The 2021 NCAA Tournament official tips off on Friday in what figures to be an absolutely thrilling day for fans. It’s the first full day of March Madness since 2019 and it’s certainly been quite a wait. Friday includes a loaded slate for the nation and five Big Ten teams will be in action, including top seeds Illinois and Ohio State.
Let’s take a look at the schedule.
Game of the Day:
-No. 9 Wisconsin Badgers vs. No. 8 North Carolina Tar Heels
- Time/TV: 7:10PM ET (CBS)
- KenPom Spread: Wisconsin by 2
Despite coming into the season with lofty expectations, Wisconsin enters this week’s NCAA Tournament with a mixed resume. The Badgers have been good, but not great. While Wisconsin has taken care of business against the “easier” opponents on its slate, the team went an underwhelming 1-9 against top 30 KenPom opponents. It’s unquestionably the reason why Wisconsin ranks 11th on KenPom, despite its 17-12 overall record.
And for better or worse, Wisconsin is going to get the challenge it’s fallen short against all year: a top 30 opponent. The Badgers will be North Carolina on Friday night in the opening round, who ranks 28th on KenPom. However, unlike the Badgers, the Tar Heels haven’t just lost to quality opponents. North Carolina has been inconsistent for much of the season. For example, just look at the team’s 2-2 finish to the regular season where the Tar Heels knocked off Florida State (15th on KenPom), yet also lost to two teams outside the top 40.
So, consistency vs inconsistency.
Who comes out on top?
On paper, Wisconsin enters the game favored and is certainly the more predictable team. The Badgers rely on five seniors, while North Carolina is 330rd in KenPom’s team experience metric. Caleb Love is the player to watch for the Tar Heels. He’s a great defensive contributor and does a good job of getting to the lane on offense. D’Mitrik Trice will have his hands full. Expect a close game. If Wisconsin is going to win, it’s going to need to find some outside scoring.
- Pick: North Carolina
-No. 1 Illinois Fighting Illini vs. No. 16 Drexel Dragons
- Time/TV: 1:15PM ET (TBS)
- KenPom Spread: Illinois by 20
After a 23-6 campaign and a Big Ten Tournament title, Illinois will enter March with a one seed and as one of the favorites to win it all. The team has two superstars in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn and other valuable role players like Andre Curbelo and Trent Frazier. Outside of Gonzaga, nobody is playing better than Illinois right now, who’s won 14 of its last 15 games. All 14 of those wins came against top 100 opponents.
On Friday, Illinois will open up NCAA play against Drexel. The Dragons went 12-7 against a COVID-shortened slate, which was highlighted by winning the CAA Tournament on March 9th. Notably, Drexel has little experience against quality opponents this season. The team only played one top 100 opponent (Pittsburgh) this season and lost by double-digits. Guard Camren Wynter is the player to watch. He dominates the team’s offensive production and is a dangerous shooter from deep, hitting 42.5 percent from three this season.
While Drexel is capable of making this game competitive for stretches, it’s hard to see the Dragons keeping up with Illinois over the course of the game. The Dragons have a putrid defense (247th on KenPom) and a limited frontcourt. If Cockburn gets going, this thing likely ends in a blowout. As long as Illinois plays decent defense and controls Wynter, this should be a comfortable win.
- Pick: Illinois
-No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes vs. No. 15 Oral Roberts Golden Eagles
- Time/TV: 3:00PM ET (CBS)
- KenPom Spread: Ohio State by 17
Despite falling short in the Big Ten title race, Ohio State enters the NCAA Tournament with momentum and an impressive resume. The Buckeyes currently sit at 21-9 overall and have a plethora of impressive wins, including victories over Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Purdue, and UCLA. The team is also now coming off nearly winning the Big Ten Tournament on Sunday, narrowly falling short against the Illini in overtime.
Ohio State now enters March Madness as a two seed and has a favorable opening round matchup against Oral Roberts on Friday. While the Golden Eagles are 16-10 overall and just won the Summit League Tournament, the team is only 152nd on KenPom and went 0-5 in its games against top 100 opponents, with most of the losses coming by double-digits. Oral Roberts’ defense is also extremely underwhelming, ranking 285th nationally by KenPom.
The player to watch for Oral Roberts is Max Abmas. He plays 95.1 percent of the team’s minutes (ranked fourth nationally) and is an elite shooter from deep and the line, averaging 43.2 percent and 90.4 percent respectively. If the Buckeyes can slow him down, it should be a pretty good recipe for success. Expect some offensive fireworks out of this one.
- Pick: Ohio State
-No. 4 Purdue Boilermakers vs. No. 13 North Texas Mean Green
- Time/TV: 7:25PM ET (TNT)
- KenPom Spread: Purdue by 7
After losing three of the team’s top contributors from last season, there was a lot of uncertainty about this group of Boilermakers. Few knew what to expect and the team was generally picked somewhere in the middle of the league. And after an underwhelming 7-5 start to the season, many became even more skeptical.
But fast forward a few months and Purdue now finds itself heading to the NCAA Tournament with a top four seed and an impressive resume. The Boilermakers currently rank 13th on KenPom and sit at 18-9 overall. And the team will now face an intriguing North Texas squad on Friday night. The Mean Green are 17-9 overall, ranked 71st on KenPom, and just won the Conference USA Tournament.
Unlike some of the other lower seeded opponents previewed above, North Texas has actually done something against quality teams this season. The Mean Green went 0-3 against top 75 teams, but did record three victories against teams ranked between 75th and 100th on KenPom, including an overtime victory over Western Kentucky last Saturday. North Texas has a quality defense and a guard who can take over games in Javion Hamlet. He dominates the team’s offensive possessions and does a great job of driving the lane. The team also has a handful of three-point threats around him.
If Purdue shows up offensively, this should be a comfortable win. However, North Texas has more than enough to hang on Friday, especially if some of the team’s role players get hot from deep. Eric Hunter and Jaden Ivey will have a lot of pressure in this one.
- Pick: Purdue
-No. 10 Rutgers Scarlet Knights vs. No. 7 Clemson Tigers
- Time/TV: 9:20PM ET (TBS)
- KenPom Spread: Rutgers by 2
After 30 years of waiting, we finally made it. Scarlet Knight fans finally heard their team’s name on Selection Sunday. It was a monumental moment for the program and something Steve Pikiell and staff have been working toward since 2016. It’s a remarkable achievement and something Scarlet Knight fans hope will stick.
Rutgers will now enter the NCAA Tournament as a 10 seed and face off against Clemson, who sits at 16-7 overall and 42nd on KenPom. The Tigers are a bit of an odd team, having beaten two really legitimate opponents (Alabama and Purdue), but having fallen to a number of other underwhelming teams, including Miami (FL) last week. It’s minimized what otherwise appears to be a great resume. Clemson is defensively led (20th on KenPom) and has a star big man in Aamir Simms.
Expect this to be a grinder of a game and don’t be surprised if one player going off from deep decides things. Plenty of pressure will be on Myles Johnson to slow down Simms. This also presents a great opportunity for Geo Baker to get things going offensively against a quality defense.
- Pick: Clemson
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