The Elite Eight is halfway complete after Thursday's Sweet 16 action. The other four spots will be claimed on Friday. Once the dust settles, the remaining teams are going to stand just three victories away from capturing the national championship.
Although there was a solid slate of games on Thursday, the second set of Sweet 16 contests should be even better. All four games should be highly competitive and up for grabs deep into the second half, which leaves the door open for some upsets.
As always, by this stage of the tournament, it all comes down to which team can peak at the right time. So let's check out all of the updated bracket information, followed by a complete schedule for today's action and picks against the spread for all four games. All odds are courtesy of Vegas Insider.
All Your Bracket Essentials:
Sweet 16: Day 2 Schedule
|2014 NCAA Tournament: Sweet 16, Day 2|
|3/28||Tennessee vs. Michigan||7:15 p.m.||CBS|
|3/28||Connecticut vs. Iowa State||7:27 p.m.||TBS|
|3/28||Kentucky vs. Louisville||9:45 p.m.||CBS|
|3/28||Michigan St. vs. Virginia||9:57 p.m.||TBS|
Sweet 16: Day 2 Odds and Picks
|2014 NCAA Tournament: Sweet 16, Day 2|
|Tennessee vs. Michigan||MICH -2.5||TENN|
|Connecticut vs. Iowa State||ISU -1.5||ISU|
|Kentucky vs. Louisville||LOU -4.5||LOU|
|Michigan St. vs. Virginia||MSU -2||MSU|
|Odds: Vegas Insider|
Play begins with Tennessee looking to continue its Final Four push as a double-digit seed. The Volunteers needed overtime to survive a play-in game against Iowa but have since racked up convincing wins over Massachusetts and Mercer, which had upset Duke.
The Vols were always more dangerous than their No. 11 seed would suggest. They illustrated that by playing No. 1 seed Florida tough twice down the stretch, including an SEC tournament semifinal that had seen Tennessee lead by seven at halftime.
A matchup with Michigan is good for the Vols. The Wolverines' biggest weakness is on the defensive end, where the unit ranks 95th in adjusted efficiency, according to KenPom.com. That's good news for a Tennessee squad with three players averaging more than 18 points per game in the tournament.
So even though the Volunteers are an underdog, they have a great chance to win outright. ESPN College Basketball passes along an interesting note about the Elite Eight if they do advance:
The second early contest features a pair of teams flying below the radar. Connecticut is fresh off an upset of Villanova, while Iowa State is the only No. 3 seed left standing after the first weekend. It makes for an interesting game.
Perhaps the biggest determining factor will be the pace of play. The Cyclones want to get up and down the floor quickly in order to highlight the sixth-ranked scoring offense. The Huskies prefer to play at a far slower pace, which increases the importance of each possession and allows their defense to shine.
The edge would fall firmly in Iowa State's favor if it were at full strength. Unfortunately for the Cyclones, Georges Niang suffered a foot injury in the team's tournament opener and ended his season. It makes the game far more of a toss-up situation.
That said, as the Cyclones showed against North Carolina, they still have plenty of offensive firepower without Niang. That should be enough to reach the next round and cover the spread as long as they don't let Shabazz Napier completely dominate from start to finish.
The late session begins with the most talked-about matchup of the round as Louisville and Kentucky reignite their in-state rivalry. The reigning champions are rounding into form once again, but the Wildcats are also playing very well and are coming off a win over Wichita State.
Rick Pitino has been preaching to his team about offensive efficiency as the repeat bid enters its final stage. Louisville's official athletics site passed along comments from the head coach after the win over Saint Louis, in which he talks about teams stepping up defensively at this stage:
You know, the NCAA, the one thing I've known throughout the years, being in this business, is people get very conservative, and they talk about—I've always felt—you hear the expression defense wins championships. A lack of offense keeps you from winning a championship. All these teams can guard. And it's really, really important—we beat Michigan and Wichita State and the teams before that, and we were a very good defense because of our offense. We didn't win because of our defense. Every team can play defense at this stage. So you've got to have great offense to win, and you've got to really execute and make free throws, do smart things.
Assuming Pitino is right, and the track record would suggest he is, Louisville needs Russ Smith and Chris Jones to play better than they did in the opening week. Both guards have struggled from the field after strong regular seasons.
A chance to press the reset button should do wonders for that duo. On the flip side, Kentucky has lacked consistency throughout the season, which was expected for a young team. That makes it tough to pick the Wildcats against a battle-tested Cardinals squad despite the upset of Wichita State.
Finally, the Sweet 16 will wrap up with Michigan State taking on Virginia. The Spartans are actually the oddsmakers' favorite despite being the No. 4 seed to the Cavaliers' No. 1 seed. They have found their stride in recent weeks, changing the outside perception.
Virginia can use that as motivation. It leads the nation in scoring defense at under 56 points against per game and had little trouble slowing down Coastal Carolina and Memphis in its first two tournament contests.
The deciding factor in what should be a slow-paced game is which version of Adreian Payne shows up for Michigan State. The senior forward was virtually unstoppable against Delaware, attacking the rim aggressively en route to 41 points. He scored just 12 against Harvard, though.
If Virginia can contain him, it should advance. The bad news for the Cavaliers is that they don't have much size aside from limited contributor Mike Tobey. It means Michigan State should be able to lean on Payne to reach the Elite Eight.
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