Predicting how far every B1G team will go in the NCAA Tournament
The Big Ten put 9 teams in the NCAA Tournament, tying its personnel best set a couple of seasons ago.
But the league is even better now; of the top-8 seeds in the Big Dance, 4 belong to the Big Ten: No. 1 seeds Michigan and Illinois and No. 2s Iowa and Ohio State. And few seem to want a date with No. 4 seed Purdue these days.
Following is a thumbnail on each of the 9 Big Ten entries, their paths and NCAA outlooks.
Seed: 1, Midwest Region
First Round: Drexel
Path: The Fighting Illini might get tournament darling Loyola Chicago in Round 2, but it seems unlikely Illinois is challenged until the Sweet 16, if even then. They’re just playing too well right now. But a matchup featuring Illinois stud Ayo Dosunmo and Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham in Round 3 would be a thing of beauty. Houston, the 2 seed, sits in the bottom half of the bracket, as does No. 3 seed West Virginia.
Outlook: The combination of Dosunmo and Kofi Cockburn — Big Ten teams have the big man scouted but still can only hope to contain him — will be a nightmare for most. But add in the way the Illini auxiliary parts are playing, namely freshman Andre Curbelo, and it’s unlikely Illinois is in danger of an early upset. The Fighting Illini have to be far and away the favorite in the Midwest Region, plus they’ll get a boost from playing only about 90 minutes from their campus. Illinois is playing as well as anyone in the country, maybe aside from Gonzaga, and anything short of a Final Four would be a surprise.
Seed: 1, East Region
First Round: Mount St. Mary’s or Texas Southern
Path: The Wolverines won’t know their opponent until Thursday night. But it won’t matter, because they’ll overwhelm the 16 seed — whoever it is — in their NCAA opener. LSU, if it is the second-round opponent, could be a dangerous opponent, considering that the Tigers took Alabama to the wire in the SEC Championship Game. LSU has the personnel to battle the Wolverines, particularly lead guard Cameron Thomas and forward Trendon Watford. And what if Isaiah Livers is still out for Michigan, as he is likely to be? And Michigan could get similarly talented Florida State in the Sweet 16 and then Alabama in the Regional final, if seeds hold. There’s nothing easy about this? Is Michigan the 1 seed?
Outlook: If Livers is still out — and one would expect that he wouldn’t play due to a stress condition in his right foot that has him in a boot — then Michigan might have to sweat through its second game. Maybe the versatile wing could return for the second weekend, but if not, look for the Wolverines to be upset. Michigan has lost 3 of its last 5. Is the clock already ticking on its season?
Seed: 2, South Region
First Round: Oral Roberts
Path: The Buckeyes have one of the more well-rounded teams in the country, so they might be less vulnerable to matchup problems that can catch higher seeds in early rounds. They’ll get the 15 seed in Round 1, then either 7 seed Florida or 10 seed Virginia Tech, two major-conference teams that had moments of success this season. If Arkansas wins through the first weekend, as would be expected, the Razorbacks will try to run the Buckeyes out of the gym in the Sweet 16. The No. 1 seed is Baylor.
Outlook: OSU rolls through the first weekend, then plays a classic back-and-forth game against Arkansas, similar to the one against Illinois in the Big Ten Championship. The Buckeyes lost that one, but they’ll get by Arkansas for a date with the Baylor Bears. Look for Duane Washington Jr. to have a big tournament; the veteran guard seems to live for these moments and will carry — along with big E.J. Liddell — on an exciting tournament run.
Seed: 2, West Region
First Round: Grand Canyon
Path: The Hawkeyes can’t be too upset about their draw in the NCAA Tournament, earning the No. 2 seed despite some mid-season hiccups. It means a date with a 15 seed in the First Round — Bryce Drew’s Antelopes — before either 7 Oregon or 10 VCU in the second. If seeds hold, a date with No. 3 Kansas could come in the Sweet 16. But watch out for 6 seed USC, which features 7-footer Evan Mobley. Although their styles are different, a matchup between the lanky Mobley and the monster Luka Garza would be fun to watch. Gonzaga looms at the top of the region.
Outlook: Iowa struggled this season against teams that were able to be physical inside and out. Indiana, for instance, dragged the Hawkeyes into the mud and beat them twice. Who is the first team Iowa should be worried about replicating the tactic? The Hawkeyes will advance into the second weekend, at least to the Sweet 16. And if Joe Weiskamp and Jordan Bohannon get hot, the Hawkeyes could make a run. There’s not an overwhelmingly concerning matchup. Until the Zags.
