Midwest Regional Preview: Cats-Cards takes center stage
The regional semifinals are set in the Midwest. Kentucky faces Louisville after knocking off Wichita State and Tennessee, the No. 11 seed, will play Michigan.
The glamour region lived up to its name, giving fans one of the tournament's most memorable upsets (Mercer over Duke) and arguably the best game (Kentucky over Wichita State). The previously undefeated Shockers' last-second loss ends one of the biggest stories of the season, but before we move on to a Bluegrass rematch and the battle of contrasting styles in Michigan-Tennessee let's tip our hat to Gregg Marshall's squad.
Sunday's game felt like a Final Four matchup, not only because of the intensity and high level of play but because Wichita State and Kentucky, at least on this particular afternoon, looked like two of the best teams in the tournament. Should Fred VanVleet's last second 3-pointer have gone in, the story would focus on Wichita State looking "title ready" after getting tested by the talented Wildcats. The game's result doesn't validate the Shockers' greatness or make Kentucky the new favorite in the Midwest, but it does speak volumes of the potential for both squads.
Now that we know the four teams competing for a Final Four bid in Indianapolis, let's see how we got here.
Three thoughts from the weekend
1. Can Kentucky replicate its performance from Sunday?
Andrew Harrison was able to penetrate, Aaron Harrison was knocking down 3-pointers and Julius Randle showed some of his best grown-man skills in the second half against Wichita State. For the game's final 20 minutes, Kentucky looked like the fantasy squad that was voted No. 1 by the AP in the preseason. The high level of play was not completely out of the blue -- the 2013-14 Wildcats' two best games before Wichita State would arguably be the win against Louisville and loss to Florida in the SEC tournament final -- but has not been the norm, either.
Is John Calipari's squad going to be able to re-open that bottle of lightning against Louisville? If so, the Wildcats' memorable win against Wichita State could be the springboard for a second Final Four in three years. If you're looking for X-factors in that matchup, look no further than Randle. The Wildcats big man sat out the second half of the win against Louisville because of cramps after scoring 17 points in the first half.
2. Louisville, Michigan advance after somewhat unspectacular showings.
The defending champs and last year's runner-up fell below the fold with their wins over the weekend, but there is no reason to doubt each team's potential to return to the Final Four. Something about the loss to Michigan State in Big Ten title game seemed to shake the public's confidence in the Wolverines, but those in John Beilein's locker room shook it off quickly and showed Final Four form in a 79-65 win over Texas that was never in doubt. Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton combined for 15 of Michigan's 21 3-pointers over the weekend, a good sign for the Wolverines.
As for Louisville, the second-round scare against Manhattan was followed up by a 15-point win against Saint Louis that included 19 Cardinals turnovers. An ice-cold shooting day for the Billikens resulted in a game that was hard watch, but Louisville -- "the prettiest team in an ugly game," as coach Rick Pitino said -- welcomed the grind and pulled away for a 66-51 victory. Doubting the Cards because of these two performances would be a big mistake, particularly when you consider this team's experience and Pitino's perfect record in the Sweet 16. A national title rematch in the regional final is a definite possibility, despite the excitement around the SEC winners from Sunday.
3. Tennessee's run doesn't feel like a Cinderella story
Tennessee did enter the tournament from Dayton and carries a double-digit seed by its name, but the Vols are one of the hottest teams in the tournament. Cuonzo Martin credited his team's renewed commitment to the defensive side of the ball for its success, and in the past three games Tennessee has shed its low-scoring reputation by turning turnovers and defensive stops into easy buckets. It's a relatively simple development, one that has made the Vols much better than your typical No. 11 seed.
Senior Jordan McRae is playing with tremendous confidence. Josh Richardson has been the team's sparkplug, not to mention one of the leading scorers, and Jarnell Stokes (17 points, 18 rebounds in Sunday's win against Mercer) has been an absolute beast down low. They won't be favored against Michigan, but a spell of cold shooting for the Wolverines could extend what has become a program-changing run for Cuonzo Martin.
Three players to watch
1. Julius Randle (Kentucky): The Wildcats' freshman star has turned flashes of dominance into a standard, using size and physicality to his advantage in two strong performances. Randle is averaging 16 points and 12.5 rebounds in the tournament with approximately 2.5 "he makes that look too easy" plays per game.
2. Russ Smith (Louisville): Only two of the four Naismith Award finalists are still playing: Arizona's Nick Johnson and Russ Smith. A primary contributor for each of the Cardinals' past three Sweet 16 runs, Smith is the sure-handed scorer Louisville will rely on for buckets in any tough situation. There has not been a Russdiculous moment yet in the tournament, so keep your eyes peeled.
3. Nik Stauskas (Michigan): Stauskas has a green light in Michigan's offense, and when he starts connecting it can be infectious with his Wolverines teammates. The Big Ten Player of the Year is shooting 41.2 percent from behind the arc in the tournament and matched his season high with eight assists in the win against Texas.
Three bold predictions for the Midwest Regional
1. There is no way Louisville will sleepwalk into its rematch with Kentucky
Recent bias favors the Wildcats heavily, and if the same team from the Wichita State game shows up in Indianapolis, the Cardinals will be in trouble. But there is no way Louisville will come out flat or unprepared for Kentucky. Rick Pitino is a perfect 11-0 in Sweet 16 games and there is no issue with familiarity in this matchup. There is no doubt Louisville's performances against Manhattan and Saint Louis left something to be desired, but don't expect that trend to continue.
2. The battle of Michigan's high-powered offense and Tennessee's D will be fun
Michigan poured on the points against Texas, leaving one to wonder if the Wolverines should have saved some points for the Sweet 16 (kidding, kind of). Stauskas, LeVert and the rest of Michigan's shooters were not bothered by Texas' defense, and I don't expect anything like that when Tennessee takes the floor next weekend.
One interesting note: Michigan and Tennessee last met in the NCAA Tournament in 2011, when the Wolverines ran away with a 75-45 game that was the most lopsided 8-9 game in tournament history. That was also the last game for Tennessee under former head coach Bruce Pearl. Vols senior Jordan McRae logged only one garbage-time minute in that game, but sees no connection to the meeting ahead.
"It's a whole different team, different era. I don't think [Coach Martin] is going to bring that up," McRae said Sunday night. "Anytime you play Michigan -- that's a fantastic team. We're just looking forward to it."
3. The champion of the Midwest Region will be ... Louisville.
NCAA Tournament experience will be the deciding factor in Indianapolis as Louisville and Michigan advance to the Elite Eight for a rematch of last year's national championship game. Tennessee could make life miserable for Michigan's shooters, but the Wolverines' ability to score in bunches actually turns into an advantage should the Vols try to slow the game's pace. Louisville and Kentucky will be the most highly anticipated battle of the weekend, and I trust Russ Smith and Co. to handle that situation better than the young Wildcats. With no idea what to expect in the regional final, I'll take the Cardinals based on their versatility and ability to win ugly.
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