Why Top seed Illinois will make the Final Four…
Because of their depth, it can be assumed that their stars Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn will likely be the two best players on the floor in a majority of their games, but the Fighting Illini have other players who are also capable of taking over at any given moment. Trent Frazier is a high-energy senior guard who brings leadership and a secondary scoring punch. Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo were two highly-ranked recruits who have already shown as freshman that they are impact players and will be hungry to make names for themselves on the biggest stage of their young careers. Illinois is a match up nightmare for essentially every team because you never know who is going to have the hot hand. When you have two of the best players in the country, and then high-level secondary pieces to fill out the rotation, you have a recipe for a Final Four run.
The best non-number one seed…
#4 Oklahoma State
It took a bit longer than expected, but freshman phenom Cade Cunningham and his Oklahoma State Cowboys squad are finally reaching their full potential, and that should be a very scary sight for the other teams in the Midwest region. The Cowboys have played like a top seed as of late, notching recent victories over the likes of Arkansas, Texas, Texas Tech, two wins over Oklahoma, two wins over West Virginia and a statement win over Baylor in the Big 12 tournament semifinals. They’re not just a one man show, though, as Anthony Anderson is hitting his stride on offense as of late, and 6 foot 9 forward Kalib Boone has come into his own as one of the premier shot blockers in the country, going for six blocks against West Virginia in the Big 12 quarterfinal, and then 6 blocks again a day later in the semifinal against Baylor. Cade Cunningham will garner all of the headlines and media attention, but there is so much more to this Oklahoma State team, and with the way they have been playing recently, there aren’t many teams who can match up with them.
San Diego State
Quietly, San Diego State has turned into a well-oiled machine that is incredibly efficient on both sides of the floor. Offensively, they are led by two sweet-shooting seniors, forward Matt Mitchell and guard Jordan Schakel. The Aztecs feature three players with three-point percentages over 40%, and have scored 75 points or more in eight of the 14 straight games they have won. They shoot nearly 40% from behind the arc collectively and on defense, finished second in their conference in defensive efficiency during league play. Any team that matches up with SDSU and doesn’t come prepared defensively will most definitely pay the price.
Sweet 16 Sleeper
f there’s one thing this Clemson team knows for sure, it’s that they can hang with anyone. They have picked up wins this season over Purdue, Maryland, Alabama, Florida State, UNC, and Louisville over the course of the season, so this is obviously a team that doesn’t back down from tough competition. They open the tournament in a 7-10 seed matchup with Rutgers, a team who is 8-10 since the start of 2021. While Clemson hasn’t been on fire either, going 7-6 since mid-January, they should have the talent and experience to take care of the Scarlet Knights. They then will likely be matched up with #2 seed Houston out of the weak American Athletic Conference in the round of 32, and this is a matchup where Clemson’s experience playing top teams all season could come in handy. Clemson will be relying on senior Aamir Simms to be their leader on both sides of the ball, and as long as he continues to be effective, Clemson has a great shot at making the Sweet 16.
Final Four Sleeper
They may be a two seed, but playing in a weak conference of the AAC has many people skeptical of how legit this year’s Houston Cougars team is. Making it out of a region featuring the likes of Illinois, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Tennessee, etc. will be no easy task, but nobody should be counting the Cougars out quite yet. Quentin Grimes is a former five-star recruit who transferred to UH by way of Kansas and is one of the most talented scorers in the entire country. Behind him, the team plays physical, hard-nosed, yet efficient basketball. Houston actually finished the regular season ranked in the top 10 in the KenPom national rankings for adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. If they can continue to stay true to their brand of basketball, Kelvin Sampson’s team has got just as good a shot as anyone to reach the Final Four.
