The best weekend of the year has been shifted back a day, but that just gives us another 24 hours to get ready. Xavier is emphasizing individual instruction to prepare for 2021-22, but the rest of us are just going to park in front of the television for 96 hours to watch 68 teams turn into 16. We’re going to be breaking down each region for you in the next couple of days. First up is the Midwest.
The Midwest region might well be a referendum on what you think of mid-majors, high-majors, and how the committee should approach each of them. Single-elimination basketball is not a good measure of what a team is, but people love to draw conclusions from it, or at least use it to trumpet their talking points. So when you see a Houston team that blitzed the should-have-been-one-bid AAC or 24-4 Loyola-Chicago walking onto the court, just know that you’re 40 minutes of ball (plus stoppage time) from watching Twitter turn into a highlight reel of hot takes.
Beyond that, though, there are some really good teams here and some storylines that will carry into the next news cycle. I’m just going to header off a few things so I don’t have to figure out how to segue through this; let’s begin.
Metrics darling Loyola-Chicago is not underseeded
There’s already a talking point going around that the committee did Loyola - and, by extension, the team(s) they’ll have to face - dirty by giving them an eight seed. Yes, they’re in the top 10 of the KenPom rankings. Yes, they’re 24-4, with almost all of those games coming against D1 competition. Yes, they made a magical run a couple of years back. However...
They have a 6-4 record against the top two quads. Those six wins came against four teams: Drake (2), Missouri State (2), North Texas, and Indiana State. That’s like your signature wins coming against Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, and Butler, and I’m being generous with a couple of those comparisons. Georgia Tech will be the best team they’ve played since mid-December, when they never had a win probability of better than 1-in-3 against Wisconsin. They accumulated 1.7 WAB, good for 34th in the nation. They’re seeded where they should be.
Syracuse is overseeded
Speaking of seeding (maybe I could have done the segue thing), there’s no reason the Orange should be in the tournament. Their half a WAB isn’t meaningfully different than what Colgate accumulated, and nobody thought they were in consideration for an at-large bid. Their one Q1 win was over NC State. the only team in the top two quads they beat away from home. They somehow managed to lose to Pitt at home. Nobody needs more Jim Boeheim in their life; Syracuse should be in the NIT.
If you think defense is fun, cheer for Clemson
The Tigers were kind of all over the place this year, but at their best, they can string together stops like nobody’s business. They held Alabama, Maryland, Louisville, and Duke each to under .8 PPP in games this year. They force a decent amount of turnovers, keep the pace low, and generally grind teams into a powder. Their opening-round game against Rutgers might be won by whichever team gets to 55 points first... or at all. Whoever comes out of this game will be a tough test for Houston.
If you want a fun story to back, cheer for West Virginia’s Sean McNeil
In 2017, McNeil graduated high school after starring for Cooper High in Union, Ky. Despite pouring home buckets like it was his job, he wasn’t getting a sniff from the D1 level. He signed for and enrolled at Bellarmine, made it through orientation and two classes, and then - in his own words - panicked and left. After that, nothing. He wasn’t on a roster or working out with someone; he was hooping in open runs and taking classes at Gateway Community and Technical College.
After a year in limbo, he started playing ball for Sinclair Community College, one of the approximately 30 schools Banners founder Brad D attended after high school. He (McNeil, not Brad) just caught fire. He dropped 40 in his first game and a school record 55 three games later. He ended the season averaging almost 30 points per game and holding the D1 offers that eluded him out of school. Obviously, he chose West Virginia.
If you’ve played basketball, you’ve been in an open gym with a guy who claimed he could have gone D1 or that he was the top JV recruit in the nation or whatever. Sean McNeil actually dragged himself from that point to averaging 11 a game in high-major ball. That’s hard not to cheer for.
Darkhorse pick: San Diego State
The Aztecs are deep (35% of their minutes come off the bench) and veteran (they’re 16th in the KenPom in experience). They dropped a tough one at Utah State on January 16th and they haven’t lost since. They beat the brakes off of UCLA to start the season and avenged the loss against Utah State to end it. They can hit shots from deep, led by senior wing Jordan Schakel, one of the best and most efficient shot makers in the nation.
I understand at some level that every critique I had of Loyola can apply to SDSU a little bit, but SDSU had almost twice the WAB; they’ve simply played and beaten better teams. Their defense is excellent, especially in the paint, and they’re good at controlling the pace. I’m looking forward to seeing them go toe-to-toe with West Virginia in the second round.
These guys are the real deal. Each of their six losses came in a KenPom A game; half of them were by a single possession. They’ve got one of the best big-moment players in the nation in Ayo Dosumnu to take charge down the stretch and an absolute monster in the middle in Luka Garza’s dad Kofi Cockburn. Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams are a combined 89-207 (43%) from behind the arc and Andre Curbelo is an inconsistent but often spectacular freshman guard.
These guys have lost once, to Michigan State, in the last two months. They’re absolutely rolling right now, and I don’t know that I see anyone in the region that I’d put money on to stop them.