Illinois headlines the Midwest bracket as the No. 1 seed after an incredible run to end the season, topped off with a Big 10 title win over Ohio State on Sunday. Illinois will be accompanied by Houston, West Virginia and OK State in the Midwest. There are two Big 12 powerhouses, which will make this side of the bracket tough.
No. 1 Illinois vs. No. 16 Drexel, Friday, March 19
Time/TV: 1:15 p.m. ET, TBS
The Illinois Fighting Illini have as good of a duo as you’ll see in college basketball with junior guard Ayo Dosunmu and sophomore center Kofi Cockburn. Dosunmu leads the Big Ten in scoring, and Cockburn averages more than 10 rebounds per game to lead the conference. Illinois ranks inside the top 10 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, and the Illini should be getting Final Four consideration in Brad Underwood’s fourth season as the head coach.
The Drexel Dragons are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 25 years after winning the CAA as the No. 6 seed. Drexel slows the game down and is ranked No. 340 in possessions per game. Their strength comes on the offensive end where they shoot 47.7% from the floor, which led the Colonial this season. They also led the conference in free throw percentage and second in three-point shooting.
No. 2 Houston vs. No. 15 Cleveland State, Friday, March 19
Time/TV: 7:15 p.m. ET, TruTV
The Houston Cougars have put together some excellent seasons in the back half of Kelvin Sampson’s eight-year tenure, but this might be his best team yet. The strength of this Houston team comes in rebounding the ball where the Cougars are tied for fourth in the country in rebounds per game and second in offensive rebounds per game. Giving this team second chances could be the difference in a tight game during the tournament.
The Cleveland State Vikings claimed the Horizon League title and are part of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2008-09 season. Cleveland State’s biggest strength this season has been on the defensive end of the floor where they allow the second fewest points per game in the conference. However, if the Vikings want to make a run, they will need to play better on offense, as they rank in the bottom half of many offensive categories in the conference. Senior guard Torrey Patton is the player to watch for this team, averaging 14.9 points and eight rebounds per game.
No. 3 West Virginia vs. No. 14 Morehead State, Friday, March 19
Time/TV: 9:50 p.m. ET, TruTV
The West Virginia Mountaineers were among the most consistent teams in college basketball this season as they never lost two games in a row all season long. Led by the offense, which ranks No. 11 in adjusted efficiency, West Virginia shoots 36.6% from the three-point line for second in the Big 12. With a deep roster, Miles McBride is the team’s leading scorer and ranks third in the Big 12 in steals per game and fourth in assists. Big man Derek Culver leads the conference with 10.1 rebounds per game and is second on the team in points per game.
The Morehead State Eagles are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade, and their success was led by defense this season. Morehead State allowed the fewest points per game in the Ohio Valley this season, and they were the best rebounding team in the conference. This team struggles on the offensive end, but it is led by freshman forward Johni Broome, who nearly averages a double-double this season.
No. 4 Oklahoma State vs. No. 13 Liberty, Friday, March 19
Time/TV: 6:25 p.m. ET, TBS
Oklahoma State won back-to-back championships in 1945 and 1946. The Cowboys make the NCAA tournament pretty regularly, and this year will be their 29th appearance. Making it to the dance despite having to face off against six other ranked Big 12 teams regularly was an impressive feat.
The Liberty Flames were by far the best team in the Atlantic Sun this season and finished it off with a conference title. Ranked dead last in college basketball at No. 348 among 348 teams in possessions per game, Liberty still has a very efficient offense. They shoot very well including 38.8% from three-point range and 77.7% from the line, making this team a tough out in the NCAA Tournament.
No. 5 Tennessee vs. No. 12 Oregon State, Friday, March 19
Time/TV: 4:30 p.m. ET, TNT
The Tennessee Volunteers struggled to sustain consecutive victories throughout the SEC regular season, which is why they dropped from No. 6 in the country in mid-January. The Volunteers are led by defense, which ranks sixth in adjusted efficiency. Offensively, seven players average at least eight points per game, but scoring is the weak spot of this team, though Tennessee takes care of the ball very well. Jaden Springer leads the group with 12.8 points per game.
The Beavers needed to win the Pac-12 Championship to get into the NCAA Tournament, and they did it. Knocking off UCLA, rival Oregon, and Colorado, they stole a bid from an at-large team and earned their way into the field. Jarod Lucas will be a player to watch on a team playing their best basketball the right time of year.
No. 6 San Diego State vs. No. 11 Syracuse, Friday, March 19
Time/TV: 9:40 p.m. ET, CBS
The San Diego State Aztecs were tested throughout the season by a highly competitive Mountain West Conference especially at the top. Defense is the biggest strength for this team, as the unit ranks in the top-15 in Division I in adjusted defensive efficiency. Combine that with their ability to take care of the ball, and the Aztecs should be a tough out for any opponent. The Aztecs’ eFG of 52.7% ranks second in the Mountain West, as they’re led by Matt Mitchell, averaging 15.2 points and 5.9 rebounds per game.
The Orange will be making their 41st appearance in the NCAA Tournament in school history. Syracuse last played in the big dance in 2019, where they lost to Baylor 78-69 in the first round. This time around, they are hoping to replicate their deeper runs in 2013 and 2016 when they reached the Final Four.
No. 7 Clemson vs. No. 10 Rutgers, Friday, March 19
Time/TV: 9:20 p.m. ET, TBS
Clemson has played better than their overall record has indicated this season, but they had a losing streak to conference foes in the middle of the year, which killed their conference title hopes. Still, their defense is one of the best in the nation, giving up an average of just 61 points per game to their opponents. Their offense could use some work, but the defense could carry this team to make a solid run in the NCAA Tournament.
The Scarlet Knights appear in their first NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991. Rutgers actually made the Final Four in Philadelphia in 1976, and fell in the third place game to UCLA. It’s been a long journey back in Piscataway, but a top 20 defense in adjusted efficiency is the key to a team led by senior Jacob Young. Any team that can finish .500 in what was the toughest league in America will be a tough out in The Big Dance.
No. 8 Loyola-Chicago vs. No. 9 Georgia Tech, Friday, March 19
Time/TV: 4:00 p.m. ET, TBS
The Loyola-Chicago Ramblers figure to be a dangerous opponent no matter who they’re playing thanks to their effort on the defensive end of the floor. The Ramblers come into the NCAA Tournament ranked No. 2 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Offensively, Cameron Krutwig does it all for the Ramblers as the only player averaging double digit points with 15 per game. He also leads the team in rebounding, assists and blocked shots for a team ranked No. 19 in the latest KenPom ratings.
The Ramblin’ Wreck win their first ACC Championship in 28 years, and are heading back to the NCAA Tournament. Senior forward Moses Wright is the ACC Player of The Year, Jose Alvarado is one of the best leaders in all of college basketball, and the ACC champs might lead the nation in defensive deflections.