The second weekend of the NCAA tournament is typically where Cinderella stories go to die, where the glass slipper falls to the ground and is stepped on by the overpowering bully known as the best teams in college basketball.
It's a process that's entirely less fun than the first weekend but a necessary one. Without the second weekend's sanity, the first Thursday and Friday wouldn't feel as special and college basketball as a whole would feel like something of a farce. OK, more of a farce.
For as much as we say we'd like to see Dayton win the national championship—and we probably would in a one-year sample—it's better for the sport when the big boys flex their muscles. Not only does better teams winning lead to a more cohesive brand of basketball as the tournament goes along, but big names draw casual eyeballs and eventually create hardcore fans.
The first set of Sweet 16 games saw a limited normalcy fall over the tournament. Dayton-Stanford was always going to lead to a funky seed making the regional final, but Wisconsin's thrashing of Baylor helped send a message.
Given the unpredictability of this tournament as a whole, though, I'm not ruling anything out. As someone who had Duke in his Final Four and had quite a few other breaks go in the opposite direction, I'm fully prepared for 2014 to be the year the parity-filled floodgates open.
With that in mind, let's take a quick look at what to expect in Friday's regional semifinal action.
Sweet 16 Friday Breakdown
|Matchup||Spread (Vegas Insider)||Time (ET)||TV||Pick|
|Midwest - No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 11 Tennessee||Michigan -2||7:15 p.m.||CBS||Tennessee|
|East - No. 3 Iowa State vs. No. 7 Connecticut||Iowa State -1||7:27 p.m.||TNT||Iowa State|
|Midwest - No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 8 Kentucky||Louisville -5||9:45 p.m.||CBS||Louisville|
|East - No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 4 Michigan State||Michigan State -1||9:57 p.m.||TBS||Michigan State|
No. 11 Tennessee vs. No. 2 Michigan (Midwest Region)
Tennessee is a so-called "Cinderella" in how we've historically defined the word. As a No. 11 seed, the Volunteers were allegedly given an unfavorable schedule—and they had to make their way through a First Four game to even get that chance. Only 15 No. 11 seeds in history have advanced to the Sweet 16, just five of which advanced to the Elite Eight.
Then again, this Tennessee team is anything but a typical No. 11.
Undervalued and extremely unlucky during the regular season, Cuonzo Martin's team has flexed its muscles in three straight tournament games. Iowa took the Vols to overtime before being outscored by 13 in the extra session, and they've scored wins of 19 and 20 points over Massachusetts and Mercer, respectively.
Landing Mercer in the round of 32 was, of course, a stroke of luck. Duke loomed as supposedly the best No. 3 seed in the entire bracket before its shocking loss to the 14th-seeded Bears, who then in turn were fed their understandable beatdown at the hands of Tennessee. Jarnell Stokes has put together three consecutive double-doubles in the wins, overpowering opposing bigs with his strength.
If there's one area the Vols can undoubtedly take advantage of Michigan, it's on the glass. The Vols are fourth nationally in offensive rebound percentage (subscription required), while Michigan has struggled since Mitch McGary went down with a season-ending back injury. Jordan Morgan leads the team in rebounding overall at just five per game. The Wolverines' team-first rebounding strategy is unlikely to work against Tennessee's hulking bigs, and it'd be a major surprise if Stokes didn't make it four straight double-doubles.
"I remember doing an interview after that camp, and they asked me who the toughest player was that I went against (that day)," McGary told . "I said (Stokes). I said 'he's a fridge on wheels.'"
Beyond Stokes, Tennessee has a defensive profile that should give Michigan fits. The Vols pride themselves in pushing opponents away from the three-point stripe, with only 27.3 percent of opponent's shots coming from distance (21st nationally). Given the Wolverines' reliance on the deep ball—no remaining tournament team takes more of its shots from three—this shouldn't be an easy walkthrough for Nik Stauskas and Co.
Expect a close, low-scoring game as both sides work to limit possessions. If Stokes and Jeronne Maymon are able to dominate the offensive boards enough to give Tennessee a couple extra chances, the Vols may just advance one more round.
No. 7 Connecticut vs. No. 3 Iowa State (East Region)
This is an inherently difficult game to find out, if only because Connecticut and Iowa State both have such glaring flaws.
The Cyclones, already a shaky defensive team, are only going to struggle more with Georges Niang out for the season. Niang was a solidifying force on both ends for Fred Hoiberg, and you could see the effect of his absence against North Carolina. It's not unfair to say the Tar Heels outplayed their lower-seeded opponents for 37 minutes, only to fall apart at the end.
Connecticut can't score. Or, that is, Connecticut can't score consistently without Shabazz Napier balling out. Which, of course, he's done in both tournament games. Napier has put up 49 points in two tournament games, including 25 in as many minutes in the Huskies' upset win over Villanova.
This game is the classic offense versus defense debate, and there's little from a numbers standpoint separating the two. Iowa State ranks 10th in offensive efficiency; Connecticut 10th in defensive efficiency. The Cyclones rank 57th in defensive efficiency; the Huskies 58th in offensive efficiency. Ken Pomeroy's Pythagorean ratings separate the two schools by four-one thousandths of a percent.
