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2021 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Picks: Midwest, South Regions

Buddy Boeheim, Syracuse


Midwest Region

(12) Oregon State Beavers vs. (8) Loyola-Chicago Ramblers 

The NCAA Tournament is always an event that provides plenty of chaos, and the Midwest Region certainly has fit that bill. While every college basketball anticipated a potential Illinois-Oklahoma State clash in the Sweet 16, the Illini were handled by in-state rival Loyola-Chicago and the Cowboys were dispatched by Oregon State. That sets up an intriguing matchup between a well-coached, disciplined Rambler squad and a suddenly flaming hot Oregon State edition. 

Loyola enters as the seven-point favorite, and it's understandable why. They've won 17 of their last 18 games, are a program becoming accustomed to March success, and are one of the best defensive teams in the country. In addition, Loyola has one of the most likable stars in the nation in big Cam Krutwig. Krutwig doesn't have the look or game of a superstar, but he's fresh off a dominating performance in the Illinois game, where he had 19 points, 12 rebounds, and five assists. The supporting cast is full of veteran pieces who might not go for 20 every night, but play an efficient brand of basketball. Guys like Lucas Williamson, Braden Norris, and Marquise Kennedy are all perfect complementary pieces with a favorable mix of skills. This isn't the most explosive offense Oregon State has seen in 2020-21, but it's enough to make them work for the entire forty minutes. 

On the other side, the Beavers are a really shocking "Cinderella" story. They were picked dead last in the Pac-12 in the preseason and were mostly an average team throughout most of the season. As impressive as the Pac-12 Title run was, beating Tennessee and Oklahoma State in back-to-back games may be even more significant. They were able to keep Cade Cunningham in check and still put together great offensive performances, even though they don't have a real signature star either. Backcourt mates Ethan Thompson and Jarod Lucas are their two top weapons, but forward Maurice Calloo may be the X-factor. He's really stepped up in the last three games and as an athletic 6'10" forward, he'll probably get a run at guarding Krutwig. For Oregon State to advance their first Elite Eight since 1982, the Beavers will have to not only have a great defensive game, but also play the efficient brand of basketball Loyola does. They've done a great job so far, but this Loyola team plays so much different than their last two opponents. Basketball is a game of matchups, and I love the way the Ramblers match up here.

The Pick: Loyola by ten

(2) Houston Cougars vs. (11) Syracuse Orange

Both Houston and Syracuse survived intense second round bouts with Rutgers and West Virginia, granting them access to the Tournament's second weekend. The Cougars needed a late comeback to hold off Rutgers, but UH will not back down in this game. They play a brand of basketball particularly designed to slow down the pace and bully opponents into submission. They rotate a strong collection of guards who aren't very great shooters, but are relentless in attacking the rim. Former Kansas transfer Quentin Grimes has had a breakout 2020-21 season, and operates as Houston's top offensive weapon. He's their best three-point shooter (42%) but is at his best when he gets downhill when and attacks. The same can be said for most of Houston's athletic guards and wings, which includes senior DeJon Jarreau, who may end up being the real X-factor here. Jarreau has been battling a bad hip that forced him to barely play at all in the first round against Cleveland State and really limited him against Rutgers, even as he came back to score 17 points. Jarreau plays such a large role not just as a scorer and passer, but as the de-facto senior leader on this team. If he's still not 100 percent, other Cougars are going to have to continue to step up and play larger minutes, like the hero of the second round win, Tramon Mark.

Syracuse's march to the Sweet 16 has been surprising in some ways, but also somewhat predictable. While the Orange were a middle-of-the-pack ACC team for much of the season (in a down year for the league), this is a program that really seems to kick it into gear when March arrives. They also play a unique style that can be really tough for opposing teams, even when they're expecting it. Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone is well-known around the world of basketball, and it's been lethal in the first two games. Against San Diego State, the Orange held the Aztecs to 36% shooting from the field and 28% from three. Against an elite West Virginia offensive team, the Orange held them to 37% from the field. Even against good shooting teams, such as WVU, the zone works so effectively because it is able to dictate rhythm and flow in a way that few other defenses are able to. It also helps that 'Cuse has been extremely hot themselves on the offensive side, with sharpshooters Buddy Boeheim (Jim's son) and Joseph Girard III letting it fly at a fairly incredible rate. Buddy in particular has been shooting out of his mind down the stretch. After hitting threes at a 39% clip during the regular season, he's nailed 24 in just the final four games. During that span, he's averaging 28.3 PPG. No matter what else is happening offensively, with that type of lead guard production rolling, Syracuse is going to be a tough out. The Orange frontcourt isn't as important as their backcourt, but veterans Alan Griffin and Marek Dolezaj do just enough to keep opposing defenses honest. 

I'm not sure whether Syracuse will be able to keep up their crazy shooting numbers going forward, but they might not need to if the defense continues to play as well as it has. Houston does have two potential advantages they could deploy: they are a good offensive rebounding team, and 'Cuse can struggle to rebound off the zone. In addition, forward Fabian White could be a nice zone breaker in the middle, even though he's been very limited in '20-'21 due to injury. However, I still like Syracuse to move onto the Elite Eight and take a stab at Loyola-Chicago. They're playing very good basketball right now, and have a little bit more versatility than the Cougars. I'm not sure how he keeps doing it at his age, but Boeheim adds another win, and Elite Eight trip to his illustrious resume.

The Pick: Syracuse by four

South Region

(1) Baylor Bears vs. (5) Villanova Wildcats

Villanova head coach Jay Wright has had better teams than this current iteration, but leading this particular one to the Sweet 16 might actually be his best coaching job yet. A week before the Big East Tournament Villanova lost their most crucial piece in guard Collin Gillespie to a torn MCL. In addition, Justin Moore and Jermaine Samuels also haven't been operating at complete 100 percent. Yet, the Wildcats dominated 13th-seeded North Texas this past weekend to move onto the second weekend, where they get a crack at No. 1 seed Baylor. 

