The Wolverines, Spartans and Badgers all have advanced to the Sweet 16, as was expected by the majority of experts and "bracket-players" across the country.
Michigan has had a relatively easy time so far, defeating Wofford 57-40 and beating Texas 79-65. Michigan State rode 41 points from Adreian Payne in a 93-78 victory over Deleware and then survived 12th seeded Harvard's cinderella effort in a 80-73 victory. Wisconsin opened the tournament with a 75-35 domination over American University, but needed an epic 14-point comeback effort to beat Oregon 85-77.
Will we see three B1G teams in the Final Four? Or will all three remaining teams be taken out? This weekend sure will be fun.
The Wolverines have glided into the Sweet 16 behind outstanding outside shooting, led by Nik Stauskas. He is averaging 16 points so far in the tournament, and has gone 7-15 for three in the two games. As a team, Michigan is shooting 47% from behind the arc in the tournament, as they have hit 21 of 45 shots.
Michigan will face a whole new beast in the Sweet 16 as they face on of the hottest teams in the country in Tennessee. The Vols are led by junior forward Jarnell Stokes (6'8", 260), who is averaging over 20 points, and 15 rebounds per game through three tournament games (they beat Iowa in the First Four). Stokes nearly out-rebounded Mercer's entire team on Sunday, he grabbed 18 and they had only 19. Stokes is also shooting 56% from the field and 86% from the free throw line. Jordan Morgan will have to continue to come up big for Michigan to mitigate Tennessee's advantage inside.
Stokes, and the Vols entire front court, will provide a huge challenge for Michigan. Stokes' inside presence will be very difficult for the Wolverines to contain, and I expect him to have a big game. This will truly be an outside vs. inside game. However, If Michigan can continue to hit their shots from outside, they will be very difficult to beat for any team. With nearly a week to prepare, I expect John Beilein to come up with a way to at least contain Tennessee's bigs. If Michigan can continue to produce consistently from outside, I like them in this game. But for an eleventh seeded team, the Vols are going to be very tough.
If Michigan can get by Tennessee, they will face the winner of Louisville-Kentucky (which is going to be an awesome game) for the rights to represent the Midwest region in the Final Four. A matchup with Louisville, a rematch of the 2013 NCAA Championship, could provide one of the most exciting games in the tournament. Both teams are very similar and it would be impossible to confidently pick a winner in that game.
A matchup with Kentucky, who would be coming off wins against Kansas State, Wichita State and Louisville, would be a unique challenge. Kentucky even bigger, and probably more talented than Tennessee, led by freshman Julius Randle, who has 32 points and 25 rebounds through two tournament games.
The Spartans will get one seed Virginia in their Sweet 16 game, in a battle of tempo and efficiency. Virginia ranks in the top-20 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com, and focuses on stingy defense and deliberate play to control the game. Michigan State, however, will look to run and score whenever possible, as they have averaged 86.5 points through their two tournament games.
Virginia packs it in on defense, and forces teams to play uncomfortably. The Spartans will try to play fast, but Virginia's specialty is slowing teams down and taking away their first option on offense. The Spartans have distributed their scoring effectively. Adreian Payne scored 41 against Deleware and Branden Dawson had 26 against Harvard, helping out the Spartans' leading scorer Gary Harris.
The Spartans definitely have a talent advantage over Virginia. If they can exploit a rebounding advantage against an inconsistent rebounding Virginia squad (who had zero offensive rebounds against Costal Carolina) they will get valuable and necessary second looks and opportunities to push the tempo.
If they can get by Virginia, Michigan State's chances look great to make the Final Four, as they would go on to play the winner of Iowa State and Connecticut. Both of these teams are playing hot right now, and can put up big numbers, but I really like Michigan State's matchup against either of these teams.
Also...never forget about Tom Izzo. He gives an automatic intangible edge to the Spartans in any NCAA Tournament game.
The Badgers made the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years, something that no one expected to happen at halftime of the Oregon game. Inconsistency has defined their last four games. They dominated Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament and then proceeded to get dominated by Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal. In both tournament games so far, the Badgers have started out very slow, but have turned each game around, averaging over 45 second half points in the two games.
Wisconsin faces an unexpectedly hot team on Thursday night in Baylor. The Bears are coming off of a 85-55 steamrolling of Creighton and Doug McDermott, one of the most prolific scorers in college basketball history.
The Bears play a very similar game to Wisconsin, with deliberate tempo and outstanding offensive efficiency. The team is led by senior forward Cory Jefferson and senior guard Brady Heslip, who is shooting nearly 47% from long range on the season. And don't forget about 7'1" forward Isaiah Austin controlling the post.
Where Baylor really makes their name, however, is on defense. They employ a unique and fluid zone scheme, constantly adjusting to the opposing offense. Their defensive prowess came to fruition against Creighton, one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country, as the Bears held the Jays to 5-24 from behind the line.
It isn't necessarily an elite unit, but if the Badgers don't take advantage of open looks they will struggle. The Bears defense centers around Austin in the post, while the rest of the team flies out to cover the perimeter. On offense, the Badgers will need good, strategic passing and shot fakes to open up lanes to the post. Of course, making three-pointers early and often will open everything up.
Defensively, Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes will have to come up huge all game for the Badgers. The Bears are going to pound it inside. If their forwards, especially Austin, are able to do as they please in the post it will be very difficult for Wisconsin to win this game. Kaminsky may actually be more important on the defensive side of the ball than the offensive for this game.
Baylor's length and athleticism is something that the Badgers have not faced all year. But they need to be careful not to underestimate Wisconsin's creativity and adaptability that they have shown all season. Someone (probably other than Kaminsky) is going to have to step up offensively for Wisconsin, as they will not be able to rely on simply shooting over Baylor's defense. This is a fantastic matchup and will be a great game.
If Wisconsin can make it by Baylor, they will face either Arizona or San Diego State. Arizona looks like they are one of the best teams in the field right now. Either way, the Badgers will have two very difficult games in their quest for a Final Four. But as I have felt all year, there is just something different about this team, where someone always seems to pick the rest of the team up, and I think they have a legitimate shot to make it happen.
Who has the easiest path to North Texas?
Michigan State. The Spartans have two favorable matchups, and I (along with most of the college basketball world) think we will see them in the Final Four. If they can get by Virginia, I really can't see Iowa State or Connecticut stopping them.
Wisconsin definitely has the hardest path to win their next two games. Against Baylor, there definitely are aspects of the matchup that they will try to exploit, but Baylor's athleticism and momentum is unmatched. A following game, likely against Arizona, presents another difficult matchup that they can't afford to think about yet.
Michigan falls in the middle. I absolutely could see them winning two in a row, but it will require continued prolific outside shooting and terrific play from Stauskas. If they get by Tennessee, they will have an outstanding matchup against either Louisville or Kentucky.
I think it is a safe bet to say that at least one Big Ten team will be in the Final Four. Three teams might be pushing it, but each of these groups have unique things going for them. I think it's a real possibility that the Big Ten will be taking over Dallas in 10 days.