Midwest Region: Bracket Advice 101
I get flooded with texts this time every year: what should we do with our bracket? Who are the right upsets to pick? What inside information can you give us that would help?
While it's flattering, I'll be the first guy to tell you that my bracket is no better than anyone else's. The NCAA Tournament is just as frustrating for those of us who use KenPom religiously, study and understand the film/ players and let that perspective get to our heads. In reality, your guesses are as good as mine.
But what I can do is save myself (and you) some time by typing up all the advice I'd give and putting it in one place. We'll do a quick region-by-region breakdown with some information on each team, just to see what the tournament might be like. Up second for us is the Midwest Region, featuring a molten hot one-seed in Illinois, an inexplicably tough path for them to the Elite Eight, and a bunch of defensive-minded juggernauts waiting on the other side of the bracket.
Likely the most talented team in the nation outside of Gonzaga, the Fighting Illini are incredibly well rounded. They defend, the score at pace, they have an ISO scorer in Dosunmu, a great finisher/ rim protector in Cockburn, shooting, veteran play, a talented passer in Andre Curbelo and a coach who has made a run before in Brad Underwood.
Look, to call them my title favorites wouldn't be a surprise. But they have a brutal matchup in the second round with either Loyola or Georgia Tech, two really different but imposing defenses. Beyond that, Tennessee isn't much different from what they see a lot of in the Big Ten, and Oklahoma State is just about honing in on Cade Cunningham. Get to the Elite 8 and there's likely a great defense waiting for them. I love the path for Illinois to the Final Four... they just have to get past two stingy teams in that 8v9 game.
Kelvin Sampson can coach, man. These Cougars are tough, long and likely the best defensive team in the country. Guys like Quentin Grimes and Dejon Jarreau disrupt the flow of an offense, and freshman Tramon Mark has come on late in the year.
Houston's tough-minded, defensive approach shows up against any opponent. I'm not sure if Clemson or Rutgers have the offensive firepower to take them down. It's possible that no 1 or 2 seed has an easier path to the Sweet Sixteen. A showdown with San Diego State would be ultra fascinating, and perhaps in the 40s. What gets lost in their stingy defense is that Houston is top-50 in points per game -- these guys turn defense into offense, and are top-three in the country in offensive rebounding. They're a really underrated group and, unless San Diego State is around, should be a heavy favorite for the Elite Eight.
3. West Virginia
Bob Huggins continually reinvents himself. Press Virginia is no more. The two-big lineups evaporated when Oscar Tshiebwe transferred mid-year. But the Mountaineers are resilient, led by Deuce McBride, one of the nation's best lead guards who plays his balls off on each end. They've started to pick up their tempo and surround him with shooting, and we all know those guys defend under Huggy Bear.
Still, something doesn't seem right with the Mountaineers for a deep run into the tournament. They don't have another guy if McBride is hampered or having an off night. With teams like San Diego State in the second round and Houston in the Sweet 16 awaiting who are defensive juggernauts, it seems unlikely the Mountaineers make it through both unscathed.
4. Oklahoma State
He's the team here. If he is on, there aren't many individual players or teams who can stop him. Tennessee has two guys to throw at him in round two, and Illinois has enough offensive firepower and rim protection to make his life difficult. If you pick the Cowboys to go deep, it's because you believe Cade can Superman his team through the tournament. But with that roster, that's a really reallyâ tall order.
For a guy who loves Rick Barnes and thinks this Tennessee group has a ton of individual talent, they've somewhat run under the radar this year. Between Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson, there's pro talent on the wings/ in the backcourt. Yves Pons is due for at least one highlight athletic play. Santiago Vescovi is a name worth knowing.
I'm not bought into Oregon State continuing their hot shooting streak from Vegas, but I'm not exactly sure what this Tennessee team does great. They're a very good defense, though not great. Springer and Johnson going head-to-head with Cunningham will be an NBA scouting dream, and could be what propels the Volunteers to the Sweet Sixteen. Tread carefully with picking them to go much farther, though.
6. San Diego State
San Diego State gets my Gold Certificate of Trust as the most reliable team to advance deep into the field. A lot of that is influenced by the fact that, other than 2-seed Houston, they might be the toughest defense to crack in the nation. Their pack-line principles have run havoc through the Mountain West. Brian Dutcher might be the most underrated coach in America.
There's legit talent here, too. Senior wing Matt Mitchell can do a little bit of everything and is really undervalued nationally. Terrell Gomez is one of the best sharpshooters in college, and big guard Jordan Schakel can handle the big moment. Those three, along with point guard Trey Pulliam, are all seniors -- the experience of this group is worth noting.
