NCAA Tournament - Sweet 16

Midwest Region

#2 Michigan (-2, 134) vs. #11 Tennessee

The Wolverines are in a familiar spot heading into this Sweet 16 match up with a hot Tennessee team. Last year it was a hot Kansas team that Michigan took down en route to making a Final 4 run. This year’s version is missing 3 key components from last year in Trey Burke (Utah Jazz), Tim Hardaway Jr (NY Knicks) and Mitch McGary who has been out since early January with a back injury.

But that hasn’t stopped one of the most under rated coaches in the land, John Belein, from guiding his squad into this intriguing spot. Intriguing because the Vols’ had to win an OT “Play in Game” over a good Iowa team just to get into the dance. But once in they took full advantage by hammering both of their opponents (Umass, Mercer).

This one is probably the toughest of the 8 match ups to figure out from a gaming and “who will win” standpoint. Michigan is the better overall team, but the Vols’ have that “heater” moniker going for them. Remember, VCU and last year LaSalle’s squad made it this far and beyond after winning the “play in game”.

Since I have to make a pick, I will go with the Wolverines based only on the head coaches experience in these type of monster games. Belein has been here and shown he knows what it takes to survive and advance. That is no disrespect to the Vols’ head man Cuonzo Martin, who has done an outstanding job with his squad to get here, but in the end it’s the more experienced team that moves on to an Elite 8 match up.

#4 Louisville (-4.5, 138.5) vs. #8 Kentucky

Wow. CBS suits were doing jump kicks and air thrusts once Wichita St missed their last second 3 pointer and Kentucky advanced. Not because they didn’t like the Shockers, but the idea that a possible Bluegrass showdown happening again had them seeing ratings #’s in their heads. And how could you not love this match up if you are purely a college basketball junkie? Rick Pitino vs. John Calipari. Kentucky’s fab freshman class vs. the defending champs and their suffocating defensive pressure. I’m jacked just writing about it.

These two are pretty familiar with each other as they met in the Final 4 last year (Louisville won) and again this year with Kentucky coming out on top in Lexington. This one will be played on a neutral court in Indianapolis, but you can be sure the lovely Ashley Judd and the rest of the Kentucky blue-bloods will make their way to Indy for this one. The question is will the Harrison twins and Julius Randle make their stay one night or a weekend visit?

Pitino is 11-0 in Sweet 16 games in his career. Calipari is 5-1 head up vs. Pitino with the only loss coming in last year’s Final 4.  I wasn’t impressed by Louisville’s opening weekend (wins over Manhattan and Saint Louis), but I believe that the Cardinals recognize they had more to give in both games. Cardinal guard’s Russ Smith and super quick Chris Jones will pressure the Harrison twins into turnover after turnover which will lead to a Louisville double digit win. Book it.

East Region

#3 Iowa St (-1.5, 146) vs. #7 UConn

This one should be fun. If you like great guard play and an up and down tempo, then make sure you are in front of your TV at 7:27 EST Friday for this one. UConn has made a nice run so far beating the likes of St. Joes (in OT) and then knocked off an over-seeded Villanova squad handily. Iowa St beat two North Carolina schools with the second one being the Tar Heels. The Cyclones are the top scoring team left in the tournament and even the loss of one of their best players, F Geroges Niang, they have plenty of other scoring options.

The Huskies really heavily on G Shabazz Napier who has been on fire all year. His match up with Iowa State’s DeAndre Kane could be the best guard match up of the tournament as both players are spectacular and explosive. Kane is bigger, but Napier might be a step quicker. Head coaches (Fred Hoiberg, Kevin Ollie) have been friends for more than 20 years, when both took a recruiting trip to Arizona as high school students. Later they were teammates with the Bulls for half a season, and when Hoiberg was assistant GM with the Timberwolves, Ollie played there.

This one could be decided late as both teams are evenly matched. As opposed to the night cap between Mich St and Virginia, both of these teams could get into the high 70’s and beyond in points when this one is all said and done. My thought is Iowa St just has more scoring options than the Huskies and should advance in a tight one. But if Napier continues his hot streak shooting, it could be the Huskies who survive and advance. An “over” play here might be the best option if you decide to play this one as both teams can score a ton of points.

#4 Michigan St (-2, 127) vs. #1 Virginia

Well at least I got this right in my bracket. I saved this one for last as did the suits at CBS did making this the Friday night late night game. The hottest team going in the tourney vs. the best defensive team in the tourney. Tom Izzo gets a full week to prepare for an opponent, while Virginia head man Tony Bennett gets to instill in his players that they are an underdog even though they are the #1 seed. Let the head games begin.

As I’ve stated throughout the year, I’m a fan of how the Cavs’ play basketball. It might not be pretty to the eye, but in a results orientated business like the tournament, it’s working. Easy wins over Coastal Carolina and Memphis has the Cavs’ on the brink of their first Final 4 run since the early 80’s. Loaded with players who always make the right decision, Viriginia won’t beat itself and that can go a long way in this one.

On the other hand, Sparty has the look of a team that could cut the nets down. After an up and down regular season (injuries, tough schedule) coach Izzo has his talented group playing their best at the right time. They blew out a good Delaware team and then beat a game Harvard team to get here. And this isn’t your parents grind it out Spartan’s team as they average almost 78 PPG while only giving up 66. In contrast, the offensively challenged Cavs’ average 66 PPG, but have a nation best 55 PPG scoring defense. So what gives?

Coaching at this point in the tourney is as important as anytime during the season. That’s because the stage gets bigger, arena’s get bigger and players get tighter. Izzo has been here plenty of times and even though I think Bennett is a rising star his lack of experience this type of spot might show. So even though I’m rooting for the Cav’s to win this one, I’ll go with the experience and slightly better players in Michigan St.