Two state rivals go at it again, Michigan aims for revenge from last year’s title game loss, the ACC Champion looks to hold on, and the NCAA Tournament returns to the Garden
8 Kentucky vs. 4 Louisville
It is the battle of undereseeded superpowers, but it is so much more than even that! The moment this year’s version of the Group of Death was announced in the Midwest Region, people were salivating at the thought that the last two national champions and bitter state rivals would duel in the NCAA Tournament with everything at stake. The match-up has an 8 seed playing against a 4 seed, but I think most know better that these are two of the ten best teams compositely in the entire country. Louisville got here after skirting past Manhattan in the first round, then taking apart the A-10 Champion Saint Louis Billikens. In the case of John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats, the road was a tad tougher to get this far.
After convincingly beating Kansas State, Kentucky had to play against the 1-seed undefeated Wichita State Shockers, a team that had not played too many good teams during their winning streak. The committee challenged both teams to put their money where their mouth was, and they did not disappoint. In one of the most entertaining games of the season and one of the most anticipated second round match-ups in tournament history, the Wildcats barely got past the Shockers by the score of 78-76 to give Wichita State their one and only loss of the entire season. Now Calipari has to see if he can make his young but talented Wildcats do it again against Hall of Famer Rick Pitino.
Kentucky does have one thing on their side this year thanks to the win over Wichita State. The last two teams to unseat an undefeated team from the tournament (Duke in 1991 and Michigan State in 1979) have gone on to win the national championship. Kentucky is a lot younger than those teams were but have stepped up to the plate thanks to their fabulous freshman group led by Julius Randle, James Young, and the Harrison twins. Andrew and Aaron Harrison at the guard spots have been especially good come postseason time, and both men will have to be on top of things come tonight. Peyton Siva may be gone, but Louisville still has a senior leader at guard in Russ Smith and a talented juco transfer in Chris Jones. The key match up between the two teams will likely be here, where Andrew Harrison struggled against the press in the Wichita State game against Fred VanVleet. If Harrison gets turnover prone against Smith, Jones, and Terry Rozier thanks to Pitino’s vaunted full court traps, trouble might be in store for Kentucky.
Outside of experience being on Louisville’s side, things look pretty even. Both teams are below average at the free throw line, and both are excellent when it comes to rebounding margin (Kentucky is the best rebounding team remaining in the tournament). Louisville is a more dangerous defensive squad with their mix of pressure , scramble, and zone, but Kentucky is one of the best teams in the country at drawing fouls and have an efficient offense when you don’t foul them. Both teams played in December, and Julius Randle got cramps in the second half, but Louisville lost in one of its worst performances and it was also Chane Behanan’s last game as a Cardinal.
Now the pressure is on Wayne Blackshear, Mathiang, and NBA draft prospect Montrezl Harrell to carry the load against Kentucky’s three monsters: The human tree Willie Cauley-Stein, the powerful brute Dakari Johnson, and the post-modern Z-Bo, Julius Randle. I am going to be sitting back and having fun watching these two rivals hook it up again this season, but to put my prediction hat on, I will go with the more experienced Louisville Cardinals in a very tight and well-played game. Louisville has not played well out of conference and did not impress against Manhattan or Saint Louis, so although they are the defending national champions, it is put up or shut up now for Pitino’s Cards.
11 Tennessee vs. 2 Michigan
We just finished talking about one SEC team followed later that night at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, and now we talk about the Tennessee Volunteers coached by Cuonzo Martin. But believe you me, this team is only an 11 seed on paper. Tennessee was placed into the First Four against Iowa, where they outlasted the Hawkeyes in overtime. Then after destroying UMass in the first round, Tennessee got to play Mercer, who had just upset the Duke Blue Devils in one of the highlights of the tournament. The Vols took care of business 83-63 against Mercer, getting a First Four squad into the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years.
