MIDWEST SWEET 16 PREVIEW
When the tournament bracket was announced, the consensus opinion was that the Midwest Region was the toughest of the four. Undefeated Wichita State, Big Ten regular season champ Michigan, ACC tournament finalist Duke, AAC regular season and tournament champion Louisville and SEC tournament finalist Kentucky were the headliners, but there were also some good lower seeds, such as Texas, Arizona State and Tennessee. And let's not forget Atlantic Sun regular season and tournament champion Mercer.
After 12 games, we're left with seeds 2, 4, 8 and 11 in the Sweet 16. No. 1 Wichita State lost a nail-biter to No. 8 Kentucky, No. 3 Duke lost in the Round of 64 to No. 14 Mercer, No. 5 Saint Louis needed an epic collapse by No. 12 NC State just to make it out of the first round (and then lose to Louisville), while No. 6 UMass was pushed aside by under-seeded No. 11 Tennessee (who had to beat similarly under-seeded Iowa just to make the Round of 64). Louisville and Michigan were both popular picks to make it out of the region, and they took care of business to reach the regional semis.
No. 8 Kentucky vs. No. 4 Louisville
Key Matchup: Kentucky's Julius Randle vs. Louisville's Montrezl Harrell. Both teams have extremely talented guards, but it will be the battle down low that decides this one. The freshman Randle has been a double-double machine this year, including 11 in his last 13 games. Meanwhile, sophomore Harrell has dominated down low recently, averaging 15.3 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks over his last three games, which have come against UConn in the AAC tournament championship, Manhattan in the Round of 64 and Saint Louis in the Round of 32. Whoever establishes themselves in the paint, which should open things up for the likes of Russ Smith and the Harrison twins, should find themselves in the Elite 8.
Louisville will Win IF: they can force turnovers and Russ Smith finds his shooting form again. Louisville leads the nation in turnover margin, while Kentucky averages 12.3 turnovers per game, which ranks 179th in the country. Meanwhile, Smith has really struggled with his shot in the last three games, hitting only 13-of-37 (35.1 percent) attempts from the field, a significant drop after he scored 42 points against Houston in the AAC tournament semis. If Smith can re-find his stroke, while Montrezl Harrell dominates the paint, Louisville will find itself one win away from a return trip to the Final Four.
Kentucky will Win IF: the Harrison twins take care of the basketball and Julius Randle dominates the boards. The twins were instrumental in the Wildcats' win over the Cardinals earlier this season and both have played well in their first two tournament games. Kentucky is second in the country in rebounding margin and if they can keep Louisville off the glass, head coach John Calipari will continue to prove that his plan of reloading with top-level recruits every season can work.
Player to Watch: Russ Smith, Louisville. While he lost to UConn's Shabazz Napier for AAC Player of the Year, Smith was clearly the best player on the best team in the conference. He has really struggled with his shot the last three games, but if Louisville is going to make a legitimate run at a repeat championship, it'll be on the shoulders of Smith.
Prediction: Kentucky is big, athletic and very young, while Louisville is filled with tough veterans who have championship experience. After losing by seven to the Wildcats in December, the Cardinals will come out with the defensive intensity they're known for and take one more step toward the Final Four.
No. 11 Tennesse vs. No. 2 Michigan
Key Matchup: Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes vs. Michigan's Nik Stauskas. No, these two likely won't be guarding each other much, but it's really about Michigan's outside game vs. Tennessee's inside presence. The Wolverines are seventh in the country in three-point field goal percentage and 16th in made three-pointers per game, while Tennessee is third in the nation in rebounding margin. Michigan is coming off an excellent shooting performance from deep against Texas in the Round of 32, hitting 14-of-28 threes. Meanwhile, Tennessee dominates the paint, led by Jarnell Stokes, who is averaging 15 rebounds per game in three NCAA Tournament games. Sometimes it's more about doing what you do well over limiting what the other team does well.
Tennessee will Win IF: it can limit Michigan's success from behind the three-point arc. Look no further than Michigan's loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament final when the Spartans held the Wolverines to 26-percent shooting (6-of-23) from deep. Michigan has really struggled to find any kind of inside presence since Mitch McGary went down early in the season, and Tennessee absolutely thrives in the paint. If the Volunteers defense can keep Michigan from getting hot beyond the arc, the Vols will book a ticket to face a team from Kentucky.
Michigan will Win IF: if it can stay hot from beyond the arc. The three-pointer has been Michigan's calling card all year, and it was never more evident than in the Round of 32 game against Texas when the Wolverines shot 14-of-28 from deep. There is not much to speak of regarding a low-post offense, so Michigan has to hit shots to advance. Fortunately, they've been doing that for much of the year, so it's certainly possible they keep it going.
Player to Watch: Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee. The 6-foot-8 junior forward set the Tennessee NCAA Tournament record with 14 rebounds against UMass in the Round of 64, only to best that mark by four in the Round of 32 win against Mercer. He is averaging 20.3 points, 15.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists in the Volunteers' three tournament games, and Michigan just doesn't have any kind of answer for that kind of production near the basket.
Prediction: Tennessee might be one of the most underrated teams in the country this season. The Vols have had a number of unfortunate close losses, but also have a 35-point win over East Region No. 1 seed Virginia. They dominate the paint and have one of the hottest players in the tournament in Jarnell Stokes. Michigan has lived by the three all year and will die by the three in the Sweet 16.