Edwards: 2021 NCAA Tournament Bracket Analysis

Brian Edwards likes Illinois to win the 2021 NCAA Tournament, but he thinks Oklahoma St. (40/1) will be the Illini's biggest test in a potential Sweet 16 showdown.

Editor’s Note: A few updates and ‘Bonus Nuggets’ were added on Wednesday, 3/17/21, at 11:15 a.m. Eastern. And again on Thursday, 3/18/21, at 9:15 a.m. Eastern.

Let’s start with how I see the 2021 NCAA Tournament going. I like Illinois (23-6 straight up, 18-10-1 against the spread) to cut the nets down in Indianapolis with a finals win over Alabama. Fortunately, I bought an Illinois ticket in late February at 15/1 odds, but Brad Underwood’s team now has the second-shortest odds (+450) at the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas. (I also have a ‘Bama future ticket at 40/1 odds.)

Gamblers can get a better number on Illinois at 6/1 at Circa Sports.

Illinois has won seven games in a row, going 6-1 ATS, with the lone non-cover coming in Sunday’s 91-88 overtime win over Ohio St. in the Big Ten Tournament finals. Most books had the Illini as a six or 6.5-point favorite, so some gamblers lost out on a push when the Buckeyes hit a trey with one second remaining in OT.

Since losing at home to Ohio St. on Jan. 16, Illinois has won 11 of 12 games while going 8-4 versus the number.

Underwood’s bunch is led by center Kofi Cockburn and guard Ayo Dosunmu, the junior who averages 20.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.1 steals per game. Dosunmu has set career-highs in shooting percentages this year from the field (48.8%), from downtown (38.7%) and from the free-throw line (78.2%).

Cockburn, the 7-foot, 285-pound sophomore from Jamaica, is averaging 17.6 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocked shots per game.

Illinois is going to have to get through a trio of Big 12 heavyweights to make it to the finals. I have the Illini running into No. 4 seed Oklahoma St. in the Sweet 16 and third-seeded West Virginia in the Elite Eight. If it can clear those hurdles, top-seeded Baylor will be waiting in the national semifinals.

I hate being ‘chalky,’ but I have three No. 1 seeds in the Final Four with Gonzaga coming out of the West Region. I like Alabama, the SEC regular-season and SEC Tournament champion, to get through top-seeded Michigan in the East Region finals, before knocking off Gonzaga in the Crimson Tide’s first Final Four appearance in program history. In fact, Alabama has only been to one Elite Eight in 2004.

Does Michigan even get to the region finals, though? It’s a fair question, especially after senior tri-captain Isaiah Livers sustained a foot injury that has him out indefinitely. The Wolverines have a talented and hot LSU squad to deal with in the Round of 32, and that’s IF the Tigers sneak past a scrappy St. Bonaventure team that won the A-10 Tournament and will be a tough out for anybody.

LSU lost an 80-79 heartbreaker to Alabama in the SEC Tournament finals yesterday. The Tigers nearly prevailed on a last-second putback attempt by Aundre Hyatt, who saw his potential game winner go in and out.

Like I’ve been saying for months, LSU can beat anybody because it can drop 90 points on any given opponent with its four elite scorers in Trendon Watford, Cameron Thomas, Javonte Smart and Darius Days. On the flip side, Will Wade‘s team rarely puts forth much effort defensively and rarely gets stops when they need them.

LSU is 10th in the nation in scoring with its 82.7 points-per-game average, but the Tigers are No. 289 nationally in scoring defense (75.4 PPG).

Before we go any further, let’s reiterate how St. Bonaventure (16-4 SU, 14-5-1 ATS) will give Wade’s team (and whoever else) fits. The Bonnies are ranked seventh in the nation in scoring ‘D’ (60.6 PPG) and 13th in FG-percentage defense (39.2%). They’re 45th at defending the 3-point line (30.8%).