Seed: 4, South Region
First Round: North Texas
Path: The Boilermakers get the Mean Green in Round 1 and probably don’t want to completely overlook North Texas. It’s rolling right now, having upset Western Kentucky to win the C-USA title. And the prospect of facing Villanova in Round 2 might be somewhat of a break. The Wildcats simply aren’t the same team without star guard Collin Gillespie, who is out after suffering a torn MCL. He’s expected to be out for the foreseeable future, and Villanova has been 0-2 without him. Top-seed Baylor would be next, if seeds hold, in the Sweet 16.
Outlook: The Bears are exactly the kind of team that Purdue dreads come tournament time: a long, athletic, talented squad that can turn the game into a track meet. This Purdue team, with Jaden Ivey and mobile height like Trevion Williams and Aaron Wheeler, might be better poised to deal with it, but first things first. Purdue would need to get there. Villanova will have one more game, against Winthrop, to get things figured out without Gillespie. But the prediction here is that young Purdue, which had won 5 in a row before getting ousted from the Big Ten Tournament, will be playing Baylor in Round 3. And it will lose.
Seed: 9, South Region
First Round: North Carolina
Path: Two years ago when the Big Ten also had a league-record 9 teams in the Dance, Wisconsin was the only one to lose in the first round. It faces another challenge in 8-seed UNC in the 2020-21 version of the tourney. Once considered unlikely to make the Field of 68, Carolina rallied at the end of the season to earn itself a spot and has arguably played its best basketball in the last week, with 3 consecutive wins in the ACC Tournament before a 3-point loss to Florida State in the ACC semifinal. Should the Badgers score a victory, then its gift is a date with top-seed Baylor two days later in Round 2.
Outlook: Even if the Badgers get past the Tar Heels in Round 1, they have virtually no chance in Game 2. The athleticism deficit, against a Baylor team that averaged 84.4 points per game, would be way, way too much to overcome. It’d be a game of contrasting styles — Wisconsin allows only 64.3 points per game — but the Bears would hold too significant an edge in personnel.
Seed: 10, Midwest Region
First Round: Clemson
Path: The first to score 50 might win in Game 1, as Rutgers and Clemson play a similar grind-it-out style and are big and physical. It might be a bloodbath. If the Scarlet Knights win, they’ll likely get a far different look in Round 2, with Houston, a No. 2 seed, wanting to get up and down the court. The Cougars average more than 77 points per game and outscore their opponents by about 19 points per game. They’ll chuck it from the perimeter, where they’ve hit 241 3-pointers this season, about 9.3 per game.
Outlook: In its first NCAA Tournament since 1991, Rutgers faces a difficult road. Clemson will be a bear to deal with in Round 1, but if the Scarlet Knights can get past the Tigers — and maybe Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. get hot — then Houston will be an impossibility.
Seed: 10, East Region
First Round: UConn
Path: Maryland gets the Huskies in Game 7, then could face No. 2-seeded Alabama in the second round. Texas or BYU looms in the Sweet 16. It could face Big Ten foe Michigan if the Terrapins make a run to the Elite Eight.
Outlook: The Terps get a good matchup in Round 1, facing a UConn team that has similar personnel. Maryland won’t get run out of the gym because its lack of size. But the NCAA Tournament is all about matchups; and Maryland’s void of a big, physical post put a cap on its tournament legs. It might get past the Huskies, but it’ll get rolled by the Tide.
Seed: 11, East Region
First Four: UCLA
Path: Michigan State snuck into the Dance as one of the last four at-larges. And it gets a crazy-good, at least from a fan perspective, matchup vs. UCLA in the First Four. The two former NCAA Champions battling it out for a right to get a date with BYU. If MSU should get past its first two opponents, then it’s likely to play Texas in Round 2. Feeling optimistic? The 2 seed is Alabama and the 1 is Michigan. And hey, MSU beat its rival only a week ago. The path from First Four to Final Four is greased.
Outlook: In all honesty, put nothing past Tom Izzo’s Spartans, who are playing their best basketball at the end of the season (getting walloped by Maryland a few days ago aside). It’s MSU’s 23rd consecutive NCAA Tournament, now the second-longest current streak to only Kansas’ 31 straight. Duke, of course, missed the tourney this season, ending its streak. If Michigan State beats UCLA, it won’t beat BYU.