NCAA Tournament bracket picks: Midwest Region
Only Illinois fans possibly could pick up on something like this, but if the Illini reach the Final Four, then it will have been exactly 16 years since their last appearance on that stage, in 2005, which came exactly 16 years after their previous Final Four trip, in 1989. And, if you believe in this sort of stuff, the Illini lost in the ’89 semis to rival Michigan, then lost in the ’05 championship game to North Carolina and thus would be due to win it all this year. (If you’re curious, the 1973 Illinois basketball squad finished 5-18.) So this is a new thing. If it’s a thing.
|Cade Cunningham||Guard||Oklahoma State|
|Derek Culver||Center||West Virginia|
Best first-round game
No. 8 Loyola-Chicago vs. No. 9 Georgia Tech. The Jackets ripped up Florida State’s offense in the final of the ACC Tournament by forcing 25 turnovers. The Ramblers don’t even turn it over half that often, preferring a languid pace that ranks 342nd in a season in which there were — checks notes — 347 teams competing. Can the Jackets speed up the Ramblers? Don’t count on it. They call them Ramblers for a reason.
Seeded too high
No. 9 Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets got to celebrate their first ACC Tournament title since 1993 with Saturday’s championship game victory over Florida State. But in terms of NCAA seed, Georgia Tech actually was punished for winning. Virginia Tech, which lost to North Carolina in the quarterfinals, was handed a No. 10 seed that allows it to avoid the best teams in the tournament until the regional final, in the unlikely event the Hokies make it that far. Still, it’s better than getting stuck into an 8-9 war whose winner then will be asked to deal with an Illinois squad that is considered among the tournament favorites. Congratulations, Jackets. And good luck.
Seeded too low
No. 4 Oklahoma State. This was the worst committee decision on the board, even more so than the inclusion of Utah State as a No. 11 seed when it is the least qualified team in the field. OK State was 10-6 in Quad 1 games. The record of the four teams on the No. 3 line: Kansas 7-8, Arkansas 6-5, West Virginia 7-7 and Texas 8-6. Head-to-head is not the only factor, but the Cowboys defeated WVU twice in the space of five days, neither of those wins coming at home. Especially given that it would have been so easy to switch the Mountaineers and Cowboys on the bracket, as they come from the same Big 12 Conference, it’s baffling the committee came to this conclusion. It stinks for Oklahoma State, and perhaps even more for No. 1 seed Illinois. Remember what happened when the committee misplaced Michigan State as the No. 2 seed in Duke’s 2019 region? The No. 1 overall seed went down in the Elite Eight. Isn’t the idea of seeding to avoid making it harder for the best teams?
No. 11 Syracuse over No. 6 San Diego State. It’s impossible not to love the program the Aztecs have built. The project started two decades ago when Steve Fisher lifted them out of the wreckage and made them an NCAA regular, and then Brian Dutcher succeeded him and kept them at an elite level. But the Syracuse zone just has a magic to it in this event. When you haven’t seen it before, you don’t know how to attack. You might hit some early jumpers and think you have it solved, but those shots eventually will become harder to find. This isn’t the best edition ever of that defense. But it’ll still be tough for an Aztecs squad that is not exceptional at offense.
Best potential game
Illinois vs. Oklahoma State in the Sweet 16. The Fighting Illini will have to fight for their lives to survive this game. The Cowboys feature perhaps the most dangerous player in the entire tournament in Cade Cunningham, a 6-8 point guard who won a rivalry game against Oklahoma with a 40-point performance and went for 25 (in the semis) and 29 (final) in the Big 12 Tournament. Illinois has evolved into one of the most oppressive defensive teams in college basketball. And the Illini will force OK State to deal with 6-11 Kofi Cockburn, who has dunked more often than any other player in the nation this season because he’s so hard to keep away from the rim. We will enjoy getting to see this game, but it would have been more fun in the Elite Eight, knowing the winner would be headed to the Final Four and the loser at least got a fair shot.
Best potential player matchup
Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham vs. Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu. It’s hard to say how much they would defend one another if this matchup were to come about. Each coach might be careful about exposing his star player to such a demanding load on defense. But just to have them on the same court, two of college basketball’s five best players — that would be something. (Did I mention that it’s too bad it would happen in the Sweet 16 rather than Elite Eight?)
Get to know
Rutgers senior guard Geo Baker. He arrived on campus four years ago hoping to elevate the Scarlet Knights to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991. It appeared as though his terrific all-around backcourt play would help end that drought at 29 years. But then came the pandemic and there went the 2020 NCAA Tournament. The depth of the Big Ten, and the strength of the league at the top, made fulfilling that mission an even greater challenge this year. But Rutgers earned a No. 10 seed with its 15-11 record. “Let’s dance,” Baker tweeted, with three heart emojis adjacent. And he did put a ton of heart into getting this done.
Don’t be surprised if . . .
Loyola steals the spotlight for at least the first weekend. The 2018 Final Four darling is back in the tournament as the Missouri Valley Conference champion and as the No. 8 seed in the Midwest. Sister Jean, the nun who became the media sensation of March Madness three years ago, is hoping she’ll be able to attend the Ramblers’ game or games in Indy. Center Cameron Krutwig, now a senior, is at the heart of their success once again.
Clemson. The only team that has had a season half as weird is Missouri. Maybe it’s something about calling yourselves the Tigers. Clemson beat No. 2 seed Alabama, No. 4 seed Purdue and No. 4 seed Florida State. It also lost to no-seed Miami in the ACC Tournament and was only 11-7 in what was seen as a mediocre conference. Perhaps that’s going to be how it is when a team is as offensively challenged (No. 99 in efficiency) as this one. This team could win a couple games, though. Rutgers struggles to score almost as much, and Memphis showed twice in a week that No. 2 seed Houston is extremely beatable.
Final Four pick
Illinois. The Fighting Illini figure to be forced to overcome the committee’s bad call on Oklahoma State, but this is a team ideally built to win a national championship: elite defense, excellent deep shooting, big guy in the middle, players who star in their roles and multiple playmakers, including a high-end talent in Ayo Dosunmu who can take over a game when necessary. Illinois hasn’t had a chance at greatness like this one in 16 years. It will not want to wait until 2037 to win a title.