NCAA Tournament Game Analysis: Sweet Sixteen, Friday Night

Posted by Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) & Brian Otskey (@botskey) on March 28th, 2014

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Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) is the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Region correspondent, and Brian Otskey (@botskey) is the NCAA Tournament’s East Region correspondent. Make sure to also follow @RTCMidwestRegion and @RTCEastRegion for news and analysis from Indianapolis and New York City throughout the weekend.

#2 Michigan vs. #11 Tennessee – Midwest Region Sweet 16 (from Indianapolis, IN) – at 7:15 PM EST on CBS

Tennessee was not supposed to be in this position. It barely found its way into the NCAA Tournament. In fact, the Volunteers had to travel to Dayton last Wednesday to take on Iowa to even advance to the round of 64. Tennessee got by the Hawkeyes in overtime and that was only the beginning of its winning ways. In Raleigh, Cuonzo Martin’s squad was able to throttle Massachusetts and take advantage of Duke’s stunning loss to Mercer by dismantling Bob Hoffman’s Bears in the round of 32 to advance to the Sweet 16. Leading the way thus far for Tennessee has been the spectacular play of forward Jarnell Stokes. The junior has been nothing short of dominant in the team’s recent run, as he is averaging 20.3 points and 15 rebounds in his last three games. The Volunteers have also received a lift from guard Josh Richardson. The junior, who averaged 10.1 points per game in the regular season, has stepped up his play in the tournament, as he is averaging 19.3 points per contest. As a team, the Volunteers’ performance on the rebounding glass has aided tremendously in taking them to the Sweet 16. Tennessee has been an excellent rebounding team all season and its rebounding prowess was never more on display than in Sunday’s victory over Mercer. The Volunteers had a sensational 41-19 rebounding advantage over the Bears in the winning effort.

Expect plenty of fireworks between these two guys Friday night. (Getty & USA TODAY Sports)

Expect plenty of fireworks between these two guys Friday night. (Getty & USA TODAY Sports)

Michigan will take the court in Indianapolis after a relatively easy first weekend in Milwaukee. The Wolverines cruised to a 17-point victory in the round of 64 over an undermanned Wofford squad before wearing down Texas in a 14-point victory. John Beilein’s team has been an outstanding perimeter shooting offense and that has carried over into the postseason. The Wolverines hit a combined 21 three-pointers in the two victories. Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas hit seven of those 21 triples an was the team’s leading scorer in each victory. Michigan’s frontcourt has been seen as a concern since sophomore big man Mitch McGary was lost to a back injury in late December, but forward Jordan Morgan showed he is a capable post presence with his performances in Milwaukee. The senior averaged 12.5 points and 10 rebounds against Wofford and Texas, while living up to his reputation as a solid interior defender. In Friday’s game, it should be expected that both teams will play to their strengths. Tennessee will try to use its size advantage to the dominate the interior and Michigan will attempt to get its perimeter shooting going early and often. Texas had a great advantage over Michigan in size too, but the Wolverines were able to wear the Longhorn bigs down through a terrific transition effort and solid offensive spacing. It would be wise to expect Michigan to do the same Friday. Tennessee will keep close throughout much of the game, but the shot-making ability of Stauskas, Caris LeVert, and Glenn Robinson III will ultimately be too much for the Volunteers to overcome. Two-seed Michigan will win the game to advance to its second straight Elite Eight.

The RTC Certified Pick: Michigan

#3 Iowa State vs. #7 Connecticut – East Region Semifinal (at New York, NY) – 7:27 PM ET on TBS

The first NCAA tournament game at Madison Square Garden in 53 years features two teams that played really well to get to this point. Each surprised some observers as Iowa State knocked off North Carolina even after losing Georges Niang for the season and Connecticut took down St. Joe’s and second-seeded Villanova in Buffalo last week. This matchup is a great contrast between the offensively potent Cyclones and the stingy defense of the Huskies, not to mention Iowa State’s shorthanded and undersized lineup battling UConn’s superior length in the front court.

