March 24, 2021

March Madness Sweet 16 Preview: Predicting the Final Four Participants

As entertaining as the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament was, odds are it did a number on your March Madness bracket in the office pool.

Who knew that a historically unpredictable tournament would be so difficult to project following such an unusual and unprecedented regular season? In any event, the Sweet 16 gives us the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start again.

Of course, predicting the Final Four from the 16 remaining teams is somehow just as difficult as predicting the Final Four when there were 68 teams still alive. Nevertheless, we’re going to take a closer look at the four teams in each of the four regions and try to come up with our prediction for the 2021 Final Four.

South Region

Baylor made it through the opening weekend of the Big Dance and remains the favorite heading into the Sweet 16.

Games against Hartford and Wisconsin didn’t exactly push the Bears to their limits, so it’s still a little unclear if they’re back to the level they were at prior to their COVID pause. However, the backcourt trio of Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell is probably the best backcourt in the country.

Matching up with those three will be Villanova’s biggest problem in the regional semifinals. The Wildcats deserve a ton of credit for getting back on track after losing Collin Gillespie to a season-ending injury and getting bounced in their first game of the Big East Tournament. Justin Moore has helped to fill Gillespie’s shoes as the lead guard while Jeremiah Robinson-Earl understands that he needs to step up and do more of the scoring with Gillespie out. However, backcourt depth without Gillespie could be a huge issue if the Wildcats hope to keep pace with Baylor over 40 minutes. The Bears are averaging 83.8 points per game, so if they hit their stride, they could easily leave Villanova in the dust.

Meanwhile, No. 15 Oral Roberts remains the lowest seed left in the tournament. Wins over Ohio State and Florida were far from a fluke and show that the Golden Eagles were under-seeded. Depth-wise, Oral Roberts could have trouble matching up against upper-level competition. But the tandem of Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor has been incredible. That tandem has a chance to give Arkansas some trouble in a rematch of a non-conference game from earlier this season.

In that game, Obanor scored 21 points while Abmas was held to 11 points, making just one of his six three-point tries. The good news is that three other players scored in double figures in that game. The caveat is that the Razorbacks were +26 on the boards with two players recording double-doubles. If the Golden Eagles don’t have an answer for that this time around, their Cinderella run could come to an end.

If we project a Baylor vs Arkansas regional final between two founding members of the Southwest Conference, things could get interesting. The Hogs have several elite scorers led by Moses Moody and average 82.4 points per game, so they can keep pace with Baylor in a shootout. However, Arkansas may not dominate Baylor on the boards enough to overcome the disparity in three-point shooting, which has been Baylor’s strength all season and can help the Bears overcome any potential weakness.

Prediction: Baylor

Midwest Region

Following a late comeback in the Round of 32 to beat Rutgers, the Houston Cougars are now the highest remaining seed and the favorite in the Midwest Region. In a way, the Houston backcourt is a poor man’s Baylor. The trio of Quentin Grimes, Marcus Sasser, and DeJon Jarreau do everything for the Cougars. That includes rebounding, as both Grimes and Jarreau average over five boards per game, as Houston tries to overcome a lack of size in the backcourt.

Rebounding could be the deciding factor in the regional semifinal against Syracuse. The Orange reached the Sweet 16 as a No. 11 seed because of Buddy Boeheim’s shooting and their 2-3 zone, which had San Diego State befuddled and forced just enough turnovers against West Virginia to secure a 75-72 win. However, the zone also makes Syracuse vulnerable on the boards, which is where the Cougars must take advantage. Houston must also find a way to get Grimes shooting opportunities, as he makes 41.7% of his three-point tries.

Of course, the No. 11 Orange aren’t the lowest seed in the Midwest. That title belongs to No. 12 Oregon State. The Beavers have won five straight games going back to the Pac-12 Tournament. A loss in any of those games would have effectively ended their season, so they’ve handled the pressure well. Oregon State has displayed a surprising amount of versatility over two tournament games. Against Tennessee, the Beavers advanced by shooting lights out from the perimeter, but against Oklahoma State, dominating the boards and getting to the free-throw line was the key.

However, the Beavers will be challenged by Loyola’s defense, which suffocated a red-hot Illinois team in the Round of 32, taking the Illini out of their rhythm. Thus far, the Ramblers are living up to their reputation as a strong defensive team while also showing good efficiency offensively. While Cameron Krutwig has received most of the attention, Loyola’s guards have been effective as well. Keep in mind, the Ramblers shot 47.2% from the field against Georgia Tech and 51% against Illinois with senior Lucas Williamson stepping up alongside Krutwig as an impact player.

