Friday, March 28, 2014

NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Friday Preview

The battle for Kentucky could come down to coaches Rick Pitino (left) and John Calipari (right).
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

During last night's Sweet 16 games, Dayton officially became the tournament's Cinderella, as the 11th seeded Flyers knocked off Stanford.

It will be Dayton's first trip to the Elite 8 in over 30 years, and for all their hard work, they'll get to face a Florida Gators team that looks darn near unbeatable right now.

Wisconsin and Arizona each took care of business as well, but who will join these four teams in the national quarterfinals? That's what we'll find out tonight, and this evening's slate of games is a doozy.

11. Tennessee vs 2. Michigan
7:15 PM, CBS

As a Purdue grad mourning the terrible season his Boilers just had, I feel I need to point out all the Purdue connections in this game. Glenn Robinson III, son of the greatest Boiler basketball player ever, Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson, will hope to lead Michigan over Tennessee and their coach Cuonzo Martin, a former Boiler who played with the elder Robinson in the early 90s.

In true Purdue fashion, this will be a knock-down, drag out kind of game, as the Volunteers are playing Big Ten-like defense, holding opponents to just 61 points per game on 40 percent shooting. Heck, they haven't allowed an opponent to score 70 in 11 straight games.

That defense will be severely tested by Michigan and sharp-shooting Nik Stauskas. The Wolverines come in scoring nearly 75 points a game, a wide-open offense by Big Ten standards, and have three players averaging double figures.

The Pick: Michigan

When Stauskas and Robinson III are on, Michigan is as good as anyone in the country. The X-factor for Michigan could actually be rugged senior power forward Jordan Morgan. The 6-foot-8 Morgan is playing the best basketball of his life in this tournament, grabbing 10 boards a game and blocking a shot and a half each time out. If he can just neutralize Tennessee's star forward Jarnell Stokes, Michigan is good enough to win at every other spot on the floor.

7. Connecticut vs 3. Iowa State
7:27 PM, TBS

Iowa State brings in one of the more explosive offenses in the country, led by forwards Georges Niang and Melvin Ejim. The Cyclones weathered the brutal Big 12 this year to score in the 80s with regularity. Even as the game has slowed in the tournament, Iowa State has still been able to generate offense, scoring a combined 178 points in their first two tourney games.

But what may be alarming is the 83 points they surrendered to North Carolina in the Round of 32. Even more alarming is the fact that 83 points is about the norm for the Cyclone defense, and they'll have to deal with one of the nation's most gifted offensive players in UConn's Shabazz Napier.

Napier is playing well, even by his lofty standards, averaging 24.5 points per game, including 25 in UConn's Round of 32 upset of 2-seeded Villanova.

The Pick: Connecticut

I actually predicted this game in my bracket before the tournament began, but had Iowa State winning. Since then, I've cooled on the Cyclones due to inconsistent defense, and feel more and more like Napier is about to take over a game and win it by himself.

The spotty Iowa State defense will give him plenty of opportunities, and if the Huskies can simply slow down the Cyclones inside, Napier should be enough to put them over the top.

8. Kentucky vs 4. Louisville
9:45 PM, CBS

How is it possible that the last two national champs are playing this early, and people are sort of thinking of both of them as underdogs? That's crazy to me, especially given the "second coming of the Fab-5" hype Kentucky's outstanding freshman class got coming into the year.

On the other side, reigning champ Louisville is probably a bit under-seeded, as they've outscored opponents by over 21 points per game this year. Led by seniors Russ Smith and Luke Hancock, Louisville certainly gets the edge in experience over freshman and sophomore-laden Kentucky, but those young Wildcats can play.

Freshmen Aaron Harrison and Julius Randle are among the best players in the country when they're dialed in, and Kentucky's Round of 32 date with battle-tested Wichita State seems to have brought out the best in the Wildcats' young guns.

The Pick: Louisville

Kentucky has more NBA talent, but I'm a sucker for a team with veteran leadership and, at the end of the day, I just think Rick Pitino is a better coach than John Calipari.

This one will be an absolute war, but the thought here is that the Cardinals' balanced attack will get Kentucky in a hole early, ala Wichita State, but Louisville with have the athletes on defense to hold on.

4. Michigan State vs 1. Virginia
9:57 PM, TBS

This could end up being the most exciting, or incredibly boring, game of the night. I've long said Michigan State is a legit national title contender, if they can just get healthy, but I really like this Virginia team, particularly on the defensive end, where the Cavaliers rank among the nation's best in every relevant category.

Still, Virginia can score, and sophomore Anthony Gill is quietly putting together a nice tournament. The versatile forward is averaging 15 points and 7 boards for the Cavaliers, who are still waiting for leading scorer Malcolm Brogdon to really get his feet under him here in the tourney.

The Cavalier defense will be tested by the interior game of Michigan State's Adreian Payne. The senior big man is scoring over 26 points per game in the tournament so far, and athletic forward Branden Dawson has helped him control the board on both ends.

Point guard Keith Appling is one of the best floor generals in the country, and Harris' all around offensive savvy ties together one of the nation's most balanced offenses.

The Pick: Michigan State

I love Virginia's defense, but I like the fully healthy Michigan State offense even better. The Spartans have four different players that can score double digits on a given night, and I just don't think the Cavaliers have seen an offense this diverse and potent.

Look for the one-two punch of Payne and Harris to be the difference in a very close game.

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