With the brackets set in stone and March Madness about to get underway on Thursday with the First Four games, many have already filled out what they hope to be the perfect bracket. While unlikely, we all can dream. The bracket is still split up into regions, despite every game taking place in Indianapolis or the surrounding area. The Midwest region features No. 1 seed Illinois, coming off a Big Ten Tournament Championship on Sunday. While Illinois should have no issue taking care of No. 16 seeded Drexel on Friday, there are many other intriguing matchups to follow in the Midwest region.
NCAA Midwest Region Spotlight:
No. 4 Oklahoma State vs No. 13 Liberty Flames
Freshman sensation Cade Cunningham has lived up to the hype this season for the Oklahoma State Cowboys and then some. Cunningham enters the tournament as perhaps the most highlighted player on any squad and he projects to be a top-three pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.
The Cowboys enter the tournament on a roll, despite losing in the Big 12 Tournament Championship to Texas on Saturday. Along the way, Oklahoma State beat the OklahomaSooners in back-to-back games at the end of February and entering March, and followed that up with back-to-back wins over top 25 West Virginia Mountaineers; one in the regular-season finale, one in the Big 12 tournament.
Perhaps most surprising was the eyebrow-raising win over the Baylor Bearsin the Big 12 tournament semifinals. The Cowboys went step for step with the Bears from the opening tip and pulled away at the end for an 83-74 victory.
Oklahoma State is a trendy pick as a dark horse Final Four pick. Most believed the Cowboys would be a two or a three seed and that the committee missed the mark by having the Cowboys pegged as a four seed. Oklahoma State will get its shot starting Friday night to prove its worth. They got no favors in being matched up with Liberty.
Out of the Atlantic Sun Conference, the Liberty Flames enter the tournament having finished the regular season with a record of 23-5, winning both the regular-season crown and the conference tournament.
Liberty is no stranger to crashing the party, having defeated Mississippi State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 2019 when the Flames were a 12 seed.
They do it this year with a similar style, very efficient offense (4th in the nation in eFG%, 19th in TO%), and stifling defense (yielding only 59.6 points per game to the opposition).
Many have Oklahoma State as a legitimate Final Four threat and it may be just that. But Liberty is no slouch and has done this before. Could the Flames pull off another first-round upset and blowup March Madness brackets everywhere?
No. 8 Loyola Chicago vs No. 9 Georgia Tech
If you want to see a defensive battle with some physicality, look no further than this first-round matchup between the Loyola Chicago Ramblers and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.
Both teams earned automatic bids to punch their ticket to the dance with Loyola Chicago winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, and Georgia Tech surprising many by winning the ACC Tournament.
Loyola Chicago is led by their 6-foot-9 center, Cameron Krutwig. Krutwig is a problem in the paint for the opposition, pouring in 15 points per game on 58% from the field. Many tout this Ramblers team as being BETTER than the one that made the Final Four back in 2018, but the route this time will be just as difficult.
Porter Moser's squad has held teams to an average of 55.5 points per game and they will frustrate the heck out of any and everyone they play.
Josh Pastner said it would take him five years to help get Georgia Tech back to the big dance and wouldn't you know it, in his 5th year the Yellow Jackets are back.
Georgia Tech is one of the hottest teams entering the tournament, having not lost a game since February 12th.
They are led by ACC Player of the Year Moses Wright who averages 17.4 points per contest and floor general Jose Alvarado (15.3 PPG, 4.1 APG).
While Georgia Tech plays quicker than Loyola Chicago, neither team is going to try and run you out of the gym with their tempo.
It will be a battle of the bigs in this 8 vs. 9 March Madness matchup when Krutwig takes on Wright. The winner likely has a date with Illinois.
No. 6 San Diego State vs No. 11 Syracuse
A bubble team entering Selection Sunday, Syracuse ended up earning not only an at-large berth but avoiding the First Four play-in games as well.
Jim Boeheim's bunch was able to do enough in the eyes of the committee, winning three out of their last four to punch a ticket. The lone loss came on a buzzer-beater against the Virginia Cavaliers in the ACC quarterfinals.
We all know Syracuse brings the 2-3 zone on defense, but on offense, they have been led by Buddy Boeheim who has absolutely gone wild offensively entering the tournament.
In his last four games, the junior guard has totals of 31, 27, 17, and 26. He shoots in volume but keeps it efficient as well. Syracuse is hoping their zone defense and Boeheim can carry them into the second weekend.
San Diego State is once again in the dance and once again will be looked over by many, which makes sense for at least a few reasons; the Aztecs play on the west coast, they're in the Mountain West Conference, many don't see a whole lot of them during the regular season. But they have been a consistent tournament team, with this being their 8th trip since 2010.
They haven't lost a single game since January 16th and they like to get after you with their harassing style of defense. They aren't flashy, the Aztecs aren't going to wow you with an overwhelming offense, they're just an all-around solid team.
Matt Mitchell is the name to know for San Diego State. The versatile forward is averaging 15.4 points per game.
After an up-and-down season that had them sweating out Selection Sunday, will Syracuse make some noise in the 2021 March Madness? Or will the Aztecs continue to be that strong motor that keeps chugging along? Opening odds had San Diego State as a 2.5-point favorite.