Friday's slate of Sweet 16 games featured four of the most exciting NCAA tournament contests thus far, but there is no question that Day 2 of the Elite Eight has a chance to top it on Sunday.
Four of the most successful college basketball programs in recent memory will lock horns for an opportunity to reach the Final Four. Connecticut and Michigan State will do battle in the East Region final, while the Midwest Region will be decided by a clash between Kentucky and Michigan.
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All four teams playing on Sunday have a legitimate chance to win it all, but two of them will unfortunately be sent packing. Here is all the information you need to know about when and where to watch Sunday's Elite Eight action, along with predictions for each game.
|No. 7 Connecticut vs. No. 4 Michigan State||Sunday, March 30||2:20 p.m.||CBS||Michigan State|
|No. 8 Kentucky vs. No. 2 Michigan||Sunday, March 30||5:05 p.m.||CBS||Kentucky|
Connecticut vs. Michigan State
It is usually considered somewhat surprising when a No. 7 seed meets a No. 4 seed with a trip to the Final Four on the line, but that isn't necessarily the case when it comes to Connecticut vs. Michigan State. UConn has been inconsistent this season, but it showed elite form at times, including a victory over Florida. Michigan State, on the other hand, went on a tear down the stretch and entered the tourney as a top title contender.
In many ways, it can be argued that this matchup to decide the East Region should have been obvious all along. The Huskies and Spartans are playing their best basketball of the season right now, and they're both coming off hugely impressive Sweet 16 triumphs.
UConn led Iowa State most of the way on Friday, and although the Cyclones made a valiant comeback attempt, the Huskies were able to close it out. Michigan State engaged in a true slugfest with No. 1 seed Virginia, but the Spartans managed to escape with a two-point victory.
The potential X-factor in this matchup could be the venue. The game will take place at the pride of New York in Madison Square Garden, and that could play right into UConn's hands. Superstar guard Shabazz Napier admitted that the Huskies fed off the crowd against Iowa State, according to Joe Lapointe of MLive.com.
"It felt like a home game," Napier said. "It's definitely confidence for us. We've played here a bunch of times. Madison Square Garden is kind of our third home."
ESPN's Andy Katz agreed with that assessment and put the onus on Michigan State's fans to change the atmosphere in the Spartans' favor:
Michigan State moves on to play UConn. Sparty fans better show or this will be a road game at MSG.— Andy Katz (@ESPNAndyKatz) March 29, 2014
It will be extremely difficult to overtake UConn's strong fanbase, though, so it will be interesting to see how it impacts the game.
Kentucky vs. Michigan
Kentucky has been a dominant program during head coach John Calipari's tenure, and while that was expected to be the case once again in 2013-14, the Wildcats didn't get off to an ideal start. They were lingering around the No. 25 spot in the rankings as the season came to a close, and although they fell to Florida in the SEC championship game, they proved capable of hanging with the best team in the country.
That seemingly gave Kentucky a hug confidence boost entering March Madness, and it has worked wonders. The Wildcats handed Wichita State its first loss of the season in the round of 32, and they followed that up with an even bigger encore performance in the Sweet 16 by eliminating defending champion Louisville. Facing Michigan in the Elite Eight, Kentucky now has an opportunity to return to the Final Four for the third time in four years.
Most of the focus is on Kentucky right now, but Michigan and head coach John Beilein deserve plenty of credit. The Wolverines lost Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA, and Mitch McGary has been out most of the season due to injury. Even so, Beilein has Michigan in position to garner its second straight Final Four appearance.
It is often said that experience is the biggest factor in tourney games, and while Michigan has that to some degree after last season, this game is about youth more than anything. According to Scott Bell of The Dallas Morning News, only one upperclassman is expected to start in this game:
Projected starters in Sunday's Michigan/Kentucky Elite 8 matchup: -Freshmen/sophomores: 9 -Upperclassmen: 1— Scott Bell (@sbell021) March 29, 2014
That will make for quite an interesting dynamic, and it could be argued that the advantage goes to Kentucky due to Calipari's track record of success when it comes to handling freshmen. Whatever the case, it should be one of the best games of the entire NCAA tournament.
In the contest between UConn and Michigan State, it will likely come down to depth. The Huskies arguably have the best player remaining in this tournament in the form of Napier, but his supporting cast is highly questionable aside from DeAndre Daniels. Conversely, Michigan State has a large stable of players capable of taking over a game at any time.
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Gary Harris, Adreian Payne, Branden Dawson and Keith Appling form an outstanding offensive quartet, and it will be very difficult for Connecticut to account for all of them. Because of that, expect Tom Izzo's Spartans to cruise to a fairly comfortable win despite UConn's "home-court" advantage.
The Kentucky vs. Michigan game is a bit tougher to handicap, but recent form suggests that the Wildcats may be better prepared to prevail. The Wolverines shouldn't apologize for the fact that they have had a fairly easy road to the Elite Eight, but it hasn't done them any favors.
Kentucky has had to take out Kansas State, Wichita State and Louisville to get to this point, while Michigan hasn't faced anything better than a No. 7 seed. Kentucky is only a No. 8 seed, but it's blatantly obvious at this point that the Wildcats are playing like a No. 1.
While Kentucky has to be especially wary of Nik Stauskas and his three-point shooting prowess, freshmen Julius Randle, James Young, Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison are playing too well to be denied.
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