With Gillespie gone, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Moore have really helped pick up the slack. Robinson-Earl is Villanova's top offensive option, a 6'9" athlete who isn't much of a shooter, but still has a diverse skill set that allows him to average 16 points per game. Moore, a sophomore, has really stepped up in getting his teammates involved and playing better defense. With those two leading the way, the supporting cast has been able to come in and play their specific roles well. Wings Caleb Daniels and Bryan Antoine can come on and hit a big shot or two to open up the offense. Forwards Cole Swider and Samuels do enough to bang down low and put pressure on opposing frontcourts. The offense still does not operate as smoothly as it would with Gillespie on the court, but enough other Wildcats have stepped up to keep them humming.

Baylor is a really difficult matchup, even for a healthy 'Nova team. There's a reason that the Bears lost just one regular season game in the second toughest conference in America. They're deep, long, athletic, and have a signature star in Jared Butler. Butler has not been shooting as well over the last several games as he was mid-season, but the versatile scorer can still put pressure on opposing defenses the entire game. He also has a team that supports his strengths really well, and can score plenty themselves. MaCio Teague is a silky smooth operator from anywhere on the court, and Davion Mitchell is an elite shooter. Wing Matthew Mayer may be the most underrated player anywhere in college basketball, and rim runner Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua is a joy to watch. It's an elite three-point shooting team, but they're also incredibly difficult because of what they do defensively. They switch on every screen and every cut to the hoop, which they're able to because it's essentially five position-less basketball players out there at one time. Their length and instincts allow them to get their hands into passing lanes and disrupt offenses, even though they play a relatively simplistic brand of defense. I have wondered in the past how they would respond to a team being able to exploit their lack of true big men in the post, but Villanova isn't a team that runs much offense in the post. It could be a weakness exploited against them the further that we get in this NCAA Tournament, but I'm not sure if the Wildcats will be the ones to exploit it.

The coaching matchup in this game will be a real chess match. Scott Drew has developed a reputation as an excellent program builder, and nobody can question the job he has done in Waco. But, he is still trying to shake off some March demons that continue to haunt him. Wright, meanwhile, has rid himself of his own March struggles and has won two of the last four NCAA Tournaments. He's been extremely creative at getting this offense to still work, even without the heart-and-soul of Gillespie. With that being said, Baylor is a different animal than Villanova's first two foes, Winthrop and North Texas. They also seem to be recovering from the long COVID pause that completely disrupted their seasons, looking fresher and fresher with each game. 'Nova will do enough to make it a game, but I like the Bears to move on to the regional finals.

The Pick: Baylor by seven

(3) Arkansas Razorbacks vs. (15) Oral Roberts Golden Eagles

Oral Roberts has become the first 15-seed since Florida Gulf Coast back in 2013 to get to the Tournament's second weekend and they're hopeful to make more history by earning a spot in the Elite Eight. First, they'll have to get past an extremely hot and capable Arkansas club that survived a dogfight with Texas Tech in the second round.

Oral Roberts finished fourth in the Summit League in the regular season, but ended the year on a five-game win streak that has now extended to seven after beating Ohio State and Florida. They are, in many ways, reminiscent of that Florida Gulf Coast team. The Golden Eagles play an up-tempo style and love to get out and run. They also happen to have one of the nation's top scorers in sophomore Max Abmas, who averages 24.5 PPG off 47% shooting. The big question is whether the rest of the supporting cast can not only hang with Arkansas offensively, but make stop pivotal stops against the Razorbacks. Oral Roberts is simply not a good defensive team, but they've been able to make consequential stops in big moments against OSU and Florida. Will that carry over here? The Razorbacks are a more balanced offensive team than either OSU and Florida, and a team that's proven to be at their best in close games.

One of the primary focuses for Oral Roberts on defense will be finding a way to contain freshman sensation Moses Moody, who leads Arkansas in points per game and is also very active on the glass. While Moody has struggled with consistency at times this season, he will still enter the game as the best player on the court. He leads a backcourt that will also push the pace for the entire forty minutes, a group that doesn't shoot the ball at an elite clip but gets to the rim and finishes. Guys like J.D. Notae, Jalen Tate, Desi Sills, and Davonte Davis play with the type of controlled, consistent energy that head coach Eric Musselman has injected into the entire program. Davis is a particularly interesting player to watch; he's almost never going to step out and hit a three, but his defense is where his impact is most felt. In the final possession of the Texas Tech game, he denied Red Raider star Mac McClung the ball the entire rest of the way, forcing a frenzied TTU possession that ended up securing a Razorback victory. Don't be shocked if Davis is one of several Razorbacks who rotate on and guard Abmas. How they do handling Oral's top offensive weapon could decide the game.

For Oral Roberts to make history and become the first 15-seed to ever make the Elite Eight, they'll need to play even better than they did in their first two games. Arkansas is the type of team that gets up for everybody, whether it's the nation's best or a fourth place finisher from the Summit League. Abmas will not only need to have a tremendous night, he will also need the rest of the Golden Eagle supporting cast to open up the offense and make big shots. They'll also need to have their best defensive night of the season, and also find their own on the glass. The Razorbacks are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, even if they don't have a ton of size beyond gigantic 7'3" Connor Vanover, and they do an excellent job of finding extra possessions. It's a tall task no matter what seed you are and well I'd love to see the Cinderella run continue, I just don't think the matchup with Arkansas is a favorable one.

The Pick: Arkansas by twelve

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