Previewing Friday's Sweet 16 Games: An In-State Showdown
With a phenomenal NCAA Tournament opening weekend in the books, it's now time to get down to the nitty-gritty. The Sweet 16 has a knack for separating the men from the boys, the contenders from the pretenders and so on and so forth.
This year's Sweet 16 features three double-digit seeds, an eight seed, a seven seed and a six seed to go along with those teams who were "supposed to" be here. And with last night's Dayton win, we're guaranteed to watch a Cinderella fight in the Elite Eight.
The parity we've seen in this year's tournament has made for exciting games and compelling storylines, but can the craziness continue? While I admit it will be incredibly tough to top the level of madness we saw during the tournament's first week, this weekend should provide us with plenty of the unbelievable upsets and fantastic finishes we crave. Here is a look at what to expect from Friday's Sweet 16 matchups.
Michigan (2 Seed, 15th in nERD) vs.
Tennessee (11 Seed, 17th in nERD)
What really jumps out at me about this game is that, despite such a huge difference in seeding, our nERD rankings have this game as a relatively even matchup. Just as it was suggested on our site and others, the winner of the opening round game between the Volunteers and the Iowa Hawkeyes was in position to make a deep run in this tournament. And, so far, Tennessee has delivered.
As Bryan Mears points out in his article looking at the the most impressive teams going into the Sweet 16, Tennessee is a historically good 11 seed. In fact, they are the best 11 seed our metrics have ever seen! According to this piece on things to know about the Sweet 16, they even beat out the 2001 Temple Owls in nERD rating, a team that went to the Elite Eight as an 11 seed.
What has made this Volunteers squad so tough to deal with is their size and ability to rebound the basketball, especially Jarnell Stokes. Stokes, who is averaging 20.3 points and is second in the tournament with a massive 15 boards per game (only behind Joel Bolomboy from Weber State who lost to Arizona in their opening game), has put together a resume that has him in the mix for the tournament's most outstanding player. With Jeronne Maymom adding 8.6 rebounds per game and Jordan McRae contributing 18.3 points per contest, the Volunteers have been an absolute force to be reckoned with through their first three games of the tournament.
With that said, this Wolverines team is no pushover themselves. Nik Stauskas has played very well, particularly in the Round of 32 against Texas, where he dished out 8 assists to go along with his 17 points. And so have Caris LeVert, Jordan Morgan and Glenn Robinson III. Michigan has been extremely balanced, with all four of Stauskas, LaVert, Morgan and Robinson averaging double digits in scoring through the opening weekend.
The problem for the Midwest region's two seed is that they simply have yet to be tested in this tournament. Michigan seemed to be just going through the motions in their opening matchup against Wofford, and cruised past an overmatched Texas team in their second game en route to a 79-65 victory.
The matchup between Tennessee and Michigan is one of two teams trying to do very different things. Tennessee wants to pound the ball down low to their big men, control the flow of the game and gobble up rebounds. Meanwhile, Michigan wants to spread the Volunteers defense out and knock down a bunch of threes. If Michigan comes out shooting hot, I'm not quite sure Tennessee has the firepower to mount a comeback. But if the Volunteers are able to get Michigan out of rhythm, the Wolverines could be in trouble. The two contrasting offensive styles should make this a very fun game to watch.
Iowa State (3 Seed, 13th in nERD) vs.
Connecticut (7 Seed, 25th in nERD)
Both Iowa State and UConn have had to fight through some adversity early on in this tournament. UConn was losing nearly the entire game in their opening game against St. Joseph's, but were able to survive thanks to some outstanding play by Shabazz Napier. They then were able to outlast the Villanova Wildcats in the next round.
Meanwhile, Iowa State dominated North Carolina Central in their initial matchup, but lost star forward Georges Niang to a foot injury for the remainder of the tournament in the process. Despite Niang's injury, the Cyclones were able to snag a W in an absolute classic Round of 32 game against UNC, with DeAndre Kane and Big 12 player of the year Melvin Ejim stepping up huge in Niang's absence.
On paper, this game should not be particularly close. Led by Kane and Ejim, ISU has one of the best offenses in the country. They lead the nation in assists per game, are sixth in points per game and are 25th in our efficiency rankings with a 0.929 offensive efficiency. But without Niang, this is a different Cyclones team. Niang's 16.7 points per game will be missed, sure, but it's his size and versatility that Iowa State will really miss.
The problem for UConn is that they don't have a strong wing player to truly take advantage of the fact that Niang is out. Outside of DeAndre Daniels, the Huskies don't have a big man who can give opponents trouble. Additionally, their two other biggest scoring threats, Napier and Ryan Boatright, are undersized even for guards, while Kane and Ejim both have superior size and strength.
What should make this game extra interesting is the individual PG matchup between Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Kane. Both of these guys were unbelievable in the opening weekend of the tournament. Napier, who led the Huskies in points, rebounds and assists during the regular season, has willed his team to the Sweet 16, averaging 24.5 points, 6.5 boards, 4.5 assists and 2.5 steals per game. Kane, whose role has drastically increased with Niang out, has been every bit as good as Shabazz. ISU's star guard is averaging 19 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6 assists so far this tournament.
With all that said, if UConn were to have a chance to beat the Cyclones, they would truly have to control the tempo of the game. According to our metrics, the Huskies play at a pace that ranks 191st in the nation, while Iowa State plays at the 11th-fastest pace. The East region's seven seed will want to play a deliberate, halfcourt style of basketball, but if they allow the Cyclones to get out on the break, the Huskies will be fighting an up hill battle.
