This is my bracket of death, featuring arguably the most talented team in the country (Illinois), the projected No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft (Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham), a rugged No. 3 seed capable of beating anyone (West Virginia) and potential sleepers in the lower seeds such as Missouri Valley champion Loyola Chicago and ACC Tournament champion Georgia Tech. Rutgers, seeded 10th, has proven it can beat anyone, with victories over Illinois, Purdue and Maryland, and it wasn’t so long ago No. 5 Tennessee was considered one of the premier teams in the country. The Illini were done no favors here.
Final Four pick: Illinois
Cade Cunnignham is terrific. Oklahoma State can absolutely get to a Final Four. So can West Virginia. Neither team will. Illinois is getting better by the game. It has the star power, frontcourt size and scoring punch, and experience that wins this time of year. Ayo Dosunmu against Cunningham will be one of the thrills of this tournament in the Sweet 16. Illinois survives the gauntlet of Loyola Chicago in the second round, Oklahoma State in the Sweet 16 and West Virginia in the Elite Eight.
Player to Watch: Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State
Unlike other top one-and-done prospects such as Ben Simmons, Anthony Edwards and Markelle Fultz, Cunningham was able to excel after passing on a bevy of blue-blood programs. The 6-foot-8 point guard, averaging 20.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists, led the Cowboys to a big season in the rugged Big 12, beating the likes of Baylor, West Virginia (twice), Texas Tech (twice) and Arkansas.
Unsung Player: Miles McBride, West Virginia
The sophomore guard is a lights-out shooter who rarely turns the ball over. He scores and distributes at a high level, and is a tenacious perimeter defender, producing 1.8 steals per game. He took a huge leap this year, his numbers improving across the board, keying the Mountaineers’ third-place finish in the Big 12.
Best first-round matchup: No. 8 Loyola Chicago vs. No. 9 Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech is coming off an ACC title. Loyola Chicago has won 17 of 18 games. The Ramblers are ranked first in defensive efficiency and will get this game at their pace, since neither team plays fast. This has 55-53 written all over it, with someone making a play in the final seconds to determine who advances.
First-round upset watch: No. 11 Syracuse over No. 6 San Diego State
The Orange are peaking at the right time, winning six of their last nine games to reach the tournament. Their last loss came at the buzzer to Virginia. Buddy Boeheim is one of the premier shooters in the field and shoots San Diego State out of the tournament before putting a scare into West Virginia.
BracketBuster: No. 10 Rutgers
Yes, the Scarlet Knights enter the tournament struggling against tournament-quality teams. They can go into offensive droughts. But their defense keeps them in games, and Steve Pikiell’s team got a terrific draw with overrated seventh-seed Clemson in the first round and the worst No. 2 seed, Houston, as a possible second-round matchup. Rutgers will play freely after snapping its 30-year dancing drought, and the shots will begin to fall.