Sunday’s NCAA tournament second round was weird and wild from start to finish, with Loyola Chicago starting things off by handling top-seeded Illinois and upsets by No. 11 seed Syracuse, No. 15 seed Oral Roberts and No. 12 seed Oregon State to mean this week’s Sweet 16 will feature some clear underdogs. Another double-digit seed will advance on Monday — the 11 vs. 14 matchup of UCLA and Abilene Christian ensures it — and No. 13 seed Ohio and 10-seed Maryland also will have opportunities to continue onto the second weekend.
Will a 2021 NCAA tournament that has been deliciously unpredictable through its first four days continue the trend into its fifth? Will the top-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs and Michigan Wolverines have it easy in their second-round games, at least? With Illinois off the board, who’s going to cut down the nets in next week’s Midwest Region? ESPN.com’s college basketball team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi weighed in on the top items from Sunday and the things they’ll be watching on a very rare NCAA tournament Monday. Follow this link for Monday’s NCAA tournament tip times, and visit here to check your March Madness bracket.
Syracuse, Oral Roberts and Oregon State will rep for the double-digit seeds in the right half of this week’s Sweet 16. On the left side, are you feeling better about Ohio’s or Maryland’s chances of getting there on Monday? Any chance 14th-seeded Abilene Christian keeps wearing the glass slipper?
Gasaway: I’m obligated by the Analytic Oath to state at the top here that Maryland has the better chance on paper. But, well, I saw what Ohio’s Jason Preston did to Virginia. With all due respect to Creighton’s Marcus Zegarowski, Preston is going to be the best player on the floor when the Bobcats take on the Bluejays. Greg McDermott’s defense was very good this season, but just look at what Preston did to the Cavaliers: 11 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists. It gives you serious flashbacks to Dwyane Wade at Marquette in the 2003 tournament. (Not equating Preston with D-Wade; just paying tribute to each player’s “versatile warrior” side.) Creighton is the favorite, no question, but I could see Preston doing something special enough to carry his team to the Sweet 16.
As for Abilene Christian, this will sound strange, but I liked the Wildcats’ chances better against a No. 3 seed than I do against this particular No. 11 seed. Joe Golding’s group was able to force Texas into turnovers on 36% of its possessions, but I don’t see that happening against UCLA.
Medcalf: I think Jason Preston and Ohio have the better shot because the Bobcats are facing a Creighton squad that squeezed by UC Santa Barbara in the first round, as its up-and-down stretch in recent weeks continued. Preston is a high-level guard who solved the complexities of a Tony Bennett defense. Plus, Ohio doesn’t surrender a lot of size. Preston is 6-foot-4, James Madison transfer Dwight Wilson is 6-8, Ben Vander Plas is 6-8 and Ben Roderick is 6-5. While the overall numbers suggest Creighton is a great offensive team (20th in adjusted offensive efficiency in KenPom), the Bluejays have not consistently backed that metric in recent weeks. Greg McDermott’s squad has failed to score more than one point per possession in three games. Meanwhile, Ohio hit 52% of its shots inside the arc against a Virginia team that was second in the ACC in defensive efficiency. Creighton has been wobbling in the corner. Monday could be the KO for that team.
Ohio takes a 42-40 lead over Virginia in the second half as Jason Preston finds Ben Vander Plas for a quick pull-up 3-pointer.
Borzello: As one of the first on the Jason Preston bandwagon, I am picking Ohio to beat Creighton. Ben Vander Plas deserves some love too! But since Myron and John are taking that one too, let me keep riding with Abilene Christian. I’m surprised the Wildcats are getting no attention here, given they’re facing 11-seed UCLA, a team that will be playing its third game in five days … against a squad that aggressively guards for 40 minutes.
Abilene Christian caused fits for Texas, a team with three veteran guards. UCLA has one primary ball handler, Tyger Campbell, and while he has nine assists and just two turnovers in the NCAA tournament, Abilene Christian’s pressure defense will be different than anything he has seen this season. The Wildcats lead the nation in defensive turnover percentage and love to draw charges. If they can slow down Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez, both of whom will have a height advantage on the wing, I think they can get to the Sweet 16.
Lunardi: I actually like Maryland’s chances the least. Having escaped Iona and the Rick Pitino drama, Alabama should keep rolling — perhaps all the way to April. Similarly, I think Creighton was fortunate to get past a solid UC Santa Barbara team, and the Bluejays have too much firepower for Ohio U. in Round 2. That leaves Abilene Christian against a short-handed UCLA team playing its third game in five days. The Wildcats hounded Texas to the point of exhaustion, and if they get another lenient set of whistles, they can do the same to the Bruins.
The seed lines would tell you Houston is now the favorite in the Midwest, given Illinois’ loss to Loyola Chicago. But the Cougars looked shaky in a narrow win over 10th-seeded Rutgers. So who ya got at this point in that region: Houston or the field?
Borzello: Give me the field. Houston is going to be the favorite, but Loyola Chicago looked absolutely terrific in its win over Illinois and can easily get to a Final Four, and it’s impossible to count out Syracuse and the 2-3 zone in the Big Dance. Houston will have days to prepare for the zone, but the Cougars are going to have to be far more efficient than they were against Rutgers on Sunday. They’ve been inconsistent shooting from behind the arc the past couple of weeks, but someone like DeJon Jarreau finding gaps in the middle of that zone could be effective. Opponents only shoot about 29% from 3 against the Cougars, which bodes well for the task of slowing down Buddy Boeheim.
