-to-1 on bet365 Sportsbook & Racebook, can make a deep run and have seen the best competition all year considering how strong the Big Ten was this year as the conference has nine teams in the Big Dance.

9. Florida State

The No. 4 seed in the East Region, the Florida State Seminoles were the runner-up in the ACC conference tournament. Despite finishing one-game back of the regular season title and losing in the conference tournament finals to upstart Georgia Tech, I believe that FSU is the most complete team in the ACC.

One thing that stands out about this team is its balanced attack. The Seminoles have five players averaging at least nine points per game and as a team they shoot 39% from behind the arc.

They will space out the floor with the athletes they have on the perimeter such as M.J. Walker and Scottie Barnes. Then, FSU can beat you inside with the physicality of RaiQuan Gray and the size of 7-foot-1 Balsa Koprivica.

The loss to Georgia Tech over the weekend may have helped the betting value on the Seminoles increase, as I see them at 40-to-1 on Unibet Sports & Racebook. Look for FSU to come out hungry and angry and make a statement against UNC Greensboro in the first round before making a deep run.

8. West Virginia

West Virginia has been one of the more exciting teams to watch since it had six games decided by one possession and has one of my favorite players in college basketball.

Derek Culver, a 6-foot-10 center is a matchup nightmare for any team in the country. Averaging 14.6 points per game and just under 10 rebounds per game, Culver has improved in nearly every category compared to last season. If you think you are going to be able to move Culver out of the paint, think again, you are not going to knock him off his balance very easily.

In the backcourt and you have even more problems to deal with. Leading the team with 15.4 points per game, Miles McBride seems to always hit the clutch shot needed for his team, which he did when he hit the game winner against Texas Tech earlier in the season with just seconds left. He can score from the perimeter, or he can take you off the dribble and finish with either hand at the rim.

If McBride’s drive is shut down, you may see him kick it out to sharpshooting Sean McNeil. If the junior guard starts to get in a groove and heats up, you are in deep trouble. One of the streakier shooters in the Big 12, McNeil is nearly impossible to stop at the 3-point line when he is in the zone.

Oh, and don’t forget Mountaineers head coach Bob Huggins is a veteran of the Big Dance and has two Final Four appearances to his name from his days with Cincinnati.

Chosen as the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region, the Mountaineers, 33-to-1 on Intertops Sportsbook, face off against Morehead State at #14.

7. Michigan

Michigan would be higher on my list if they didn’t have a major question mark next to their name going into the tournament.

Isaiah Livers had to be put in a boot after a stress injury to his leg during the Big 10 tournament. The senior is the team’s second-leading scorer with just north of 13 points per contest. Despite him missing the Big Ten semifinal against Ohio State, Michigan fought back from down 13 with four minutes left before the Buckeyes held on to a one-point win.

The Wolverines proved they are still a strong team if Livers can’t go, but they do need him to have any chance at winning it all. Livers has experienced the Madness that comes along with March before and his ability to come in clutch when the team needs him is key for their success.

Despite Livers’ status still up in the air on a return, Michigan (8-to-1 to win it all at Unibet) still has some talent that needs to be recognized. Freshman phenom Hunter Dickinson, a 7-footer, and sophomore sharp-shooter Franz Wagner have been the go-to guys all season. Pair them up with floor general Mike Smith, and you still have a threatening offense that will give several teams problems.

6. Baylor

The Bears have been sitting as the No. 2 team in the country from nearly start to finish this season and have earned a No. 1 seed in this year’s tournament. The top seed in the South Region, Baylor had one of the more roller-coaster seasons in college basketball.

The team had to shut down due to COVID several times, but have powered through the obstacles and continue to be one of the best offenses in college. The offense ranks fourth in the nation and if you don’t run them off the 3-point line, it could be a long night. Baylor (5-to-1 to win the title on Intertops) shoots 41.8% from distance, putting them at the top of the country in that category.

If you are faced with the task of playing the Bears, be ready to go up against arguably the best backcourt in the game. Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell have the capability to score at all three levels and then defend just as well as they score.

5. Ohio State

After a tough overtime loss to Illinois in the Big Ten championship, Ohio State was given the No. 2 seed in the South Region behind Baylor.

I also have a slight question mark for this team, but not as heavy as Michigan’s. Forward Kyle Young missed yesterday’s game against Illinois with a concussion, which was his second within the last couple of weeks. His status for the tournament is unknown and his absence would take nearly nine points away from the lineup, not to mention the heart and toughness he brings to the team.

With Young sidelined, more weight falls on E.J. Liddell and Duane Washington. The pair averages 32 points per game combined. Washington has the most confidence in his shot I have seen this year and isn’t afraid to pull the trigger from anywhere on the floor once he crosses half-court.

