The NCAA tournament begins Thursday, with 12 players from the 15-player final ballot for the 2021 John R. Wooden Award scheduled to take part in this season’s version of March Madness. With that in mind, we asked our panel of ESPN college basketball experts to weigh in on the player with the most interesting matchup — or potential matchup — in the first and second rounds.
Which Wooden Award finalist’s first-weekend NCAA tournament matchup or potential matchup do you find the most intriguing?
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: My guess is the selection committee would not have slotted an undefeated Winthrop team as a 12-seed, despite its strength of schedule. But Pat Kelsey’s Eagles are just one five-minute stretch from entering Selection Sunday without a loss and possibly elevating their seed. Either way, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Villanova will run into that dangerous Winthrop squad in the first round — albeit shorthanded.
In two full games without Collin Gillespie — the co-Big East player of the year and Wooden finalist who suffered a season-ending knee injury against Creighton on March 3 — the Wildcats scored 52 points in a loss to Providence and surrendered 1.14 points per possession in a first-round loss in the Big East tournament to a Georgetown team that finished eighth in offensive efficiency in league play. That puts more pressure on Robinson-Earl to hit the reboot button with a team that’s clearly missing its senior point guard, who was a freshman on the 2018 national title team. It feels premature to talk about Villanova’s potential second-round matchup against a Purdue squad that will enter the NCAA tournament with a 5-1 record in its last six games, because Villanova’s opening bout could be a real battle with a talented mid-major squad.
Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu drives for a big-time slam.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: I’m going to cheat a little because I’m going with the two Illinois players, Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn — if the Fighting Illini end up playing Georgia Tech in the second round. The Yellow Jackets should have had their own representative on this list in ACC Player of the Year Moses Wright (though Wright is out for the first round), and they have one of the best on-ball defenders in the country in point guard Jose Alvarado. I think Alvarado would be an absolute pest against Dosunmu when Dosunmu has the ball in his hands, and I would be interested to see if Tech can force Illinois into turnovers; the Fighting Illini ranked 12th out of 14 Big Ten teams in turnover percentage in league play.
And then on the inside, Cockburn against Wright — if Wright can return — would be fascinating. Cockburn obviously has the size advantage because he has a size advantage on everyone he faces, but Wright was playing at an outrageously high level the final few weeks of the regular season and his ability to crash the offensive glass, block shots and rack up assists — while also finishing consistently — could cause issues.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: Thank you for expanding these possibilities to potential matchups. I’m going to grab that lifeline and state for the record that I’m intrigued by the prospect of USC’s Evan Mobley running across David McCormack and Kansas in the round of 32. Here’s everything that has to happen first: Mobley and the Trojans have to take care of business against either Wichita State or Drake. McCormack has to be cleared to play after missing the Big 12 tournament due to COVID-19 protocols and, naturally, the Jayhawks will have to make their way past Eastern Washington.
Evan Mobley puts back a dunk that has the USC bench excited early in the first half.
But, assuming all these stars do align, what a collision this could be. Mobley is the soon-to-be lottery pick who was just named both Pac-12 player of the year and the league’s defensive POY. McCormack’s numbers have improved markedly as the season has progressed, and he can pose problems for opposing defenses as an ultra-high-usage post scorer. If it happens, this will be fun.
Joe Lunardi, ESPN bracketologist: I’m going way out on a limb with this one. While not a direct player vs. player matchup, I do love the possibilities of Ohio State’s E.J. Liddell against the nation’s leading scorer in Max Abmas of Oral Roberts. In terms of true talent, this is not a 2/15 matchup in my eyes but more like a 5/12 or even 6/11 game. The Buckeyes have been overachieving all season and, at least compared to the rest of the Big Ten’s elite, do not have a roster commensurate with their seeding.
On the other hand, largely because of Abmas and his 25 points per game, Oral Roberts had the most talented team in an underrated Summit League and finally put it all together to capture the conference tournament title. If there is a one- or two-seed to be sent packing in the first round this year, it’s Ohio State. And ORU is just the kind of team to do it.