The ‘under’ is on a 14-4 run for St. Bonaventure and this total (144.5 points vs. LSU) is its highest since Jan. 6. The Bonnies had totals higher than 144.5 in four consecutive contests from Dec. 19 to Jan. 6 (games No. 2, 3, 4 and five of their season), with the ‘under’ going 3-1 in those outings.

If there’s a region that could go a little bonkers, I think it’s the East. As we noted, Michigan has slipped a bit in recent weeks and might not have Livers unless it makes a deep run. The fourth seed, Florida St., has cooled recently with two losses to Ga. Tech, one at North Carolina and another at Notre Dame.

Like Alabama, FSU’s lack of success in the NCAA Tournament goes back a long time. The Seminoles haven’t been to the Final Four since 1972. They’ve been to the Elite Eight just twice since then. One of the region-final appearances came a few years ago when FSU lost to Michigan by four. If form holds, FSU could get a rematch with the Wolverines in the Sweet 16.

However, that’s a big IF with Leonard Hamilton’s bunch needing to get past UNC Greensboro for what promises to be a Round-of-32 slugfest with the 5/12 winner of Georgetown vs. Colorado. FSU lacks a true point guard, while the Buffaloes have one of the country’s best in four-year starting PG McKinley Wright, who averages 15.5 points, 5.6 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.1 SPG.

Patrick Ewing is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1985, when Villanova pulled off a stunning upset of the Hoyas in the finals at Rupp Arena in Lexington. In his third season at his alma mater, Ewing has Georgetown in its first NCAA Tournament since 2015 and seeking its first Sweet 16 appearance since 2007.

The Hoyas just won four games in four days at Madison Square Garden in New York City, including Saturday’s 73-48 win over Creighton as 8.5-point underdogs in the Big East Tournament finals. Georgetown, a five-point underdog vs. Colorado, is 11-4 ATS with eight outright wins in its last 15 games as an underdog.

A pair of bluebloods in Michigan St. and UCLA will collide in a First Four game to determine who advances to take on sixth-seeded BYU in an East Region showdown. The Spartans own wins over two different No. 1 seeds in Illinois and Michigan and have also beaten second-seeded Ohio St. They’ve also lost twice to Maryland by double digits in the last two weeks, and the Terrapins are the 10th seed in the East.

While Duke, Kentucky and Louisville aren’t in the field (unless a team has a COVID outbreak in the next 48 hours because U of L is the first alternate because it was the First Team OUT), somehow the disgraced and always annoying Rick Pitino is back again.

In his first season at Iona after getting run out of Louisville for one final straw of issues galore during his rocky tenure, Pitino has the Gaels as the East’s No. 15 seed vs. Alabama. When Pitino was on his way to his first Final Four coaching a Providence team led by Billy Donovan in the South Region semifinals at Freedom Hall in the 1987 Tournament, the Friars sent Wimp Sanderson‘s Crimson Tide team led by Derrick McKey home with a 103-82 victory.

Since its lone Elite Eight run under Mark Gottfried, Alabama’s former coach who also played on that ’87 team with McKey, the Tide has a 2-4 record in six Tournament games in the 2005, 2006, 2012 and 2018 events.

Iona is actually in the Tournament for the fifth consecutive time. However, the Gaels are 1-14 in 14 NCAA Tourneys, earning their lone victory with an 84-78 win over Holy Cross in 1980. They won a bid with four consecutive wins at the MAAC Tournament, where they beat Fairfield in the finals.

Iona (12-5 SU, 11-5-1 ATS) had two different COVID pauses this season. The first had it on a hiatus that lasted from a Dec. 23 win over Coppin St. until returning to action on Feb. 12 with a win over Manhattan. The second break nixed Iona’s last five regular-season games.

The only foe of merit that Iona faced this year was Seton Hall in its season opener. The Gaels lost 86-64 to the Pirates as 22-point road underdogs.

