For the first time in TWO years we get to say these words: the 2021 NCAA Tournament is finally here! After being robbed of March Madness last year due to the pandemic, this year’s tournament has an extra special feel. This year’s tournament will be conducted entirely in the state of Indiana, mostly in gyms around Indianapolis. The 2021 NCAA Tournament also has a bit of a different format – the “First Four” play-in games will be on Thursday, the first round on Friday and Saturday, then the second round on Sunday and Monday.
Today we continue our look at the first round matchups in the Midwest Region. Illinois leads the bracket after claiming the Big Ten title. All of these games will be played on Friday with second round games on Sunday.
1. Illinoivs vs 16. Drexel
1:15pm on TBS
Illinois won the Big 10 Tournament in thrilling fashion in Overtime over Ohio State. The Illini have battled injuries this season but when fully healthy are capable of rattling off 6 wins and cutting down the nets at the end of the Tournament. Illinois is a fast, fun, up-tempo team that ranks in the Top 25 in the nation in scoring (81.4 PPG), rebounding (40.4 RPG), assists (16.3 APG), as well as offensive and defensive efficiency (where they are in the Top 10 for both). Illinois has won 14 of their last 15 games, led by National Player of the Year candidate Ayo Dosunmu (20.7 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 5.3 APG). Big man Kofi Cockburn (17.6 PPG, 9.6 RPG) posted 16 double-doubles this season. The Illini are a good 3-point shooting team (37.6%) with guards Trent Frazier (10.4 PPG) and Adam Miller (8.2 PPG) both averaging about 5 attempts per game from beyond the arc. Drexel won the Colonial Athletic tournament from the #6 seed to earn their first trip to the Big Dance since 1996. The Dragons have an efficient but slow-tempoed offense and if they are going to have any chance to hang with Illinois will need to execute well and slow the game down to limit possessions and keep the Illini out of transition. The Dragons are a good 3-point shooting team, led by Camren Wynter (16.8 PPG, 5.3 APG, 42.5% from 3-point range). Zach Walton (10.6 PPG) and Mate Okros (7.3 PPG) both shoot close to 40% from distance as well. On the inside, James Butler (12.9 PPG, 9.2 RPG) will have his hands full with Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn.
8. Loyola vs 9. Georgia Tech
4:00pm on TBS
Talk about a brutal first round draw for both of these teams. Loyola might have a better team this year than the one that ran to the Final Four in 2018 but were given a rough draw against ACC Champions Georgia Tech with a potential matchup against Illinois looming in the second round. The Ramblers are the top-ranked team in the nation in defensive efficiency and held opponents to just 55.5 points per game. Loyola center Cameron Krutwig (15.0 PPG, 6.7 RPG) and guard Lucas Williamson (8.2 PPG) are the last remaining members of the team that went to the Final Four in 2018. After a slow start to ACC play, Georgia Tech rattled off 6 wins in a row then beat Miami and Florida State to capture the ACC Tournament title. The Yellow Jackets feature ACC Player of the Year Moses Wright (17.4 PPG, 8.0 RPG) and dynamic guard Jose Alvarado (15.3 PPG, 4.1 APG, 3.0 SPG) who will be all over the floor with his high-intensity game. Sharpshooter Michael Devoe (15.1 PPG) shoots over 40% from beyond the arc and should not be overlooked. This is certainly a matchup of strength on strength and it will be interesting to see how Loyola’s stifling defense can defend Georgia Tech’s quality offense. Both of these teams enter the Tournament on a hot streak and could have been Sweet 16 contenders if they had been seeded differently.