One stat that sticks out for this team is its success at the free-throw line, which can be a major factor in closing out games. When you need to foul and extend the game by putting someone at the line, it is tough for an opposing team to choose. OSU (25-to-1 on bet365) has four players who shoot over 83% from the line, including C.J. Walker who shoots it at a 95% clip.

Liddell, a sophomore forward, I think is the most important player on the team. He can stretch the floor with his ability to shoot and has proven to score at will inside with his back to the basket. I believe if he returns next year he has a strong case to become Big Ten Player of the Year.

4. Oklahoma State

If you are an NBA fan and read into the upcoming NBA Draft, then you know all about Oklahoma State and the potential No. 1 NBA Draft pick, Cade Cunningham. The 6-foot-8 freshman plays like an NBA player already with his capability to hit the step back 3-pointer with no issue or get to the rim with ease. He averages just over 20 points and six rebounds per game and shoots 41% behind the arc.

Cunningham leads the No. 4 seeded Cowboys in the Midwest region and is accompanied by some of the hardest working players I’ve watched this season.

Just last Friday, OSU took down Baylor, handing the Bears just their second loss of the season. Not only that, but the team is going into the tournament having played, in my opinion, the hardest schedule as of late. The battle-tested Cowboys have played a ranked opponent in every game they have played since 16 February and went 8-2 during that stretch.

With Cunningham at the helm, surrounded by a great supporting cast, I have OSU (30-to-1 on Intertops) rolling to the Elite 8 before running into my eventual champion. Don’t be surprised when they continue to knock off big-name opponents in their effort to claim the title.

3. Alabama

As a self-proclaimed 3-point shooter from my high school and college intramural days, Alabama is a team I can only love to watch. The No. 2 seed in East Region has eight players with at least 20 3-pointers made this season.

The Tide’s most impressive game came at LSU when they knocked down 23 shots from Area Code 3, nearly outscoring LSU solely with 3-pointers.

Don’t think they are sunk if the three isn’t falling either. A few weeks ago against Vanderbilt, Alabama shot a brutal 25.6% from three and still managed to pick up a four-point victory. Using the spread offense, Alabama’s style gives players a lot of room to work and break down their defenders one-on-one.

While they may not be the tallest team, they have no fear to get inside and bang bodies around and make their presence known. Winners of nine of their last 10, the SEC Tournament champs (22-to-1 on bet365) are also in my Final Four.

2. Gonzaga

Now let’s get into my final prediction. Where to even begin with Gonzaga. Do we start with top-5 NBA point guard prospect, freshman Jalen Suggs, lights out shooter Corey Kispert, or versatile big man Drew Timme.

Let me talk about them as a whole. This three-headed monster is a force to be reckoned with, helping the team to score 92 points per game.

Ball movement is the name of the game for the Bulldogs. They are third in the nation in assists and no matter if it is off a made basket or not, the team gets the ball and is ready to run. Be ready to defend in transition or Gonzaga will be scoring 100 on you with ease.

Sitting as the tournament’s #1 overall seed, Gonzaga (21-to-10 on bet365) is in my final but is not my champion for one reason. At 26-0, they are the only undefeated team in the tournament this year and the fifth team to be undefeated heading into March Madness since 1977. The four previous teams all fell short of winning it all and I can see this trend being true yet again, especially if Gonzaga finds themselves matched up with my champion.

1. Illinois

I have two words for you, Fighting Illini. The keyword being “Fighting.” This Illinois team is afraid of nothing and it shows with how they play. A physical, aggressive and talented team is what you get out of the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region.

They have won 14 of 15, including being crowned Big Ten tournament champions yesterday after a hard-fought victory over Ohio State.

Let me give you two more words, Cockburn and Dosunmu, as in Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu.

Cockburn, a 7-foot, 285-pound center is an absolute tank in the paint and punishes the rim with monstrous dunks when he gets position inside and it is tough to get him out of position.

Slide over to the top of the key to Dosunmu who the offense runs through and who can do it all. Scoring, rebounding and assisting are all tied to his name on the score sheet. While they are by far the team’s most important players, it is the depth of Illinois that has them at the top of my list.

For many teams, a game can change instantly if their key player gets into foul trouble early and is forced to take a seat on the bench.

However, Illinois is capable of withstanding such issues with their bench. If Cockburn has to take a seat to catch his break from his hard work or picks up two early fouls, Giorgi Bezhanishvili is more than a sufficient backup and would probably be a starter at a lot of other programs. Same goes for Dosumno needed a break, when freshman Andre Curbelo steps on the floor. Still young, Curbelo needs to improve his outside shot and if he does I see him as a top player in the Big Ten no doubt within two years.

This Illini team (7-to-1 on Unibet) is my favorite pick to be cutting down the final net of the season.
 
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