The 2014 NCAA tournament has already been chock-full of exciting matchups, but Friday's slate of Sweet 16 games promises to provide the most entertaining day of March Madness thus far.
All four contests look extremely competitive on paper, and it isn't hard to imagine either team ultimately advancing from each game. That type of unpredictability is what college basketball fans crave and feed off of during the tourney.
Here is a closer look at the schedule for Day 2 of the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 along with predictions for which teams will prevail and advance to the Elite Eight.
Sweet 16 Predictions
Tennessee vs. Michigan
Although the Tennessee Volunteers are a No. 11 seed, they haven't been considered an underdog until now. The Vols already have three wins under their belt as they have beaten Mercer and Massachusetts since taking down Iowa in the play-in game, but they will be faced with their first true test of the tourney when they take on No. 2 seed Michigan.
The Wolverines reached the championship game last year, and while their team is different in many ways with Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. now in the NBA, head coach John Beilein has kept his squad from missing a beat.
It would have been very easy for Michigan to fold when key big man Mitch McGary went down due to injury early in the season, but the Wolverines have persevered. In fact, Jordan Morgan has really stepped up and ascended to that McGary role, according to Jon Rothstein of CBSSports.com:
The Volunteers are in great form and have the horses to potentially pull off an upset, but Michigan's tourney experience and the clutch play of Nik Stauskas will be enough to elevate the Wolverines.
Connecticut vs. Iowa State
While it isn't necessarily true, many outsiders seem to view Connecticut as a one-man team. The Huskies admittedly don't have a ton of depth and guard Shabazz Napier is clearly the biggest key to their success, but it's tough to reach the Sweet 16 without some help along the way.
With that said, Napier is good enough that his mere presence makes UConn a real threat to unseat Iowa State and reach the Elite Eight. Napier's excellence has been well-documented, and Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg is wary of what he might be able to do on Friday, according to Dom Amore of the Hartford Courant.
This kid presents a little different challenge because of how explosive he is, his ability to get in the paint and hit shots, especially shots at tough times. It's hard to prepare for that in three or four days when you haven't seen him all year. You make kids like him hit tough, contested shots over you, and if at the end of the game you've done what you were trying to do defensively and he makes the shots, then you shake hands and move on. The kid is unbelievable with his ability to hit difficult shots. You can't get frustrated over it, you have to keep playing and keep trusting what you're trying to do on the defensive end.
At the same time, the Cyclones boast a dominant player in their own right in the form of DeAndre Kane. This game will be hugely entertaining with Napier and Kane presumably going shot for shot most of the way. The deciding factor could be the absence of Georges Niang for Iowa State, as he is out for the rest of the tournament with a broken foot.
That should be enough to give UConn the confidence it needs to pull off the mini upset.
Kentucky vs. Louisville
Whether it was by design or mere happenstance, the NCAA is getting the game that it likely wanted all along as power programs and bitter rivals Kentucky and Louisville will meet with an Elite Eight berth on the line. Rick Pitino and the Cardinals won the national title last year, but his Achilles' heel in recent years has been his inability to beat his former program.
The Wildcats are in fairly unfamiliar territory as a No. 8 seed, but they are playing more like a No. 1 after handing Wichita State its first loss of the season. The freshman trio of Julius Randle and the Harrison twins is on fire, and ESPN's Skip Bayless has gone so far to suggest that Kentucky should be favored:
Kentucky is good, but Louisville has a significant experience edge, especially when it comes to the likes of Russ Smith and Luke Hancock, who were huge in the Cardinals' title win last season. It should be noted, though, that Kentucky won it all two years ago, making this a historical matchup, per ESPN Stats & Info:
As athletic and talented as the Wildcats are, they aren't battle tested at the same level as Louisville. Senior leadership definitely matters in March, and the Cardinals have it in spades. Because of that, Louisville will continue its pursuit of a repeat.
Michigan State vs. Virginia
Kentucky vs. Louisville may be the most anticipated contest of the Sweet 16, but Michigan State vs. Virginia could ultimately prove to be the most competitive and best overall game of the entire tournament. The Cavaliers still aren't getting much respect despite being a No. 1 seed as well as the regular season and ACC tournament champions. Perhaps they'll use that as motivation against the red-hot Spartans.
Michigan State wasn't really viewed as a title contender until a late-season run that culminated in a Big Ten tournament title. The Spartans have continued to play well in the NCAA tournament, and their depth of scoring has been particularly impressive. Gary Harris, Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson are all potential go-to guys who somehow manage to mesh and share the ball effectively.
Virginia doesn't have anywhere near the dominant offensive talent that Michigan State does, but the Cavs can "D" up with the best of them. Virginia has allowed more than 63 points just once in its past 13 games, and ESPN's Andy Katz views the Cavaliers as a true threat to the Spartans:
As good as Virginia is defensively, there are concerns about its ability to make big buckets in clutch moments. That isn't an issue for Michigan State in the least, and that will be the difference in a Spartans victory.
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