Every year in the NCAA Tournament, there's at least one Region of Doom. You know what I'm talking about: That oh-so-special region that, after first glance, you just know is going to be especially gnarly.
This year it's the Midwest Region.
But it also features freaky strength in the other top teams as well. No. 2 Houston just cruised to an AAC Tournament title by whipping Cincinnati 91-54. No. 3 seed West Virginia was bordering on 2 seed territory not long ago. And No. 4 seed Oklahoma State was projected by Jerry Palm as a No. 2 seed. It may be the most criminally under-seeded team in the field.
But wait, there's more! The best mid-major team in college hoops -- Loyola Chicago -- is an 8 seed. (Yes, the same Loyola Chicago that went to the Final Four three years ago.) And the Ramblers get a first-round draw of No. 9 seed Georgia Tech, which won its final eight games and clinched the ACC Tournament with a win over Florida State. Stacked!
There are endless storylines to watch from this section of the bracket between great teams, great players and great coaches. Let's break it all down.
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Best first-round game
(8) Loyola Chicago vs. (9) Georgia Tech: I both love and hate this matchup. Love because Loyola, which is 17-2 since the calendar flipped to 2021, has the ability to make the Final Four. Love because Georgia Tech, winners of eight-straight, captured my heart when it won the ACC Tournament and subsequently became a darling with Josh Pastner and Jose Alvarado in the postgame. But I hate it because these teams are second-weekend caliber clubs, and one will be one-and-done. That's a bummer. For hoops fans, however, it should be fantastic theater.
Top potential matchup
(1) Illinois vs. (4) Oklahoma State: This is a shame it wouldn't be for a trip to the Final Four. But kudos to the selection committee for properly recognizing the Brad Underwood connection to Oklahoma State and setting up with a potentially great Sweet 16 showdown. Underwood went one-and-done as OSU's coach (with now head coach Mike Boynton as an assistant) before leaving for Illinois, so that's juicy in itself. But more than that, this game would feature two of the most talented players in the game in Cade Cunningham (OSU) and Ayo Dosunmu (Illinois). Tons of talent on both sides here and the added storyline of Underwood facing his former employer makes this a game both Oklahoma State and Illinois fans would be heavily invested in.
Upset lock of the region
(12) Oregon State over (5) Tennessee: I have tried, over and over again, to buy into this Tennessee team. But I made a promise to myself after its loss to shorthanded Auburn on Feb. 27 that, if given the opportunity to pick this team, I would fade them. So here we are. It helps that I rather enjoy this plucky Oregon State team, too. The Beavers were picked to finish last in the Pac-12 in the preseason but just rolled through the conference tournament to clinch the league's automatic tournament berth. They seem to really enjoy playing with one another -- for one another -- which is a stark contrast to this Vols team that comes and goes and doesn't seem to quite click.
Cinderella team that will surprise
(14) Morehead State: How's this for a nugget: Morehead State is 19-1. 19-1! Its only loss came on Feb. 13 when it fell to OVC-winning Belmont on the road. Team is red-hot. It is a double-digit dog facing No. 3 seed West Virginia in the first round, so it would be totally understandable if it fell to a team most people expect will win handily. But I like the Eagles to put up a nice fight, and who knows? Maybe they'll wind up as the mid-major darling -- and not Loyola -- from this region.
Team that will make a far-too-early exit
(2) Houston: Don't be fooled: Houston is absolutely legit. Kelvin Sampson's team can crush you on the glass and run the score up no problem. It wouldn't shock me at all if this Cougars team advanced from the Midwest. But their lack of size remains troublesome. If they face real size and length it could be a real problem, which both Rutgers and Clemson could bring to the table in a potential second-round matchup.
Six players to watch
- Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State: The projected No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft is as calm, cool and collected under pressure as any in this region. When the game is on the line and the stakes are high, Cunningham consistently delivers. He's got the Pokes in the postseason with their highest-seeded team since the penultimate season of the Eddie Sutton era.
- Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois: Coffee is for closers, they say. But for Dosunmu, replace coffee with a mask. The Big Ten star is wearing a black mask because of a facial injury, but it only adds to the mystique of his presence. He hasn't missed a beat, either, scoring at least 15 points in each of the Illini's Big Ten Tournament games. You just know that after vowing to return this season to try and give Illinois a national championship, that some of his best basketball is ahead of him in March.
- Kofi Cockburn, Illinois: Why I'm picking the Illini to win this region? Because they have two of the best players. Cockburn is a mismatch for any team and a perfect interior complement to Dosunmu. He's 7-foot, 285 pounds, and wields it as well as any 7-foot, 285-pound man I've ever seen. (No, I have not seen many people who are 7-foot and 285 pounds, but the point remains.)
- Jose Alvarado, Georgia Tech: Alvarado averaged 15.3 points, 4.1 assists and an ACC-leading 3.0 steals per game this season. He's an impactful all-around weapon for the Yellow Jackets. He was a driving force behind Georgia Tech's first ACC Tournament title since 1993.
- Keon Johnson, Tennessee: The Vols have two stud freshmen in Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson, but Johnson's got the hot hand right now. He's scored 20 or more points twice in the last three weeks after doing so only once prior all season. If there's one player I'd put money on making a highlight-reel dunk or block, it's Johnson. Springy legs for days.
- Miles McBride, West Virginia: Bob Huggins' most lethal offensive team in years -- maybe ever? -- is a reflection of his star in Miles "Deuce" McBride. He can get his own bucket under any circumstance, and has taken over games in big spots with his shot-making acumen.
Midwest Region winner
(1) Illinois: Dosunmu is the best closer in college basketball. Cockburn is the most physical interior big man in college basketball. And Andre Curbelo? He might be the most fun live wire in the game. This team has the goods to win it all. I said it in November, and I will say it now: Illinois can win the national championship. So I'll put my money where my mouth is and take the Illini to win this region.
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