Biggest Challenges Michigan Faces in NCAA Tourney Matchup vs. Tennessee

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistMarch 27, 2014

Biggest Challenges Michigan Faces in NCAA Tourney Matchup vs. Tennessee

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    Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

    The second-seeded Michigan Wolverines (27-8) have a very reasonable path to get to the Final Four.

    They will have to get by 11th-seeded Tennessee (24-12) in the Sweet 16 and the winner between fourth-seeded Louisville and eighth-seeded Kentucky to get to San Antonio.

    The biggest danger against Tennessee is overlooking the Volunteers. Tennessee has already won three games in the tournament, having beaten Iowa in the first round of the tournament in overtime before overwhelming Massachusetts and Mercer in its next two games.

    While those were impressive performances, the Vols were a fourth-place team in the Southeastern Conference, so the tendency for John Beilein's team might be to look past them and be more concerned about Kentucky or Louisville in the Elite Eight game.

    Beilein has to keep his team focused on the first step, or the Wolverines may not get to the second.

Get the Offense Going

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Michigan has a superb offensive attack led by Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III, all of whom are capable of lighting up the Tennessee defense.

    While it seems that Beilein should be reasonably confident because the Wolverines are averaging 74.0 points per game, the offensive attack is based on Michigan's ability to hit the outside shot and get off to a solid start.

    However, if Michigan struggles with its long-range shooting—which often happens in the NCAA tournament—how will the Wolverines adapt? While they displayed some power and inside attack as they defeated Texas in the round of 32, that's not Michigan's preferred method to put points on the board.

    When Michigan gets the lead, it can dictate the pace because of its athleticism, versatility and talent. If the Wolverines fall behind because the outside shooting is not effective, they are not as effective.

Attack with Stauskas

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Once teams get to the Sweet 16, they need their star players to be at their best if they are going to survive and advance.

    That means Nik Stauskas is going to have to rise to the occasion and carry the Wolverines, if necessary. Stauskas is a superb player who is almost certain to be a first-round draft choice in the NBA. He is averaging 17.4 points per game and he is shooting 47.4 percent from the field. He has also recorded a team-high 113 assists this season and has done a good job at finding the open man throughout the year.

    He needs to continue to pass the ball when he is guarded tightly but has to do his job and attack the basket whenever possible. Stauskas has been Michigan's leading scorer all season, and he needs to retain that role against Tennessee. If he gets too unselfish and turns away shots that he normally takes, that would play into the Volunteers' hands. 

Control Josh Richardson

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Josh Richardson has been on top of his game for head coach Cuonzo Martin's Volunteers in the first three games of the NCAA tournament.

    He is averaging 19.3 ppg and is coming off a 26-point effort in Tennessee's victory over Mercer. More than his offensive ability—Richardson averaged 10.1 ppg and shot 46.6 percent from the field this season—Richardson can be a strong defensive stopper.

    He has the long arms coaches like to get into the passing lanes and a 6'6" frame. He could draw much of the responsibility for guarding Stauskas.

    Martin obviously has been thrilled with Richardson's offensive production throughout the tournament, but he's capable of a strong defensive game even when his scoring is not at a peak level. 

    “Well, I just think that’s Josh, and again he can go out against Michigan and have six points, but still play a good game," Martin told The Detroit News. "But when he is aggressive and his shots are falling, then he is a different player and we like for him to stay aggressive, but again it is at his own pace.” 

    If Richardson is slowing down a top scorer like Stauskas and scoring effectively, the Wolverines could have a problem.

Punch Hard with LeVert

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    Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

    The focus naturally goes to the superstars, and there's little that will change that before Michigan takes on Tennessee. That means that Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III will draw most of the attention.

    However, Caris LeVert may turn out to play a huge role in this game as well. Levert is averaging 13.1 ppg, shooting .410 from three-point range and collecting 4.5 rebounds per game. He also may be Beilein's best defensive player. 

    The Wolverines are at their best in the 1-3-1 defense, and no player is more active than LeVert. He has long arms and quick feet, and when he steps into the passing lanes, he is not content to deflect passes—he wants to come away with steals that trigger Michigan's fast-break attack.

    LeVert may be the most improved player on the Michigan team, and Beilein will look to him for consistent production in his team's Sweet 16 encounter with the Vols.

Keep Jarnell Stokes from Going Off

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    While Michigan would like a repeat of its win over Texas in which the Wolverines were hitting their outside shots and got off to a huge lead, Tennessee would like to use its power down low to give itself a chance to come up with the upset.

    That means Jarnell Stokes needs to have another huge game. Stokes has been one of the main stories for Martin's team in its first three NCAA tourney victories in 2014. The 6'8", 260-pound power forward averaged 20.3 ppg and 15.0 rpg in the victories over Iowa, UMass and Mercer, and the Vols are going to look to him once again.

    No Tennessee player has ever put together a better statistical performance in the NCAA tournament

    That means Michigan's Jordan Morgan is going to be asked to slow him down. Morgan is a strong defensive player who helped shut down Texas' strong interior play in the round of 32. He has proven himself capable of stopping bigger players throughout the season, and that will have to be the case once again because Stokes outweighs Morgan by 35 pounds.

    Stokes has a season-long average of 15.2 ppg and 10.7 rpg. If Morgan can keep Stokes at or below his season average, the Wolverines have a very good chance of moving on to the Elite Eight.