#1 Michigan vs. #4 Florida State
LSU pushed top-seed Michigan to the brink in the Round of 32, but Juwan Howard and the Wolverines survived to set up a thrilling matchup between two of the most consistent programs over the last 5 years. The farthest Leonard Hamilton has ever come to reaching the Final Four came in the 2018 Elite Eight against guess who? The Michigan Wolverines. M.J. Walker and Isaiah Livers suited up as freshmen for their respective programs in that regional final and even though Livers looks like he won’t play this time around, their teams will meet on the second weekend once again with both coaches seeking to reach their first Final Four.
The Seminoles feature a suffocating defense that rotates consistently throughout the entire 40 minutes. 11 players saw at least seven minutes in their 71-53 win over Colorado on Monday with Anthony Polite and Malik Osborne leading the balanced offensive attack as the only players in double figures. Star playmakers and defenders like Scottie Barnes, Raiquan Gray, and MJ Walker can all explode at any time for the Seminoles and should be able to slow down the prolific Michigan offense who scored in the 80s in their first two games. The Wolverines do not boast quite the same depth, but almost every guy on the court can take over any game. Mike Smith is an experienced guard who can score and create opportunities for others. Franz Wagner, Eli Brooks, and Chaundee Brown can attack from the wings and Hunter Dickinson is a true freshman who imposes his will in the post on both ends of the floor. This is arguably the best matchup in the Sweet 16 and three of the four teams still alive in the East are legitimate title contenders.
Keys to the Game:
Every time Michigan is on offense, it will be a fascinating contrast of styles as the Wolverines are one of the best teams in the nation at moving the ball and scoring late in the shot clock. Conversely, Florida State does a terrific job on the defensive end slowing teams down and forcing them into tough shots late in the possession. Juwan Howard’s defense is even better at forcing long possessions, but they do not force turnovers at nearly the same rate as the ‘Noles. This game could very easily come down to the scramble drills and which team is able to execute their game plan with the shot clock winding down. The Seminoles have plenty of versatile, athletic guards who can mitigate the impacts of Michigan’s wing players like Wagner and Brown, and also lock down the quick guards in Mike Smith and Eli Brooks. They also have Scottie Barnes who can go up to any player on the court and lock them down if they are causing too much of a problem. The ability to switch all five guys on the floor and force turnovers should cause fits for the Wolverines and will ultimately be the difference as the Seminoles advance to the Elite Eight.
#2 Alabama vs. #11 UCLA
Nobody gave UCLA a chance when they were matched up with the Michigan State Spartans in the First Four of this year’s tournament. Three wins in five days now have the Bruins on the doorstep of reaching their first Elite Eight since Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, and Darren Collison took them there in 2008. The Crimson Tide are looking to reach their second-ever Elite Eight with the first coming in 2004. The Tide have never reached the Final Four and are 1-7 all-time in the Sweet Sixteen. This matchup between one of the most storied programs in the history of college basketball versus a “new blood” program with a modern, fast-paced offense should be filled with fascinating storylines, but the players who will be out there are who it is all about.
Two sophomores lead the way for the Bruins in Johnny Juzang, a Kentucky transfer, and Jaime Jaquez Jr. who led the way with 27 points against the Spartans in their play-in game. Nate Oats has a ton of experience with four contributing seniors including SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year Herb Jones. Jones is only the fourth-leading scorer for the Tide, and it is a testament to just how deep and talented this roster is. Sophomore Jaden Shackelford leads the team in scoring, but he has former top-30 recruits John Petty and Jahvon Quinerly clipping at his heels. Will the Bruins be able to keep their hot streak going? Or will the experience and speed of Alabama be too much for UCLA to handle? Check out the keys to the game below.
Keys to the Game:
This game features a huge contrast of styles with the run-and-gun, fast-paced Crimson Tide offense versus Mick Cronin’s defense that loves to slow the game down and force long possessions. Oats loves to get out in transition and attack on the perimeter and the Bruins are certainly susceptible to a perimeter attack. If the Tide get their way and make this game a shootout, the Bruins have little to no chance. If UCLA can force the Tide to slow down and work late into the shot clock, making this game end up in the 60s or 70s, they might be able to continue this Cinderella run. Juzang and the Bruins shoot over 37% from beyond the arc which ranks 6th among remaining teams in the tournament. Unfortunately for them, nobody left in the tournament is better than Alabama at stopping perimeter shots from a percentage standpoint. The pace of play and three-point shooting will ultimately decide this contest and I like Bama’s chances to win that kind of game.
Prediction: Alabama over Florida State in the Elite Eight