Two of the youngest and brightest coaches in the game go at it Friday night at MSG. (AP & USA TODAY Sports)

Two of the youngest and brightest coaches in the game go at it Friday night at MSG. (AP & USA TODAY Sports)

For Iowa State, a major component of the game plan has to be to contain Shabazz Napier. Coming off a 25-point performance against Villanova, Napier is the kind of player who can put the team on his back and single-handedly win the game. Will Iowa State’s length at the guard positions bother Napier or will he be able to use his quickness and ability to get into the lane to his advantage? It should be a fascinating matchup as Napier and DeAndre Kane go head to head. Connecticut’s backcourt is as quick and dynamic as any in the nation and that could pose a major issue for Fred Hoiberg’s Cyclones. The Huskies are not a prolific offensive team by any means but they do shoot the three very well. Unfortunately for Iowa State, that is its primary weakness on the defensive end. In Big 12 play, Iowa State allowed opponents to shoot 36.6 percent from beyond the arc, which ranked ninth out of 10 teams. The Huskies shoot it at a 39.2 percent clip which puts them in the top 20 nationally.

Defensively this looks like a good matchup for UConn. It has a significant height advantage in the front court with Iowa State’s tallest player being 6’6” while the Huskies sport four players over that height. Iowa State’s best offense is in the paint, despite the large volume of threes it attempts. However, Hoiberg’s team will be going up against a Huskies’ defensive unit that protects the rim as well as anyone. Kane and Melvin Ejim may have a difficult time getting quality looks against the strongest defensive team they have faced in this tournament. It has to concern Iowa State that Connecticut, a team that has had rebounding issues all year long, out-rebounded both of its NCAA opponents in Buffalo. Kevin Ollie has received tremendous contributions out of DeAndre Daniels and Amida Brimah in recent weeks. If that continues, Iowa State will have a very difficult time dealing with the length and height of the Huskies in the paint. It is never wise to count out any team this deep into the tournament but the Cyclones’ run may have met its match in front of what should be a raucous pro-UConn crowd.

The RTC Certified Pick: Connecticut

#4 Louisville vs. #8 Kentucky – Midwest Region Sweet 16 (from Indianapolis, IN) – at 9:45 PM EST on CBS.

The Battle for the Bluegrass will serve as the nightcap in Indianapolis. Eight-seed Kentucky enters Friday’s game with a ton of confidence. The young Wildcats had an incredibly impressive opening weekend to the tournament. After using a suffocating defensive effort to get by Kansas State in the round of 64, John Calipari’s group was sensational throughout a thrilling victory over previously unbeaten one-seed Wichita State in what was a game that will go down in NCAA Tournament lore. It appears that Kentucky’s youth movement has finally shaken off its enigmatic side and is nearing in on fulfilling its vast potential. Freshman guards Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison have been consistently criticized all season, but they certainly quieted their critics with fantastic performances in the wins over Kansas State and Wichita State. In the victory over the Shockers, the Harrison twins combined for 39 points on a very efficient 12-of-22 shooting. Freshman forward Julius Randle has been an imposing inside force all season and that interior tenacity has continued in the tournament. Randle averaged 16 points and 12.5 rebounds over Kentucky’s two weekend wins.

Will the youth of the Harrison twins and company be enough? Or will the experience and savvy of Luke Hancock and Russ Smith reign supreme? (AP)

Will the youth of the Harrison twins and company be enough? Or will the experience and savvy of Luke Hancock and Russ Smith reign supreme? (AP)

