The Torch March Madness Predictions: Several potential upsets in the first round and Gonzaga, as usual, chokes

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THIS. IS. MARCH. MADNESS! For the first time in 729 days, we finally what is the highlight of most every basketball fan’s year. After a 2020 that felt like an eternity, there’s no greater gift the sports world could have given us than the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, even if it is missing perennial powerhouses Duke and Kentucky. 

This year, Gonzaga is the heavy favorite to win it all after running the table during the regular season and the West Coast Conference tournament. The Bulldogs are followed by fellow one-seeds Baylor, Illinois, and Michigan. These four teams have one combined championship between them, belonging to the Michigan Wolverines in 1989. So, what do we college basketball fanatics have to look forward to in a 2021 tournament like no other? More than what meets the eye.

First Round Upset Potential: Ohio will begin the first round with a huge upset as they are up against Virginia, and the game will be in the hands of one man, Jason Preston. Preston leads the Ohio Bobcats with 16.6 points per game, and is first on the team in assists, averaging 7.2 per game. If this outstanding athlete can light it up on Saturday, then this team could begin its journey at making a run in the tournament. Now, why would The Torch pick against the reigning champs, Virginia, in the first round? The Cavaliers players and staff will not arrive in Indianapolis until Friday, as they also had to withdraw from the ACC tournament due to positive COVID-19 tests. This kept the team in quarantine and may have a significant impact on the team’s play in the tournament over the weekend. 

Barring a “First Four” loss to Drake, the Wichita State Shockers are a team to watch in the first round. Going against a major conference team with a potential top-3 NBA draft prospect in USC will be no easy task, but the Shockers won the American Athletic Conference regular season with an 11-2 record in conference play while going 16-5 overall. They would lose a one-point nailbiter to Cincinnati in the AAC tournament, knocking them down to a first-four bid. Led by sophomore guard Tyson Etienne, Wichita State is a well-coached team up for any challenge. And with Etienne averaging nearly 40 percent from three-point range, the Shockers certainly have “shocking” potential.

The Oregon State Beavers are a golden choice to pick for another upset. They are set to play the five-seed, Tennessee, on Friday. One might be wondering why anybody would take a 12-seed over a 5-seed, but one only has to look at the run Oregon State has been on. Oregon State slipped into March Madness by taking down down UCLA, Oregon, and Colorado to win the PAC-12 tournament. Tennessee is a strong team, but they really struggled towards the end of the season, as they were not able to win more than two games in a row after mid-January. The Vols could lack the defensive efficiency they usually display if John Fulkerson does not play after dealing with a head injury sustained in the SEC tourney. 

It’s never a bad thing to pick a 12-seed over a 5-seed. In the 2019 tournament, three out of the four 12-seeds beat their respective 5-seeded opponents. There might not be a more popular 12-seed pick in this year’s dance than the Georgetown Hoyas, coached by former NBA superstar Patrick Ewing. Ewing led the Hoyas to an improbable tournament win in the Big East conference as an 8-seed with a losing record, and they won it in true “Cinderella” fashion. Statistically, the Hoyas don’t stand out in any particular category except perhaps total rebounds per game. They rank 13th in that category. However, the fun of March Madness is that anything can happen, and with Georgetown on fire coming into the tournament, they’ve got that “Cinderella story” feeling.

The Michigan State Spartans might not be the usual top seed that they are most every year, but this doesn’t change the fact that they are coached by the one and only, Tom Izzo. With recent wins over Illinois, Ohio State, and Michigan, this team cannot be overlooked. They are up against UCLA in a First Four matchup, and then with a win would play BYU in the first round. BYU is one of those teams that will either win big or lose big. They lost to USC by 26 points and lost to Gonzaga three times by a margin of 10 points or more. The Spartans are very unpredictable, but Izzo will not allow his team to lose big. If Michigan State can prevail over UCLA, then do not be surprised if they come away with a win against the BYU Cougars in the first round. 

Another potential 5-12 upset is the Winthrop Eagles over the Villanova Wildcats. Villanova is a strong 5-seed without question, but they’re flying into Indianapolis without one of their best players in senior guard Collin Gillespie and having lost three of their last four games. Meanwhile, Winthrop is entering the big dance with just one loss on the season. They employ a fast-paced and underrated offensive attack, averaging 79.5 points per game, with a very balanced and versatile roster of players. Their leading playmaker is 6 feet 7 inches point guard Chandler Vaudrin who averages 12.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 6.9 assists per game. As Villanova’s season plummets, Winthrop’s is just getting started.

THE TORCH’S SWEET 16 PREDICTIONS

West Region:  Gonzaga (1) over Virginia (4); Iowa (2) over Kansas (3) 

South Region: Baylor (1) over Purdue (4); Arkansas (3) over Ohio State (2)

East Region: Florida State (4) over LSU (8); Alabama (2) over Texas (3)

Midwest Region: Illinois (1) over Oklahoma State (4); San Diego State (6) over Houston (2) 

THE TORCH’S ELITE EIGHT PREDICTIONS

West Region: Iowa (2) over Gonzaga (1)

South Region: Baylor (1) over Arkansas (3) 

East Region: Florida State (4) over Alabama (2)

Midwest Region: Illinois (1) over San Diego State (6)

THE TORCH’S FINAL FOUR PREDICTIONS

Iowa (2) over Florida State (4): RaiQuan Gray and Scottie Barnes give Seminoles fans much to be excited about, especially in the Final Four, but the Iowa Hawkeyes will be a foe unlike any Florida State will have faced coming out of the East region. This game will likely be a high-scoring bout, and although Florida State has better shooting numbers than Iowa, the Hawkeyes rank fourth in offensive efficiency and score more points per game – over 80 – than does Florida State. Iowa has battled tougher opponents not just in the tournament, but in the regular season as well, playing 11 more top-25 opponents than Florida State. Led by Player of the Year odds-on favorite Luka Garza and his talented squad, including Jordan Bohannon and CJ Frederick, the sky’s the limit for this Hawkeyes team and The Torch believes they can get there.

Illinois (1) over Baylor (1): Baylor might be able to drain threes and make shots from all around the court, but if there is any team in college basketball that can limit these numbers, it is the Illinois Fighting Illini. Illinois can not only defend the ball well with Kofi Cockburn and Trent Frazier but can also attack on the offensive side of the ball while being led by Ayo Dosunmo. Ayo has led the team with an average of 20.7 points and 5.3 assists per game. If the Fighting Illini can play up to those numbers, then they will have a huge advantage over the Bears. Baylor was hot throughout most of the season, as they began with an 18-0 record before losing to Kansas in the regular season. In the second round of the Big 12 tournament, the Bears lost to the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Both Baylor and Illinois have been at the top all season long, so it will be about who can finish the game strong, and Illinois looks like it has the edge to do exactly that in this game.

THE TORCH’S CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREDICTION:

Illinois (1) over Iowa (2): It’s only fitting that in 2021, two Big-10 teams meet in the national championship game. After all, there are nine of them in the tournament. Even though Iowa’s Garza will likely win Player of the year, his team is just not as good as Dosunmu’s Fighting Illini. Over the course of the season, Illinois beat Iowa twice, including in the Big-10 conference semifinals. Not only is Illinois a better defensive team (and defense wins championships), but the Illini shoot the ball better, specifically sporting a 50 percent field goal rate. Illinois is also a better rebounding team than Iowa, ninth in the country in terms of total rebounds per game. For these reasons, The Torch believes the Fighting Illini will take it all in this year’s long-awaited championship tournament.

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