March Madness 2021: NCAA Tournament bracket analysis, team capsules for Midwest Region

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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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 Dosunmu and 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, 1.4 spg, 82.7 FT%); 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, 9.6 rpg, 1.3 bpg, 66.0 FG%).

Ayo Dosunmu and Illinois are the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region.

No. 2 Houston

Nickname: Cougars. Location: Houston.

Record:  23-3, 14-3. Bid: American Athletic champion.

Last appearance: 2019, lost to Kentucky in Sweet Sixteen

Coach: Kelvin Sampson (15-16 in 16 appearances).

Overview: Despite its leading scorer from last season, Caleb Mills, leaving the program after just four games, Sampson has arguably his best team yet in his seven seasons at Houston. The Cougars sport an elite defense — holding opponents to 58 points per game on a Division I-low 37.5% from the field. Sampson’s four-guard lineup around forward Justin Gorham has given teams fits all season long. Despite the presumed rebounding issues, they are third nationally with 14.5 offensive rebounds a game. The Cougars aren’t one of the better shooting teams, but their defense makes up for those deficiencies with the second-best scoring differential (+19).

Projected starters: G Marcus Sasser, 6-1, So (13.5 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 2.4 apg), G Quentin Grimes, 6-5, Jr. (17.9 ppg, 6 rpg, 38.9 3FG%), G Dejon Jarreau, 6-5, Sr (10.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.1 apg), F Justin Gorham, 6-7, Sr (8.2 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 39 3FG%), F Brison Gresham.6-8, Sr (3.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.6 bpg).

No. 3 West Virginia

Nickname: Mountaineers. Location: Morgantown.

Record: 18-9, 11-6. Bid: Big 12 at-large.

Last appearance: 2018, lost to Villanova in Sweet 16.

Coach: Bob Huggins (33-24 in 24 appearances).

Overview: Three close losses in four games entering the tournament damaged the seeding for a team capable of making a deep run. With Taz Sherman coming off the bench (13.6 ppg), the Mountaineers have four double-figure scorers as part of their high-powered offense. Derek Culver, the Big 12’s leading rebounder, is the main inside presence and has to avoid foul trouble.

Projected starters: G Miles McBride, 6-2, So. (15.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 42.0 3FG%, 81.2 FT%); F Derek Culver, 6-10, Jr. (14.6 ppg, 9.8 rpg); G Sean McNeil, 6-3, Jr. (11.8 ppg, 88.5 FT%); F Emmitt Matthews Jr., 6-7, Jr. (7.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg); F Jalen Bridges, 6-7, Fr. (5.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 40.7 3PG%).

No. 4 Oklahoma State

Nickname: Cowboys. Location: Stillwater.

Record: 20-8, 11-7. Bid: Big 12 at-large.

Last appearance: 2017, lost to Michigan in first round.

Coach: Mike Boynton (first appearance).

Overview: Back in the summer, the Cowboys weren’t expecting to be in the tournament, but successfully appealing a postseason ban allowed them to make the field. Heralded freshman Cade Cunningham has been everything expected as he leads the team in scoring and rebounding. His ability to take over a game late will be valuable. A run to the Big 12 tournament title game coincided with the return of guard Isaac Likekele (9.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 3.7 apg). His all-around game complements Cunningham and is another reason Oklahoma State will be a popular Final Four pick.

Projected starters: G Cade Cunningham, 6-8, Fr. (19.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.6 apg, 42.5 3FG%, 85.4 FT%); G Avery Anderson, 6-3, So. (11.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 86.2 FT%); F Kalib Boone, 6-9, So. (9.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 66.9 FG%); F Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe, 6-7, Fr. (9.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 53.0 FG%); G Bryce Williams, 6-2, Sr. (7.8 ppg, 2.1 apg). 

No. 5 Tennessee

Nickname: Volunteers. Location: Knoxville.

Record: 18-8, 10-7. Bid: SEC at-large.

Last appearance: 2019, lost to Purdue in overtime in Sweet 16.

Coach: Rick Barnes (24-24 in 24 appearances).

