Friday, March 28, 2014

2014 March Madness (Midwest and East Regions) - Sweet 16 and Elite 8

Midwest Regional Semi-Final in Indianapolis, IN

#11 Tennessee (24-12) vs. #2 Michigan (27-8)

The Volunteers come into the Sweet 16 on a roll. They blew out both Massachusetts and Duke killers Mercer and have won 8 of their last 9 games. Guard Josh Richardson and F Jarnell Stokes were the stories of those Vols win. Both guys were lighting up the basket and Stokes was an absolute monster on the glass, averaging 16 rebounds in the two games. Stokes is a double double machine and will be the toughest player for Michigan to match up against. F Jeronne Maymom is another big presence inside for the Vols and another guy who has to be contended with on the glass. Tennessee ranked 20th in the country, averaging 38 rebounds per game.

The Vols size will present a major problem for Michigan who is on the opposite spectrum when it comes to rebounding. Michigan finished 303rd in the country in rebounds per game, with a measly 31. Part of that stat is skewed though because the Wolverines are such a fantastic shooting team, hitting 48% of their shots. The Wolverines have actually gotten better as a team this year since Mitch McGary went down with an injury, but this matchup is one where they could really miss him. Guard Nik Stauskas is Michigan's most important player, as he can effect the game in so many ways. If his shot is off, then he is still able to find ways to involve his teammates and facilitate points. He is joined in the backcourt by Caris LeVert, a little bit of everything player. Sophomore F Glenn Robinson III is another key player for Michigan and he was outstanding in the wins against Wofford and Texas.

The seeds of these teams would suggest that this game should be a cakewalk for Michigan, but I expect it to be a tightly contested game. Stauskas and the rest of his teammates will have to make the open looks they get, because the Vols make don't allow many second chance opportunities. I expect Stauskas and Robinson to make key plays late, that carry Michigan to their second straight Elite 8 appearance.

Prediction: Michigan 74, Tennessee 73

East Regional Semi-Final in New York, NY

#7 Connecticut (28-8) vs. #3 Iowa State (27-8)  

The atmosphere for this game should be electric. You have the NCAA Tournament back in Madison Square Garden for the first time in forever. You also have two of the premiere players in college basketball facing off, with Connecticut's Shabazz Napier and Iowa State's DeAndre Kane. Both the Huskies and Cyclone are lucky to be in the Sweet 16 as each were on the precipice of being eliminated last weekend. The Huskies were taken to overtime by St. Joseph's in Round Two, and Iowa State was down by 8 points late to North Carolina in Round Three.

Napier is Mr. Everything for Connecticut. He leads the team in points, assists and rebounds. He does all this with amazing efficiency, limiting his mistakes. He receives a bit of help from F DeAndre Daniels. Daniels has the ability to get double doubles for the Huskies and he is a major player for Connecticut in the sense that he helps take some of the pressure off Napier. G Ryan Boatright gets lost in the shuffle with Napier but he is a competent player, and one that when watching the Huskies play you notice his name being called often.

The Cyclones suffered a huge blow when they lost Georges Niang to a broken foot in their win over North Carolina Central. But even without him, their offense kept humming, putting up 85 points against the Tar Heels. Kane was exceptional against North Carolina, as the Tar Heels had no one that could slow him down and he eventually made the winning basket with a second to go. Forward Melvin Ejim is the Cyclones other top scorer and he played well in last week's wins. Forward Dustin Hogue has really stepped up his game in recent weeks and could fill the scoring hole left by Niang's injury.

Napier will do all he can to continue Connecticut's run but I feel like the Cyclones are a more well-rounded team, while the Huskies are far too reliant on Napier. I expect that difference to show itself late in the game and allow the Cyclones to pull away for a victory.

