Heading into the Sweet 16, the 2021 NCAA Tournament has more than made up for its 2020 cancellation. But no region has been turned upside more thus far than the Midwest Region.
While I previously identified two sleepers that are still standing, I also saw my national championship pick get ousted in the Round of 32, and saw a team I expected to get blown out in the first round best two top-five seeds.
Top seed and regional favorite Illinois was knocked off by No. 8 seed Loyola Chicago, who is looking to make a Cinderella run to the Final Four for the second time in four years.
Their opponent in the Sweet 16 will be the No. 12 seed, the Oregon State Beavers. Oregon State has won five straight games and is one of four Pac-12 teams to still be standing.
At the bottom of the bracket, Jim Boeheim and the Syracuse Orange have somehow done it again. Syracuse has advanced to the Sweet 16 as a double-digit seed for the third time since 2016.
The only top-seven seed in the region to survive thus far is Kelvin Sampson’s Houston Cougars. But even Houston needed a last-minute dramatic comeback win over No. 10-seed Rutgers to advance.
No matter what happens, the Midwest Region promises to send a team to the Final Four that most did not have in their bracket. Let’s take a look at the two Saturday matchups and see who has the edge on advancing to the Elite 8.
Midwest Region Sweet 16 Games
No. 8 Loyola-Chicago Ramblers (-6.5) vs. No. 12 Oregon State Beavers
Time: Saturday 2:40 p.m. EST
Cameron Krutwig deservedly gets much of the headlines for Loyola-Chicago, but the Ramblers are far from a one-man team. Lucas Williamson has turned in games of 21 and 14 in Loyola’s two wins thus far. Meanwhile, Braden Norris is a 3-point marksman who made 53 triples on the year on over 41 percent shooting.
Loyola’s ability to score both inside and out makes them an incredibly tough team to guard. They are also well-coached and don’t make stupid mistakes that lead to easy offense.
But Loyola’s best attribute is its team defense. Porter Moser’s team led the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency this season according to KenPom. That was on full display in their upset win over Illinois. The Ramblers held Fighting Illini star Ayo Dosunmu to just 9 points and forced 17 turnovers.
If Wayne Tinkle and Oregon State want to advance past the Sweet 16 and keep their Cinderella run alive, they will need a big performance out of their own star, Ethan Thompson.
Thompson carried the Oregon State offense in its win over Oklahoma State. The senior scored 26 points against the Cowboys, but even more impressively, Thompson got to the line a staggering 16 times, making 15 of his freebies.
But Thompson alone won’t be enough to push Oregon State into the Elite 8. Porter Moser will assuredly key in on limiting the All Pac-12 First-Team selection’s opportunities. The Beavers will need the likes of Jarod Lucas, Roman Silva, and Maurice Calloo to make shots, especially from distance. Meanwhile, Warith Alatishe will look to limit Krutwig’s opportunities inside.
Ultimately, Oregon State certainly can win this Midwest Region showdown if it shoots well from deep, wins the battle on the glass, and keeps Krutwig in check. However, Loyola-Chicago is just the better team overall and seems upset-proof with their combination of excellent coaching, veteran leadership, and a smothering defense.
The pick: Loyola-Chicago
No. 11 Syracuse Orange vs. No. 2 Houston Cougars (-6)
Time: Saturday 9:55 p.m. EST
Make fun of Jim Boeheim’s insistence on playing a 2-3 zone all you want. But every March, it becomes clear why the Orange are one of the few remaining teams in the nation that consistently stays away from man-to-man.
It’s not hard to see why both San Diego State and West Virginia were flummoxed by the 2-3 in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. They simply aren’t used to seeing it, and with only days to prepare, it’s nearly impossible for a coach even as good as Bob Huggins to adequately prepare his group for what they’re about to see.
Plus, this Syracuse team is playing its best basketball of the season, particularly on the defensive end. The Orange are long, athletic, and disciplined, with each of their rotation players fully buying into the zone principles.
Offensively, the Orange have gotten a huge spark thanks to Buddy Boeheim’s emergence. Boeheim has scored 25 or more points in five of his last six games, including 30 and 25 in Cuse’s two NCAA Tournament wins. Joe Girard III, Quincy Guerrier, and Marek Dolezaj have also played well in the Orange’s two wins.
But Syracuse will be facing their toughest task yet in the No. 2 seed Houston Cougars in this Midwest Region Sweet 16 clash. Kelvin Sampson’s team has been one of the most overlooked teams in the country all season long, and they now stand just two wins away from the Final Four.
However, the Cougars struggled mightily in their second-round matchup against Rutgers. Houston trailed for much of the game before emphatically closing the gap in the game’s final minutes to earn their spot in the Sweet 16.
Houston is a tough, athletic team that will try to wear Syracuse out with hard-nosed defense and physical play. Offensively, they will need to stretch the zone out by making shots from deep. That effort will be led by their star, Quentin Grimes, who has shot over 40 percent from 3 this season.
Houston also ranked sixth in the country this season in rebounding margin, something they will look to exploit against Syracuse. Rebounding in the zone is hard enough, and Jim Boeheim’s team is not a tall group on the inside. The Orange have been surviving on the glass by tipping balls out to its guards and having five guys crash. But Houston has a huge advantage on the interior. If it can secure offensive boards and earn second-chance opportunities, it will go a long way in securing a win.
Ultimately, while Houston is certainly the favorite, this game feels like it could go either way. Syracuse’s path to victory includes continuing to bomb away on 3s offensively while bothering Houston in the zone and securing enough rebounds to survive. Houston will win if it bullies the Orange defensively, forces turnovers, hits open 3s, and makes the Orange pay on second-chance opportunities.
But San Diego State and West Virginia had essentially the same formula for success and came up short. While Sampson will have a full week to prepare his group for the 2-3, there’s nothing like seeing it live. Expect the Orange to cover and possibly win the game outright to continue its improbable run.
The pick: Syracuse