March 15, 2021

2021 NCAA Tournament Preview: Midwest Region

If there’s one way to describe the Midwest Region of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, it could be the color orange.

Playing in this region will be Illinois, Tennessee, Clemson, and Syracuse, all teams that wear various shades of orange. In fact, Syracuse is quite literally the Orange. Oklahoma State and Oregon State also have a hint of orange in their colors as well.

Beyond that, this looks to be an intriguing region. There are at least 13 teams that will fancy themselves as Sweet 16 candidates. That should lead to competitive games throughout the opening weekend and beyond.

Let’s take a closer look at the Midwest Region in hopes of predicting how things will end up.

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Top Seed: Illinois Fighting Illini

The Illini didn’t get the same hype as Baylor and Gonzaga during the regular season. However, it’s tough to find a hotter team right now.

After winning the Big Ten Tournament, Illinois has now won 14 of its last 15 games, losing only to a desperate Michigan State team during that stretch. Keep in mind they did that in the brutal gauntlet known as the Big Ten.

Illinois has an incredible tandem in Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu, not to mention an incredible supporting cast. They have all of the ingredients, as well as the momentum and confidence, to reach the Final Four and win a national championship.

Main Competition: Houston Cougars

The Cougars flew under the radar for most of the season, but they earned a No. 2 seed by going 24-3 during the season and winning the American Conference Tournament.

They may not have been challenged as much as some power-conference opponents, but Houston beat most AAC teams convincingly. The backcourt led by Quentin Grimes and Marcus Sasser is for real, allowing the Cougars to score at will.

Sleeper: Syracuse Orange

For whatever reason, Jim Boeheim enjoys being a double-digit seed. The last two times Syracuse barely snuck into the tournament as a double-digit seed, they advanced to the Sweet 16 or further.

The Orange came on strong late in the season, beating North Carolina and Clemson before going wire-to-wire with Virginia in the ACC Tournament. It’s hard to find a better scorer in the country right now than Boeheim’s son, Buddy, who is red-hot.

As usual, Boeheim’s team has gotten better late in the season, so they are playing much better than a No. 11 seed. Syracuse is also a pain to play on short notice because of their 2-3 zone, which is why if the Orange can win their first game, they’re usually a threat to win their second game of the weekend too.

Tough Out: Cleveland State Vikings

There will be no easy games in the Midwest, as evidenced by Cleveland State being the No. 15 seed.

The Vikings played Ohio State close early in the season, losing by just six points in Columbus.

They don’t shoot the ball from outside particularly well, but the Vikings get to the basket. Senior guard Torrey Patton and junior guard Tre Gomillion put tons of pressure on defenses with their aggressiveness and ability to score around the rim.

They may not pull off an upset, but Cleveland State won’t go down without a fight.

Possible Cinderella: Liberty Flames

The Flames won a First Round game in the Big Dance and will be eager to do even more damage this time around. Nobody in the Atlantic Sun could touch Liberty this season, as the Flames went 23-5 during the regular season. Plus, they meet all of the qualifications for a potential Cinderella.

The Flames are deep, experienced, and can knock down shots. As a team, Liberty shoots 39% from the perimeter and has three players in their rotation who shoot at least 40% from deep, including top scorer Darius McGhee.

As a 13-seed that’s matched up against Oklahoma State, the Flames didn’t get a good draw. But that doesn’t make them any less of a threat. 

Upset Alert: Loyola/Georgia Tech Over Illinois

Frankly, Illinois might be the only team in the Midwest that doesn’t have to worry about losing in the First Round. However, whether they play Loyola or Georgia Tech in the Round of 32, the Illini better be ready for a fight.

Both Loyola and Georgia Tech are among the few teams in the country that might have the defensive chops to slow down the Illinois offense. Each could lure the Illini into a low-scoring, grind-it-out game rather than a high-flying shootout.

The tricky part is picking a winner between the Ramblers and the Rambling Wreck. But the winner of the 8-9 game is going to give Illinois a run for its money.

Don’t Buy the Hype: Tennessee Volunteers

For the record, Tennessee is a team that’s capable of reaching the Final Four. They can defend at a high level and have a balanced attack offensively. However, the Vols don’t have a standout offensive player and they are far too prone to subpar offensive performances.

The uncertainty with the status of John Fulkerson doesn’t help, either. Tennessee has been so up and down this season that it’s difficult to trust the Volunteers to be consistent enough offensively to live up to their potential and make a deep run.

Player to Watch: Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State

If there’s one player in this tournament that you need to watch, it’s Cade Cunningham.

He could easily end up being the top pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, so one would expect him to seize the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament. He can score, pass, rebound, defend, and he demands the ball when the game is on the line.

Cunningham won’t be the first freshman to lead his team deep into the tournament, but there’s a strong chance that he becomes the next.

In the end

Amid all of the orange-tinged jerseys in the Midwest, Illinois will end up cutting down the nets. That being said, it won’t be easy, as this is one of the deepest regions in the tournament.

There are 13 teams that could reach the Sweet 16 and nearly as many with legitimate Final Four hopes. Most First Round games will be a virtual tossup, which will make this bracket difficult to project. Frankly, just about anything could happen, which is why it might be best to lean toward the top seed.

The Fighting Illini is every bit as good as they’ve looked over the last few weeks. From the Round of 32 on, Illinois will get the best shot of three of the quality teams in this bracket. But in the end, we expect the Illini to survive and advance to the Final Four.

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