Prediction: Iowa State 85, Connecticut 77

Midwest Regional Semi-Final in Indianapolis, IN

#8 Kentucky (26-10) vs. #4 Louisville (31-5)

One of the better rivalries in college basketball takes center stage in the Sweet 16 this season. These teams meet on an annual basis so this will be the second time they have seen each other. Kentucky won the first meeting in December at Rupp Arena, despite missing beast forward Julius Randle for half of the game. Louisville struggled shooting the ball and after a hot start couldn't sustain anything on offense. The Wildcats finally appear to be living up to the preseason hype bestowed upon them, handing Wichita State their first loss of the season in the Third Round. As part of their resurgence, the Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, are playing their best basketball of the season. With a healthy Randle down low, the Wildcats are finally playing the inside-out game they imagined before the season.

Louisville is led by Russ Smith and Mr. Clutch, Luke Hancock. Manhattan had Louisville on the ropes in round two, and then much like he did in last year's championship run, Hancock began hitting threes all over the court. Smith has been trying to do a little bit too much in the tournament so far, and for Louisville to beat Kentucky Smith has to avoid his penchant for playing hero ball. F Montrezl Harrell was a non-factor in the first meeting between these teams, as was Hancock. Smith jacked up 20 shots in that game and that contributed to Louisville not having any sort of rhythm on offense.

A lot of future pros will be on display in this game, and I have a feeling Kentucky will bring the best out of Louisville. Louisville was being talked up before the Tournament but neither victory they had last weekend was overly impressive. A strong performance against Kentucky, with guys like Hancock and Smith firing on all cylinders will restore the faith many had when they picked Louisville to repeat as champions.

Prediction: Louisville 74, Kentucky 65

East Regional Semi-Final in New York, NY

#4 Michigan State (28-8) vs. #1 Virginia (30-6)

When brackets were released a few weeks ago, people very quickly decided to take Michigan State to come out of the East region. Virginia isn't a typical power program so they get very little respect, despite boasting one of the best defenses in all of college basketball. In their past 17 games the Cavaliers have only allowed 60 or more points four times and one of those games went to overtime. I typically go through a team's best offensive players but with Virginia that is virtually pointless. They are a team that is built around its defense and has no liabilities on the defensive end either. When the Cavaliers do need to score it is usually their guards Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris leading the way. F Akil Mitchell has seen his minutes decrease this year but still led Virginia in rebounding. G London Perrantes, a freshman from Los Angeles, CA is already playing big minutes and shows maturity beyond his years with his decision making.

F Adreian Payne was the story for the Spartans last week. He dropped 41 points on Delaware, getting to the line 17 times and hitting all of his free throws. It will be interesting to see how Payne fares when going against the stout Cavaliers defense. Virginia is very good at playing tough defense but not fouling too much. When Payne came back to Earth against Harvard, it was F Branden Dawson who picked up the slack. It took Dawson about three games to round into form after being out with an injury but since then he has scored in double digits in 5 straight games. Sparty will need better play from senior guard Keith Appling if they hope to beat UVA on Friday night. Appling was mostly non-existent in last weekend's games. Even more important than Appling is sophomore guard Gary Harris. Coach Tom Izzo relies on Harris a lot, and only gave him 2 minutes rest in the win over Harvard.

I am a firm believer in Virginia and think that no matter how healthy, or hot Michigan State is right now, they don't have the necessary firepower to get past Virginia. It will take an exceptional offensive team to have their way with UVA and the Spartans are not that team. Their offense has been shut down at various times this year, by teams not nearly as good defensively as Virginia. They will have to hit shots from outside, because driving to the lane against the Cavaliers is usually a waste of time. This game may set offensive basketball back a few decades but it won't lack in drama.

Prediction: Virginia 58, Michigan State 56

In a rematch of last year's national championship game, Michigan won't be able to get revenge, as Louisville will advance to their third straight Final Four. Despite losing Dieng earlier in the tournament, Iowa State's potent offense will be too much for the Cavs potent defense, and Fred Hoiberg will have the Cyclones in the Final Four for the first time in 70 years.

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