#11 Tennessee (24-12, 11-7 SEC) vs. #2 Michigan (27-8, 15-3 Big Ten)
Friday, March 28, 7:15 p.m ET
Lucas Oil Stadium (40,000) . Indianapolis, Ind.
Radio: Vol Network (WGOW-FM 102.3, Chattanooga)
Series Record: Tied 5-5
Winner advances to the Elite 8 to play the winner of #4 Louisville vs. #8 Kentucky on Sunday in Indianapolis
Probable Michigan Starters
G-Derrick Walton Jr., 6-1, 185, FR (8.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.9 apg)
G-Nik Stauskas, 6-6, 185, SO (17.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg, .451 3FG%)
F-Caris LeVert, 6-6, 185 SO, (13.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg, .410 3FG%)
F-Glenn Robinson III, 6-6, 220, SO, (13.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg, .487 FG%)
C-Jordan Morgan, 6-8, 250, SR (6.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, .688 FG%)
Key Reserves:Zak Irvin (6-6, 200, FR); Spike Albrecht (5-11, 175, SO); Jon Horford (6-10, 250, JR)
Probable Tennessee Starters
G-Antonio Barton, 6-2, 180, SR, (7.7 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 2.1 apg)
G-Jordan McRae, 6-6, 185, SR, (18.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg, .359 3FG%)
G-Josh Richardson, 6-6, 190, JR, (10.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg, .337 3FG%)
F-Jeronne Maymon, 6-8, 260, SR (9.9 ppg, 8.3 rpg, .538 FG%)
F-Jarnell Stokes, 6-8, 260, JR, (15.2 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 4.3 orpg)
Key Reserves:Darius Thompson (6-5, 180, FR); Derek Reese (6-8, 220, SO); Armani Moore (6-5, 215, SO)
The opening tip
Tennessee and Michigan are where a lot of analysts thought they had a chance to be this season – the Sweet 16. But neither took an easy route to get there.
Michigan was 8-4 through 12 games and lost big man Mitch McGary, a preseason All-Big Ten selection, for the season with an injury. The Wolverines adjusted and rallied, however, winning 10 in a row after McGary’s injury. And after one more brief rough stint in the middle of the season, Michigan finished strong by claiming nine of their last 10, with the only loss coming to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament finals.
The Vols can relate in some ways. They also started the season with a bumpy stretch before finally pulling it all together just weeks before the end of the regular season. They reeled off four straight at the end of the regular season, advanced to the semifinals of the SEC tournament and have knocked off Iowa, UMass and Mercer to survive to this point.
Both of these teams have overcome adversity and are now playing well.
The contrasting styles are interesting. Michigan is lethal from behind the arc, boasting a 3-pointing shooting percentage right at 40 percent with five individual players shooting right at or above that mark. Coached by John Beilein, last year’s national runner-ups are as technically sound and efficient as any team in the nation.
Nik Stauskas is the player UT must minimize. He averages 17.4 points per game and hits 45.1 percent of his shots from behind the arc.
“Very talented,” UT coach Cuonzo Martin said of Staukas. “I think whenever he decides to leave college, I know coach wants him there for four years, but when he decides to leave, there is no doubt in my mind that he will play at the NBA level. At 6-6, he can really shoot the ball and can put the ball on the floor.”
Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton, Spike Albrecht and Zak Irvin can all knock them down as well. It will be perhaps the toughest test of the year for a Tennessee defense that has been nearly flawless in tournament play so far.
Tennessee hopes its athletic and rangy perimeter defenders can make life difficult on Michigan’s sharpshooters. The Vols also hope to have the advantage inside, where Jarnell Stokes has yet to find an opponent this tournament that can neutralize him.
Michigan normally plays just one traditional big man on the floor at a time and that will leave center Jordan Morgan the tough task of battling against Stokes and Jeronne Maymon inside for rebounds. But on the otherend that leaves one of UT’s posts against a more athletic player such as Glenn Robinson III. It’ll be an interesting chess match to keep an eye on.
Josh Richardson will be the player to watch for Tennessee. Others have had great moments in the tournament, but he’s perhaps stepped him game up more than anybody else, averaging 19.3 points per game after scoring closer to nine points per contest in the regular season. In addition, he continues to be the Vols’ best defender and will likely draw the assignment of guarding Staukas.
One of Martin’s first recruits to Knoxville, Richardson has changed from a role player to a team leader. The Vols will need him to continue his high level of play to advance.
“He is a quality young man,” Martin said. “His family has done a great job in raising him, but just happy to see him be successful, and he is making those strides. I think what he has done is he’s improved his leadership skills, and I think that was hard for him at first, to try to be a leader because as a leader sometimes you are stepping on guys toes and that’s not an easy thing to do, but I think that is where he has improved at.”
“We are just staying humble. I have made them understand, you have heard the bad – the approach doesn’t change. I tell them all the time that you have to stay consistent in your approach. We have to continue to take care of the task at hand, work extremely hard.”
– Martin on keeping the team focused after its success so far in the NCAA tournament
Tennessee returns to the Sweet 16 for just the eighth time in school history, but for the fourth time in the last eight seasons. A win would put the Vols in the Elite 8 for just the second time in school history (2010). . Tickets are sold out for Friday’s pair of games, which will also include Kentucky against Louisville. Over 40,000 are expected to be in attendance. . Friday is the third-year anniversary of the Vols hiring Martin. . The Vols are shooting 49.1 percent from the field and 82.8 percent from the free-throw line in the NCAA tournament. They are also averaging a rebounding edge of +17.3 in tournament play thus far. . Stokes needs one more double-double to set the school record (23) in that category for a single season. . A win would give UT 25 wins for just the fourth time in school history. . Martin played at Purdue with Glenn Robinson Jr., the father of Robinson III. . Tennessee lost to Michigan 75-45 in its last NCAA tournament appearance (2011) prior to this season. That was the final game at UT for former coach Bruce Pearl, who was soon fired amidst an NCAA investigation.
Tennessee matches up well with Michigan. The Vols have a chance to control the paint yet again and their perimeter defense should make it tough on Michigan’s shooters. But there’s a reason the Wolverines are a No. 2 seed and one of the best teams in the nation. They will find ways to get their shots off and could easily hit enough to overcome Tennessee’s advantage down low. A cold shooting night from the Wolverines likely means the Vols are headed to the Elite 8, but Michigan has knocked shots down all season and it’s tough to bet against that happening on Friday as well.
Michigan 64, Tennessee 60
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga