2021 March Madness Bracket Predictions: Midwest Region
Welcome to the Group of Death.
The Midwest Region is by far, bar none, the most difficult bracket in the 2021 NCAA Tournament. Seven of the 16 teams in this region have spent time in the Top 11 – THE TOP 11! – at some point this year. And that doesn’t even count dangerous conference champions like Georgia Tech (ACC), Oregon State (Pac-12), San Diego State (MWC) and Loyola-Chicago (MVC).
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This region is absolutely stacked, and there are no fewer than five teams that I can see winning the group. With that in mind, here are Doc’s Sports March Madness bracket predictions for the Midwest Region:
No. 1 Seed: Illinois Illini (-300 to win Midwest Region)
At 14-1 over the last two months and fresh off a Big Ten Tournament championship, the Illini enter the NCAA Tournament with as much momentum as any team in the country. Of course, you don’t really need momentum when you have Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, two of the Top 20 players in the country and a lethal inside-out combo. Illinois plays suffocating, in-your-face defense. Their perimeter defenders over-commit, forcing teams to try to go backdoor and funneling the ball toward Cockburn. Freshman Andre Curbelo and junior Giorgi Bezhanishvili are major contributors off the bench, and senior Trent Frazier gives them another go-to guy in the clutch. Illinois is in the Top 20 in points, field goal percentage and 3-point shooting while also in the Top 50 in field goal defense. They can matchup with any team in the field.
Illinois NCAA Tournament Predictions: Illinois was one of the best teams in the best conference in the country. I think that their odds to win the region are way off (I would have them closer to -125) but this team is a legit national title contender.
No. 2 Seed: Houston Cougars (+325)
I know the AAC sucked this year. I know Houston played a weak nonconference schedule. I know the Cougars lost one of their best players, Caleb Mills, four games into the season. Set all the aside and look at the Cougars and you should come to this one conclusion: these guys can BALL. This team is no joke and is kind of like a poor man’s Baylor. The Cougars play small, routinely fielding a four-guard lineup. That seemingly makes them suspect defensively, right? Wrong. The Cougars are No. 2 in points allowed, No. 1 in field goal defense and No. 4 in 3-point defense. Houston harasses and harangues teams for 94 feet and for 40 minutes. Quentin Grimes, Marcus Sasser and DeJon Jarreau are all versatile offensive scorers, and this team has the second gear that all contenders need to put weaker opponents away.
Houston NCAA Tournament Predictions: Only two National Champions have come from a conference that sent fewer than four teams to the NCAA Tournament. Houston is the lone AAC rep this year. You can figure it from there. That doesn’t mean that this group isn’t capable of wreaking some serious havoc before that, though.
No. 3 Seed: West Virginia Mountaineers (+975)
I honestly should have a form letter typed up for West Virginia’s preview in every NCAA Tournament. It has seriously been the same team every year under Bob Huggins. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: the Mountaineers are tough, rugged and one of the best defensive teams in the field but their offensive limitations, particularly in regards to consistent shooting, mean that this team has a low overall ceiling. “Offensive limitations” is a generous way of saying that the Mountaineers can’t shoot. Sure, they have a Top 50 scoring offense and they hit an acceptable 35.9 percent from deep. But WVU is No. 238 in field goal percentage, and whenever they need a bucket they cannot get it. I like Taz Sherman. Miles McBride can do some things. And Derek Culver is a beast. But time is a flat circle for the Mountaineers, so expect one or two wins and done for this group.
West Virginia NCAA Tournament Predictions: No team has ever won a National Championship after losing the first game of their conference tournament. WVU is not going to snap that streak.