Georgetown isn’t the only sleeper squad that’s seeded 12th and stole a bid from an at-large hopeful by winning its conference tournament. Oregon St. is back in the Tournament for the first time since 2016 and is seeking to end a string of seven straight first-round exits by picking up its first Tourney win since advancing to the Elite Eight in 1982 (when it lost to…a Georgetown team led by Ewing that lost in the finals to a UNC team that had a guy named Jordan hit the game-winning bucket).

However, the Beavers’ three wins in three Tournaments from 1980, ’81 and ’82 were later vacated by the NCAA. Therefore, Oregon St. hasn’t officially won a Tournament game since 1975, and that 46-year drought between victories is the longest among any program from a major conference.

Speaking of droughts from programs out of major conferences, let’s talk about the South Region’s third-seed, Arkansas. When the Razorbacks joined the SEC in 1992, Nolan Richardson had that program humming. From 1988 to 2001, Richardson led his “40 Minutes of Hell” squads to 13 Tournaments in 14 seasons, including Final Four appearances in 1990, 1994 and ’95.

Arkansas won the 1994 title on Scottie Thurman‘s right-wing jumper in the final seconds to edge a Duke team led by Grant Hill in Charlotte. Hill had brought the Blue Devils back from an 11-point deficit midway through the second half to nip Florida in Saturday’s late semifinals game after the Razorbacks beat an Arizona team led by Damon Stoudamire. (I remember…because I was there!)

Then in the ’95 finals, Arkansas lost to UCLA thanks to freshman Cameron Dollar‘s (From? Atlanta Douglass High School!) stellar play in replacing the injured star senior PG Tyus Edney, who had lifted the Bruins to the Sweet 16 with his coast-to-coast play that ended in a buzzer-beating layup to sink Missouri in Round 2.

Side Note: I was a helluva high-school player way back in the day (late ’80s and early ’90s) who went to summer camps all over the Southeast. I had the unfathomable misfortune of Cam Dollar defending me in a game at B/C All-Star Camp in Tifton, GA., in the summer of 1991. At the same camp the same week, I also had what I thought were two easy layups rejected out of bounds — with authority — by Othella Harrington (who went on to play in the NBA after a four-year career at Georgetown). Anyway, back to Dollar, who was several years younger than me but had MUCH better size, speed and strength, he literally ripped me (stole the ball away from) three consecutive trips and went in for easy layups and told me all about it and then some. I’ve NEVER been so owned, dominated and told about it on a hoops court in my entire existence. Bright side? Dude was the catalyst as a freshman on a team that won a natty, making me feel a little better about it. Anyway…..

After going to the Sweet 16 in ’96, Arkansas settled for an NIT bid in ’97 but made it to the semifinals at MSG in NYC before being eliminated. Then the Hogs were beaten in the Round of 32 in back-to-back campaigns, followed by first-round exits in 2000 and ’01.

All it took was one season — and one fiery postgame presser at Rupp Arena after a blowout loss at Kentucky — for the school to hand Richardson a pink slip. And until this year, the program had never recovered.

The Arkansas faithful went from 1999 to 2008 without an NCAA Tournament win. The Razorbacks went six straight seasons without a Tourney invite after going to the second round in ’08. During his eight-year tenure in Fayetteville, Mike Anderson took Arkansas to just three NCAA Tournaments and went 3-3 in those appearances.

Arkansas hasn’t been to a Sweet 16 since 1996, which is the second-longest drought for an SEC men’s basketball program. Only Georgia has gone longer, losing 83-81 in overtime to Syracuse in 1995 in a wild finish that ended with John Wallace‘s game winner (that was preceded by Jason Cipolla’s buzzer beater to force OT).

But that’s all history. This year’s Arkansas team has won 12 of its last 14 games with the lone defeats coming at Oklahoma St. and vs. LSU in the SEC Tournament semifinals.

Speaking of the Cowboys, they’re my favorite future play with their 40/1 odds to cut the nets down in Indy. They appear poised to face Illinois in what will be an epic region semifinals if both teams advance.

