With the field for the 2021 men's NCAA tournament now official, we're breaking down each team in the field for you in the lead-up to the first tournament in two years. Here's what you need to know about the Midwest region.
1. Illinois (23-6, Big Ten champion)
The Illini surged to a No. 1 seed after losing just once in their last 15 games. Illinois' only defeat since Jan. 16 came at Michigan State on Feb. 23. Illinois won seven straight games before that loss and its win Sunday over Ohio State was its seventh straight win after that loss. Leading scorer Ayo Dosunmu (20.9 points per game) is back in the fold after a facial fracture he suffered in February and Kofi Cockburn averages 17.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per game.
2. Houston (24-3, American champion)
The Cougars are in the tournament for a third consecutive time and have a legitimate chance to win it all. Houston’s defense is stifling. Opponents make less than 20 shots per game and shoot just 37.5%. That’s the lowest mark in the country. Houston also gets over 41 rebounds a game and is the third-best offensive rebounding team in the nation. Quentin Grimes scores 18 points per game and shoots 40% from behind the arc.
3. West Virginia (18-9, at-large)
The Mountaineers finished third in the Big 12 and beat Oklahoma State, Kansas, Texas, and Texas Tech over the course of the season. But the Cowboys got the Mountaineers in the second round of the Big 12 tournament after beating WVU to end the regular season. West Virginia is the third-best team in the country at getting to the free throw line but rates just 152nd in free throw percentage (71.7%). Forward Derek Culver averages nearly a double-double per game with 14.6 points and 9.8 rebounds.
4. Oklahoma State (20-8, at-large)
Welcome to the Cade Cunningham show. The star freshman has been dominant over the second half of the season. He scored 40 points in a win at Oklahoma on Feb. 27 and scored 25 in a win over Baylor on Thursday and 29 in a loss to Texas on Friday. The potential No. 1 NBA draft pick is shooting 45% from the field and 41% from three as OSU has gone 8-2 in its last 10 games.
5. Tennessee (18-8, at-large)
The Volunteers were 10-1 after beating Vanderbilt on Jan. 16. UT went 8-7 in its last 15 games and lost to Alabama in the SEC tournament. The Vols are No. 4 in KenPom.com’s defensive rankings and force nearly 16 turnovers a game. Jaden Springer leads the team with 12.5 points per game and shoots over 44% from behind the arc.
6. San Diego State (23-4, Mountain West champion)
The Aztecs were 30-2 and a contender for the Final Four when the college basketball season came to a halt in March of 2020 because of COVID-19. This year there wasn’t much of a drop-off on a senior-laden team capable of a deep tournament run. SDSU hasn’t lost since losing two at Utah State on Jan. 14 and Jan. 16; the Aztecs beat the Aggies on Saturday for the Mountain West title. Senior guards Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel combine for nearly 30 points per game.
7. Clemson (16-7, at-large)
If you like low-scoring games, Clemson should be one of your favorite teams. The Tigers average 65.3 points per game and rank 312th in the country. The Tigers give up 62 points per game and rank 14th in scoring defense. An undefeated February pushed Clemson squarely into the NCAA tournament despite an opening game loss to Miami in the NCAA tournament. Aamir Sims is the only player on the team who averages more than nine points per game.
8. Loyola Chicago (24-4, Missouri Valley champion)
A Ramblers Final Four run won’t come as much of a surprise this season. And if it does, it’ll come on the strength of Loyola’s excellent defense. The Ramblers give up the fewest points per game (55.5) and rank second to Alabama in KenPom.com’s adjusted defense rankings. Loyola is also exceptionally efficient on offense. The Ramblers shoot better than 50% from the field and big man Cameron Krutwig leads six other players averaging seven or more points per game.
9. Georgia Tech (17-8, ACC champion)
The Yellow Jackets are one of the hottest teams in the country. Georgia Tech carried a six-game winning streak into the ACC tournament and beat Miami and Florida State to win the conference tournament. The ACC title ensured that Georgia Tech would make its first appearance in an NCAA tournament since 2010.
10. Rutgers (15-11, at-large)
Welcome back to the NCAA tournament, Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are in March Madness for the first time since 1991 when it was a member of the Atlantic-10. If Rutgers wins its first-round game against Clemson it’ll be the first win in the tournament for the school since 1983. Rutgers is led by its dynamic guard trio of Ron Harper, Geo Baker and Jacob Young. The three combine for 40 points per game.
11. Syracuse (16-9, at-large)
The Orange finished eighth in the ACC with a 9-7 conference record and lost on a late three to Virginia in the ACC tournament on Thursday. The next day, the Cavaliers had to back out of the tournament due to a positive COVID-19 test. The Orange rank far better in offense (22nd) than defense (89th) in KenPom.com’s rankings. That may be a shock to the system for casual fans who have always heard about Jim Boeheim’s zone defense.
12. Oregon State (17-12, Pac-12 champion)
The Beavers pulled three straight upsets to win the Pac-12’s automatic berth with wins over UCLA, Oregon and Colorado. The 70-68 win over the Buffaloes gave Oregon State its second NCAA tournament in Wayne Tinkle’s tenure and its second tournament appearance since 1990. Senior guard Ethan Thompson averages 15.3 points per game while junior forward Warith Alatishe averages 9.9 points and 8.5 rebounds.
13. Liberty (23-5, Atlantic Sun champion)
Can the Flames pull a first-round upset for the second consecutive tournament? Liberty advanced to the second round in 2019 with a win over Mississippi State. Two years later, Liberty enters this tournament on a 12-game win streak as it won both the regular season and conference titles in the Atlantic Sun.
14. Morehead State (23-7, Ohio Valley champion)
The Eagles are in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011 when they upset Louisville as a No. 13 seed. The Eagles easily toppled OVC regular season champion Belmont in the conference title game thanks to 27 points by Johni Broome and 22 points by Skyelar Potter. Broome, a 6-10 freshman, has shot nearly 58% from the field this season.
15. Cleveland State (19-7, Horizon champion)
The Vikings are in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009 with their first winning season since 2014-15. Cleveland State needed three overtimes to beat Purdue-Fort Wayne in its Horizon League tournament opener before beating Milwaukee and Oakland to win the tournament title. Guard Torrey Patton leads the team with 14.9 points and 8 rebounds per game.
16. Drexel (12-7, Colonial champion)
Drexel went just 4-5 in the CAA regular season but won three games in the postseason tournament to grab its first CAA tournament title and first NCAA tournament appearance since 1996. Drexel is also guaranteed to finish the season with a winning record for the first time since a 16-14 season in 2013-14. Guard Camren Wynter averages nearly 17 points per game and shoots 43% from three.
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