BY MATT DE SARLE
The first six tickets punched for the 2021 Men’s Basketball “March Madness” are revealed by their play on national TV. And I would argue that the “first four in” are more important than the “last four” bubble teams. The first four teams in were Loyola Chicago, Winthrop, Morehead State, and Liberty, followed by App State and UNC Greensboro. Liberty has won an NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament game in recent years, and the teams whose tickets that proceeded theirs are passing the eye test in a major way. Let’s recap.
Loyola Chicago Ramblers Return to March Madness
The Loyola Chicago Ramblers got a fortunate draw with their MVC Championship Tournament layout, but any team will be unlucky to face them in the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament. Loyola made it look easy at times against this year’s bitter in-conference rival, Drake. Unfortunately for college basketball fans, Drake finished the season without its leading scorer and without its starting point guard. And so Drake put up a fight in this championship game, but Loyola Chicago capitizaed on every mistake that Drake did make. And so now Cameron Krutwig and a small handful of holdovers from the 2018 Final Four team returns to March Madness to defend its Rambling reputation. One of those hold-overs is of course coach Porter Mosier, who did not entertain the major conference inquiries that of course would follow his Cinderella run in 2018. This team is actually better on paper than the 2018 Final Four team.
Winthrop Men’s Basketball Marching in 2021
For college basketball fans nationally, this Winthrop Eagles team has already been a celebrated mid-major focus of fascination. And they didn’t let anyone down during their conference tournament. Center DJ Burns looked like a vintage Zach Randolph, rolling around his defender down low and dropping left handed hook shots easily. In a COVID-19 shortened season, Burns’ minutes and his production had both decreased slightly as compared to the 2019-2020 season. And so it was a great sign to see Burns especially carry Winthrop in the first half. However, this program is not about one individual. In fact, this team literally plays in shifts as head coach Pat Kelsey likes to exhaust his players before quickly giving them full relief with a substitution of 4 or 5 guys. Winthrop has a 6-7 point guard who can operate, a freshman big man who can vault onto the national stage, and wings who can defend, rebound, and finish. Watch more eye test analysis of this team on YouTube where I interview super fan Michael Covil.
Morehead State Dominates Mid-Major Darling Belmont Bruins
When it comes to mid-major teams that college basketball fans were eager to see entering the tournament, Belmont and Winthrop probably entered Championship neck-and-neck. But Belmont’s conference tournament championship game was not neck-and-neck. Morehead State dominated from start to finish. Its guards took advantage of loose perimeter defense to begin the game. And Morehead State’s freshman big man star Johni Broome got some back-breaking put backs and dagger baskets down the stretch. He came into the game averaging about 12 points and 9 rebounds. The two Coopers on the perimeter are not brothers, but their point production brings a family of trouble to defenders. Ta’lon and DeVon average 8 and 12 points respectively. They garnered the respect from Bruin defenders after knocking down some early threes, and so their rim runs late caused problems. I can see this team being a 15 seed with similarities to recent successful 15 seeds in Florida Gulf Coast and Middle Tennessee State. Like them, this will not be a 15 seed that lacks size and lives-or-dies from three point land.
Liberty Re-appears in March Madness Two Years Later with Totally New Look
Credit Liberty for returning to March Madness for a consecutive tournament, but this team looks a lot different from the 2019 team that beat Mississippi State. This year, it’s star is 5-9 guard Darius McGhee. He played only 12 minutes two years ago when the 12 seed knocked off the 5 seed. That team featured current G League player Caleb Homesley and do-it-all power forward Scottie James. This Liberty team also defended a North Alabama team that was a 5 seed in its own conference and ineligible to play in March Madness because its program hasn’t aged into the Division 1 circuit quite yet, according to another mind-numbing protocol by the NCAA. And so Liberty shouldn’t scare a high seed the way it should have two years ago, but this program has to be respected at this point.
App State Knocks Off Talented Georgia State To Enter March Madness
If you are looking for a super duper super sleeper in March Madness, App State is your ticket. They had a senior shooting guard absolutely go off against a talented Georgia State team, whose roster is laced with transfers from bigger schools. This championship game featured crisp play from both ends, with a freshness you would not expect for a fourth game in four nights. Both teams looked efficient on offense. App State’s Michael Almonacy, a former Division 2 player who missed (not just COVID-19 related) all of last season, scored 32 points in the win.
UNCG Spartans Make March Madness Old Hat
It seems like yesterday UNC Greensboro and head coach Wes Miller gave #1 seed Gonzaga a scare in 2018. Now Miller and his star player Isaiah Miller (no relation) return to March Madness. The 7 seed in-conference, Mercer, showed some fight, but Miller was too strong down the stretch both on the defensive and offensive end. Miller is the lone holdover from that 2018 bunch. His senior night of sorts for this championship game was fun to watch, while his mother was masked-up in attendance and looking to enjoy every moment of it!