2021 NCAA Tournament Bracket Breakdown: Midwest Region Predictions & Betting Angles
Justin Casterline/Getty Images. Pictured: Ayo Dosunmu.
Of the four regions, the Midwest feels the most likely to stay chalk through the second weekend.
There are few things dumber than predicting a bracket will stay chalk on the internet, so I implore you to find me in a few weeks when this looks silly.
But Illinois has looked so strong of late, beating top ranked teams through the end of the Big Ten regular-season and claiming the conference tournament crown. Houston is a team poised for tournament success thanks to its lockdown defense. West Virginia pulled a very advantageous pod of first-weekend opponents, and Oklahoma State is underseeded as a four.
Loyola Chicago, Georgia Tech, Syracuse, and Morehead State are all interesting teams to eye as possible spoilers, yet the longer this region sits on your computer screen, the more it looks like the top seeds have easier paths to the Sweet 16 than their counterparts elsewhere.
NCAA Tournament: Midwest Region
(1) Illinois vs. (16) Drexel
Drexel has been waiting a long time to play in the NCAA Tournament again. Well, welcome to the Big Dance, Dragons. Here’s a Kofi Cockburn for you to deal with.
Cockburn was going to have his way against whichever 16 seed drew the Illini, but Drexel should be particularly enticing for him. The Dragons start 6-foot-8 James Butler at center and have been hurt in the paint all season long. The Dragons allowed 55.3% of their opponents’ points inside the arc, among the top-40 in the nation in that stat. Drexel’s entire team has just 45 blocked shots all season.
Illinois will feed Cockburn early and often. If he’s healthy and not in foul trouble, he’ll feast.
(8) Loyola Chicago vs. (9) Georgia Tech
Loyola Chicago got absolutely betrayed by the committee this year. KenPom has it ranked as the ninth-best team in adjusted efficiency margin. Effectively, he believes the Ramblers are the ninth-best team in the nation, and they got an eight-seed.
In addition, if they squeak by a surprising Georgia Tech squad, they immediately have to deal with Illinois, a team I believe could find itself in the Final Four.
This certainly draws some concerns about the committee, in my opinion. It clearly still doesn’t value teams that dominate in their respective conferences.
Georgia Tech is an unfortunate draw for Loyola Chicago, but the Ramblers are arguably a top-10 team in the nation, and I expect them to handle business behind their star Jokic-like center, Cameron Krutwig. Expect their No. 1 defense in the nation to give the Yellow Jackets some trouble in a low-scoring affair.
(5) Tennessee vs. (12) Oregon State
A lot of people look for upsets in the 12-5 matchup. That won’t be the case in this game. Oregon State snuck into the field after winning the Pac-12 Tournament with upset wins over UCLA, Oregon and Colorado.
Tennessee lost to Alabama in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament after leading most of the game. The Volunteers have the fourth-ranked defensive efficiency in the country, letting up just 87.0 points per every 100 possessions. They force turnovers on 22.9% of their defensive possessions and should be able to impose their will against the Beavers.
Oregon State has already had its Cinderella story by winning the Pac-12 Tournament. That fairytale should come to an end in the first round when the Beavers face a defense as strong as Tennessee. The Volunteers have a deep roster and share the basketball, with seven players who average eight points or more per game. I make the Volunteers close to a double-digit favorite and would be surprised if they lay an egg and get upset in the first round.
(4) Oklahoma State vs. (13) Liberty
The Cowboys will be one of most popular non-No. 1 seeds picked to make the Final Four, largely due to the incredible play of superb freshman Cade Cunningham (20.2 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 41.3% 3P).
But the Cowboys should be very careful against the dangerous Liberty Flames, the Atlantic Sun representative in the tournament.
The Flames are coached by Tony Bennett-disciple Ritchie McKay, and they rank 10th in the country in 3-point shooting (38.8%). Liberty earned the automatic bid in 2018, and the 13-seeded Flames promptly knocked off No. 4 Mississippi State.
