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NCAA Tournament Preview: Midwest Region

Shady characters loom in the background of a region where the top seeds look dominant.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

With the West, East and South Regions in the books, let’s dig in on the Midwest. Stick around at the end for how we see the Final Four playing out.

2021 NCAA Tournament Preview - Midwest Region

NCAA Basketball: South Florida at Houston Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Player to watch: DeJon Jarreau, Houston

The Midwest Region is littered with stars – Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham, Ayo Dosunmu of Illinois, Georgia Tech big man Moses Wright. Jarreau isn’t even the best player on his own team – that’s Quentin Grimes. Ironically, that makes Jarreau even more important. The AAC’s defensive player of the year gives Houston a versatile stopper in the backcourt to help combat the parade of standouts the Cougars would face in a run to the Final Four.

Trending up: Liberty

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Liberty vs Virginia Tech Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Tough draw for OSU in the first round. Playing a grinding, methodical brand of basketball, Liberty hasn’t lost a game since Jan. 15.

Just imagine how much fun ex-university president Jerry Falwell Jr. probably had this year watching the Flames go at it.

Trending down: West Virginia

The Mountaineers stumbled to the finish line by losing three of their final four games. A home loss to a Cade Cunningham-less OSU team in that stretch raised a particularly big red flag.

You won’t hear this very often about one of Bob Huggins’ teams, but the Eers’ pedestrian defense will probably be their undoing this year.

Best first-round matchup: No. 6 San Diego State vs. No. 11 Syracuse

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-NC State Syracuse Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

We can all agree that no one wanted Syracuse to get into this tournament. Since the Orange are here, however, we have to deal with it.

Now in something like his 50th year of being the whiniest jerk in college hoops, Jim Boeheim has successfully taken his program from “perennial Final Four contender” to “pesky opponent teams don’t want to draw in the first round.” Although Cuse’s 2-3 zone is annoying, you can’t argue with its track record of making the Orange a funky matchup in a tournament setting.

The Aztecs, winners of 14 straight games, probably have enough shooting to save us all from being forced to watch Cuse play twice in this year’s Big Dance. Count on this game getting tight late, though.

Most likely upset: No. 12 Oregon State over No. 5 Tennessee

This has nothing to do with any particular aspect of the matchup and everything to do with the “Tennessee Experience.” If you’ve watched the Volunteers this season – or any season, for that matter – you know not to expect anything about them to make sense. The Beavers had a nice run through the Pac-12 Tournament, but they’re nothing special. Ergo...

Predicted winner: No. 1 Illinois over No. 2 Houston

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Illinois vs Iowa Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Midwest feels like the region where the gap between the top two teams and the other 14 is most significant. OSU could give the Illini a good game in the Sweet Sixteen; otherwise, look for them to breeze to the Elite Eight along with the Cougars.

Once they do meet up, count on UH to mug Illinois’ dynamic guards up and down the floor in true Kelvin Sampson fashion. The Cougars also won’t hesitate to hack Kofi Cockburn and send the beastly IU center to the free throw line, where he makes just 54% of his attempts. (On that note, note that the Illini’s mediocre shooting from the charity stripe doesn’t really befit a Final Four team.)

The real issue for Houston, though, is that Illinois is one of the few teams in the country capable of keeping the Cougars from dominating the offensive glass. UH thrives on second opportunities to score – the Illini won’t allow nearly as many as the Cougs are accustomed to.

When the smoke clears, Brad Underwood and Co. will cut down the nets in the Midwest.

*So that gives us a Final Four of Gonzaga-Alabama and Ohio State-Illinois. As of now, we’ll take the Zags to overcome Illinois in the championship game and finish the season undefeated.