Frankly, it’s possible to envision any of these four teams reaching the Final Four. With a 2, 8, 11, and 12 still left, Houston would be the easy pick. However, the Cougars barely escaped against Rutgers while Loyola, Syracuse and Oregon State are all playing better than their seeds suggest.

In the end, we’ll side with Sister Jean’s prophecy that if the Ramblers can beat Illinois, they can beat anybody.

Prediction: Loyola

East Region 

Juwan Howard and Michigan deserve a lot of credit.

The Wolverines looked to be in trouble, trailing LSU without Isaiah Livers. But Michigan’s depth came in handy and the Wolverines survived and remain the favorite in the East Region. Of course, whether Livers returns for the Sweet 16 is still up in the air. The question for the Wolverines is did they prove that they can beat quality teams without their star forward or were they just playing with fire and won’t survive another close game without him?

Either way, Florida State may not be the team that Michigan wants to play right now. The Seminoles looked suspect defensively late in the season, but they have turned that around in the NCAA Tournament. Leonard Hamilton’s team has the size and athleticism at every position to avoid the types of mismatches that Hunter Dickinson and Franz Wagner can create. The issue for FSU is that they are so erratic offensively. Key players don’t always score consistently and turnovers have been a problem late in the season, so they may not be up for a shootout with the Wolverines.

In the bottom half of the bracket, No. 11 UCLA is the outlier in terms of seeding. But the Bruins have won three games and have looked far better than expected. Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang has led the way, averaging 22.3 points per game in UCLA’s three tournament wins. But the Bruins will need more than Juzang if they hope to survive another weekend. The player to watch is diminutive point guard Tyger Campbell, who continues to dish out assists with regularity. But his scoring has been subpar thus far and there’s no question UCLA will need more out of him to compete with Alabama.

The Crimson Tide is another team that bears some resemblance to Baylor. Alabama loves to get up and down the floor, and when the perimeter shots are falling, there’s trouble. The Crimson Tide knocked down 16 three-pointers against Maryland while also out-rebounding the Terrapins 40-19. They have eight players who made at least 20 three-point shots this season, so guarding the perimeter is a must. At the same time, the Tide has enough size inside to compete on the boards.

In the end, picking the Tide to survive and roll on to the Final Four is the best choice. The Michigan vs Florida State game is too much of a tossup and could be influenced by whether Livers plays or not. Meanwhile, Alabama should take care of UCLA and has the personnel to match up against either the Wolverines or the Seminoles in the regional final.

Prediction: Alabama

West Region

Let’s just call the West Region the Gonzaga Invitational. The Bulldogs remain undefeated on the season, and their two games last weekend only reinforced how difficult it will be for anybody to beat them. Leading scorer Corey Kispert was almost an afterthought during the opening weekend. Mark Few’s team has size, depth, guard play, and every other ingredient one could want in a championship team.

In fairness, the teams that remain in the West Region aren’t going to make it easy on Gonzaga. For starters, Creighton seems to be past whatever was ailing them in the Big East Tournament final. Marcus Zegarowski could provide Gonzaga point guard Jalen Suggs with a formidable challenge. The Bluejays also have great scoring balance in their lineup, even if they’re not as explosive as Gonzaga. However, Denzel Mahoney and Mitch Ballock will both have to shoot a high percentage from the perimeter for the Bluejays to keep pace with the Bulldogs.

Meanwhile, the other game in the West Region features a Pac-12 battle between Oregon and USC. The Ducks put up 95 points against Iowa and looked like a well-oiled machine despite not having a First Round game. Since point guard Will Richardson returned in early February, Oregon has been a different team, going 12-3.

Of course, one of Oregon’s losses during that stretch came against USC. On Feb. 22, the Trojans beat the Ducks 72-58, leading by 21 points at halftime and coasting to a 14-point win. The odd thing about that game is that the Ducks contained Evan Mobley while USC played without Isaiah Mobley, who has been outstanding during the tournament. It was Tahj Eddy who Oregon couldn’t stop. That could complicate things for the Ducks this time around, as they’ll have to watch Eddy while also accounting for both Mobley brothers.

Ultimately, this remains Gonzaga’s bracket to lose. The Bulldogs would have to play well below their abilities to lose to any of the three teams in this region. Oregon might have the best chance to keep up with Gonzaga in a shootout, but it’s hard to envision the Ducks getting the stops they need against Gonzaga, and that’s only if they can get past USC. As they did in 2017, the Bulldogs are going to the Final Four.

Prediction: Gonzaga

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