Dayton was an 11 seed, too, but Tennessee does not have the markings of a scrappy underdog at all. They beat you with tough, physical defense and one of the best rebounding duos in SEC history in Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon. Maymon looks like an offensive lineman, and pushes players around like one, too. Stokes has some junk in his trunk, too, while tallying double-doubles in every game this tournament. Given their First Four entry, Tennessee is the only team up to this point that has won three tournament games by double digits, and the rebounding edge is so lopsided that it has intimidated a lot of teams.
Tennessee’s opponent will be the Big Ten regular season champions, the Michigan Wolverines. Although they lost in the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan is coming in just as hot as their national title game competition last year, the Louisville Cardinals. They may have lost Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA and center Mitch McGary to injury, but John Beilein’s team has been one of the most consistent teams in the country since January thanks to Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas, the skilled Glenn Robinson III, and new faces like Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton. The two key leaders on that team alongside Stauskas are the undervalued senior center Jordan Morgan and starting point guard Caris LeVert, who took Burke’s place by midseason to solid results. Just like last season, Michigan is banking on their three-point shooting to carry the way for them in the tournament, and it sure came in handy against Texas when they drained 14 three-pointers, a tournament game record.
The 2013 Wooden Award-winning point guard is gone, but this offense might be even smoother and more dangerous overall than last year’s team was when they came within a few possessions of winning the national title. They make three’s in rhythm but are also unafraid to take tough shots, especially the sharpshooting Stauskas. Like Tennessee, Texas was one of the best rebounding teams in the country inside when Michigan went over the top on them thanks to their phenomenal outside shooting. That is a dangerous tool to have to rely on as the road to the Final Four gets more and more arduous. Expect Beilein to help Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford out with Stokes and Maymon by throwing the 1-3-1 zone at Cuonzo Martin’s team and try to make life difficult for the resurgent Stokes. The one problem for Michigan is that Tennessee has been getting great outside shooting lately from lengthy defensive guard Josh Richardson. In a battle where the worst rebounding team left in the tourney plays against one of the best, I will ignore that statistic and still go with Michigan, who also has a small regional advantage playing not too far from their home state at Indianapolis.
1 Virginia vs. 4 Michigan State
This may look like just a weekend trio of college hoops games on paper, but there is a bigger story to tell. That is the NCAA Tournament’s return to the Mecca of college basketball, Madison Square Garden in New York City, for the first time in 53 years. The Garden has played host to the dueling N.I.T. since its inception in the late 1930’s, but the last NCAA Tournament games to be played at the older version on 8th Avenue was a triple-header in 1961. Much has changed since then, and although it is not in the Final Four or national title game, it has not stopped fans from raising ticket prices for these East regional games to record highs in anticipation for some big time college hoops in the Big Apple.
Both games, and the regional final, are fascinating match ups, but the marquee one has to be between the Virginia Cavaliers and the Michigan State Spartans. Although they have been shortchanged as the least deserving 1 seed of the four going into the tournament, Virginia has slowly won people over by convincingly winning the ACC in the regular season and the conference tournament. Thanks to head coach Tony Bennett, our latest entry into the college basketball vocabulary is “pack line defense,” a system that Bennett had learned from his father Dick when he played for him at Wisconsin-Green Bay and was an assistant under him at Wisconsin and Washington State. The pack line defense is a unique version of man-to-man that primarily prevents dribble penetration by packing defenders two or three feet behind the three-point line, leaving one defender to defend the ball handler up top.
The pack line defense is predicated on three elements: deny, help, and recover. It is a difficult defense to teach in college where guarding in the pack line as a help defender can be highly difficult sometimes, but it has worked like a charm this year for Tony Bennett’s group. While there will be no NBA players on display, Virginia is full of tightly connected role players like Joe Harris, Malcolm Brogdon, Akil Mitchell, Justin Anderson, and London Perrantes who know their roles and have led Virginia to the #1 scoring defense in the country. Imagine Florida, but with less size and athleticism. They got a scare from 16 seed Coastal Carolina for a half in the first round before turning on the pressure (and three-point shooting) to win by 11. That was followed by a convincing 78-60 beat down of the Memphis Tigers in Raleigh, NC. This is Bennett’s second time in the Sweet 16 after doing so with Washington State in 2008, but this is by far Bennett’s best team as a head coach. Virginia has not made the Final Four since 1984 the year after Ralph Sampson graduated, so history will be made if the Cavs can get two W’s in the Big Apple.
