#4 Tennessee versus #9 Florida Atlantic
Despite the loss of Zakai Zeigler, Tennessee hasn’t missed a beat in the tournament. They are a physical team that beats the opponent into submission. Duke learned that first hand, as the Volunteers won their second round contest against the Blue Devils 65-52. Olivier Nkamhoua was the hero on the offensive game in that one, recording 27 points and 5 rebounds on 10-13 shooting (3-4 from three) in only 22 minutes of action. That kind of efficiency is exactly what the Vols need to stabilize an offense that has been up and down this season and in decline basically since February.
On the other side, Florida Atlantic snuck by Memphis in the first round, thanks in part to a controversial timeout that wasn’t given in the final seconds, allowing them to finish off the Tigers. Then, they took care of the 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson Knights in a game that was tight throughout. Johnelle Davis, a 6’4” guard, led the way in their Round of 32 game by putting up 29 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists, and 5 steals.
Florida Atlantic relies heavily on outside shooting, with three point shots accounting for 43% of their total shots attempts per game. And with that type of three point volume, a good shooting day by the Owls would sink just about any opponent. On the flipside, Tennessee allows opponents to shoot 26.4% from deep, and if they do that, FAU likely can’t overcome it. The outside shot will go a long way in determining who comes out victorious.
The X-Factor in picking this team is one that doesn’t often get discussed before the game. The crew that officiates this game could have a major impact on how the game goes. Tennessee wants to rough the game up and make it a rock fight. Duke, and Kyle Filipowski in particular, learned firsthand how physical the Vols play. Uros Plavsic can put a beating on interior players and get under the skin of the other team. If the refs allow it to be a physical contest, the Vols will have a massive advantage in the contest. If the game is called tight, Tennessee could have trouble imposing their will on a team that will look to spread them out and turn the game into a shootout.
#3 Kansas State versus #7 Michigan State
Kansas State got a superhuman effort from Markquis Nowell in the first two rounds, who put up 44 points, 23 assists, and 6 steals in the two games combined. Meanwhile Keyontae Johnson was a super sidekick for him, putting up balanced lines in the two games of 18 points, 8 rebounds, and three assists in round one followed by 13 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists in round two. Johnson hasn’t been as efficient in the tourney, but he’s doing what the team needs each game in order to help them win while Nowell leads the show. If the Wildcats can be disruptive on defense and create transition opportunities for themselves, they become a dangerous team.
Michigan State is a team that perfectly encapsulates the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They don’t have star players, but they have a handful of guys that can step up and make an impact on any given day. This makes them difficult to prepare for, and that’s without taking into account that they have a coaching legend in Tom Izzo (pictured) leading them. In the second round both Joey Hauser and Mady Sissoko had 10 rebounds, and Kansas State is susceptible to giving up boards, so those two could have big days. Hauser is more than just a big body though, as he had 4 threes in the first round against USC. Meanwhile Tyson Walker is coming off of a 23 point game against Marquette. Michigan State isn’t the most individually talented team left in the tournament, but they will be a tough out because of the balance they have.
This matchup will come down to two things. Kansas State needs Markquis Nowell to continue his stellar play and Michigan State needs to make outside shots. They don’t take very many of them, but they shoot the 8th best percentage in the country at 38.7%. If they can win the rebounding battle and outshoot a poor outside shooting KSU team, they have a very real shot at winning this game, and even having a realistic chance at a Final Four in a year nobody expected them to.
Final Four Prediction
Tennessee beat a Duke team that was playing as well as anybody in the country and now goes up against a team in FAU that they match up really well against. In addition, FAU’s Alijah Martin tried a 360 in the closing seconds (and missed) while someone in the bench area waved goodbye to the Knights. A part of me simply cannot pick a team that is THAT excited about beating a 16 seed in a close game. It screams “just happy to be there” while Tennessee is playing like they have something to prove. Advantage Tennessee. In the other matchup, Kansas State, on paper, looks better than Michigan State, and has the best player in the game in Nowell. However, Nowell and Johnson play essentially the entire game (154 out of a possible 160 minutes in two tournament games), and so if Michigan State can find a way to slow them down, the Wildcats don’t have another option to turn to. If anybody can scheme up a way to do so, it’s Tom Izzo. And since Michigan State doesn’t turn the ball over much, Kansas State can’t rely on transition to put them over the top. I’m picking Michigan State to pull the upset. Tennessee versus Michigan State is an interesting game between two teams that were written off by a lot of people before the tournament started. In a battle between Izzo and Rick Barnes, my money is on Izzo, who has been to 25 straight tournaments now, to find a way to get back to his ninth Final Four.