Overview: Tennessee was inconsistent throughout most of SEC play after looking like a top-five team during non-conference play. The Vols have dynamic freshman guards in Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer paired with veteran forwards Yves Pons and John Fulkerson, the latter of whom missed the SEC Tournament semifinal with a concussion and facial fracture. UT relies on its defense to find success on both ends of the court, and its offense is at its best when the Vols run the court well. The Vols played well in their three games in March, leading Rick Barnes to express optimism going into the NCAA Tournament.

Projected starters: G Jaden Springer, 5-4, Fr. (12.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.9 apg); G Keon Johnson, 6-5, Fr. (10.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.6 apg); G Santiago Vescovi, 6-3, Fr. (8.5 ppg, 3.2 apg); F Yves Pons, 6-6, Sr. (9.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.9 bpg); F John Fulkerson, 6-9, Sr. (9.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg).

No. 6 San Diego State

Nickname: Aztecs. Location: San Diego.

Record: 23-4, 14-3. Bid: Mountain West champion.

Last appearance: 2018, lost to Houston in first round.

Coach: Brian Dutcher (0-1 in one appearance).

Overview: SDSU was 30-2 and headed for a top seed in the NCAA tournament last year when its dream season was clipped by the pandemic. Senior leadership and defense have helped bring the Aztecs back, led by forward Matt Mitchell and guard Jordan Schakel, who finished the regular season ranked third nationally in 3-point shooting (46.8%).

Projected starters: F Matt Mitchell, 6-6, Sr. (15.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg); G Jordan Schakel, 6-6, Sr. (14.3 ppg, 46.7 3FG%); F Nathan Mensah, 6-10, Jr. (8.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.4 bpg); G Terrell Gomez, 5-8, Sr. (8.8 ppg, 41.7 3FG%); G Trey Pulliam, 6-3, Sr. (7.2 ppg, 3.4 apg).

No. 7 Clemson

Nickname: Tigers. Location: Clemson, S.C.

Record: 16-7, 10-6. Bid: ACC at-large.

Last appearance: 2018, lost to Kansas in Sweet 16.

Coach: Brad Brownell (3-5 in five appearances).

Overview: The season of COVID was rough on the Tigers, who managed enough quality wins to overcome some lopsided losses following their lengthy pause. They have enough talent to defeat a lot of teams, with Simms able to take over games and Al-Amir Dawes (9.2 ppg) leading a deep bench. But they can lack cohesion on the defensive end, and their early exit from the ACC tournament might not bode well.

Projected starters: F Aamir Simms, 6-8, Sr. (13.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.7 apg, 54.3FG%, 82.5 FT%); G Clyde Trapp, 6-4, Sr. (7.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.6 apg); G Nick Honor, 5-10, Jr. (8.4 ppg, 2.3 apg); F Hunter Tyson, 6-8, Jr. (7.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg); G Alex Hemenway, 6-4, So. (4.7 ppg).

No. 8 Loyola-Chicago

Nickname: Ramblers. Location: Chicago.

Record: 24-4, 16-2. Bid: Missouri Valley champion. 

Last appearance: 2018, lost to Michigan in national semifinal.

Coach: Porter Moser (4-1 in one appearance).

Overview: Coach Porter Moser doesn’t have as gifted of an offensive team as he did with his 2018 Final Four squad, but this team is exceptionally disciplined on the defensive end, leading the nation with 55.7 points allowed to opponents. Loyola also leads KenPom in defensive efficiency. Big man Cameron Krutwig is the main holdover from that 2018 Final Four team. He was a freshman then, and now he’s the centerpiece to a balanced Loyola roster. 

Projected starters: G Lucas Williamson, 6-4, Sr. (8.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg); G Braden Norris, 6-0, So. (8.1 ppg, 2.9 apg); G Keith Clemons, 6-1, Sr. (7.4 ppg, 46.7 3PG%); F Aher Uguak, 6-7, Sr. (7.6 ppg, 62.9 FG%); C Cameron Krutwig, 6-9, Sr. (15.0 ppg, 6.7 rpg).

No. 9 Georgia Tech

Nickname: Yellow Jackets. Location: Atlanta.

Record: 17-8, 11-6. Bid: ACC champion.

Last appearance: 2010, lost to Ohio State in second round.

Coach: Josh Pastner (2-4 in four appearances).

