NCAA TOURNAMENT: Who made it, some local connections and pre-tournament picks

By Richard Walker

Adrian Delph (20) scored 22 points in Appalachian State’s 80-73 Sun Belt Conference championship game victory over Georgia State on March 8 in Pensacola, Fla.

Local products area helping two local teams into this week’s NCAA tournament along with three coaches who either grew up locally or coached local teams.

Also, five Carolinas colleges and universities, seven ACC teams, a team coached by a former Charlotte Hornets assistant coach and a team with the future Gaston College basketball coach are in the 68-team field for a tournament that’ll begin Thursday and conclude April 5 with all games this season played in Indianapolis due to COVID health and safety protocols.

Appalachian State has former Piedmont Community Charter and Kings Mountain standout Adrian Delph and former East Gaston and Gaston Day standout James Lewis, Jr., in its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2000 when the Mountaineers (17-11) meet Norfolk State (16-7) in a Thursday play-in for the West No. 16 seed.

Delph is the leading scorer for the Sun Belt Conference champions at 13.2 points per game in addition to 4.5 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 28 starts this season. Lewis is averaging 8.0 points and 5.1 rebounds in 26 games (21 starts) after missing the last game of the league tournament with a sore ankle.

The Appalachian State-Norfolk State winner will face top overall seed Gonzaga (26-0) on Saturday.

Connecticut has former Ashbrook High standout Isaiah Whaley, who averages 8.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocked shots in 22 starts for the Huskies (15-7), who as the No. 7 seed in East region will meet Maryland (16-13) on Saturday.

Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, a 1966 graduate of old Highland High School who later was a star player for Gaston College, is guiding a team to the NCAA tournament for the 11th time. Hamilton’s Seminoles (16-6) are the No. 4 seed in the East region and will meet UNC-Greensboro (21-8) on Saturday.

Connecticut’s Isaiah Whaley (5) guarding a DePaul player during last week’s Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Former Gardner-Webb head coach Chris Holtmann has guided Ohio State to a third straight NCAA tournament during his four-year tenure; COVID cancelled the 2020 tournament. Holtmann’s Buckeyes (21-9) are the No. 2 seed in the South region and play Oral Roberts (16-10) on Friday.

Former Belmont Abbey head coach Billy Taylor is in his fifth season as a Iowa assistant in the last eight years – he was Belmont Abbey head coach for three seasons (2016-17 to 2018-19) – and the Hawkeyes are the No. 2 seed in the West region and play Grand Canyon (17-6) on Saturday.

Former Hornets assistant coach Patrick Ewing guided Georgetown (13-12) to an upset Big East Conference tournament title – the school’s first since 2007 – to lead the Hoyas into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015. Ewing, an assistant under former Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford for four seasons (2013-14 to 2016-17), won three Big East titles and one NCAA title as a player in the 1980s for Georgetown. The Hoyas are a No. 12 seed in the East region and will play Colorado (22-8) on Saturday.

Dickey Nutt, who has been hired as Gaston College’s basketball coach when the program restarts in the fall, is an assistant coach for Cleveland State (19-7), which is a No. 15 seed in the Midwest region and will play Houston on Friday.

Besides Appalachian State, other Carolinas teams in the NCAA tournament are North Carolina, UNC-Greensboro, Clemson and Winthrop.

North Carolina will be making its state record 51st appearance and the Tar Heels (18-10) are the No. 8 seed in the South region and will meet Wisconsin (17-12) on Friday.

UNC-Greensboro is making its fourth NCAA tournament appearance. The Spartans (21-8), winners of the Southern Conference, are a No. 13 seed in the East region and will meet Florida State (16-6) on Saturday.

Clemson is making its 13th NCAA tournament appearance and first since 2018. The Tigers (16-7) are a No. 7 seed in the Midwest region and will meet Rutgers (15-11) on Friday.

Winthrop’s Chandler Vaudrin (52) was Big South Conference player of the year and league tournament MVP this season.

And Winthrop is making its 11th NCAA tournament in the last 23 seasons. The Eagles (23-1) are a No. 12 seed in the South region and will meet Villanova (16-6) on Friday.