No. 4 Seed: Oklahoma State Cowboys (+800)
If Oklahoma State’s structure and style of play remind you of Illinois, that’s because OSU coach Mike Boynton was an assistant to Illinois coach Brad Underwood during Underwood’s cup of coffee in Stillwater. Like the Illini, Oklahoma State has one of the best guards in the country in Cade Cunningham. The freshman triggers a four-guard offense that includes explosive Avery Anderson and crafty Isaac Likekele. Unlike Illinois, the Cowboys don’t have a Cockburn-esque big man to rely on, and Oklahoma State is definitely vulnerable in the post. That hasn’t bothered them in back-to-back March wins over West Virginia and wasn’t a problem in their recent win over Baylor. Oklahoma State has 11 wins this year by five points or fewer or in OT and five losses that also fall into those parameters. So, expect plenty of nail biting regardless of what Oklahoma State does in this tourney.
Oklahoma State NCAA Tournament Predictions: Over the last 40 years, only 14 teams seeded No. 4 or worse have made it to the national title game. I do think that Oklahoma State is capable of being the 15th…if they were in a different bracket. The best No. 4 seed ended up in the toughest bracket, so the Cowboys will have to settle for an Elite Eight ceiling.
No. 5 Seed: Tennessee Volunteers (+1400)
This has been a typical Rick Barnes season. Talent is never the issue on a Barnes-coached team. He has four starters from last year’s 17-win squad back and added blue chip freshmen Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer along with transfer Victor Bailey. Early in the season, the Vols were in the Top 10 and had the look of a national title contender. Then the fact that Barnes is a terrible coach kicked in and the Vols have scuffled to an 8-7 SU finish. Tennessee is likely going to be without starting center John Fulkerson in the NCAA Tournament, and that is a major blow if this team runs into any opponents with a significant post presence. That’s going to put more pressure on point guard Santiago Vescovi and the two freshmen to lead the way. I don’t think that they are up for it.
Tennessee NCAA Tournament Predictions: Barnes couldn’t even make it to the second weekend with Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin. He’s been to the Sweet 16 just once since 2009 (eight tries), and I don’t see him surviving long with this group (and without Fulkerson).
No. 6 Seed: San Diego State Aztecs (+1300)
The Aztecs, along with Dayton, Gonzaga and Baylor, were the teams that lost the most by having last year’s NCAA Tournament cancelled. SDSU was a legit Final Four contender while pumping out a 30-2 record last season. This year they are 23-4 and ride into The Dance on a 14-game winning streak. The Aztecs are an elite defensive team (No. 11 in adjusted efficiency), and their four seniors, led by Matt Mitchell, play with the confidence of a group that’s won 90 percent of their games the last two years. However, the Aztecs have played one of the easiest schedules in the country over the last two months. During that time they’ve played more games against teams ranked No. 320 or worse (4) than against teams in the NCAA field (1).
San Diego State Tournament Predictions: Mountain West teams are just 22-49 SU in their last 71 attempts at The Big Dance. And these Aztecs haven’t been tested enough to be considered a real threat in this bracket. They can survive their opener against Syracuse, but I’ll be surprised if they are still playing in the Sweet 16.
Best first-round match up: No. 8 Loyola Chicago (-2) vs. No. 9 Georgia Tech
I absolutely loathe the fact that these two teams have to go up against one another because I was going to blindly bet on both the Ramblers and the Jackets regardless of their first round matchups. These two teams are legit. Loyola has lost just one time (by one point, in overtime) since Jan. 11 while putting together a 17-1 run through The Valley. Cameron Krutwig is one of the 20 best players in the country, and the Ramblers surround him with experienced, disciplined guards. Georgia Tech is fresh off an ACC tile, and they have the No. 4 most experienced team in the nation this year. The backcourt of Jose Alvarado and Michael Devoe is as good as any in college basketball. Throw in ACC POTY Moses Wright in the post, and surging senior Jordan Usher, and the Jackets can grind with anyone. It’s tough that one of these teams are going home after this game, because I think that both have Sweet 16 potential.
Best potential second-round matchup: No. 4 Oklahoma State vs. No. 5 Tennessee
I will be absolutely stunned if we get this matchup. That’s not how The Madness works. It is more likely that one of these teams gets upset in the first round, denying us what would be one of the best matchups of the second round in any bracket. Tennessee’s stud freshmen guards would love a crack at Cade Cunningham. And without John Fulkerson clogging the lane for the Vols, I could see this turning into an up-tempo free-for-all with plenty of perimeter firepower on both sides.