Louisville (4 Seed, 1st in nERD) vs.
Kentucky (8 Seed, 14th in nERD)
This game has all of the makings of an instant classic. Bitter in-state rivals? Check. Two Hall of Fame coaches? Check. Senior experience against freshman talent? Check and check.
With all of the outside factors generating a ridiculous amount of interest for this game, it should be the most watched contest of the tournament up to this point, and it shouldn't disappoint. Louisville is probably the most adept team in the country at playing in pretty much any style of game. The Cardinals have a stout defense that, according to our metrics, is the second-best in the nation (behind only San Diego State), and an extremely potent offense run by one of the most talented point guards in the country in Russ Smith.
On the other side, Kentucky seems to finally be hitting their stride. After almost knocking off the NCAA Tournament's number one overall seed, Florida, in the SEC Tournament Final, the Wildcats outlasted Kansas State in their opening round game before knocking off the Midwest region's number one seed, Wichita State, in a back-and-forth brawl in the Round of 32. That game against the Shockers was eye-opening. We all knew that this Kentucky squad had talent, as all John Calipari teams do, but the question was whether or not they could they put it all together. After their win against Wichita State, the answer is a resounding yes.
As good as the Wildcats were against the Shockers, this Louisville team presents a whole new set of challenges, first and foremost being their press defense. Freshman guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison will be tasked with handling the ball against Louisville's press, which won't be easy for two guys averaging a combined 8.5 turnovers per game so far in the tournament. If Kentucky stands a chance, it will be critical for the Harrison twins to limit their turnovers against an opportunistic Cardinals squad.
The advantage for the Wildcats is their size and pure athleticism. Kentucky's starting five are all tall, long athletes. The Harrison twins and James Young are all 6'6'', Julius Randle is 6'9'' and Willie Cauley-Stein is a massive seven-footer. Contrarily, Louisville only has five players on their entire roster that are 6'6'' or taller, and only three of those players, Luke Hancock, Montrezl Harrell and Stephan Van Treese, have averaged more than 20 minutes per game in the tournament. Other than Cauley-Stein, all of these Kentucky freshmen have the ability to handle the ball and shoot the jumper. Additionally, Randle may have the most polished post moves of any player left in the tournament, which gives the Wildcats a huge advantage in the halfcourt.
The biggest difference between these two rivals is their experience and consistency. As I already mentioned, Kentucky starts five freshmen who, other than Randle, have had inconsistent, up-and-down years. Meanwhile, the Cardinals starting lineup consists of three seniors, a junior and a sophomore, all of whom played significant minutes on last year's National Title team. Led by senior stars Russ Smith and last year's NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player, Luke Hancock, this Cardinals team is loaded with championship experience. Considering the huge disparity in experience, the fact that our metrics have Louisville as the far more consistent team is no surprise.
There is little argument to say that Kentucky has been better than Louisville all season long, but with Kentucky peaking at the right time, are they better than the Cardinals right now? That's hard to say, but I'm very excited to find out.
Virginia (1 Seed, 6th in nERD) vs.
Michigan State (4 Seed, 8th in nERD)
According to the general public, Michigan State is the favorite in this game. On Selection Sunday, every single ESPN analyst picked Michigan State to go to the Final Four, and even though Virginia comes in as the higher seed, Vegas has the Spartans plugged in as a two-point favorite over the Cavaliers.
Although the consensus seems to be that Michigan State is going to win this game, I have a strong feeling that this contest is going to be much closer than everyone expects. Our metrics actually have Virginia ranked higher than Michigan State rating-wise, and when you look at their resume, it's easy to understand why. The East region's top seed has won 19 of their last 20 games, with only five of those games being decided by single digits. During that run, they beat seven different NCAA Tournament teams (including Coastal Carolina and Memphis in the actual tournament), and ran through the ACC Tournament.
Virginia's success all starts on the defensive end. The Cavaliers gave up a national low 55.5 points per game this season, and their defensive efficiency rating ranks sixth in the country according to our metrics. In addition, Virginia's suffocating defense forces opposing teams to play at their slow, methodical pace. Virginia plays at the fourth-slowest clip in the nation, which limits their opponents possessions and often keeps them out of sync.
The only problem with the Cavaliers slowing the game down against Michigan State is that the Spartans like to play a slower style themselves. Although MSU's speed is much faster than Virginia's tortoise-like ways, they will be very comfortable setting up their offense in the halfcourt against the Cavaliers' defense.
Although Virginia has the ability to match up with Michigan State's size, the Spartans will have a serious advantage when it comes to athleticism. Adrian Payne, who is coming into this game scorching hot, will be the most athletic player on the floor and will be extremely tough for Mike Tobey, Akil Mitchell and company to guard. Additionally, the ball handling of Kieth Appling and Gary Harris will be key for MSU. If the Spartan guards are able to take care of the ball and find a way to get into the paint, it could be a long night for the Cavaliers.
All things considered, this is a very even matchup between two very similar teams. Both teams are loaded with experienced players who aren't afraid of the moment, and will play consistently on both sides of the ball. The main difference between these two squads is their head coaches. While Tony Bennett is a tremendous coach - and former Coach of the Year - he doesn't have the tournament experience of Tom Izzo. Will coaching be the difference in this game? Maybe not, but it's certainly something to keep an eye on in a game that should be razor close until the end.