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NCAA Tournament 2021 Midwest Region Preview: Fresh Off Big Ten Title Illinois Looks For First Final Four Since 2005

(CBS Local)- The Fighting Illini are a top seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2005 season. That was also the last time that the program made a Final Four appearance, losing the the national title game. Could they repeat that team's success this year? It's certainly possible.

But, they have some teams lurking who could trip them up on the way to a spot in Lucas Oil Stadium in early April. Oklahoma State has the consensus number one pick in the NBA Draft, Cade Cunningham, who could put on a show in the tournament. Loyola-Chicago, the top defense in the country as measure by Ken Pomeroy, could be the matchup in the Round of 32. Let's take a look at the teams in the region.

No. 1 Illinois

The Illini have a star in Ayo Dosunmu (20.7 ppg 6.3 rpg 5.3 apg) and a dominant interior presence in Kofi Cockburn (17.6 ppg 9.6rpg). Brad Underwood's team is Top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They can fill it up (81.4 PPG) and connect from deep (37.6%). The biggest question is free throw shooting. The Illini hit just 69.1% of their attempts from the charity stripe this season. In a close game late in the tournament that could keep them from advancing.

No. 2 Houston

The Cougars have been ranked in the AP Top 10 for much of the season for a reason, they're a strong group. They finished second in the AAC before winning the conference tournament in a blowout over Cincinnati. They're Top 10 in offensive efficiency and Top 20 in defensive efficiency. Led by junior guard Quentin Grimes (18 ppg), the Cougars average over 77 points per game and shoot free throws well (74.1% FT). Other than a win over Texas Tech, they have just one other win over a tournament team, splitting their series with Wichita State.

No. 3 West Virginia

The Mountaineers finished third in the Big 12 before dropping a close game to Oklahoma State in the conference tournament. Bob Huggins' group is balanced in its scoring with four players between 11 and 15 points per game. They rate as the 11th most efficient offense in the country and are top 65 defensively. As we've come to expect from Huggins coached teams, they force turnovers (14.9 per game) and hold opponents to just 32.3% from three.

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No. 4 Oklahoma State

If you haven't watched Cade Cunningham play yet, this weekend is your chance. The 6'8" freshman guard averaged over 20 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists per game this season leading the Cowboys to a fifth place finish in the Big 12 and a runner-up finish in the conference tournament. They're a Top 25 defensive efficiency team as well allowing teams to shoot just 31.9% from three and forcing over 14 turnovers per game. The biggest problem for them? They also turn the ball over with nearly 16 per game.

No. 5 Tennessee

The Volunteers finished fourth in the SEC and lost to eventual champion Alabama in the conference tournament. Rick Barnes' group is a defensive force (4th in efficiency), forcing opponents into turnovers (15.7) and tough shooting nights from three (31.8%). They shoot well from the free throw line (74.6%) but are below average from beyond the arc (33.8%).

No. 6 San Diego State

The Aztecs won the Mountain West regular and post season titles. As you'd expect from a San Diego State team, they're a strong defensive squad (11th in efficiency) allowing just over 60 points per outing and forcing 15 turnovers per game. They shoot well from three themselves (37.5%), but hit just 72.3% from the free throw line. Against Syracuse, getting offensive rebounds will be a key as the Orange struggle in that area allowing over 12 per game.

No. 7 Clemson

The Tigers finished fifth in the ACC thanks to a defense that ranks Top 20 in efficiency and points allowed (62 per game). They force opponents into 14 turnovers per game and rarely allow offensive rebounds (8.7 per game). Senior forward Aamir Simms leads the way with 13.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. The big question is offensively as they averaged just 65 points per game and were just average from three (34.6%).

No. 8 Loyola Chicago

The Ramblers last tournament appearance was the magical Final Four run of 2018 and by all accounts, this version of Porter Moser's group is even better. Center Cameron Krutwig, a freshman on that '18 team, leads this year's version averaging 15 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists per game. But, the defensive end is where the Ramblers shine rating as the most efficient defense in the country per Ken Pomeroy. Good luck shooting threes (32.6%) or trying to get on the offensive boards against this team (6.5 allowed per game). Is another Final Four run in the cards? It will be more difficult having to go through Illinois in Round 2 but maybe some more Sister Jean magic is in store?

No. 9 Georgia Tech

The Yellow Jackets won the ACC tournament to earn their bid after finishing fourth in the conference during the regular season. They have a balanced attack with four scorers between 11 and 17 points per game and a senior laden starting lineup. They're top 30 in offensive efficiency, shooting 54.7% from inside the arc and taking care of the ball (11.1 turnovers per game). The question is whether they can keep opponents off the offensive glass (9.6 allowed per game).

No. 10 Rutgers

The Scarlet Knights are back in the tournament for the first time in 30 years and looking for their first win since 1983. Thanks to a strong defense (18th in efficiency) that allowed opponents to shoot just 42% from the field and 32.1% from three, they could get that win. The trio of Ron Harper, Jacob Young and Geo Baker lead the team offensively and take care of the ball well (11.3 turnovers per game). But, they struggle from three (31.1%) and the free throw line (63.2%) which could keep them from pulling the upset.

No. 11 Syracuse

It's not usual for us to see the Orange this low in the bracket. But, when they are, the history is good. They made the Final Four as a 10-seed in 2016 and the Sweet 16 as an 11 in 2018. As you'd expect, the Orange they defend the three point line well (31.7%) and force turnovers (14.6 per game). They're very good at the free throw line (78.4%). They do struggle keeping opponents off the offensive glass which could pose problems.

No. 12 Oregon State

The Beavers surprised everyone by winning the Pac-12 tournament after a sixth place regular season finish. Senior guard Ethan Thompson is the leader (15.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.9 apg) and they shoot well from the charity stripe (75.8%). Their three point shooting is just average (35.3%), but they take care of the ball well (11.9 turnovers). They defend the arc well (30.7%) but get killed inside (51.9% 2PT).

No. 13 Liberty

The Flames won the Atlantic Sun regular season and tournament titles en route to their tournament bid. They feature a Top 60 offense per Ken Pom, shooting well from three (39.1%) and the free throw line (77.7%) while taking care of the ball (9.7 turnovers per game, 5th DI). They held opponents to just 31.2% shooting from deep and allowed just 59.6 points per game. But, they were 0-2 in games against tournament teams (Purdue, Missouri). They have upset potential if they are able to hit threes and force OK State into turnovers.

No. 14 Morehead State

The Eagles won the Ohio Valley Conference to get back to the tournament for the first time since 2011. They're led by freshman forward Johni Broome who averaged a near double double this season 13.9 points and 9 rebounds per game. Defense is the calling card allowing opponents to hit just 30.7% from three and 40.4% overall from the floor. But, they struggle with turnovers (15.3 per game) which could be a big problem against WVU.

No. 15 Cleveland State

The Vikings are back in the field for the first time since 2009 after winning the Horizon League. They're led by a trio of guards, Torrey Patton, Tre Gomillion and D'Moi Hodge who combine for over 34 points and 16 rebounds per game. But, they don't shoot the ball particularly well (31.9% 3PT/66.9%FT) and have allowed over 70 points per game to their opponents. Facing Houston, it would be hard to see the Vikings pulling the upset.

No. 16 Drexel

The Dragons made a surprise run to the Colonial Athletic Association conference title to earn their first tournament bid since 1996. Zack Spiker's team has balanced scoring (four players in double digits) and shoots well from three (37.2%). But, they do struggle with turnovers (12.9 per game) and will have a tough time defending Illinois' Kofi Cockburn inside. A good story to see Drexel back in the tourney but it could be a short trip.

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