5. Tennessee vs 12. Oregon St
4:30pm on TNT
Tennessee was a solidly consistent team all season who relied on their defense and two NBA-caliber talents. The Vols rank 4th in the nation in defensive efficiency, led by the play of their backcourt. Both Jaden Springer (12.5 PPG,) and Keon Johnson (11.2 PPG) are considered NBA Lottery Pick-caliber players and are joined in the backcourt by Victor Bailey (11.0 PPG). Tennessee is a guard-heavy lineup with 6 of their top 7 scorers coming from the backcourt. They will need to keep up the defensive intensity against an Oregon State team that shot the lights out in the Pac-12 Tournament, knocking down 44% of their shots from beyond the arc (up nearly 10% from their season average). The Beavers were a “bid stealer,” coming from well outside the bubble picture to win the Pac-12 title an earn an automatic bid. Oregon State is led by guards Ethan Thompson (15.3 PPG, 3.9 APG) and Jarod Lucas (12.9 PPG). Junior forward Warith Alatishe (9.9 PPG, 8.5 RPG) was the key to their Pac-12 Tournament run, posting 2 double doubles in 3 games.
4. Oklahoma St vs 13. Liberty
6:25pm on TBS
Oklahoma State is one of the hottest teams in the nation, and features the presumed #1 pick in the NBA Draft in freshman Cade Cunningham (20.2 PPG, 6.3 RPG). The Pokes won 6 of their last 7 regular season games with their only loss coming to Baylor. Then in the Big XII Tournament, they topped West Virginia and Baylor before falling to Texas in the title game. Oklahoma State plays fast and fun but are also tenacious on defense, ranking in the Top 55 in the nation in offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, and possessions per game. In addition to Cunningham, Avery Anderson III (11.7 PPG) has been a quality player in the backcourt. Liberty won the Atlantic Sun Tournament for the third straight season (though 2020’s title was mitigated by the NCAA Tournament being cancelled). The last time the Flames made the Big Dance (in 2019) they pulled a 5-12 upset over Mississippi State. The Flames are led by A-Sun Player of the Year Darius McGhee (15.6 PPG) who shoots over 40% from beyond the arc. Liberty has fashioned themselves as a mini-Virginia, playing a slow-tempoed but efficient offense and a pack line approach to defense. They are one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the nation (39.1%) but will have a challenge in defending Cade Cunningham like they have not yet faced this season. If Liberty is able to control the tempo and keep Oklahoma State from running (which is possible as Liberty committed the 5th-fewest turnovers in the nation this season), this game could turn into a thrilling showdown of McGhee and Cunningham going head-to-head.
6. San Diego St vs 11. Syracuse
9:40pm on CBS
San Diego State won the Mountain West regular season and tournament titles. Since losing back-to-back games to Utah State in mid-January, the Aztecs are unbeaten, rattling off 14 straight victories. San Diego State ranks 11th in the nation in defensive efficiency and in the Top 50 in offensive efficiency. This is a strength-on-strength matchup as Syracuse’s strong suit is in their offense which ranks in the Top 25 in efficiency. Both of these teams are aggressive on defense and rank in the Top 30 in the nation in steals per game. Syracuse’s 2-3 zone can be tough to prepare for in a tournament format and it will take a quality outside shooting performance from an Aztec team that ranks in the Top 40 in the nation, shooting 37.5% from beyond the arc. Their top three scorers Matt Mitchell (15.4 PPG, 5.5 RPG), Jordan Schakel (14.3 PPG) and Terrell Gomez (8.8 PPG) all are adept shooters with Schakel and Gomez over 42% from distance. Syracuse played their way into the field by winning 5 of their last 7 games then beating NC State in the first round of the ACC Tournament before falling on a buzzer-beating 3 to Virginia. The Orange like to go inside with Alan Griffin (14.7 PPG, 6.5 RPG), Quincy Guerrier (14.4 PPG, 8.8 RPG) and Marek Dolezaj (9.9 PPG, 5.3 RPG) manning the frontcourt. Leading scorer Buddy Boeheim (17.1 PPG) is the son of head coach Jim Boeheim.
