In a region where Michigan is the highest remaining seed by two spots, it could be shockingly argued that college basketball writers and the media have made the Wolverines out to be the biggest underdog in this region. While it is true that Kentucky and Tennessee are playing their best basketball of the season, Louisville struggled to get by Manhattan and Saint Louis to get to the Sweet 16, and the two other aforementioned teams are still seeded #8 and #11. Michigan is no stranger to being the underdog, with many "experts" picking South Dakota State and VCU to beat the Wolverines last year before Michigan ripped through both of them enroute to a Final Four. To get back to the Final Four and earn a spot in Texas, the Wolverines have to get through a very talented Tennessee team first. Let's breakdown the teams:
Tennessee: There seems to be a recurring theme that teams who win their First Four game catch momentum and make a run. The best example of this is VCU's "First to Final Four" run in 2011, and is an example of a team gelling at the right time. Tennessee is a bit of a strange case though, as KenPom has them ranked as the sixth best team, and Michigan is ranked tenth on that list. This is the still the same Tennessee team that lost at Texas A&M and Vanderbilt in February, before reeling off 5 wins in a row and 8 of their last 9. They can clearly play, and Michigan's biggest worry, as was the Texas game, will be on the interior. Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymom are both 6'8, 260, and are an absolute force on the boards. In their last game, Stokes went for 18 boards on his own, and if you add in Maymom's 8 rebounds, the two bigs outrebounded Mercer 26-19 on their own. Michigan is not a particularly big team, and a lot of the boxing out and rebounding responsibility will fall to Glenn Robinson III and Jordan Morgan.
While everyone likes to talk about Tennessee's interior, they have a slew of great guards to compliment their bigs inside. Jordan McRae, one of the best players in the SEC, is a 6'6 point guard who averaged 18 points a game for the Vols. The key to Tennessee's NCAA tournament success, however, could be attributed to Josh Richardson. Richardson did not have the best regular season, only averaging 10 points in his Junior campaign in Knoxville. But he has caught fire in the tournament, going for 17 and 15 against Iowa and UMass respectively before exploding for 26 points on 9-13 shooting against Mercer. Richardson is also 6'6, and this seems like a matchup that Caris LeVert will likely take on. The final starter is Antonio Barton, a 6'2 guard who transferred from Memphis for his fifth year of eligibility and has contributed a modest 8 points a game. The key for Michigan will be to get the Tennessee starters into foul trouble, as every Tennessee starter has averaged 30+ minutes in the tournament in a close win against Iowa and blowout wins over UMass and Mercer. If Michigan can drag Maymom or Stokes to the bench early, it could be a huge advantage on the boards for Michigan and for the Wolverine guards to attack the lanes.
Michigan: I can't remember a team that won its first two games with less headlines and national attention for their performance. But Michigan has kept on trucking, beating both Wofford and Texas by double digits and has included standout performances from Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson, Caris LeVert and especially Jordan Morgan. John Beilein has loved to tinker with the lineup all year in preparation for tournament games, but seems to have found his core guys. Every starter besides for Walton played 35+ minutes in the win over Texas, and Walton played 29. As we saw in last year's tournament, guys on the bench are not expecting to play major minutes, but will be ready to step in if other players pick up early fouls. On offense, the key for Michigan will be to not fall in love with the 3-pointer. Teams that play like Duke with no big man can find themselves in serious trouble if they shoot 30+ 3's, but Michigan has done a good job of establishing Jordan Morgan as a legit offensive weapon. Michigan made 24 field goals against Texas, 14 of those 3's, but also attempted 21 free throws including 8 from Morgan and 6 from Stauskas. It will be crucial, as I stated above, to get to the line and get the Tennessee starters into foul trouble.
Defensively, this could be one of the toughest tests of the season. As Michigan saw with Michigan State, a hot team is a very dangerous one. While Tennessee is not as talented as Michigan State, we saw that both Morgan and Jon Horford were saddled with foul trouble in that first half against the Spartans' bigs, forcing Beilein to dig deep into his bench and play redshirt sophomore Max Bielfeldt. I expect Michigan to be much more disciplined against the Volunteers, as they only committed 12 total fouls against Texas. If they can win both the foul and turnover battle (they only committed 4 against Texas), this could go a long way to pulling out the victory.
Prediction: At this time last year, Michigan was matched up against arguably the #1 team in the country, Kansas, and beat them. In this game, Tennessee wants to play spoiler to a phenomenal Michigan season up to this point. Michigan doesn't have Trey Burke and his heroic shots, but Nik Stauskas was just named to the NABC First Team All-America and has certainly been playing like one in the NCAA tournament. As stated before, the key for Michigan will be to win the foul and turnover battle. If Michigan can play their game and hit their shots, Tennessee will get frustrated. The good news for Tennessee is that there is nothing scarier than playing a sleeping giant that has finally woken up, and I'm sure that Cuonzo Martin will tell his Tennessee team just that. But Michigan has too many shooters, and there's a reason that the Wolverines are seeded nine spots higher than a fourth place finisher in the SEC. When it's all said and done, the Wolverines should be moving on in the Elite 8 to face the winner of Kentucky supremacy. Final score: Michigan 71, Tennessee 66. As always, Go Blue!