Good luck finding anyone with a super hot take on the favorite of this contest. At least someone not clouded by the overwhelming specter of fandom.
As cliche as it is, this game might come down to which team controls the tempo. Iowa State is one of the nation's fastest-paced teams, averaging 71.5 possessions per game, far and away the most of any remaining tourney team. DeAndre Kane looks to push the ball up the floor and immediately begin the offensive set, with a majority of the Cyclones' shots coming within the first 10 seconds of the shot clock.
Kevin Ollie doesn't grind his team's gears to a halt, but he does preach patience. Napier and Ryan Boatright are typically the only two Huskies who push for quick shots, which sometimes works to the detriment of the offense. Boatright is only a 38 percent shooter, and while Napier has his moments of brilliance, his gunner tendencies can get him into trouble.
If Kane and Co. are able to goad Connecticut's guards into an up-and-down tempo, Iowa State has a real shot at a double-digit win. Ollie needs to keep the reins in on his guards a bit and judge how locked in they are, but the lower scoring the better for the Huskies.
No. 8 Kentucky vs. No. 4 Louisville (Midwest Region)
First thing: Let's go ahead and toss Kentucky's Dec. 28 win over Louisville aside. Not only was that game exactly four months before Thursday's tipoff, but the Wildcats had the benefit of being home. During the regular season, Kentucky was 16-2 at Rupp Arena. Away from the comfort of home, that record dropped to 2-8.
Throwing that game out the window is the fairest thing we can do for either side, frankly.
What that leaves is a game, based on all the evidence we have of these teams, that Louisville should win more often than not. The Cardinals are winners of seven straight games, with a scare against a similarly styled Manhattan team before dominating an overmatched Saint Louis. The committee's decision to give Louisville a No. 4 seed remains perhaps the most egregious seeding mistake in history, and those who saw Rick Pitino's squad as a Midwest favorite haven't been disproved.
Russ Smith, the national player of the year contender who has likely taken years off Pitino's life with his shot selection, hasn't played well in either contest. He's a combined 6-of-19 from the field and 1-of-6 from beyond the three-point line, getting most of his production from the charity stripe. Pitino told
"All the great ones from Michael Jordan to Kobe (Bryant), they don't try to score 20 points in the first quarter," Pitino said. "They get everybody else the ball and they let the game come to them, and the other team fatigues and things open up. He doesn't understand the scouting of the other teams."
In their first matchup with Kentucky, Smith jacked up 20 shots and missed all five of his three-pointers en route to a 19-point outing. The Wildcats have struggled on both ends of the floor at times, but they've improved of late. They're one of five teams remaining in the tournament that rank inside the top 25 in offensive and defensive efficiency.
Louisville is also one of those teams, though, and the key to this Sweet 16 run has been the contribution of players other than Smith. Luke Hancock has knocked down a series of clutch threes, and Montrezl Harrell is building his NBA resume. If Smith finds his outside jumper and plays within himself, this should be a solid Louisville win.
No. 4 Michigan State vs. No. 1 Virginia (East Region)
When we look back at this tournament, Michigan State-Virginia might be viewed as one of the turning points. It's seemed almost preordained since the brackets were released that the Spartans would make the Final Four. They were such a prohibitive favorite in the region that many pegged a No. 4 seed as the national championship favorite.
Of note: Only one No. 4 seed since 1985 has won the national title (Arizona, 1997). Only three have reached the final game, though Michigan bucked history last season to come within a game of cutting down the nets.
While much of the confidence in Michigan State was rooted in tangible logic (health and Tom Izzo being chief), it was also rooted in a trepidation about picking Virginia. The Cavaliers were the regular-season and tournament champions in the ACC, but their entire season was defined by waiting for the other shoe to drop. Eventually, so the school of thought went, a talent discrepancy would catch up to Tony Bennett and Co.
It never has. Virginia ranks fourth nationally in Ken Pomeroy's Pythagorean ratings, comfortably sitting ahead of the eighth-place Spartans. From a numbers standpoint, Virginia has been far and away the better team and has been consistently undervalued by pundits all season.
But you knew that at this point. Bennett's slowed down, defense-first tactics are a known quantity at this point, as are Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon's ability to stretch the floor.
At issue is how these teams compare at the moment. Michigan State has reeled off five straight wins and is starting to look like the preseason No. 2 again. Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson, whose absences played such a large part in the Spartans' midseason swoon, have traded off career-high scoring performances in their first two tournament games.
Payne is a matchup problem for any team, let alone a Cavaliers squad with no player listed bigger than 6'8". Virginia has been brilliant defending the post all year, ranking sixth nationally in post defense, per Synergy Sports (subscription service). But it will be interesting to see how they choose to deal with a team that has size all over the floor.
Coaching plays the largest factor here, and that's perhaps the most difficult battle to judge. History tells us Izzo is the better coach. Hell, he might be the best March coach in history by the time he hangs up the whistle. But Bennett has never had a team this good and has never had a chance like this.
Smart money as always is on Izzo. Just don't be remotely surprised if Virginia goes and proves everyone wrong one more time.
All advanced stats via KenPom unless otherwise cited.
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