The 2021 NCAA Men’s Tournament pool has been released, and for the next 96 hours before the first round begins on Friday, March Madness pool enthusiasts and rim fans will fill the brackets and dive into the debates over which teams will cut the nets in Indianapolis. This year’s tournament will take place in a unique bubble environment, required by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the intrigue around the clashes and who will be the surprises this year, Cinderellas and the stars remains the same. .
The location is different, but the names of the regions (West, East, Midwest, South) remain the same. With the road to the Final Four, we are evaluating the players, teams and games to watch in each region.
What should we do about the East, where Illinois has a seven-game winning streak to the Big Dance?
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Seed Status No. 1: Illinois
Illinois takes refuge in the city where it just won the Big Ten tournament and may not leave until April 6, which is the day after the national championship is played. The Illini are flying: winners of seven straight games and 14 of their last 15 in what was easily the deepest and best conference in the nation. Illinois lacks nothing in terms of staff. He has one of the top National Player of the Year contenders in shooting guard Ayo Dosunmu; possibly the most powerful big man in Kofi Cockburn at 7ft 285lbs; a strong first-year point guard on the rise in Andre Curbelo; and four other players capable of providing double-digit scoring nights as needed.
If you are looking for defects, bring a magnifying glass. But the Illini can occasionally fall into sloppy stretches both when handling the ball and pressing it, they are 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 coaches to win the title 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 many 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 get ready on Friday. And a second-round game with Loyola Chicago or Georgia Tech promises to be a challenge, not to mention the talented state of Oklahoma looming in the Sweet 16.
Who has the hardest draw
Neither Loyola Chicago nor Georgia Tech showed much respect, being tied in Game 8–9. The Ramblers (24–4) are the No. 9 team overall in the nation by Ken Pomeroy’s metrics, and they have the best defense in the United States. The Yellow Jackets (17–8) are the lowest-seeded Atlantic Coast Conference tournament champions in 34 years, since North Carolina was ranked 11th in 1987.
Tech is likely still being penalized for Coach Josh Pastner’s unorthodox preseason plan to avoid team-wide practices to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. That resulted in bothersome losses for Mercer and Georgia State, which torpedoed the Yellow Jackets’ power ratings. But this is a quality team with an eight-game winning streak, with six wins over tournament teams.
Loyola wasn’t as badly seeded as the 2018 Final Four team, which had to fight from No. 11. But this is still a tough spot for a program that has played dominant basketball for two months: the only loss for the Ramblers went for an overtime point on Drake, another team of the tournament.
The winner of this supercharged 9/8 game ties Illinois in the round of 32. That’s tough.
The team that could break their support: Morehead State
Morehead State needs to show it can handle the ball against the West Virginia defense, but if the Eagles do that, they can cause the Mountaineers some problems. Morehead has a reveal of a first-year big man in 6’10 ”Johni Broome, an agile southpaw with good post movement and quick rebounding. Broome averaged 19.5 points and 12 rebounds in Morehead’s last four games, two of which were knockdowns of Ohio Valley Conference regular-season champion Belmont. Morehead shouldn’t feel overwhelmed athletically and could find some holes in a less-than-classic Bob Huggins defense.
Player to watch: Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State
Unique guard Cade Cunningham is the kind of talent who can take a team very far; It’s not out of the question that he will have a Carmelo Anthony-style career in his only NCAA tournament before becoming the likely No. 1 pick in the draft. Cunningham stood out in the Big 12 tournament, averaging 23.7 points, six rebounds and four assists. He is smooth and unhurried on the ball, and at 6’8 ”he can see and play above the guards assigned to protect him. Coach Mike Boynton has let the offense run through Cunningham and allowed him to overcome his mistakes (he will turn the ball over), and the payoff has been a player ready to shine at the time of the tournament.
Most intriguing pairing: No. 5 Tennessee vs. No. 12 State of Oregon
The best matchup is Loyola-Georgia Tech (see above), but don’t sleep at Tennessee-Oregon State. That’s a 5-12 matchup that on paper favors the Volunteers over a team that had to even fight its way through the bubble, but the Beavers showed something as they charged for their first Pac-12 tournament title. They quickly took control of the game in upsets over Oregon and Colorado, and have won six straight road games. 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 can play after the horrible elbow to the face with a low shot against Florida.
Regional Finalists: Illinois and the State of San Diego
The upper half of this region is loaded and the lower half is ready for a support collapse. The Illini, as noted above, have all the makings of a Final Four team and a potential national champion, but they will have to get through tough games in rounds two (Loyola or Georgia Tech) and three (Oklahoma State). If they survive that, they should find a major loser waiting for them at the Elite Eight. The Aztecs haven’t lost since Jan. 16, and while they don’t have as much offensive talent as last year’s 30-2 team, they are still tough on defense. A showdown between Matt Mitchell and Ayo Dosunmu could be a treat: two versatile guards who are at their best when games are at stake.
Choose to win region: Illinois
Honestly, the region championship could be a Sweet 16 showdown between 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 its sights set on its first national championship.
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 State of Oregon
No. 4 State of Oklahoma vs. No. 13 Liberty
No. 6 San Diego State vs. No. 11 Syracuse
No. 3 West Virginia vs. Morehead State No. 14
No. 7 Clemson vs. No. 10 Rutgers
No. 2 Houston vs. No. 15 Cleveland State
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.