The Midwest Region of the 2021 NCAA Tournament has been absolute pandemonium, as No. 2 Houston was the only ‘chalk’ team to advance, and even they needed a late-game surge versus 10th-seeded Rutgers to survive another potential upset bid.
However, despite the high seeds surrounding them, this is a very dangerous draw for a team like Houston, as they’ll take on a red-hot Syracuse team before getting the winner of No. 8 Loyola-Chicago versus No. 12 Oregon State — both of whom are playing lights out basketball right now.
This has been the most unpredictable region so far, which may very well continue Saturday.
No. 8 Loyola-Chicago (-6.5) vs No. 12 Oregon State
Under-seeded from the get-go, the Ramblers turned in the most impressive performance of the first weekend, completely dominating top-seeded Illinois in the Round of 32.
The Illini never led in this one, turning the ball over 17 times and getting just 9 points out of All-American point guard Ayo Dosunmu.
This comes as no surprise to people following the Missouri Valley champs this season, as they boast the nation’s top defense — leading the country in both defensive efficiency and opponent points per game (55.8).
Up next for Porter Moser’s group will be arguably the hottest team in the nation — the Oregon State Beavers.
After winning the Pac-12 tournament out of nowhere just two short weeks ago, the Beavers have now won five in a row, and boast impressive wins over UCLA, Oregon (twice), Colorado, USC, Tennessee, and Oklahoma State — three of which are in the Sweet 16.
Head coach Wayne Tinkle has completely righted the ship after a shaky 5-6 start that saw them lose consecutive games versus Washington State, Idaho, and Portland (yikes).
It’s truly what March is all about, and although they’ve been a great story, they’ll be running into a buzzsaw come Saturday.
Moser will have ample time to devise a defensive game plan to slow down All-Pac-12 player Ethan Thompson (15.6 ppg), as their high-pressure ball-screen defense will be too much for the Beavers to overcome in this one.
Loyola completely took a player as talented as Dosunmu out of his game this past weekend, and I expect more of the same against Thompson and company on Saturday.
Top 10 in both NET and Kenpom, these Ramblers are not the fluke they once were, as I now see them as the favorite to represent the Midwest Region in the Final Four.
The Pick: Loyola-Chicago -6.5
No. 2 Houston (-6) vs No. 11 Syracuse
As mentioned previously, the Cougars needed an epic meltdown from 10th-seeded Rutgers to escape what should’ve been another first-weekend upset, as the Knights scored just two points in the last 6 minutes en route to a brutal 63-60 defeat.
Houston, much like Loyola, hangs their hat on the defensive end — giving up just 58 points per game to opposing teams (good for second in the country).
The AAC champs face a difficult test on Saturday when they square off with No. 11 Syracuse, as the coach’s son, Buddy Boeheim, has been playing otherworldly of late.
Averaging 28.3 ppg and shooting a torrent 55.6% from deep in his last four, Boeheim can light you up from anywhere.
He and back-court battery mate Joe Girard will cause a bevy of problems for Houston’s guards, as both Quentin Grimes and Marcus Sasser will have their work cut out for them defensively.
Although Grimes (18.0 ppg) is one of the best guards in the country, I just can’t trust Houston’s offense after what I saw from them against Rutgers.
Despite their modest 3-point percentage as a team (77th in the country at 35.8%), I just don’t think they’ll be able to make enough shots versus Cuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone, propelling the Orange to another upset victory and a trip to the Elite 8.
The Pick: Syracuse +6, +225 ML