The reason why Virginia will have proven themselves if they get to the Final Four is the fact that their Sweet 16 opponent is quite the formidable one in Michigan State. As the season tipped off, #2 Michigan State faced #1 Kentucky in the United Center at the Champions Classic, and the experienced Spartans did not take long to give the young Wildcats a certified butt whoopin’. Things looked peachy for the top-ranked Spartans in November before a string of injuries forced head coach Tom Izzo to manage minutes for stars Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Adreian Payne, and Branden Dawson, all of whom missed ample time on the court in the regular season. The waiting game may have brought about a 4 seed due to 8 losses, but it paid off in March when the core four, alongside Denzel Valentine, Travis Trice, and Kenny Kaminski, were all back to full health and dominated Wisconsin and Michigan to win the Big Ten Tournament.
Judging by how well Wisconsin and Michigan have played in the tournament, the fact that they took apart both teams right before the Big Dance should tell you alone how good Sparty is. Thanks to Izzo’s no-frills style of coaching, the team is pretty by-the-book in their approach on offense and defense like always, but the immense talent on the starting lineup to go with the experience has put them on a pedestal as one of the best teams in the country. Appling is the senior point guard while Payne is a physical force inside (He scored 41 points against Delaware in the first round). Dawson is the Energizer Bunny at small forward while Harris is the NBA prototype guard with athleticism, quick hands, and sweet shooting stroke.Their rebounding is weaker than in other years, but Michigan State is an elite team in most offensive categories this year, especially three-point shooting.
How ironic is it that it will be Virginia’s job to try to stop a team coached by Tom Izzo?! The first order of the day will probably go to Justin Anderson, a stopper of sorts for Virginia, who will be put on Dawson to limit his offensive rebounds and hustle plays (Dawson had 26 points and 9 rebounds against Harvard in the second round). Then there is the major pain inside that is Payne, who has been nothing short of awesome over the past few weeks. It will be Harris vs. Harris as Joe will likely match up with Gary at times on the court. Then you have the two-headed monsters of Perrantes and Brogdon against Appling and Valentine. The tale of the tape is so easy to match up on paper that it almost hard to pick a winner. I predict that Michigan State finds that defensive acumen to go with their fine-tuned offense and does just enough to limit Virginia’s offense and run away with a win in a slow and ugly game. I still have memories from last year of Miami winning the ACC regular season and conference tournament, then getting smashed by Marquette in the Sweet 16. Virginia is playing a better team than Miami did, so will fate strike twice for the ACC? I say yes.
7 Connecticut vs. 3 Iowa State
It will be home sweet home in many ways for the UConn Huskies when they walk into the self-proclaimed basketball capital of the world. There have been so many rich memories for UConn under Jim Calhoun during their days of playing in the Big East Tournament in MSG, from Ray Allen’s game winner over Allen Iverson in ’96 to the epic six-overtime game against Syracuse in ’09 to Kemba Walker’s run to the top in ’11. After thinking we saw the final chapter to the former Big East Conference when Louisville won the national championship last year, UConn may be writing an epilogue of sorts this weekend. Now in the coach’s seat for UConn at MSG is not the Hall of Famer Calhoun but his former player Kevin Ollie.
Ollie’s vision is obviously very similar to the that Calhoun would use when putting his teams together, and thankfully for Ollie, he has a star player that has helped put that vision to life. When Kemba Walker led UConn to the national championship three years ago, freshman point guard Shabazz Napier was his understudy alongside Jeremy Lamb. As an All-American senior, Napier is now the leader of the team and carries the load to a degree frighteningly similar to the way Kemba did when they won it all. Shabazz leads the team in scoring, rebounds, assists, and steals. His averages have risen even higher in the NCAA Tournament, where they just got by a game Saint Joseph’s team in overtime in the first round. UConn took out Villanova in the second round, and even though it said on paper that a 7 seed upset a 2 seed, it was not an upset by any means; UConn was clearly better than their former Big East rival was.
