Men's NCAA Tournament Midwest Region Breakdown: Surging Illinois Faces Tough Test

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The 2021 men's NCAA tournament bracket has been released, and for the next 96 hours before the first round begins on Friday, March Madness pool enthusiasts and hoopheads alike will be filling out brackets and diving into debates over which teams will be cutting down the nets in Indianapolis. This year's tournament will take place in a unique, COVID-19 pandemic-necessitated bubble environment, but the intrigue around the matchups and who this year's surprises, Cinderellas and stars will be remains the same.

The location is different, but the region names (West, East, Midwest, South) remain the same. With the path to the Final Four set, we’re sizing up the players, teams and games to watch in each region. 

What should we make of the East, where Illinois carries a seven-game winning streak into the Big Dance?

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Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu dunks

State of the No. 1 Seed: Illinois

Illinois hunkers down in the city where it just won the Big Ten tournament, and may not leave until April 6—that’s the day after the national championship game is played. The Illini are flying: winners of seven straight and 14 of their last 15 in what was easily the deepest and best conference in the nation. Illinois lacks for nothing in terms of personnel. It has one of the leading national Player of the Year contenders in guard Ayo Dosunmu; arguably the most powerful big man in 7-foot, 285-pound Kofi Cockburn; a brassy freshman point guard on the rise in Andre Curbelo; and four other players capable of providing double-digit scoring nights as needed.

If you’re looking for flaws, bring a magnifying glass. But the Illini can occasionally lapse into careless stretches both handling the ball and pressuring the ball they’re among the worst teams in the nation at forcing turnovers, while committing their fair share of them. The only other concern, in terms of winning it all, is a coach (Brad Underwood) who has never been to the Final Four. Only two of the last 11 title-winning coaches won it on their first trip to the Final Four (Tony Bennett of Virginia in 2019 and Kevin Ollie of Connecticut in 2014).

The draw didn’t do the Illini a lot of favors, either. After an intense Big Ten tournament that ended after 6 p.m. ET Sunday with an overtime battle against Ohio State, Illinois will have to turn around and be ready on Friday. And a second-round game with either Loyola Chicago or Georgia Tech promises to be a challenge, not to mention talented Oklahoma State looming in the Sweet 16.

MORE REGION BREAKDOWNS: WEST | SOUTH | EAST

Who Has the Toughest Draw

Neither Loyola Chicago nor Georgia Tech was shown much respect, being matched in the 8–9 game. The Ramblers (24–4) are the No. 9 overall team in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy’s metrics, and have America’s best defense. The Yellow Jackets (17–8) are the lowest-seeded Atlantic Coast Conference tournament champion in 34 years, since North Carolina State was a No. 11 seed in 1987.

Tech probably is still being penalized for coach Josh Pastner’s unorthodox preseason plan of avoiding full-team practices to lower the risk of COVID-19 spread. That resulted in upset losses to Mercer and Georgia State, which torpedoed the Yellow Jackets’ power ratings. But this is a quality team on an eight-game winning streak, with six wins over tournament teams.

Loyola wasn’t as poorly seeded as the 2018 Final Four team, which had to battle forward from a No. 11 seed. But this is still a tough spot for a program that has played dominant basketball for two months—the Ramblers’ lone loss was by a point in overtime at Drake, another tourney team.

The winner of this super-charged 8/9 game draws Illinois in the round of 32. That’s rough.

The Team That Could Bust Your Bracket: Morehead State

Morehead State must prove that it can handle the ball against West Virginia’s defense—but if the Eagles do that, they can cause some problems for the Mountaineers. Morehead has a revelation of a freshman big man in 6’ 10” Johni Broome, an agile lefty with good post moves and quick bounce. Broome averaged 19.5 points and 12 rebounds in Morehead’s last four games, two of which were takedowns of Ohio Valley Conference regular-season champion Belmont. Morehead shouldn’t be overwhelmed athletically, and could find some holes in a less-than-vintage Bob Huggins defense.

Player to Watch: Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State

One-and-done guard Cade Cunningham is the type of talent who can take a team a long way—it’s not out of the question for him to have a Carmelo Anthony-esque run in his only NCAA tournament before becoming the likely No. 1 pick in the draft. Cunningham was outstanding in the Big 12 tournament, averaging 23.7 points, six rebounds and four assists. He is smooth and unhurried with the ball, and at 6’ 8” can see over and play above guards assigned to guard him. Coach Mike Boynton has let the offense run through Cunningham and allowed him to play through his mistakes (he will turn the ball over), and the payoff has been a player ready to shine at tournament time.

Most Intriguing Matchup: No. 5 Tennessee vs. No. 12 Oregon State

The very best matchup is Loyola-Georgia Tech (see above), but don’t sleep on Tennessee-Oregon State. That’s a 5–12 matchup that on paper favors the Volunteers over a team that had to win its way in from not even on the bubble, but the Beavers showed something while charging to their first-ever Pac-12 tournament title. They quickly grabbed control of the game in upsets over Oregon and Colorado, and have won six straight games away from home. Tennessee, on the other hand, has been a struggling offensive team that hasn’t won more than two in a row since mid-January. And it seems doubtful that center John Fulkerson will be able to play after the horrific cheap-shot elbow to the face against Florida.

Regional Finalists: Illinois and San Diego State

The top half of this region is loaded, and the bottom half is ripe for a bracket collapse. The Illini, as noted above, have all the ingredients of a Final Four team and potential national champion—but they will have to get through difficult games in rounds two (either Loyola or Georgia Tech) and three (Oklahoma State). If they survive that, they should find a major underdog waiting for them in the Elite Eight. The Aztecs haven’t lost since Jan. 16, and while not as gifted offensively as last year’s 30–2 team, they are still very tough defensively. A Matt Mitchell-Ayo Dosunmu matchup could be a treat: two versatile guards who are at their best when games are on the line.

Pick to Win the Region: Illinois

Honestly, the region championship could be a Sweet 16 matchup between the Illini and Oklahoma State. Assuming Illinois gets past that, it should face a fairly manageable regional final and advance to its first Final Four since 2005—with sights set on its first national championship ever.

Full Midwest Region:

No. 1 Illinois vs. No. 16 Drexel
No. 8 Loyola Chicago vs. No. 9 Georgia Tech
No. 5 Tennessee vs. No. 12 Oregon State
No. 4 Oklahoma State vs. No. 13 Liberty
No. 6 San Diego State vs. No. 11 Syracuse
No. 3 West Virginia vs. No. 14 Morehead State
No. 7 Clemson vs. No. 10 Rutgers
No. 2 Houston vs. No. 15 Cleveland State

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