2021 NCAA Tournament Preview: Bottom Half

(Photo Courtesy of Maryland Athletics)

The NCAA Tournament bracket is set and the fight to be the final team standing on Memorial Day gets underway on Saturday at noon.

Each half (top and bottom) of the bracket will see two teams advance to Championship Weekend. In the top half, the road to East Hartford, Conn. runs through Hempstead, N.Y., and in the bottom half, it runs through South Bend, Ind.

The bottom half of the bracket does appear to be the strongest this season with No. 2 Duke, No. 3 Maryland, and No. 6 Notre Dame all looking like legit title contenders for the majority of the season. No. 7 Denver and Loyola are also two solid teams that could very well make a Championship Weekend run.

You can view the full NCAA Bracket here.

Here’s a look at some storylines and superlatives for the top half of the bracket:

National Title Favorite

The No. 2 seeded Duke Blue Devils have been among the list of title favorites ever since Michael Sowers decided to take his talents to Durham last season. And for the most part, the Blue Devils have lived up to the hype, going 12-2 during the regular season. However, No. 3 seeded Maryland has also been dominant all season. With Jared Bernhardt leading the way and asserting himself as a potential Tewaaraton finalist, the Terrapins have gone 12-0 and ran through their Big Ten-only schedule.

Duke and Maryland are the two clear favorites to come out of the bottom half of the bracket and make a Championship Weekend run, and be one of the final two teams standing on Memorial Day.

Best First-Round Game

No. 7 Denver vs Loyola looks to be the most intriguing first-round matchup in the bottom half of the bracket. The Pioneers come into this contest after falling in the Big East title game 10-9 against Georgetown and the Greyhounds come into the tournament after winning each of their past four games and advancing to the Patriot League title game, which they had to forfeit due to a positive COVID-19 test. But beyond the paths that both squads have taken to the NCAA Tournament and the clashing styles of these two teams, the history between the Pioneers and Greyhounds is also something to note.

Denver and Loyola were both members of the ECAC from 2010-2013 and faced each other six times during that span. Denver won the first two meetings (2010, 2011) and the last in 2013. During Loyola’s national title run in 2012, they faced each other three times and Loyola won all three meetings. The Greyhounds won 12-9 in the regular season, 14-13 in overtime in the ECAC semifinals, and 10-9 in the NCAA Tournament. The two haven’t played since but given what each team has to offer, this year’s meeting could be another extremely close one between these two.

Best Potential Matchup

If No. 3 Maryland and No. 6 Notre Dame each wins their first-round contest, they will meet in what could very well be the best quarterfinal matchup of the entire tournament. This matchup would offer up a plethora of storylines heading into the contest, but none greater than Maryland’s first meeting with an ACC team this season after playing a Big Ten-only regular-season schedule and facing Vermont in the first round. This matchup would give many a real measurement between the Big Ten and ACC this season. In addition to the inter-conference clash, this contest would see two of the most exciting offensive weapons in Notre Dame’s Pat Kavanagh and Maryland’s Jared Bernhardt being tested against a top-10 defense. And speaking of defense, the goalie duel between Maryland’s Logan McNaney and Notre Dame’s Liam Entenmann, who are both sophomores, would likely be nothing short of electric.

Underdog With The Most Potential

In my top three underdogs to watch article earlier this week, I brought up both Drexel and Loyola. And while they both have a lot of potential, Drexel is much more of the underdog and the one that I’m going to roll with here. Not only does Coach Brian Voelker and the Dragons have talented playmakers on both ends of the field this season, but they also carry a history of upsets with Drexel upsetting No. 4 Penn in the first round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament.

Coming into their contest against No. 6 Notre Dame, the Dragons are riding a nine-game winning streak that dates back to March 24th. That streak includes a 15-11 victory over Hofstra in the CAA title game where the Dragons pushed out to a 10-1 lead late in the second quarter. In that contest fifth-year attackman Reid Bowering continued his late-season success, scoring five goals in the win, after having a slow start to the season. The same can be said for fifth-year faceoff man Jimmeh Koita, who has gone an average of 51% over the past three contests after being inconsistent for much of the season. Additionally, Drexel has a very capable goalie in Ross Blumenthal and has shown to have a decent amount of depth and youth, especially on the offensive end. The only question is do they have enough of it to hold up for 60 minutes against a uber-talented Irish team?

One Player From Each Team You Need to Know

Jared Bernhardt, Attack, Maryland: A surefire Tewaaraton finalist, the fifth-year attackman has continued to be the face of and the leader of the Maryland offense. Bernhardt has put up 75 points off 53 goals and 22 assists this season to lead the nation in both goals and points.

Tommy Burke, Faceoff, Vermont: The sophomore is a top-three faceoff man in the nation, statistically, this season and has been a huge piece of the Catamounts’ success this season. Going 229-for-318 (72%) on the season, Burke will be crucial if Vermont wants to run with Maryland.

Pat Kavanagh, Attack, Notre Dame: A human highlight reel, Kavanagh has made serious headways this season and emerged as the forboden leader of the Irish offense. The sophomore has 59 points off 23 goals and 36 assists this season and is third in the nation in points per game (5.90).

Reid Bowering, Attack, Drexel: The fifth-year attackman did get off to a bit of a slower start to the season, but since mid-April has really hit his stride and been his usual goal-scoring self as a leader of the Dragons’ offense. The British Columbia native has 21 goals and three assists for 24 points this season.

TD Ierlan, Faceoff, Denver: One of the greatest faceoff men in the history of the sport, the Yale transfer has continued to dominate at the position since arriving in Denver in late March. Through just eight contests, Ierlan has gone 69-for-99 (69%) at the dot as part of one of the best one-two punches in the nation along with Alec Stathakis.

Ryan McNulty, LSM, Loyola: During a very inconsistent season for the Greyhounds, McNulty has been one of the most consistent players for the Greyhounds as an all-around playmaker. He has gobbled up 42 ground balls, caused 18 turnovers, and tallied 10 points off four goals and six assists.

Michael Sowers, Attack, Duke: The Princeton grad transfer has been an impact player and a perceived Tewaaraton finalist since stepping foot on campus in the fall. And Sowers has indeed lived up to the hype, leading the Blue Devils with 30 goals and 37 assists for 67 points.

Asher Nolting, Attack, High Point: As the Panthers’ most high-profile player over the past few seasons, Nolting has asserted himself as one of the top offensive weapons in the SoCon. The senior has notched 68 points off 26 goals and 42 assists to lead the Panthers’ offense and be the fourth-leading point-getter in the nation.

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