Top Potential Matchup
#1 Illinois vs #4 Oklahoma State
The top potential matchup of the Midwest region has a chance to take place during the Sweet 16, where Ayo Dosunmu and top-seeded Illinois could possibly be squaring off with Cade Cunningham and fourth-seeded Oklahoma State. Dosunmu and Cunningham, two of the best guards in the country, will likely be guarding each other in this scenario, making for one of the most intriguing potential clashes we could see in the entire NCAA Tournament, let alone the Midwest region. Cunningham has the size in the matchup, standing at 6’8, 220 pounds compared to Dosunmu’s 6’5, 200-pound frame, but Dosunmu has the strength, toughness, and defensive ability to give Cade Cunningham some trouble. If this matchup actually happens, it will be an extremely fun one to watch, and will have major implications on how the rest of the tournament plays out, as well as both players NBA Draft prospects.
Top First Round Matchup
#7 Clemson vs. #10 Rutgers
The four 7-10 seed matchups of every NCAA Tournament are usually among the closest of any of the matchups. Even though when a 10 seed takes down a 7 seed it is considered an “upset”, it happens so often that nobody is ever that surprised when it does occur. This holds true in the Midwest region, as #7 Clemson against #10 Rutgers has the makings to be an extremely close battle between two talented teams. At one point in the season, Rutgers was ranked as highly as #11 in the country, while Clemson was ranked as highly as #12 in the AP top 25, before both teams fell into mid-season struggles. The talent is obviously there, as both teams were in the national rankings for a good part of the season, and it will be very interesting to see who will come out victorious in one of the toughest games to predict of the round of 64.
Bob Huggins, West Virginia
When you think of West Virginia basketball, you likely think of “Press Virginia”, coach Bob Huggins exhausting, nonstop press defense that flusters opponents and causes a ton of turnovers. Huggins has employed this style of defense for many years, but not this season. This Mountaineers team likes to slow the pace and run their offensive sets, which has resulted in many easy buckets and trips to the free throw line this season. Even with the major change in scheme, West Virginia still experienced a ton of success this season and enter the tournament as the #3 seed in the Midwest, a testament to their longtime coach, Bob Huggins, his basketball knowledge, and ability to figure out how to make things work with what he’s got. With Huggins leading the way, you can never count West Virginia out in March.
Kelvin Sampson, Houston
Usually, when you lose your leading scorer from the previous season to transfer, your third leading scorer from the season before leaves to turn pro, and then your fourth leading scorer from the season before tears his ACL before the season and doesn’t play until mid-February, wins will be hard to come by. This is exactly what happened to coach Kelvin Sampson and his Houston Cougars coming into the season, but instead of raising the white flag and chalking the season up, Sampson and his team found their new identity and absolutely tore through the AAC, finishing with a 24-3 record and coasting to the conference tournament champion.
Top Five Prospects
1. Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State (Fr.)
The likely #1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, Cunningham is a freshman phenom who has NBA teams and fans enamored with his rare combination of size and skill. He stands at 6’8, 225 pounds, but facilitates like a point guard and can score from anywhere on the floor.
2. Keon Johnson, Tennessee (Fr.)
The former five-star recruit is an elite athlete with great burst and acceleration, as well as the ability to jump out of the gym. Athletically, he is NBA-ready. Johnson must improve his ball-handling and jump shot if he is to be an All-Star at the next level.
3. Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois (Jr.)
Dosunmu has proved this season that NBA teams do not have to question his toughness or leadership, as he missed little time after breaking his nose and came back to help his team win the Big Ten tournament championship. He has a knack for getting steals on defense, and can put the ball in the hoop in a plethora of different ways.
4. Jaden Springer, Tennessee (Fr.)
One of the two highly-touted freshman guards at Tennessee, Springer is the ying to Keon Johnson’s yang in terms of play style. Johnson is the better athlete who struggles handling the ball and shooting, while Springer excels as a shooter and using his craftiness to find different ways to finish around the rim.
5. Miles McBride, West Virginia (So.)
Any starting point guard playing under Bob Huggins is going to be a strong defensive player with a high motor. It is necessary in order to run his press defense. These two qualities are definitely present in McBride’s game, but over the course of the season he has proved that he can score and facilitate with potential to be an impact player at the next level, whenever he decides to declare.