There is no such thing as an easy path to the Final Four in the NCAA tournament. Anything can and will happen in a single-elimination format, with UMBC’s win over Virginia as a No. 16 seed three years ago standing as the ultimate proof of concept. If a team lets its guard down even for a few minutes in March Madness, it can be the difference between a deep run and an early exit.
If cakewalks through the bracket don’t exist in March, a treacherous path certainly does. This year there’s no doubt the hardest road through the bracket will happen in the Midwest region.
The Illinois Fighting Illini anchor the region as the No. 1 seed. The Illini are worthy of top billing with an elite one-two punch in guard Ayo Dosunmu and center Kofi Cockburn surrounded by a strong group of shooters and defenders. Illinois certainly has the talent to win the regional, but their outlook through the bracket is full of potential pitfalls.
Here’s why the Midwest is the toughest region this year.
Loyola-Chicago has a historically strong resume for a No. 8 seed
We’ll stop short of saying Loyola-Chicago is the best No. 8 seed in recent memory because the 2014 Kentucky team led by Julius Randle was the preseason No. 1 in the polls and made it all the way to the national championship game. With that said, Loyola had a strong case to be seeded significantly higher in the bracket.
The Ramblers are the No. 9 team in the entire country according to KenPom’s efficiency rankings and the No. 10 team in the country by the NET rankings. Loyola will enter the tournament with the No. 1 defense in the country, currently sitting a tenth of a point better than No. 2 seed Alabama on that side of the floor. Senior center Cameron Krutwig, who started as a freshman on Loyola’s Final Four team in 2018, is currently No. 4 in KenPom’s player of the year standings, and places in the top-10 nationally in all-in-one impact stats PER and BPM.
We saw head coach Porter Moser lead Loyola to the Final Four just a few years ago, and there’s no doubt that this team has an even better regular season resume. The MVC didn’t give Loyola enough chances at quality wins to be a top-four seed — they’re 6-4 against Quad 1 and Quad 2 opponents, and 16-0 against everyone else — but this team feels like it should have been a No. 6 seed at the least rather than an eight.
Oklahoma State should be seeded higher than a No. 4
The Cowboys started a little shaky this season, but they closed by winning six of their last seven games in the regular season and then beat No. 1 seed Baylor in the Big 12 tournament semifinals. ESPN expert Joe Lunardi had OK State as a No. 2 seed after the win over the Bears. Should a close loss to a talented Texas team in the title game really mean they fall two lines?
Only Illinois had more Quad 1 wins than Oklahoma State entering the tournament, but that likely won’t make the Illini feel any better about a potential Sweet 16 matchup. Somehow, West Virginia got a higher-seed as a No. 3 even though Oklahoma State beat them twice at the end of the season.
While individual players shouldn’t factor into seeding, it’s worth noting that Cowboys guard Cade Cunningham is the biggest star in college basketball right now. The freshman will be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and has been a one-man army lately. The Cowboys deserved better.
Tennessee is a dangerous No. 5 seed
The Vols haven’t played up to their potential yet this year, but this is a team that should scare any opponent. Rick Barnes’ team gets it done on the defensive end, entering the tournament with the No. 4 overall defense in the country. The rotation is full of long, athletic defenders who know how to force turnovers and are a terror closing out on shots.
Tennessee just has a lot of talent. There’s three five-star recruits on this roster, and two freshmen — Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson — currently projected as lottery picks in our latest 2021 NBA mock draft. A game with Springer and Johnson vs. Cunningham in round two might be the best prospect matchup of the college basketball season for NBA scouts.
Houston feels due for a run, too
The Cougars are a worthy No. 2 seed and look like they will have a manageable path to the Elite Eight. KenPom currently has Houston as the No. 6 team in the country thanks to the No. 8 overall offense and the No. 16 defense.
Kelvin Sampson’s team has been on fire the last three seasons. In their last tournament appearance, in 2019, the Cougars lost a close game to Tyler Herro and Kentucky in the Sweet 16. Don’t forget about Houston in this region.
Illinois is absolutely good enough to come out of the Midwest anyway
The Illini are legit. Dosunmu might be the best guard in college basketball other than Cunningham. Cockburn just dominated presumptive national player of the year favorite Luka Garza in a head-to-head matchup in the Big Ten tournament. The Illini enter the field with the No. 7 offense and No. 5 defense in America.
If Illinois makes the Final Four, they will have truly earned it. There are no easy games on their road once they get past the No. 16 seed.