Andy Behrens, Pete Thamel, Krysten Peek and Preston Johnson break down the Midwest Region of the 2021 NCAA men’s tournament field - including top-seeded Illinois looking to make a run at its first NCAA tournament title.
ANDY BEHRENS: OK, let's break down the Midwest region. Let's get into some of these games. And let's start with a couple of teams that are maybe a little bit disrespected here, Loyola-Chicago and Georgia Tech. We have the ACC champ. The team is just a joy, the coach is a joy, wonderful team. And Loyola, number nine overall in KenPom, number eight in this region. That is crazy to me. Pete, your thoughts on this game?
PETE THAMEL: I agree. I think Loyola and St. Bonaventure are the two teams they got shafted the most in the seeding process. I think the first thing we need to know about Loyola is, we need Sister Jean at this game. Hashtag free Sister Jean. Only the NCAA could find a way to invite Will Wade to the tournament and not have Sister Jean. What's going on in Indianapolis?
Cameron Krutwig is probably my favorite player in this NCAA tournament. He's the big burly front line force for Loyola. He averages 14.8 points a game, 6.7 rebounds, and he has one bad mall cop stash that America's waiting to fall in love with.
KRYSTEN PEEK: I mean, I hate to choose and pick against Sister Jean, but I have to in this matchup. We already talked about Georgia Tech and their defense. They're entering the field as ACC tournament champions, and they have ACC Player of the Year, senior, Moses Wright, and ACC Defensive Player of the Year, senior, Jose Alvarado. There's a lot of leadership, and their defense is already deadly. I think they're going to do a lot of damage in this bracket.
PRESTON JOHNSON: Every year there's a matchup where two teams I wish weren't facing each other end up facing each other. I think both these teams could ultimately make runs. And then they made it worse by making them face Illinois in the second round. So disrespect is the right word.
This is one from a betting perspective-- look, I think Loyala-Chicago wins slightly more frequently. I have it about minus two. That's what the point spread is in the betting markets. I think when you look at the actual X's and O's, Georgia Tech does have a defense where they can pack with the zone. They have the bigs with Krutwig, which is what Loyola-Chicago likes to run their offense through. If they hinder that at all then I think Georgia Tech could absolutely pull off the upset.
Ultimately I'm just going to sit back, enjoy the X's and O's matchup, and, you know, I think if one of these teams can ultimately give Illinois a run, that would be great too. But it's unfortunate they're facing each other right off.
ANDY BEHRENS: Yeah. The committee doing no favors to Illinois with that potential second round matchup.
OK. Let's look at San Diego State and Syracuse. Syracuse makes the field. San Diego State is good. They're winners of like 14 straight. They've been fantastic, good defensive team. Syracuse, of course, gives teams all kinds of problems in the tournament with that zone. They've got the double Boeheim situation going on right now. Pete, how do you size up this game?
PETE THAMEL: Well, I really think if you are going to go up against Syracuse's zone in the NCAA tournament, you need a veteran team, you need a poised team, and you need a great three-point shooting team. And that's exactly what San Diego State is. They have Matt Mitchell, 6'6", big, strong, can manipulate the high post area, which you have to be able to do. And I really think one of the keys to playing Syracuse is being able to endure a drought. You're going to miss some shots.
But when you look at San Diego State, they're in the top 30 in the country in three-point field goal shooting percentage defense. They're 23-4. I think they're a little understated when it all comes down to it. This is a good Syracuse team. They struggled to score at times. They played decent late. Syracuse will always tempt you because of that zone, because if you pick 'em once, you almost have to pick 'em twice. But I'm taking the Aztecs here. I just think they're more talented and have an overall better roster, and I think they will win comfortably.
KRYSTEN PEEK: Pete, I cannot believe you're picking against your alma mater. And let me counter you with an insane outside shooter, Buddy Boeheim-- yes, the coach's son. He had 31 points in a last second loss to Virginia. And he's had 19 threes in the last four games. Sometimes a shooter can carry you through the fear, through the first round, and on through the tournament. And if he gets hot, I think they can pull off this upset against San Diego State.
PRESTON JOHNSON: I can't believe he went with San Diego State as well. I thought I had to sign something for Pete to let me come on his show. I had to go with 'Cuse. But he's not wrong. The Aztecs are the better team.
They are. Look, how do you beat the two-three zone? They have the reputation as a lower seed making runs, it's because it's tough to prepare for. And you have to be able to hit threes. It's what San Diego State can do. You mention Matt Mitchell, also Jordan Schakel. I think he's shooting 47% from three this year and over six attempts per game, one of the guys that's most lights out in the entire country, and probably the two best players, arguably as a whole, that are on the floor.
