2021 March Madness Predictions: Popular Sweet 16 picks with higher upset potential than you might think

By | March 18, 2021

When it comes to making March Madness bracket picks, there are no golden rules. Every tournament, every team, and every potential path to the NCAA championship is different — and the 2021 bracket is no exception.

To give yourself the best chance to win your 2021 bracket pool, you shouldn’t blindly make picks based on advice that ignores the context of this year’s bracket (e.g. that silly old “Always pick a 12-seed over a 5-seed” stuff). A much better strategy is to figure out which teams in the bracket are being overrated by the general public, and then identify the best spots to avoid picking those teams.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on some popular Sweet 16 picks in the 2021 bracket that are looking shaky. We have some history here, as we’ve written a similar article for Sporting News in both 2018 and 2019. In ’18, three of the four teams we highlighted did not make the Sweet 16. In ’19, a year when 14 of the 16 teams on the top-four seed lines advanced to the Sweet 16, we highlighted the only two teams that failed to do so, and the other two we mentioned lost in the Sweet 16.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from TeamRankings.com, a site that has provided expert bracket pick advice since 2004. Since 2017, their subscribers have reported over $1.7 million in bracket pool prize winnings using their NCAA Bracket Picks.

MORE TEAMRANKINGS: Bracket pool tips | Best upsets by seedMatchup Predictor

NCAA Tournament Bracket Advice: Overrated Sweet 16 picks that are riskier than you think

No. 3 Texas (East)

The public is picking Texas like a heavy favorite, advancing them to the Sweet 16 in about 72 percent of brackets. In comparison, our system has Shaka Smart’s Longhorns at just a 43-percent chance of making it to the second weekend.

The issue here is partly that Texas is not as good as a typical No. 3 seed. Texas has played an inordinate amount of close games — it’s 10-5 in games decided by six points or less or in overtime. It’s also because the path in front of them is more difficult than the public thinks. 

Against Abilene Christian in the first round, Texas is tied for the lowest point spread among the No. 3 seeds. We project the Longhorns with 78-percent win odds (also the lowest for a three). Then, Texas’s next most likely opponent is an underrated No. 6 BYU team that compares very similarly to Texas overall. If BYU doesn’t make it, it’s because one of two potentially dangerous No. 11 seeds (Michigan State or UCLA) advanced. Texas will not be a big favorite in any of those matchups.

No. 3 West Virginia (Midwest)

West Virginia isn’t quite as overvalued as Texas, but they are another Big 12 team that is being strongly favored by the public to advance. About 65 percent of the public has West Virginia in the Sweet 16, but we estimate its odds at around 48 percent. 

To get to the Sweet 16, West Virginia will have to get through a pretty good team in either No. 6 San Diego State or No. 11 Syracuse in the second round. San Diego State is rated near or even above West Virginia in many power ratings systems, and if it’s not the Aztecs, it’s a Syracuse team that has had a knack for playing well as a double-digit seed in March.

MARCH MADNESS PICKS: 2021 Expert Brackets from TeamRankings

No. 4 Virginia (West)

Virginia may still be the defending National Champion (from two years ago), but it enters the 2021 tournament in a vulnerable spot. First, the team will not arrive in Indianapolis until Friday afternoon after pausing all team activities after a positive COVID test at the ACC Tournament. The Cavaliers also aren’t practicing all this week, and they will need to win two games in three days — 24 hours after traveling — to make the Sweet 16.

Around 52 percent of the public is picking them to advance at least two rounds, but we give Virginia the lowest odds of the No. 4 seeds to do so at 40 percent. They first have to get past a dangerous No. 13 Ohio team that has been at full strength for just about 60 percent of its games this year but is healthy now. Then, most likely, the Cavaliers would get No. 5 Creighton in the second round, a game in which Virginia would not be favored by much, if at all.

No. 5 Villanova (South)

We officially have the past two national champions on the list of our overvalued Sweet 16 teams in 2021. In short, Villanova is not the same team that it was earlier this year — for one big reason especially. The Wildcats lost point guard Collin Gillespie to a knee injury three games ago and have not played well since then, going 0-2.

Because of Gillespie’s injury, we project Villanova with the lowest chance to advance to the Sweet 16 of any of the No. 5 seeds (27 percent), but the public has them as the most likely No. 5 seed to get there (39 percent).

Finally, we’ll cap off our 2021 list with a bonus team that we do expect will make the Sweet 16, but is a lot less safe of a pick than the public thinks — and picking against them could also make for a highly contrarian gambit in your bracket.  

BONUS PICK: No. 1 Michigan (East)

Michigan is being picked to get to the Sweet 16 a whopping 85 percent of the time in brackets nationwide — and that figure would probably be justified if Michigan was at full strength. The Wolverines, though, lost one of their top players, Isaiah Livers, to a foot injury, and he will almost certainly not be playing. On top of that, the team lacks a deep bench to replace him.

In addition, Michigan got a pretty tough draw for a potential second-round matchup. LSU could have easily been at least a No. 6 seed after beating Arkansas and then losing to Alabama on the final possession in the SEC tournament title game. The No. 9 seed, St. Bonaventure, has also been playing much better as the season has gone on after COVID delayed the start of its season into mid-December. 

Compared to its 85-percent pick rate, we give Michigan just a 56-percent chance to make the Sweet 16 in 2021, mainly because of Livers’ injury but also because of a tougher path than the public realizes. Obviously, 56 percent is still more likely than not, but this is a No. 1 seed that nearly 40 percent of the nation has in its Final Four and it has close to a coin flip’s chance of losing much earlier.

Should you avoid all five of the teams we mentioned above in your bracket’s Sweet 16? Maybe if your pool awards some huge upset bonuses, but that would be the only reason. Otherwise, making the best bracket picks involves making sure you take the right amount of risk for your pool’s size and scoring system — not too little but not too much either. In many pools, picking too many upsets early, even if you’re picking against overrated teams, can be the kiss of death.

If you want to see all the optimal bracket for your pools, check out our 2021 NCAA Bracket Picks product. It gives you detailed analysis on all 68 teams, tools to identify the smartest upset picks in every round, and ready-to-play brackets that give you the best chance to win.




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