Oklahoma State’s Mike Boynton is guiding one of the hottest teams in the country, and he’ll have the best player on the floor in any matchup. But with junior Darius McGhee (15.6 PPG, 41.3% 3P) leading the deliberate and slow-paced Flames, this is one of the most compelling matchups of the opening round.
(6) San Diego State vs. (11) Syracuse
This is a generous draw for the Orange, who are lucky to avoid the First Four. On paper, the Aztecs have an edge, and their top-15 KenPom defense should be able to give Syracuse trouble.
This game should open around a pick‘em or maybe with the Aztecs a small favorite, but I don’t see myself getting involved in the spread pregame. I just don’t know how well San Diego State will handle Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. It has really given teams that are unfamiliar with it issues in the NCAA Tournament. The zone powered Syracuse to a Final Four run as a 10-seed in 2016 and to the Sweet 16 as an 11-seed in 2018.
The way to attack this game is to see how comfortable San Diego State looks against the zone in the first few minutes and then make a live wager. If the Aztecs come out looking sloppy and confused, Syracuse and the under live will have great value.
(3) West Virginia vs. (14) Morehead State
As soon as I saw this matchup, I thought back to the 2016 season when the No. 3-seed Mountaineers were easily beaten 70-56 by No. 14-seed Stephen F. Austin.
Morehead State will bring an eerily similar profile into this matchup as the Lumberjacks did in 2016. The Eagles have a superb defensive unit, ranking Top 50 in Effective Field Goal percentage allowed and 3-point percentage allowed (KenPom). They led the Ohio Valley Conference in every major defensive category and won 15 of their past 16 games.
West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins will have the talent advantage with 6-foot-10 forward Derek Culver (14.6 PPG, 9.8 RPG) and big-shot maker Miles McBride (15.4 PPG, 39.2% 3P), but I anticipate this game will have one of the lowest point-spread of any top-four seed opening-round matchup.
(7) Clemson vs. (10) Rutgers
Every year on Selection Sunday, there’s a crop of teams that bettors and fans can’t wait to pick against.
Clemson and Rutgers were likely atop that list for many this season … until the committee paired them up against one another in the first round. Rutgers is 8-10 since Jan. 1. Clemson is 7-6 since mid-January. These are not the hottest teams in this bracket, to say the least, but one is guaranteed to play in the Round of 32.
Clemson’s defense should line up nicely against Rutgers. The Tigers allow a ton of 3s — their opponents have the highest 3-point rate in the ACC. Rutgers, however, is not a team built to take advantage.
The Scarlet Knights have shot just 31.1% from distance this year, including a dismal 25.8% in their last nine games. That’s too large a sample size to bet Rutgers and pray for regression. It’s more likely indicative of offensive issues.
(2) Houston vs. (15) Cleveland State
This is going to be a very slow-paced game.
The Cougars rank 327th in the country in tempo, while Cleveland State ranks 282nd. The Vikings are going to have a lot of trouble scoring in this game because their offense is not their strong suit (199th nationally in offensive efficiency, per KenPom) and Houston is top 20 in defensive efficiency, giving up only 0.86 points per possession.
The Vikings don’t attempt a lot of 3s (26.8% of their field-goal attempts) and probably won’t be able to make very many because Houston has one of the best 3-point defenses in the country, allowing only 28.6% shooting from beyond the arc.
The Cougars also are the fifth-best defense inside the perimeter, allowing 43.0% from 2-point range, so I have a hard time seeing how Cleveland State is going to even come close to scoring 60 points.
Houston will be able to play its game offensively, but the strength of this Cleveland State team is on the defensive side of the ball, as the Vikings allowed just one point per possession in the Horizon League.
They turn opponents over at a high level and defend the 3-point shot well, so they stand a fighting chance if they can keep the Cougars’ eighth-ranked offense in check. The Vikings did hold Ohio State to 67 at the beginning of the season, so they have at least seen an elite offense this season.
I only have 127.67 points projected for this game, so I think there is a lot of value on this under if you can get it at 133 or better.