Sweet Sixteen Preview: Midwest
#9 Kentucky vs. #4 Louisville
The last two National Champions, both from the same state, butt heads in a Sweet 16 matchup that many had their fingers crossed for when the bracket rolled out a little over a week ago. Coach Cal’s Wildcats rolled past Kansas State in a low scoring showdown in the first round, and two days later edged the undefeated Shockers of Wichita State in an epic showdown that, by some, has been heralded the best game of the tournament thus far. Louisville pulled away from Manhattan during the second half in the round of 64, and thoroughly dominated a tough defensive St. Louis squad in the second round to land the Cardinals in their third straight Sweet 16.
The two most prolific teams from the Bluegrass State, squared off earlier in the season and the Wildcats arose victorious as their wings provided to be quite a challenge to handle for the undersized Russ Smith, the even more undersized Chris Jones and offensive specialist Luke Hancock. The Harrison twins and James Young combined for 46 points, Julius Randle chipped in 17, Willie Cauley-Stein controlled the paint by hauling in 10 rebounds, blocking 3 shots, and minimizing Montrezl Harrell’s impact on both ends of the court.
The size difference in the backcourt is just something the Cardinals will have to live with. In a best case scenario, Russ-dicuous will help Pitino’s guards go bucket for bucket with Coach Cal’s. The true X-Factor for Louisville is Montrezl Harrell. Despite being outplayed by Randle, and WCS in the last days of 2013, Harrell’s play has really picked up since then. He’s currently riding an 11 game double digit scoring streak, in which he’s put up an impressive 17.2 ppg and 8.7 rpg. Harrell is the type of player the Wildcats have yet to see this tournament, he’s bigger and more active than anyone on Wichita State’s front line. He’s also longer, and more athletic than Thomas Gipson of K-State. For Louisville to achieve a different result than last time these teams faced off, they’re going to need Montrezl to show up in a big way.
Although both teams have won the same amount of tournament games, Kentucky’s biggest asset, right now, is some really nice momentum. They unseeded a tough as nails Wichita State team, and saw the Harrison twins have great success exploiting smaller guards. The key for them is to ride that momentum and play same game they have during the SEC tournament and the first two rounds of the Big Dance. Since a bad loss to South Carolina, the Wildcats have been playing great basketball. The Cardinals are the more seasoned squad, and that can go a long way, but if Coach Cal and crew keep doing what they have been, they’ll have a chance to win in the closing minutes.
#11 Tennessee vs. #2 Michigan
The second Sweet 16 matchup in the Midwest Region features last year’s NCAA runner up and a team that had to fight their way through a play in game to make the field of 64. Since the Vols of Tennessee edged out Iowa in overtime during the play-in game, they’ve done nothing but win. They won easily over a higher seeded Massachusetts team, and did the same against a Cinderella Mercer squad that brought down the mighty Duke Blue Devils. Michigan has yet to be really challenged this post season. John Beilein’s team dominated Wofford, and then handled a very solid Texas team with relative ease.
Tennessee has some really nice players that have all been clicking to help sustain their improbable run from bubble team to securing a spot in the Sweet 16. Double-double machine, Jarnell Stokes has yet to pull down fewer than 13 rebounds in tournament play, Jordan McRae is a rangy wing that can score in a variety of ways, and Josh Richardson has vaulted his play to a new level during the past week. The key; however, for the Vols, is going to be bench play. Tennessee’s reserves have only managed to tally a total of 19 points in three games. Keep in mind that two of those three have been bench clearing blow outs. The Wolverines have a more productive second unit and some even boast Final 4 experience. For Cuonzo Martin’s Vols to keep their streak going, their reserves are going to have to step up and be able to take some of the scoring load of their starting five’s shoulders.
Although Michigan’s Wolverines are making a repeat appearance in the Sweet 16, there are quite a few faces from last year’s team who are missing. Swingmen Glen Robinson III and Nik Stauskas headline a team that has a lot of younger guys stepping up and filling roles that were taken by guys currently in the NBA. Talent is not an issue with this Michigan team. They are loaded, both Robinson and Stauskas project as 1st round draft picks, Caris LeVert has had a breakthrough sophomore season while Derrick Walton Jr. has shown some real promise as a freshman. The key for the Big 10 regular season champs will be to not be taken off guard by a surging team that is hungry to make a statement. Tennessee will show up firing, and they have some nice players that can put the ball in the hoop. Michigan needs play their game, take the first punch and try to outlast the Vols.
Final Four Prediction
In a game that goes down to the wire, the Louisville Cardinals edge out the Kentucky Wildcats. These teams are built very differently, and Kentucky’s size will most certainly give Lousiville trouble. If the new, improved Montrezl Harrell shows up, I think he can not only lessen the scoring load on Pitino’s guards, but possibly get Kentucky’s bigs in foul trouble. The big play ability of Russ Smith and Luke Hancock are also major factors in a close game. Cuonzo Martin’s squad has had a fantastic run, but I think it ends in the Sweet 16. Michigan is by far the best team they have faced this far, and I think after a close first half, the Wolverines’ have the ability to keep up from a scoring perspective, but also have a bench that allows them rest their players and still keep putting up points as they break the game open in the second half.