Joining Clemson, Florida State and North Carolina from the ACC are tournament champion Georgia Tech, regular season champion Virginia, Virginia Tech and Syracuse.

Here are the full 2021 NCAA basketball tournament pairings:

East Region
No. 11 Michigan State (15-12) vs. UCLA (17-9)
No. 16 Mount St. Mary’s (12-10) vs. Texas Southern (16-8)

No. 1 Michigan (20-4) vs. No. 16 Mount St. Mary’s (12-10) or Texas Southern (16-8)
No. 8 LSU (18-9) vs. No. 9 St. Bonaventure (16-4)
No. 5 Colorado (22-8) vs. No. 12 Georgetown (13-12)
No. 4 Florida State (16-6) vs. No. 13 UNC-Greensboro (21-8)
No. 6 BYU (20-6) vs. No. 11 Michigan State (15-12) or UCLA (17-9)
No. 3 Texas (19-7) vs. No. 14 Abilene Christian (23-4)
No. 7 Connecticut (15-7) vs. No. 10 Maryland (16-13)
No. 2 Alabama (24-6) vs. No. 15 Iona (12-5)

South Region
No. 1 Baylor (22-2) vs. No. 16 Hartford (15-8)
No. 8 North Carolina (18-10) vs. No. 9 Wisconsin (17-12)
No. 5 Villanova (16-6) vs. No. 12 Winthrop (23-1)
No. 4 Purdue (18-9) vs. No. 13 North Texas (17-9)
No. 6 Texas Tech (17-10) vs. No. 11 Utah State (20-8)
No. 3 Arkansas (22-6) vs. No. 14 Colgate (14-1)
No. 7 Florida (14-9) vs. No. 10 Virginia Tech (15-6)
No. 2 Ohio State (21-9) vs. No. 15 Oral Roberts (16-10)

Dickie Nutt

Midwest Region
No. 1 Illinois (23-6) vs. No. 16 Drexel (12-7)
No. 8 Loyola-Chicago (24-4) vs. No. 9 Georgia Tech (17-8)
No. 5 Tennessee (18-8) vs. No. 12 Oregon State (17-12)
No. 4 Oklahoma State (20-8) vs. No. 13 Liberty (23-5)
No. 6 San Diego State (23-4) vs. No. 11 Syracuse (16-9)
No. 3 West Virginia (18-9) vs. No. 14 Morehead State (23-7)
No. 7 Clemson (16-7) vs. No. 10 Rutgers (15-11)
No. 2 Houston (24-3) vs. No. 15 Cleveland State (19-7)

West Region
No. 11 Wichita State (16-5) vs. Drake (25-4)
No. 16 Appalachian State (17-11) vs. Norfolk State (16-7)

No. 1 Gonzaga (26-0) vs. No. 16 Appalachian State (17-11) or Norfolk State (16-7)
No. 8 Oklahoma (15-10) vs. No. 9 Missouri (16-9)
No. 5 Creighton (20-8) vs. No. 12 UC-Santa Barbara (22-4)
No. 4 Virginia (18-6) vs. No. 13 Ohio (16-7)
No. 6 Southern California (22-7) vs. No. 11 Wichita State (16-5) or Drake (25-4)
No. 3 Kansas (20-8) vs. No. 14 Eastern Washington (16-7)
No. 7 Oregon (20-6) vs. No. 10 VCU (19-7)
No. 2 Iowa (21-8) vs. No. 15 Grand Canyon (17-6)

Picking the tournament:

Obviously in this unusual, unexpected year of COVID program pauses and seemingly constant schedule changes, it’s hard to accurately know who will play and who won’t play. And that’s not even accounting for potential non-COVID injuries that always have an impact on the tournament.

With that in mind, here are my picks for the 2021 NCAA tournament:

West – Gonzaga over Kansas

East – Alabama over Florida State

South – Baylor over Arkansas

East – Houston over Illinois

Final Four – Gonzaga over Baylor (The due factor comes in to play for the Zags, who are trying to become the first unbeaten NCAA champion since Indiana did so in 1976.)