Overview: A couple of bad November losses had the Yellow Jackets hovering around the bubble heading into the ACC tournament. But as their eight-game winning streak attests, no one in the league was playing better down the stretch. Now that they’re here, they have a chance to make some noise. Jose Alvarado keys a relentless pressure defense that forces nearly 16 turnovers a game, and they have balance and versatility on the offensive end. The bench is not deep, however, which could become an issue in a game with a lot of whistles.

Projected starters: F Moses Wright, 6-9, Sr. (17.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 1.7 bpg, 53.2 FG%); G Jose Alvarado, 6-0, Sr. (15.3 ppg, 4.1 apg, 2.9 spg, 50.6 FG%, 84.6 FT%); G Michael Devoe, 6-5, Jr. (15.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.3 apg); G Jordan Usher, 6-7, Sr. (11.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.8 apg); F Khalid Moore, 6-7, Jr. (4.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg).

No. 10 Rutgers

Nickname: Scarlet Knights. Location: Piscataway, N.J.

Record: 15-11, 10-10. Bid: Big Ten at-large. 

Last appearance: 1991, lost to Arizona State in first round.

Coach: Steve Pikiell (0-1 in one appearance).

Overview: It’s been 30 years, but Rutgers is finally back in the NCAA Tournament in Steve Pikiell’s fifth year as head coach. The Scarlet Knights got out to a quick 6-0 start before stumbling through Big Ten play. Still, the Knights are ranked No. 38 in NET rankings and went 5-8 against quad-one teams. Their length is a big reason they’re one of the best shot-blocking teams in the country. Rutgers led the Big Ten in steals with 7.9 per game, which will play a big part as the Knights look for their first tournament win since 1983.

Projected starters: G Jacob Young, 6-2, Sr. (14.5 ppg, 3.5 apg, 1.8 spg); G Geo Baker, 6-4, Sr. (10.2 ppg, 3.0 apg, 1.3 spg); G Paul Mulcahy, 6-6, So. (5.7 ppg, 2.9 apg), G/F Ron Harper Jr., 6-6, Jr. (15.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg,); C Myles Johnson, 6-11, Jr. (8.3 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 2.5 bpg, 63.8% FG%).

No. 11 Syracuse

Nickname: Orange. Location: Syracuse, N.Y.

Record: 16-9, 9-7. Bid: ACC at-large.

Last appearance: 2019, lost to Baylor in first round.

Coach: Jim Boeheim (60-33 in 34 appearances).

Overview: It’s become an all-too familiar script for Syracuse fans who have sweated out a lot of Selection Sundays in recent years. But the Orange have also shown they can advance in the tournament despite having a less-than-favorable seed. This year’s version of the Orange has played well down the stretch, and they can throw on a surprise press to support their signature zone defense. They’re quite dependent on hitting threes, however, so a cold shooting day would be difficult to overcome.

Projected starters: G Buddy Boeheim, 6-6, Jr. (17.1 ppg, 2.8 apg, 87.8 FT%); F Alan Griffin, 6-5, Jr. (14.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.8 bpg); F Quincy Guerrier, 6-7, So. (14.4 ppg, 8.8 rpg); F Marek Dolezaj, 6-10, Sr. (9.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 54.8 FG%); G Joseph Girard III, 6-1, So. (9.5 ppg, 3.3 apg, 1.5 spg).

No. 12 Oregon State

Nickname: Beavers. Location: Corvallis.

Record: 17-12, 10-10. Bid: Pac-12 champion.

Last appearance: 2016, lost to Virginia Commonwealth in first round.

Coach: Wayne Tinkle (0-4 in four appearances).

Overview: In a preseason poll, the Beavers were projected to finish last in the Pac-12, but they beat Colorado on Saturday in Las Vegas, 70-68, for their first conference tournament championship. This is coach Wayne Tinkle's seventh season at OSU since coming from Montana, and this year the Beavers have won six of their last seven games entering the NCAA Tournament. Canadian forward Maurice Calloo came off the bench Saturday to lead his team to the title with 15 points.

Projected starters: G Jarod Lucas, 6-3, So. (12.8 ppg, 89.7 FT%); G Ethan Thompson, 6-5, Sr. (15.5 ppg, 3.9 apg); G Zach Reichle, 6-5, Sr. (7.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg); F Warith Alatishe, 6-7, Jr. (9.4 ppg 8.4 rpg); C Roman Silva, 7-1, Sr. (5.5 ppg, 65.2 FG%).