Defending national champion Louisville survived a bit of a scare in its first game against Manhattan and needed a late surge to ultimately race past Saint Louis in the round of 32. Suffice to say, the Cardinals have yet to play their best basketball in the NCAA Tournament. Louisville’s “struggles” can be partly attributed to the play of star guard Russ Smith, who has yet to really display what made him an All-American. The senior standout shot just 6-of-19 from the field and committed 13 turnovers in the two victories. However, Rick Pitino has received quality play from another one of his seniors. Swingman Luke Hancock has once again showcased his penchant for timely shooting in the NCAA Tournament, as he drained six three-pointers with several of those coming in very important spots. The major advantage Louisville has in Friday’s contest is that it possesses a plethora of winning experience. Smith, Hancock, Montrezl Harrell, Stephan Van Treese and Wayne Blackshear play key roles on this season’s team and all five played important minutes on last year’s national championship squad. You should expect Kentucky’s young talent to once again make plays Friday night, but ultimately its inexperience will be too much to overcome. Look for Russ Smith to put together a performance that shows he is worthy of his All-American status. Louisville will advance to the Elite Eight in what will be an intense rivalry battle that should be must-see viewing for all.

The RTC Certified Pick: Louisville

#1 Virginia vs. #4 Michigan State – East Region Semifinal (at New York, NY) – 9:57 PM ET on TBS

This is a dream game for those of us who love hard-nosed, physical basketball. After a shaky start to the tournament against Coastal Carolina, Virginia looked fantastic on Sunday against Memphis. The Cavaliers methodically picked apart the Tigers en route to a blowout victory. Michigan State saw Harvard put forth a gallant second half charge but, in typical Spartan fashion, that run was quickly extinguished by Tom Izzo’s team on their way to a seven-point win.

In a game that will likely come down to the wire, a chess match between two of the game's premier tacticians makes for must-see TV. (Getty)

In a game that will likely come down to the wire, a chess match between two of the game’s better tacticians makes for must-see TV. (Getty)

Michigan State appears to be on its way towards putting it all together but Virginia is certainly the toughest opponent the Spartans will face on their way to Arlington. Michigan State must work for quality shots in this game because of its anemic free throw rate. The Spartans’ free throw rate is near the bottom of Division I which means they rely on jump shots for most of their points. In fact, Michigan State only gets 18 percent of its total points from the charity stripe. Against an incredible half court Virginia defense that will slow the game down and keep the Spartans out of transition, it is imperative that they make shots. It may not be that easy and if the shots aren’t falling, it will be incredibly difficult for Michigan State to win. Izzo’s team has the advantage in terms of individual talent but Virginia is a slightly more cohesive unit and, unlike Michigan State, has the ability to lock the opponent down. The Spartans have thrived in transition this year but in this game, transition opportunities will be at a minimum. Keith Appling must have a good game running the offense for the Spartans to advance to the Elite Eight.

When you look at Virginia, the defense obviously stands out. However, Tony Bennett’s team does not get the credit it deserves for its offense. Unlike past Virginia teams, this group ranks No. 20 in adjusted offensive efficiency and will be going up against a Michigan State defense that sometimes struggles to defend the three. Virginia’s offense is certainly not centered around three pointers but if guys like Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon can get a few to go down early on in the game, that may open up some things for Virginia closer to the basket. Michigan State’s interior defense is very strong with Adreian Payne anchoring the back line. Speaking of Payne, he is going to be a difficult matchup for Mike Tobey defensively. While help will come from the likes of Akil Mitchell and Anthony Gill, you have to wonder if Tobey will be comfortable with drifting away from the basket when Payne gets the ball on the perimeter. Payne has shown time and time again how he is willing to take, and make, a three pointer here and there.

Talent matters in this tournament, especially the later rounds. While Michigan State is the more talented team, Virginia just might be the more trustworthy group in a matchup like this. Sparty’s injuries have certainly had an impact but even when relatively healthy this group had a few poor performances towards the end of the season. It was not until the Big Ten Tournament when Michigan State showed the potential most thought it had. However, Virginia has been more consistent and plays better defense. For those reasons, the Cavaliers should be considered a slight favorite in this one.

The RTC Certified Pick: Virginia

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