USA TODAY Sports breaks down the NCAA Tournament Midwest Region:
Best first-round matchup: Loyola Chicago vs. Georgia Tech. The Ramblers have an argument for being higher than the No. 8 seed in the region after going 24-4 and winning a third Missouri Valley Conference championship in the past four seasons. With just one loss in the last two months, Loyola is also one of the hottest teams entering the tournament. But so is Georgia Tech, which just celebrated an ACC tournament title for the first time in 28 years and looks to capitalize on the program’s first NCAA berth since 2010. While the Yellow Jackets have four scorers averaging double figures, led by forward Moses Wright at 17.4 points per game, they’ll be challenged by the nation’s top scoring defense (55.5 points per game). The winner moves on to face top-seeded Illinois.
Potential upset: Rutgers beating Clemson as a No. 10 seed would technically be an upset, even if the first-round matchup is essentially a toss-up. Perhaps the Scarlet Knights’ biggest advantage comes in preparation: Every Big Ten team has stayed in Indianapolis since the Big Ten tournament, giving teams such as Rutgers more time to rest and recover after the grind of the regular season. But Rutgers was inconsistent down the stretch, sandwiching wins against Minnesota and Indiana with lopsided losses to Nebraska and Illinois.
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PRINTABLE BRACKET: The entire 68-team field for the 2021 NCAA Tournament
The sleeper: San Diego State is a threat to make noise in March. This year’s team is stout defensively, consistently strong from behind the arc and among the nation’s best at avoiding turnovers. Those three assets tend to come in handy come tournament time. But the Aztecs must overcome a spotty track record: SDSU has gotten out of the second round just once in its last five tournament appearances.
The winner: No team outside of No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga is playing better basketball than Illinois entering the tournament. The Illini have won seven in a row and 14 of 15, capped by an overtime victory against Ohio State to win the Big Ten. Illinois has size, experience, depth and, in guard Ayo Dosunmu, the sort of All-America talent capable of putting a team on his back in crunch time. There’s also the bonus of a pretty easy bracket: No. 2 Houston and No. 3 West Virginia might cause trouble in a regional final, but the Illini have to be seen as the heavy favorite to come out of the Midwest.
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Here is a team-by-team look at the Midwest Region:
No. 1 Illinois
Nickname: Fighting Illini. Location: Champaign.
Record: 23-6, 16-4. Bid: Big Ten champion.
Last appearance: 2013, lost to Miami (Fla.) in second round.
Coach: Brad Underwood (2-4 in four appearances).
Overview: One of the hottest teams in the country will make its tournament return after an eight-year hiatus. The Illini finished the year winning14 of their last 15, including the Big Ten tournament. Potential national player of the year Ayo Dosunmuand big man Kofi Cockburn give them two standout stars. There are also key role players and depth that make this team one of the favorites to cut down the nets in Indianapolis.
Projected starters: G Ayo Dosunmu, 6-5, Jr. (20.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 5.2 apg); G Trent Frazier, 6-2, Sr. (10.6 ppg, 82.7 FT%, 1.4 spg); G Adam Miller, 6-3, Fr. (8.2 ppg, 2.7 rpg); G/F Jacob Grandison, 6-6, Jr. (4.5 ppg, 50.0 FG%, 42.9 3FG%); C Kofi Cockburn, 7-0, So. (17.3 ppg, 66.0 FG%, 9.6 rpg, 1.3 bpg).
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