Midwest Region Preview: Battle of Big 10 Heavyweights

No. 1 Illinois and No 2. Houston will headline the Midwest Region of this year’s March Madness bracket, which is loaded with interesting teams and potential matchups.

Wooden Award-finalists Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn lead a red-hot Illinois squad into a matchup with Drexel in the first round. Illinois enters the tournament fresh off an overtime victory over Ohio State to win the Big Ten tournament, and it boasts the talent to make a run deep into the tournament.

Although UMBC proved to all the Goliaths that a 16-seeded David has upset potential, Drexel is not that team. The Dragons received their first tournament bid since 1996 with a victory in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, despite a losing record in conference play.

In one of the more interesting eight-vs-nine seed matchups in the entire tournament, Loyola Chicago will battle Georgia Tech for the opportunity to play what will likely be Illinois in the second round. Coach Porter Moser and the Rambler faithful will never forget the Final Four run just three years ago, and it will be Cameron Krutwig, a player on that 2018 team, to whom Loyola Chicago fans will look for a big performance. The winners of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament will meet the victors from the ACC Tournament in Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets are riding high on an eight-game win streak and will rely on veteran leadership to extend the team’s stay in Indiana.

The Volunteers from the University of Tennessee will face off with the Oregon State Beavers in a 5-12 first-round matchup. The fourth placed SEC team ranked as high as seven in the AP poll at a point in the season, but offensive stagnation derailed games in conference play. Rick Barnes’s team plays some of the stingiest defense in the country and will frustrate any team it meets in the tournament. Oregon State, just barely breaking .500 in conference play, booked its spot in the tournament courtesy of three consecutive wins in the PAC-12 Tournament.

The Atlantic Sun Champions Liberty Flames will challenge No. 4 Oklahoma State in another first-round matchup. True to its name, Liberty has caught fire recently with its last loss coming in January. With junior guard Darius McGhee at the wheel, Liberty will look to relive its tournament success from two years ago when a 12-seeded rendition of the Flames upset Mississippi State in the first round. An upset here seems unlikely if star freshman Cade Cunningham plays at the level he established throughout the season.

Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse team will be aiming to upset the San Diego State Aztecs in the 6-11 matchup. The Orange stumbled early in ACC conference play, but the No. 11 seed avoided a play-in game by winning six of their last nine games. San Diego State was one of the teams most aggrieved by the cancellation of last year’s tournament, as the team recorded one of its best seasons on record. Having lost Malachi Flynn to the NBA draft last summer, seniors Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel have stepped up this season for the Mountain West Champions.

No. 14 Morehead State returns to the bracket for the first time since 2009, hoping to take down a dangerous West Virginia team. The Mountaineers faced some early season controversy with the transfer of Oscar Tshiebwe from the team, but Bob Huggins and his team rebounded to a third-place finish in a competitive Big 12. Morehead State posted a winning record for the first time under Ohio Valley Conference Coach of the Year Preston Spradlin and upset conference mainstay Belmont for a bid to the tournament.

The penultimate matchup involves Clemson and Rutgers, two Power 5 teams ranked in the top 15 at some point during the season. Defense is the name of the game for Clemson, but its second-best defense in the ACC was good for only a fifth-place finish in the conference. Ron Harper and Rutgers will look to recall their winning performance over Illinois early in the season to find success in March.

Kelvin Sampson and Houston round out the Midwest region, hoping to avoid upset from Horizon champions Cleveland State. Texas-native Quentin Grimes scores more than 18 points per game for Houston, and the Cougars should move past the 19-7 Vikings from the Horizon League with ease.