And you look at Syracuse offensively. They're going up against an assist defense that ranks eighth in adjusted efficiency-- defensive efficiency I should say, and they're better on the glass. So I'm not really sure where the edge is. And assuming San Diego State knocks down some of their threes-- as a team at 38% this year, top 25 in the country-- that should be enough to get them to go by.
ANDY BEHRENS: Looking at this region, it's just a minefield. It is just absolutely loaded with talent. Pete, give us another team to watch.
PETE THAMEL: Well, I really think when you dial in the Midwest region, one of the teams that's going to dictate what happens is Tennessee. The Vols have just been this vexing mystery wrapped in a riddle all year. They have two potential lottery picks and Keon Johnson and James-- at least first round picks. The lottery's probably a little bit aggressive. And they have just really not figured out a way to meld that talent with the talented veteran roster. They're kind of like a symphony with a couple kazoos. Like they just don't sound right.
And John Fulkerson's injury-- fractured his face in the SEC tournament, took a dirty elbow from Florida's Omar Payne, actually two dirty elbows from Omar Payne. I really think a missing piece from a team that hasn't synced together makes me really want to pick against the Vols. But they also epitomize the boom or bust. Boy, because if they start to win and can go on a run. So teams like Tennessee determine your bracket. Choose wisely. I'm throwing 'em out.
ANDY BEHRENS: KP, there's no shortage of lottery picks in this region. Who should we keep an eye on?
KRYSTEN PEEK: Man, this region is stacked. But you gotta say Cade Cunningham. He's arguably the best player in the tournament and potentially the number one pick in the NBA draft. He has drawn early NBA comparisons to Luka Doncic. He's a six-foot-eight point guard that just does it all. The matchup all basketball fans are hoping for is a potential sweet 16 game between Ayo Dosunmu and number one seed Illinois. Ayo's playing, like I said, on another level right now. He's a great passer and facilitator. And this game will be so much fun if either team can get that far in the tournament.
ANDY BEHRENS: Somehow we haven't even mentioned the two seed here yet, Houston. Preston, is there an opportunity there?
PRESTON JOHNSON: That's where I'm going. This is actually the biggest discrepancy in my personal projections and the current market in these round one matchups and the point spread. Look, minus 19.5 on Houston-- there's not much to this. It's way too low in my opinion. I have it closer to 23. And when you look at them, I just think they're generally underappreciated. They have a few head scratching losses on their resume.
But in the end, you know, that total resume grades out as one of the best 10 in the country. They're one of the best 10 teams in the country. KenPom and some others actually have them in their top five. People aren't really giving them the credit. I think they're going just going to run away with this one from the get-go. So, yeah-- and anything under 20 I think is great value here in Houston in the first game.
ANDY BEHRENS: All right. Time to put up or shut up. Who are our region winners here? Pete, we'll start with you.
PETE THAMEL: Well, I'm going to go with Illinois, only because I want KP to wear a Captain Morgan's patch while interviewing Ayo with his mask on after they emerge as Midwest region champions. I think that would be a great collision of this bracket show.
KRYSTEN PEEK: I'm going with Oklahoma State. I'm riding with Cade Cunningham, the best player in this tournament, all the way to the Final Four. And he's got a lot of good supporting cast around him with Avery Anderson and Keylan Boone, who have been playing exceptionally well. So I think they are in the right spot to make a big push in this tournament.
PRESTON JOHNSON: Kristin and I didn't plan this ahead of time, but we love the upside with Oklahoma State. And I think they do get out of this region. Even outside of Cade Cunningham, who's been averaging like over 20 points just in the second halves alone in these games when he has to turn it on and they've made this run.
Look, that West Virginia game-- I believe it is the first one where Cunningham sat along with another starting guard. Two of their bigs fouled out with five minutes left, and Alexander still led 'em to a win. He had a career-high 31 points. They just have so many options. This is a team of extremely high variance. I think they could make a run to the finals, at least the Final Four. They also could lose Liberty in this first matchup, you know, because they're young and they do turn it over frequently. So it's a really interesting dynamic, but I think they're a good pick to win the region.
ANDY BEHRENS: I will admit to being a little bit terrified by Cade Cunningham, but I got to go with the Illinois here. They are such a well constructed team. They can beat you inside with Kofi. Obviously they can beat you outside with Ayo. He is the best closer in college basketball. He's been fantastic all year. That team is just a nightmare matchup. Like, this region is an absolute minefield. It is hard to carry 'em all the way to the Final Four, hard to carry anybody here all the way to the Final Four. Great region, but I think the Illinois are the team, probably the second best team in the country right now. So I am going with Illinois.