The Midwest Region in this year’s edition of March Madness may end up being the most competitive of the four.
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Leading the way is Illinois, arguably the hottest team in the country, winning 14 of its last 15 games including a Big Ten championship that saw the Illini win games by an average of 12 points. The wins in the conference championship came against Rutgers (No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament), Iowa (No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament) and Ohio State (No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Illinois is led by a pair of stars at the collegiate level in guard Ayo Dosunmu (20.7 ppg) and center Kofi Cockburn (17.6 ppg). When looking at the stat sheet it may look like Illinois doesn’t have much depth, but that’s wrong. If Cockburn gets into foul trouble, which has happened throughout the year, the Illini have a solid backup in junior Giorgi Bezhanishvili (5.3 ppg). At the guard position, senior Trent Frazier brings a steady secondary option to Dosunmu. Freshman guard Andre Curbelo has been a bright spot this season for Illinois as one of the most impressive young players in the conference, and was recently named the Big Ten sixth man of the year. I also want people to be wary of the second-round matchup for Illinois. Loyola-Chicago and Georgia Tech can cause a lot of problems defensively for The Illini.
The Illini are an obvious choice to make it to the final four out of the midwest, but are they the best choice?
Houston is the No. 2 seed in the conference, but of the two teams I’m looking at most to come out of this region, the Cougars aren’t one.
I’ve been extremely high on the Big 12 this season. It seemed like every single game came down to the wire and in the conference tournament, you saw No. 5 seed Oklahoma State take down Baylor and then No. 3 Texas beat Oklahoma State to capture the Big 12 championship. Of the eight games played in the Big 12 tournament, only one was decided by double-digit points, so you’re getting teams that are battle-tested, something that’s huge in March.
So with that in mind, the two teams I’m looking at to make the final four in the midwest region are No. 3 West Virginia and No. 4 Oklahoma State. The two could end up meeting in the Elite Eight, as they are on opposite halves of the region draw.
Oklahoma State is a team that has improved greatly throughout the year, and went 8-2 over its last 10 games of the season, including road wins against Oklahoma and West Virginia. The Cowboys also have the best player in the tournament in freshman sensation and likely future No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Cade Cunningham. I won’t disagree with anybody going with Oklahoma State, they’re a great value as a No. 4 seed, as they should’ve been a higher seed in my opinion.
However, where I’m looking is West Virginia, the No. 3 seed in the midwest to come out of the region. Part of the reason is that I love the size of Derek Culver if they draw Illinois in the Elite 8. In that matchup, I also favor the guards that the Mountaineers can throw at its opponents with Miles McBride, Taz Sherman, and Sean McNeil. The coaching edge against either Oklahoma State or Illinois also favors West Virginia in my opinion, as Bob Huggins has plenty of big game coaching experience. I love the grittiness of the Mountaineers, but even more, I love the matchups in this region that favor West Virginia to come out of the midwest at +800 on SuperBook.
No. 7 Clemson vs. No. 10 Rutgers
This will be a popular upset pick in a lot of people’s brackets. Although Rutgers is the favorite on the betting line so it isn’t technically an upset in our eyes. You have a team that struggled a bit in a really good conference, the Big Ten, up against a team that didn’t dominate a conference that was very down this year in the ACC. Rutgers has one of the best backcourts in the nation in Jacob Young, Geo Baker and Montez Mathis. They also have a legitimate scorer in Ron Harper Jr. (who looked like he was going to lead the nation after the first few weeks). But they disappointed in a lot of games and were 1-7 against top 25 teams. Clemson, on the other hand, was 2-1 against top 25 teams.
I think the Rutgers guards will end up being too much for Clemson and end up taking over the game. But this should be a low-scoring, grind it out type of game. Take the Under here and enjoy a matchup that is basically a coin flip.
No. 5 Tennessee vs. No. 12 Oregon State
Imagine telling me in November or December that I would pick Oregon State over Tennessee in March Madness. I would’ve asked you what year? Tennessee looked like a top ten team at the time and Oregon State was picked to finish last in the Pac-12. Oh how the tables have turned.
Oregon State is one of, if not the, hottest teams in the nation. Wayne Tinkle has those boys playing stout defense and their guards were hitting big shots throughout the tournament. I think that’s what it’s going to come down to is guard play. And I’d take the experience of Ethan Thompson and shooting ability of Jarod Lucas over the inexperience of Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer.
Make sure to check our other regional previews as well