Oklahoma St. has won eight of its last 10 games both SU and ATS, with six of those eight victories coming over ranked opponents. In 16 games as underdogs, the Cowboys have compiled a 12-4 spread record with 10 outright victories.

Like Danny Manning for Kansas in 1988, Carmelo Anthony (with plenty of help from Gerry McNamara and Hakim Warrick) for Syracuse in 2003 and Kemba Walker for UConn in 2011, OSU’s Cade Cunningham has the talent to carry this team on a six-game run.

What do we make of this 12th-seeded Winthrop squad? Pat Kelsey’s team returned three starters and several key reserves (and added a few pieces) from last year’s team that went 24-10 overall and 15-3 in the Big South.

The Eagles are seeking their first NCAA Tournament win since Gregg Marshall led them to a victory over Notre Dame in the 2007 Tournament. They face a wounded Villanova team that lost its best player recently.

Winthrop is 23-1 SU and 13-11 ATS, with its lone defeat coming at home vs. UNC Asheville (57-55). The Eagles are No. 91 at KenPom, winning their only game against a Top-100 foe in an 87-71 home triumph over Furman (#92) on Dec. 19.

They’re really deep with 11 players averaging more than 11 minutes of playing time per game. Winthrop’s best player is a 6-foot-7 senior PG in Chandler Vaudrin, who averages 12.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 1.4 SPG. Kelsey’s club hasn’t tasted defeat since Jan. 29.

**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**

–Every NCAA Tournament game has two results: The winner survives and advances and the loser gets sent home — for good. And that’s the beauty of the NCAA Tournament.

–Ga. Tech and Oklahoma will be without key players after Moses Wright (ACC Player of the Year) and De’Vion Harmon tested positive for COVID-19. Check out all of those details here.

–Reports surfaced on Tuesday that Drake‘s leading scorer and rebounder — ShanQuan Hemphill, who averages 14.1 PPG and 6.3 RPG and has been out with a foot injury for about a month — is “on track” to play in the Bulldogs’ First Four showdown vs. Wichita St.

–The ‘over’ is on a 10-1 run in Baylor’s last 11 games.

–The ‘over’ has cashed at a 19-6 clip for Oklahoma St. in its last 25 contests.

–The ‘over’ is on a 14-5 roll for Texas in its last 19 outings.

–The ‘under’ is on a 6-0 run for Michigan St. Meanwhile, UCLA is mired in a 3-11 ATS slump in its last 14 games. For more on the Sparty vs. UCLA First Four matchup, check out our Blake Von Hagen’s in-depth preview with his ATS prediction.

–The ‘under’ has cashed in five straight games for Eastern Washington, which is a No. 14 seed that faces Kansas. The Eagles, who won the Big Sky Tournament, have won 13 of their last 14 games with 10 of those wins coming by double-digit margins. They’re 3-1 ATS in four games as underdogs. They lost by three points at both Washington St. and Arizona, lost by five at Saint Mary’s and were beaten by Oregon in Eugene by 17.

–The ‘over’ is 16-7 overall for Oral Roberts, which faces Ohio St. in a 2/15 matchup. The Golden Eagles sport the Tourney’s biggest secret in sophomore guard Max Abmas, who is the nation’s leading scorer (24.2 PPG). Abmas has drained 43.3 percent of his 3-balls and 89.9 percent of his free-throw attempts. Oral Roberts has another big-time shooter in junior forward Kevin Obanor, who averages 18.2 points and 9.5 RPG. He’s buried 46.9 percent of his treys and 88.1 percent of his FTAs.

–As noted above, I have West Virginia advancing to the Elite Eight. Some books have the Mountaineers with 45/1 odds. If they make it that far, gamblers grabbing WVU at 45/1 can make hedge wagers to ensure a nice profit.

–As you can see with the timestamp, those numbers on the totals in the tweet above were from Sunday night.

–Penn St. has a new head coach…

–As expected, Indiana and Minnesota have fired Archie Miller and Richard Pitino, respectively. And in other developments…H/T, Jeff Goodman.

