NCAA Bracket 2021: Complete Guide to Midwest Region

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMarch 15, 2021

NCAA Bracket 2021: Complete Guide to Midwest Region

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    The Midwest Region of the 2021 men's NCAA tournament is headlined by No. 1 Illinois, which learned it had secured a top seed just minutes after knocking off Ohio State in overtime in the Big Ten tournament's championship game.

    The Fighting Illini will need to navigate No. 2 Houston, No. 3 West Virginia, No. 4 Oklahoma State and a host of upset-minded lower seeds if they hope to reach the Final Four.

    For NBA fans, Oklahoma State freshman guard Cade Cunningham will be must-see TV as the presumptive No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft following a stellar season that included Big 12 Player of the Year honors.

    Before the tournament gets underway, here's a full breakdown of the Midwest Region.

First-Round Schedule

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    Quentin Grimes
    Quentin GrimesKarl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

    All first-round games in the West Region will be played on Friday, March 19. All game times are in ET.

    No. 1 Illinois vs. No. 16 Drexel, 1:15pm, TBS

    No. 8 Loyola-Chicago vs. No. 9 Georgia Tech, 4:00pm, TBS

    No. 5 Tennessee vs. No. 12 Oregon State, 4:30pm, TNT

    No. 4 Oklahoma State vs. No. 13 Liberty,6:25pm, TBS

    No. 2 Houston vs. No. 15 Cleveland State, 7:15, truTV

    No. 7 Clemson vs. No. 10 Rutgers, 9:20pm TBS

    No. 6 San Diego State vs. No. 11 Syracuse, 9:40pm CBS

    No. 3 West Virginia vs. No. 14 Morehead State, 9:50pm, truTV

Must-See Games

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    Moses Wright
    Moses WrightGerry Broome/Associated Press

    No. 8 Loyola-Chicago vs. No. 9 Georgia Tech

    Cameron Krutwig vs. Moses Wright.

    Missouri Valley Player of the Year vs. ACC Player of the Year.

    Krutwig was a true freshman starter on the Loyola-Chicago team that made an unlikely run to the Final Four in 2018. Now he's one of the most well-rounded big men in the country, averaging 15.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals.

    Wright has steadily improved in four years at Georgia Tech, averaging 17.4 points and 8.0 rebounds while adding an outside game with a 41.4 percent clip from beyond the arc.

    No question this is one of the best individual head-to-head battles in the first round.


    No. 4 Oklahoma State vs. No. 13 Liberty

    Oklahoma State went 4-1 against five straight ranked teams to close out the regular season and then knocked off Baylor in the Big 12 tournament. The Cowboys are capable of making a deep tournament run and giving Ayo Dosunmu and Illinois a serious scare in the Sweet 16.

    However, they have to be careful not to look past a sneaky-good Liberty team.

    The Flames pulled off an upset of No. 5 Mississippi State in the 2019 tournament, and key contributors Darius McGhee and Elijah Cuffee are still around from that team. They play at a snail's pace and shoot a blistering 39.1 percent from three as a team, which is enough to make them a compelling matchup for Cade Cunningham and the Cowboys.

Top Storylines

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    Cameron Krutwig
    Cameron KrutwigCharles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    1. Cade Cunningham vs. Ayo Dosunmu

    Cade Cunningham and Ayo Dosunmu both recently earned first-team All-American honors from Sporting News, and they have been two of the faces of college basketball during the 2020-21 season.

    If No. 1 Illinois and No. 4 Oklahoma State can both survive the opening weekend, those two standout guards would face off in the Sweet 16.

    Cunningham has long been cemented in the No. 1 spot on NBA draft big boards, but Dosunmu has seen his stock fluctuate throughout the season. A strong showing against an elite talent like Cunningham would give his status a major boost.


    2. Parity at the bottom of the bracket

    It was a down year for the AAC, which makes it tough to gauge the strength of Houston as a No. 2 seed in this region.

    Aside from the Cougars, West Virginia and San Diego State both look like Elite Eight-caliber teams when everything is going right, and it's not out of the question to think No. 7 Clemson, No. 10 Rutgers and No. 11 Syracuse could also throw a wrench into things. This might be the most wide-open Elite Eight spot in the entire tournament.


    3. Illinois vs. Loyola-Chicago?

    In order for college basketball fans to be treated to the Cunningham-Dosunmu matchup, the Illini first need to survive what figures to be a tough second-round test against either Loyola-Chicago or Georgia Tech.

    The Ramblers checked in at No. 18 in the most recent AP poll, so there's a case to be made that they are massively underseeded on the No. 8 line.

    The post matchup between Kofi Cockburn and Cameron Krutwig would be a compelling individual battle in its own right, and this has the added flair of being an in-state showdown.

Players to Watch

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    Cade Cunningham
    Cade CunninghamBrody Schmidt/Associated Press

    Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State

    It's not hard to see what all the fuss is about with Cade Cunningham.

    The No. 1 recruit in the nation and the top player in the upcoming draft class, he averages 20.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists while shooting 41.2 percent from deep in what will be his one and only season at Oklahoma State.

    With a 6'8" frame and the handles and court vision of a point guard, he's a special player who has all the physical tools to be a star at the highest level.


    Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, Illinois

    The Illini feature a pair of first-team All-Big Ten selections in sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu and junior center Kofi Cockburn, and those two are the best tandem in college basketball. (For the sake of that debate, we'll call Drew Timme, Corey Kispert and Jalen Suggs a stellar trio for Gonzaga.)