3. West Virginia vs 14. Morehead State
9:50pm on truTV
West Virginia was a very good team this season but enters the Tournament having lost 3 of their last 4. Granted, one of those was to Baylor and the other two were to Oklahoma State. The Mountaineers have a dynamic offensive team that is capable of carrying them deep into the Tournament (possibly to the Elite 8). WVU is a well-rounded team with three dynamic guards and a solid big man. Miles McBride leads the team in scoring (15.4 PPG), assists (4.7 APG), and steals (1.8 SPG). Taz Sherman (13.6 PPG) and Sean McNeil (11.8 PPG) have been solid complements in the backcourt while Derek Culver (14.6 PPG, 9.6 RPG) has been a double-double machine in the frontcourt. Morehead State won the Ohio Valley Conference, upsetting top-seeded Belmont in the title game. The Eagles rely heavily on forward Johni Broome (13.9 PPG, 9.0 RPG) who will have his hands full with Culver defending him. Devon Cooper (12.2 PPG) and Skyelar Potter (11.7 PPG) anchor the backcourt. The biggest concern for Morehead is ball control – they averaged over 15 turnovers per game this season, among the highest marks of any team in the Tournament.
7. Clemson vs 10. Rutgers
9:20pm on TBS
Clemson went 5-0 through the month of February to lock up their spot in the Tournament. The Tigers did drop 2 of their last 3, including an upset loss to Miami in the ACC Tournament. After a strong start to the season which saw them beat Purdue, Alabama, and Florida State, the finish was a little underwhelming. Clemson is one of the lowest-scoring teams in the Tournament, averaging just 65.3 points per game. The Tigers only double-digit scorer is forward Aamir Simms who leads the team in points (13.3 PPG), rebounds (6.2 RPT), assists (2.7 APG), and blocks (0.7 BPG) and shoots over 40% from beyond the arc and 82.5% at the free throw line. Rutgers had an up-and-down season but did enough in the Big Ten to earn their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1991. Rutgers was a streaky team, starting the year 6-0 then losing 6 of their next 7. Following that, they turned it around and won 5 of 6 before losing 3 of their last 5 to end the regular season. The Scarlet Knights are a guard-heavy team and 6 of their top 7 scorers come from the backcourt. Ron Harper Jr (15.4 PPG, 5.0 RPG) leads the way with Jacob Young (14.4 PPG) and Geo Baker (10.1 PPG, 3.1 APG) both contributing. Myles Johnson (8.3 PPG, 8.7 RPG) anchors the frontcourt and has more rebounds than points this season (225 boards, 215 points). Both of these teams rank in the Top 20 in the nation in defensive efficiency. If this game comes down to the free throw stripe, there is a giant disparity as Rutgers is the worst free throw shooting team in the Tournament (63.2%) while Clemson is one of the best (76.5%). If you’re looking for a game to fall asleep to on Friday night, this 9:20pm start might be your ticket.
2. Houston vs 15. Cleveland St
7:15pm on truTV
After losing to Wichita State, Houston rattled off 7 straight wins to capture the AAC Tournament title. The Cougars finished the year in the Top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency and are a well-rounded team with quality guard play. The Cougars top four scorers are all guards, led by AAC Player of the Year Quentin Grimes (18.0 PPG, 6.0 RPG). Marcus Sasser (13.7 PPG) and DeJon Jarreau (11.0 PPG, 5.5 RPG) are also capable of taking over games. The Cougars do a great job of team rebounding and are one of the top teams on the boards in the nation (41.4 RPG). Cleveland State won the Horizon League Tournament and was one of the few top seeds to successfully navigate their conference tournament bracket. The Vikings also have a guard-heavy lineup and rely on Torrey Patton (14.9 PPG, 8.0 RPG) for most of their offensive production. Complementing Patton in the backcourt are Tre Gomillion (10.5 PPG) and D’Moi Hodge (10.5 PPG). Despite being a guard-heavy team, Cleveland State shoots just under 32% from beyond the arc and 66.9% from the free throw line, some of the lowest marks among Tournament teams.