–KU’s Wilson didn’t travel with the Jayhawks to Indianapolis and is ‘out’ of their first-round game vs. Eastern Washington. Wilson averages 12.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.

–There’s still no word on whether or not Florida’s Omar Payne will be suspended for his team’s first-round matchup vs. Va. Tech. The Gators and the Hokies will square off in Friday’s first game at 12:15 Eastern. Payne was ejected from Friday’s SEC Tournament quarterfinals for throwing an elbow that caused damage to Tennessee’s John Fulkerson, who missed the rest of the weekend. Fulkerson’s status for this week remains undetermined at this point. He sustained facial injuries and a concussion and reportedly had some sort of facial procedure done over the weekend. UPDATE: I’m hearing from some Knoxville media folks (on Wednesday morning) I know that it’s not looking good for Fulkerson to play this weekend. HATE THAT!

–Ohio St. forward Kyle Young (8.6 PPG, 5.5 RPG) has missed back-to-back games while remaining in concussion protocol. His status for the NCAA Tournament is unclear at this time.

–Alabama is hopeful Josh Primo (knee) will be ready to go vs. Iona. He injured his knee in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals and missed the last two games. Primo was no longer on crutches during Sunday’s win over LSU. UPDATE: At his media scrum Wednesday, Alabama HC Nate Oats said Primo hasn’t even started jogging, so it doesn’t sound like he’ll be ready to play again unless the Crimson Tide makes the Sweet 16 (if he’s ready by then).

–UConn’s RJ Cole is also in concussion protocol. Cole averages 12.3 points. 4.4 assists and 1.2 SPG for the Huskies, who face 10th-seeded Maryland on Saturday. UPDATE: Cole has been upgraded to ‘probable’ for Saturday’s game vs. Maryland.

–Twelve head coaches have their teams in the Tournament for the fourth straight season, according to Neil Blackmon of Saturday Down South who also hosts The Florida Basketball Hour podcast:

Best Head-Coaching Matchups:

1-Alabama’s Nate Oats vs. Iona’s Rick Pitino

2-UCLA’ Mick Cronin vs. Michigan St.’s Tom Izzo

3-Texas Tech’s Chris Beard vs. Utah St.’s Craig Smith

4-Wisconsin’s Greg Gard vs. UNC’s Roy Williams

5-Liberty’s Ritchie McKay vs. Oklahoma St.’s Mike Boynton

–You can hear me yappin’ about all things March Madness in this podcast with Allan Bell sponsored by the crew (Austin Stanley & Zach Bingham) at AtoZSports in Nashville:

–I’ll also have a YouTube video previewing the Tournament up on the MajorWager home page later today (Wednesday, that is).

–If you want to hear more of my picks and opinions on games this week, you can catch me on Tony Basilio’s Winners & Lou-zers podcast that’ll be out tonight. Also, I’ll be on the 3DogThursday pod that should be available Thursday morning. Other shows: 1620 The Zone in Omaha on Thursday with Severe & Benning in the Morning at 9:40 a.m. Central, Out of Bounds Show with Qualk & Kelly on The Roar in Clemson on Thursday at 1:20 p.m. Eastern and another AtoZ Sports Picks Show on Friday at 10:30 a.m. Central.

Here’s a viewable bracket from our friends over at VegasInsider.

–In no particular order, here are some shooters to keep an eye on: Syracuse’s Buddy Boeheim, LSU’s Cameron Thomas, Alabama’s John Petty, FSU’s MJ Walker, Florida’s Noah Locke, WVU’s Sean McNeill, Colgate’s Jordan Burns, Colgate’s Jack Ferguson and Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon.

Boise St. faces SMU in Frisco, TX, in a 2/3 matchup in the first round of the NIT, which has reduced its field to 16 this season. The second-seeded Broncos will be without forward Abu Kigab and guard Max Rice for the rest of the year. Kigab needs rotator cuff surgery, while Rice needs hip surgery and also has a broken bone in his foot.

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