Napier takes on a lot of the workload, but he is not completely alone. DeAndre Daniels is a talented slasher who can also make three’s. Niels Giffey has the highest three-point field goal percentage among all the players left in the tournament. Mighty mite Ryan Boatright is a good enough point guard that it allows Napier to play off the ball if he so desires. Then there is the law firm off of the bench: Brimah and Kromah. Both players are Kevin Ollie specials as unselfish teammates who serve a specific role and do it well. Amida Brimah is a raw center with elite shot blocking skills and was pivotal in the paint against Saint Joe’s. Lasan Kromah is a senior transfer who is elite as an on-the-ball defender. He came up big against ‘Nova with 12 points and 4 steals. If UConn wins the weekend, you will hear those two names more than once.
UConn may have some magical reminiscence at the Garden, but they will have to face off with the Hilton Magic of Iowa State. Coached by former NBA player and X’s and O’s mad scientist Fred Hoiberg, the Cyclones have been on a fun ride all season long thanks to their NBA style of offense that is quick on tempo and highly efficient at creating easy baskets inside the paint and open shots at the three-point arc. The Cyclones have the highest scoring average among all the teams left in the tournament, and if you watch their thrilling 85-83 victory over North Carolina on Sunday, you can see why. They have wonderful combinations of size, strength, and skill thanks to point guard DeAndre Kane and slasher Dustin Hogue, who are elite rebounders at their respective positions, and motoring forward Melvin Ejim, who is an elite three-point shooter at his position.
In Hoiberg’s offense, players from every position wear different hats on offense depending on the match up they are given, that has now reverted to small ball due to center Georges Niang breaking his foot in the first round of the tournament against N.C. Central. North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks and James Michael McAdoo brutalized them scoring in the paint before ISU went on a torrid run late and win the game on a driving lay-up by Kane with less than 2 seconds to go. Hoiberg has now gone farther in the tournament as Iowa State’s head coach than he ever did as a star player for the Cyclones back in the 1990’s. The mantra said for many fallen tournament teams is that if you live by the three, you die by it, but just like Wisconsin and Michigan, Iowa State has been livin’ large with their three-point barrage on opponents. If the 1 seeded Virginia Cavaliers in this region are pesky for teams because of their defense, Iowa State is pesky because of their offense. You also have to take into account that ISU is one of the top teams in the country in rebounding and THE top team in the country in assists, which shows how energetic and active this group is.
They play against the Huskies, who do not take as many three’s as Iowa State does but makes them at a higher percentage. Ollie’s team is full of jacks of all trades just like Iowa State is, so when DeAndre Kane faces off against Shabazz Napier, whoever wins that match up will play a huge part in who wins in the rebounding margin since they are both great at snagging boards. Daniels will certainly meet up with Ejim and it will be great to see which one retreats into shooting mode and which one goes into ultra attack mode to get the other in foul trouble. Losing Niang was a huge blow of Iowa State and almost cost them against the Tar Heels, but a week’s worth of practice may be enough time for the Cyclones to readjust to a smaller lineup involving shooters like Naz Long and Matt Thomas and a more traditional point guard like Monte Morris.
The last time Iowa State got this far in the tournament was in 2000 when Larry Eustachy coached Marcus Fizer and Jamaal Tinsley. They beat UCLA in the Sweet 16 at Auburn Hills, MI, before losing a tough game to eventual national champion Michigan State in front of a home crowd of sorts. That was the last time a Big Ten team has won a national title, and Michigan State is more than ready to take that mantle back after a 14-year absence. Before a potential rematch more than a decade in the making, Iowa State will try to sprinkle some Hilton Magic on the Garden court when they play against another home crowd of sorts in UConn. I say Iowa State takes down Shabazz and Ollie’s scrappy crew, then takes the fall against Michigan State on Sunday. Regardless of the result, these games will be very close, and they could not have been booked at a better venue for the entire country to see.