Nobody finishes well against the Aztecs on the inside. Their defense is legitimately stingy. And with Syracuse as their first-round matchup, they have enough shooting to hopefully be able to solve the zone. It's a good draw for them, and they're my sleeper Elite Eight team. I'm counting on San Diego State.
The Tigers got off to a great start this year, cooled for a bit in the middle, then finished 6-2 in their final eight. Aamir Simms is their do-it-all guy who will need to find a way to get easy interior buckets against the rim protection of Rutgers' Myles Johnson. That's a really, really difficult task.
There's nothing statistically awesome or X's and O's unique about this team. They're balanced next to Simms, a tad undersized. They haven't beaten a tournament team in a month. Could they beat Rutgers? Definitely. An upset over Houston seems largely unlikely, though.
8. Loyola (IL)
America's favorite Cinderella from a few years ago went 24-4 this year, had one of the top defenses in the nation and features a do-it-all big man in Cameron Krutwig. There are two things to discuss with their matchups: how they'd fare against 9-seed Georgia Tech and what they'll do against Illinois if they win.
First thing's first: Georgia Tech plays a ton of 1-3-1 zone, and it's super unique. They do a great job with it and move things around in ways that most teams can't solve. It's great at keeping the ball out of the middle, where Krutwig loves to create from. The speed of Georgia Tech in the open floor and how much they knife in for steals might be a tough matchup for the Ramblers.
If Loyola does manage to win, they could give Illinois come problems. They have a big man who can go at Kofi Cockburn and get him in foul trouble, or at least play him even. From there, experienced guards and that stingy defense could carry them to a monumental upset. These Ramblers are dangerous, they just have a massively difficult first-round matchup.
9. Georgia Tech
No team may be hotter right now. How the Yellow Jackets have gotten hot is by pressuring opponents on defense, generating a ton of turnovers and killing teams in transition. I like them in a matchup with Loyola because the Ramblers may not be able to keep up in that pace.
The Yellow Jackets are dangerous in both first and second rounds, but they play two teams out of the gate who would be 48-10. That's not a recipe for safety for a Sweet Sixteen pick. Tread carefully...
Your family, your religion, and Rutgers basketball.
Root for these guys. They have infectious energy, really mature kids, and a balanced game. Myles Johnson is perhaps the best rim protector in the tournament, locking things down inside. That presence is impactful to prevent easy buckets in late-game moments. With Ron Harper Jr. as a mismatch wing who can get really hot from 3 and a poised guard in Geo Baker, there's enough offensive firepower to hang around.
This is a tough 10-seed, and would be a great story if they made it to the Sweet Sixteen.
Kadary Richardson and Alan Griffin are pretty talented guys. You don't find this much talent on an 11-seed every year. Plus, with the Boeheim 2-3 zone, they can make a tournament run just by being unique and taking teams out of what they normally do.
Sprinkle in some Buddy Boeheim shooting excellence and Syracuse is more dangerous than their underwhelming resume might make it seem. Still, San Diego State is a tough matchup for them, and I'd be really cautious in picking them to go farther.
12. Oregon State
Got to give Wayne Tinkle credit... he's maximizing this group. They got hot from 3 at the right time, punching a bid to the tournament as a result. Look, the Pac-12 stinks and is behind on simple math... teams can beat them just by getting hot from deep. Tennessee is a good defensive group and Rick Barnes has coached against enough run-and-gun offenses in the SEC this year. They'll be ready for Oregon State, making this a tough team to pick for an upset.
Experience might count for something. The Flames have more experience in the dance than their counterparts in Oklahoma State. If they can find a way to slow Cade, they certainly do enough on offense and with their pace to outscore the Cowboys. I wouldn't bet against Cade, though...
The Flames shoot 39% from deep. While Oklahoma State likes to play a lot of zone, Liberty could play them out of it if they build a lead and use their experienced guards to kill clock. I'm really curious to see if the Cowboys go zone.
14. Morehead State
Kenneth Faried ain't walking through that door...
A methodical team who doesn't try to outscore anyone, they'll have to score an upset by out-grinding a Bob Huggins team. Let us know how that works out.
15. Cleveland State
Dennis Gates is awesome. He's maximized this group and turned things around quickly in Cleveland. The Vikings don't shoot it great, which they'd need to do to out-slug the Cougars of Houston. Do-it-all guard Torrey Patton is their leader and is great on the glass. They'll need him to win his one-on-one matchup with someone like Grimes or Jarreau.
I really didn't think the Colonial champion would be a 16-seed, but the uninspiring season from Drexel drew the claim. They've faced some good teams. Illinois is something else. Good luck, Dragons!
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Assistant Men's Basketball Coach, Dickinson College.