No. 13 Liberty

Nickname: Flames. Location: Lynchburg, Va.

Record: 23-5, 11-2. Bid: Atlantic Sun champion.

Last appearance: 2019, lost to Virginia Tech in second round.

Coach: Ritchie McKay (1-2 in two appearances).

Overview: The Flames have won 12 in a row after winning their conference tournament for the third straight season. Led by conference player of the year Darius McGhee, they are one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the nation, with 10.3 per game entering the NCAA Tournament. But they are especially known for their pack-line defense under coach Ritchie McKay, a former assistant at Virginia. They ranked in the top 20 in scoring defense each the past four seasons, including this season with 59.6 points per game allowed.

Projected starters: G Darius McGhee, 5-9, Jr. (15.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 41.4 3FG%); G Chris Parker, 6-1, Sr. (10.3 ppg, 3.5 apg); G Elijah Cuffee, 6-4, Sr. (9.6 ppg, 41.7 3FG%); F Kyle Rode, 6-6, So. (7.6 ppg, 4.2 rbg); F Blake Preston 6-9, So. (8.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg).

No. 14 Morehead State

Nickname: Eagles. Location: Morehead, Ky. 

Record: 23-7, 17-3. Bid: Ohio Valley champion.  

Last appearance: 2011, lost to Richmond in second round.

Coach: Preston Spradlin (first appearance).

Overview: This team doesn’t have the same offensive firepower as the team it beat in the OVC final, Belmont, but the defense and athleticism is top-notch. Johni Broome, a 6-10 acrobatic freshman, scored 27 points in that game and when he’s on, the Eagles can be special. Broome helps corral the glass and control the paint, as Morehead State ranks in the top 15 nationally in blocked shots per game and top 30 in rebounding margin. 

Projected starters: G Skyelar Potter, 6-3, Jr. (11.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg); G KJ Hunt Jr., 6-3, Jr. (7.0 ppg, 3.1 apg); G De'Von Cooper, 6-4, Jr. (12.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg); F James Baker, 6-6, Sr. (8.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg); F Johni Broome, 6-10, Fr. (13.4 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 57.2 FG%).

No. 15 Cleveland State

Nickname: Vikings. Location: Cleveland.

Record: 19-7, 16-4. Bid: Horizon League champion.

Last appearance: 2009, lost to Arizona in second round.

Coach: Dennis Gates (first appearance).

Overview: Cleveland State is in the tournament for the third time in program history thanks to nearly across-the-board improvement in Gates’ second season. Fresh off five consecutive losing seasons, the Vikings have the backcourt length to force turnovers and defend the three  but can be overwhelmed on the boards. The Vikings have had great success in close games, with 13 of the team’s 19 wins coming by single digits.

Projected starters: G Craig Beaudion (9.2 ppg, 3.3 apg, 78.3 FT%); G Tre Gomillion (9.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 50.5 FG%); F D’Moi Hodge (10.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.7 spg); F Torrey Patton (14.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2.3 apg); C Deante Johnson (5.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 60.2 FG%). 

No. 16 Drexel

Nickname: Dragons. Location: Philadelphia.

Record: 12-7, 4-5. Bid: Colonial champion.

Last appearance: 1996, lost to Syracuse in second round.

Coach: Zach Spiker (first appearance).

Overview: The Dragons managed to play just 19 games during a stop-and-start season that included a nearly three week break in February due to COVID-19 issues in the conference. They returned to beat regular season champion James Madison on the final weekend and then won three games in the conference tournament to end a 25-year NCAA drought. Drexel shoots at a high percentage, especially from the free-throw line, which could be valuable in close games. To pull off an upset, it will need to avoid turnovers and play better defense against more athletic teams.

Projected starters: G Camren Wynter, 6-2, Jr. (16.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 5.3 apg, 82.7 FT%, 42.5 3FG%); F James Butler, 6-8, Sr. (12.9 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 58.0 FG%); F T.J. Bickerstaff, 6-9, So. (10.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 53.5 FG%, 83.9 FT%) G/F Zach Walton, 6-6, Sr. (10.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 80.0 FT%); F Mate Okros, 6-6, So. (7.3 ppg, 87.5 FT%)