Medcalf: I’ll take the field. I don’t think anyone watched the Rutgers-Houston game on Sunday and thought the Cougars were clearly better than the Scarlet Knights. The Illinois loss opens everything up. Loyola Chicago is doing things the 2018 squad did to make a run to the Final Four. These Ramblers are even better than that version of the squad in some areas. Every time Syracuse advances, I assume Hakim Warrick has scored 13 points or something. An Oregon State squad that punched in a cheat code last week and keeps hitting 3-pointers is still a threat.
The Cougars have put together some dominant efforts in recent weeks. But Dejon Jarreau isn’t 100 percent, so nothing feels certain about his status going forward. Kelvin Sampson’s squad will give any opponent in this region a tough game. It just feels like this is suddenly a battle royal for a trip to the Final Four, without a real favorite. Any team could represent that region in Lucas Oil Stadium.
Loyola Chicago knocks off No. 1 seed Illinois and celebrates on the floor with Sister Jean in the crowd.
Gasaway: Field, field, field! Don’t get me wrong, I love the Cougars and their blend of glovelike defense with tenacious offensive rebounding. But just look at everything this region can throw in UH’s path over the next 80 minutes. Syracuse is up first, and if the Rutgers’ man-to-man could make Houston look static at times on offense (which indeed took place), there’s a good chance Jim Boeheim’s zone can achieve that same result. Also, Buddy Boeheim has been playing at the level of a Wooden Award winner over his past four games: 113 points on 24-of-43 shooting beyond the arc. If the Cougars do survive a zone defense and the new Stephen Curry, they will get Loyola Chicago or Oregon State as the reward. Yes, on paper it’s an open bracket without a top seed. But the truth is there’s plenty of strength left in the Midwest even though Illinois has been shown the door.
Lunardi: Someone is going to win two more games in the Midwest Region, and I could make a credible case for all four of its Sweet 16 entries. It’s a clearly a bad idea to pick against the Boeheim family, not to mention Oregon State’s unexpected Tinkle time. And all the remaining candidate has going for it is recent Final Four history, Cameron Krutwig, Sister Jean and the Man Upstairs. All that said, give me Houston. The Cougars just got away with the proverbial “bad game” many champions endure in the tournament. I’m not saying Houston is winning the national championship, but a Midwest Region trophy is a good bet at this point.
At what minute mark on Monday do you expect Gonzaga to have its game against Oklahoma in hand? Is there anything about that matchup that gives you pause?
Lunardi: Remember the 2018 Final Four when Oklahoma took on the first of Villanova’s recent national champions? The Sooners lost by 44. With Buddy Hield. This won’t be that bad, probably, but it’s not going to be good for Oklahoma. Put me in the camp of a 10- to 12-point halftime lead and then the inevitable Gonzaga run early in the second half that puts the game away.
Medcalf: Lon Kruger has coached great teams and coached against great teams in the NCAA tournament. I don’t think the “here we go again” moment happens for Gonzaga until we enter the second half. Let’s say the 17-minute mark after the break, only because I think Kruger can coach Oklahoma into a tight first half against Gonzaga. Nothing about the game gives me pause, but I do wonder what happens to a Gonzaga team that just watched Illinois fall to an underdog as it pursues perfection.
We’re approaching the point where every postgame question will center on Gonzaga potentially winning its first national title and completing a perfect season, which hasn’t happened since the NCAA expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Sure, it has been a possibility all season. But now, it feels more tangible with a top seed eliminated. We’ve had some great teams, however, that couldn’t do it. Gonzaga certainly has the goods to pull it off. Other teams in its position certainly felt the weight of the possibility as they advanced.
Joel Ayayi passes off the backboard to Jalen Suggs who flushes the alley-oop jam for Gonzaga vs. Norfolk State.
Borzello: I think it will be competitive for a little more than a half. Oklahoma’s 16-10 record isn’t gaudy, but this is a team that beat Alabama, Kansas, Texas and West Virginia — knocking off the Mountaineers on two occasions. The Sooners will be without De’Vion Harmon due to a positive COVID-19 test, but they’re 6-2 this season when missing players due to coronavirus issues. I think their tempo, their experience and their ability to take care of the ball will keep them in the game until the early stages of the second half. I’m not overly concerned about any particular matchup, although I think Elijah Harkless could cause issues for Corey Kispert and perhaps get him into foul trouble. Harkless has been playing his best basketball of the season over the past few games, and he is a physical and aggressive playmaker. That’s a minor worry, though. Gonzaga should advance by double figures yet again.
Gasaway: I saw Gonzaga look so-so and even struggle this season against Pepperdine and Pacific in consecutive games. There would be nothing outlandish about the Bulldogs looking similarly challenged for some period of time against Oklahoma. But, no, there’s nothing about this particular matchup that looks terribly daunting from the Zags’ view. The Sooners have made it this far with a minimum of turnovers and good work in the paint on defense. Lon Kruger always finds a way, but what concerns me most about OU is that it’s not particularly accurate on its shots. When you’re not slowing down Gonzaga by making the Bulldogs take the ball out of the net to start their possessions, things can get out of hand.
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