Four spots remain available in the Elite Eight after a Thursday slate that saw a pair on No. 1 seeds, Florida and Arizona, pushed to the limit before advancing. The second day of Sweet 16 action features another set of highly competitive matchups.
The highlight game of the day will feature in-state rivals Louisville and Kentucky in a rematch of a December meeting won by the Wildcats. It's a game with a great chance to go right down to the wire. In fact, that's the case with every game on Friday.
Given that, let's check out all of the important bracket information heading into the final day of the Sweet 16, followed by a complete schedule with predictions and some key players to watch throughout the night.
All Your Bracket Essentials:
Sweet 16 – Friday Schedule and Predictions
|2014 NCAA Tournament - Sweet 16|
|3/28||Tennessee vs. Michigan||7:15 p.m.||CBS||TENN|
|3/28||Connecticut vs. Iowa State||7:27 p.m.||TBS||ISU|
|3/28||Kentucky vs. Louisville||9:45 p.m.||CBS||LOU|
|3/28||Michigan St. vs. Virginia||9:57 p.m.||TBS||MSU|
Key Players to Watch
Jarnell Stokes (Tennessee)
Tennessee would likely be watching the Sweet 16 from home if not for Stokes' performance in the play-in game against Iowa. The star forward had 18 points and 13 rebounds in the overtime escape, which was followed up with two blowout victories.
Stokes posted a double-double in all three of the Volunteers' tournament games so far, resulting in much-needed stability to lead their bracket-busting charge. His most recent stat line against muster hasn't been seen in the big dance for two decades, as ESPN Stats and Info noted:
His presence down low will be a huge advantage for Tennessee against Michigan. Not only are the Wolverines an average defensive team overall, but they also lack a true rim protector capable of slowing down the powerful 6'8'' junior when he receives a pass in the post.
Since both teams prefer to play at a slow pace, expect a lot of half-court basketball. For the Vols, that means a lot of dumps down to Stokes and, as proven against Mercer, if a team commits too many defenders to him, he's capable of finding open shooters on the perimeter.
Luke Hancock (Louisville)
The reigning Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four is off to another strong start in the tournament. He's scored 37 points over Louisville's first two wins, including some clutch shooting in the second half against Manhattan to ensure the Cardinals avoided a major upset.
As mentioned, Louisville and Kentucky played back in December with the Cardinals coming up short on the road. Hancock was asked about that game leading up to Friday's rematch and said the team is in a much better place now than it was in that previous meeting (via ASAP Sports):
I think we were struggling to kind of find an identity at that point. And a lot of changes to our team since then. And I think it's been for the better. I think guys are kind of filling into their roles and know what they have to do to make our team better.
Hancock's contributions have been made even more important by the struggles of Russ Smith and Chris Jones from the field in the big dance. If there's anything the last two seasons have shown, it's that the Virginia native recognizes when he needs to step up.
While the Wildcats are coming off of an upset of Wichita State, the young group has struggled with consistency throughout the season. Hancock and company must take advantage of that by turning up the pressure and using their experience to gain an edge.
Adreian Payne (Michigan State)
Payne has been on fire over the past four games. During a stretch covering the final two games of the Big Ten tournament, which Michigan State won, and the first two NCAA tournament contests, he's averaged over 22 points and six rebounds.
The hot streak was highlighted by a 41-point performance against Delaware in the round of 64. He was relentless attacking the rim. That led to 17 trips to the free-throw line, and he connected on every attempt. It was key in the Spartans pulling away from a pesky Blue Hens squad.
Michigan State is a well-rounded team. Gary Harris and Keith Appling lead a strong backcourt and Branden Dawson is the do-it-all swingman every title team needs. But the Spartans aren't at their best unless Payne is playing with the same sense of urgency he has as of late.
Virginia's defense leads the nation in points allowed, ceding only 55.5 per game. So it might be a struggle for Payne early as Michigan State tries to figure out how to attack the Cavaliers. He can't let that change his style, though. He must attack for the Spartans to advance.