Upset Alert (first round): No. 4 Oklahoma State (-1.5) vs. No. 13 Liberty
I really, really like this Oklahoma State team. Cunningham is the truth, and I love the fearlessness of this group. That said, this is a very, very tricky matchup for them in Round 1. Liberty plays at the 10th slowest pace in the country. They are going to milk the clock and try to grind this game down. That is going to test the patience of a relatively young and inexperienced Cowboys squad. Liberty is 53-9 over the last two seasons and 82-16 over the last three years, so they know how to win. They have also gone toe-to-toe with Purdue and Missouri this season and beat Mississippi State, so they are capable of stepping up a level and competing with more talented opponents.
Upset Alert (second round): No. 2 Houston vs. No. 7 Clemson/No. 10 Rutgers
I love me some Houston. They deserve their seed and this team is very, very good. They are going to have their hands full with whomever they take on in the second round, though. Clemson is a fantastic defensive team that is very tough when they are making perimeter shots. The Tigers have also beaten top tier teams like Alabama, Purdue and Florida State this year, so nothing the Cougars throw at the Tigers will rattle Clemson. Same goes for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991! What Ron Harper Jr., Geo Baker and Jacob Young lack in chemistry they make up for in talent. Rutgers will play with a chip on its shoulder, and they aren’t afraid of anyone, least of all Houston.
Dark Horse team: No. 11 Syracuse
I am a Syracuse graduate and have been an SU fan since I was six years old. But I promise you: no one hates this team more than I do. Syracuse has not played or looked like an NCAA Tournament-caliber team for 85 percent of this season. The good news for them is that the other 15 percent has come over the last two weeks, and the Orange could be peaking at the right time. Their only loss in the last four games came on a buzzer beater versus Virginia, and the Orange have looked better offensively (averaging 74.3 points per game) over the last nine games than at any point in the year. We’ve seen double-digit-seeded Syracuse teams go on runs before, making the Final Four in 2016 as a No. 10 seed and the Sweet 16 in 2018 as a No. 11 seed. And that quirky zone can be hell for opponents to prepare for on short notice. A run to the Elite Eight for this team isn’t out of the question.
Team That Makes Me Nervous: No. 2 Houston
Houston makes me nervous because I know that this team is legit. They are extremely deserving of their seed and they are more than capable of knocking out any team in the country. They manhandled Texas Tech in their one good nonconference game and beat a desperate, talented Memphis team twice in a week, all before winning their conference tournament game by 1,000. However, these guys look like an all-or-nothing proposition. They are a Final Four contender, and I think they can play with a team like Illinois. Yet I can’t help this nagging feeling that Houston is going to get bounced in the second round.
2021 Midwest Region Predictions: This is by far the best region in the NCAA Tournament. It’s not even close. As a result, the seeds absolutely don’t matter, and I would expect to see all kinds of “upsets” through the first two rounds. Hell, you could tell me that we were getting a Loyola-Rutgers Elite Eight game and I wouldn’t say that I was all that surprised.
I love this Illinois team. And it is tough to see someone taking them out. But I will be surprised if they can survive this gauntlet. The only way that I see it happening is if the bracket blows up (like I expect it to) with someone taking out Oklahoma State – the team I think would give Illinois the best game – and then either Syracuse or Rutgers upsetting their way to the Sweet 16. If Illinois avoids its toughest statistical path (Loyola, Oklahoma State and either Houston or WVU), then they will win this group. If they have to take on the top dogs, I can see them getting taken out.
Robert Ferringo is a member of the Basketball Writer's Association of America and a professional sports handicapper for Doc's Sports. He is considered one of the best college basketball handicappers in the country and has posted 12 of 14 winning seasons. He is looking for a monster March run and you can sign up for his college basketball picks and get more information here.
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