    Both players are capable of shouldering the offensive load, and both are capable of taking a backseat when the other one is on top of his game.

    The Illini's title hopes have improved dramatically as some of their secondary options have developed into more consistent contributors, but they will still go as far as this duo carries them.


    Moses Wright, Georgia Tech

    A lightly recruited prospect out of high school, Wright averaged 3.6 points as a freshman and 6.7 points as a sophomore while playing fewer than 20 minutes per contest both years. He took a major step forward last year with 13.0 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, and now he's one of the best post players in the country and the ACC Player of the Year.

    With a long 6'9" frame and the ability to stretch his game to the perimeter, he's fun to watch on the offensive end, and his stellar season has largely flown under the radar during a year in which the ACC took a backseat to the Big Ten and Big 12.

Favorite Most Likely to Fall

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    Jaden Springer
    Jaden SpringerButch Dill/Associated Press

    No. 5 Tennessee

    The Volunteers have a pair of potential lottery picks in the freshman tandem of Jaden Springer (12.5 PPG) and Keon Johnson (11.2 PPG), and they are also the team's leading scorers.

    Both players have settled in after up-and-down starts to the season, but the offense as a whole is still frustratingly inconsistent. With seven players averaging at least eight points per game, this is a high-seeded team without a go-to scorer, and that can often be a detriment under the bright lights of March Madness when you need a big bucket.

    Is No. 12 seed Oregon State a team that played over its head in the Pac-12 tournament or a team catching fire at the perfect time?

    It's probably more Column B than Column A, but that doesn't change the fact that this Tennessee team checks all the usual boxes for a team that belongs on upset watch.

Most Likely Cinderella

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    No. 6 San Diego State

    With one of the toughest defenses in the country, San Diego State is one team no one wanted to see on its side of the bracket.

    The Aztecs allow just 60.6 points per game, and they have not surrendered more than 72 points in a game this season. That's par for the course with this team, but it is more well-balanced on the offensive end than in years past.

    Senior forward Matt Mitchell (15.4 PPG, 5.5 RPG) leads the team in scoring, while Jordan Schakel (14.3 PPG, 46.7 3PT%) and Terrell Gomez (8.8 PPG, 41.7 3PT%) are both serious threats from deep.

    As mentioned earlier, the bottom half of this region appears to be wide open, and it wouldn't be a huge shock to see San Diego State still standing in the Elite Eight.

Who Will Make the Sweet 16?

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    Quentin Grimes
    Quentin GrimesEric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    No. 1 Illinois

    The Illini won't have an easy second-round game regardless of who wins the Loyola-Chicago vs. Georgia Tech matchup.

    Expect a tight first half from either opponent, but Illinois' deep rotation and elite athleticism should allow it to pull away in the second half. The key will be Kofi Cockburn avoiding foul trouble against whichever top-tier big man he is matched up against.


    No. 4 Oklahoma State

    The Cowboys get my vote for best No. 4 seed in the field.

    One of the youngest teams in the tournament, it's no surprise to see them hitting their stride late in the season. Now that the pieces have fallen into place and guys understand their role on the team around Cade Cunningham, they are going to be an extremely tough draw for whoever they wind up facing.

    Liberty is not going to be a walk in the park in the first round, but expect the Cowboys to weather that storm and post a convincing victory over whoever wins the Tennessee vs. Oregon State game.


    No. 3 West Virginia

    The Mountaineers have spent a good chunk of the year ranked in the top 10 in the AP poll, and they hung right with Gonzaga in a five-point loss early in the season.

    Expect a blowout win against Morehead State and a tough victory against the stingy San Diego State defense. The first team to 70 points might win that game.


    No. 2 Houston

    Fun fact: Cleveland State has never lost its opening game in the NCAA tournament, upsetting No. 4 Wake Forest in 2009 and No. 3 Indiana in 1986. It actually matches up well with Houston, but that trend is unlikely to continue. The 7-10 game between Clemson and Rutgers is a complete coin toss, but Houston is the pick here regardless of the winner.

The Elite Eight Matchup Will Be...

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    Derek Culver
    Derek CulverTony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    No. 1 Illinois vs. No. 3 West Virginia

    If Illinois can get past Oklahoma State, it might just punch its ticket to the national championship game.

    The Illini have a deeper lineup than the Cowboys on paper, but don't underestimate the impact Cade Cunningham can have on a game. If they can control Kofi Cockburn inside, they'll have a real shot at pulling off the upset.

    Illinois is the pick, but it's going to be a battle, and Oklahoma State has plenty of experience in close games this year.

    In the other matchup, West Virginia is an easier choice.

    Despite its stellar 23-3 record and standing as the No. 7 team in the AP poll, Houston does not have the most impressive resume. It only played three Quadrant 1 games all year, and its best win was a neutral-site game against Texas Tech.

    Meanwhile, the Mountaineers have played a whopping 14 games against Quad 1 opponents, and they hung right with Gonzaga and Baylor in a pair of five-point losses.

And the Final Four Team Is....

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    No. 1 Illinois

    The biggest concern for Illinois around midseason was whether anyone was going to step up behind Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn.

    Freshman guard Andre Curbelo and senior guard Trent Frazier have both done so down the stretch, and upperclassman role players Da'Monte Williams (13 points) and Giorgi Bezhanishvili (12 points) provided a spark against Ohio State on Sunday.

    This team has the star power, rotation depth, athleticism, size and shooting to be a bona fide national title contender, and it appears to be on a collision course with Baylor in the Final Four.


    All stats courtesy of Sports Reference.