Log5 probabilities for the Sweet 16 are here.
The strength of the Midwest Regional was shattered during the first two rounds. Of course, Kansas was toppled by Northern Iowa. Without the Jayhawks’ presence, both Maryland and Georgetown had realistic expectations of making it to Indianapolis, yet they're absent from St. Louis as well. Ohio State is left as the obvious favorite to advance, both because of their high skill level, and the fact that the other three remaining teams are a bit weaker than typical for the round of 16.
Games in this region are being played at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.
(6) Tennessee vs. (2) Ohio State (Friday, 7:07)
Any of the one-seeds would gladly trade places with Buckeyes at this point, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Most estimates put Ohio State’s chance of making the Final Four at only around 50/50 at this point. The first step for Thad Matta’s crew is getting by Tennessee, which is no small task. In fact, the task may be just as difficult as whatever Ohio State might have to deal with on Sunday, should it still be playing.
The Vols come into the game having won a half-court struggle against San Diego State, and then a more conventional win over Ohio, where the Tennessee pressure created some transition opportunities. (Your offensive efficiency improves when you get eight dunks, by the way.) Expect a slower-paced game here, since Ohio State is fairly proficient at taking care of the basketball.
Tennessee will be looking to exploit the Buckeyes’ lack of a true point guard and the corresponding absence of any OSU players known as “reserves.” Evan Turner has committed 13 turnovers in the 128 possessions he’s been on the floor during the tournament. Obviously, Turner has the ball a lot and so you have to give him a break in this area. His role necessitates more risk with the basketball than, say, Jon Diebler. But that’s a rate that’s still too high for the primary ball handler.
While Bruce Pearl has been known to reign in the press from time to time, the potential benefit of wearing down the opposition would seem to preclude that in this case, even if his defense might not force many high-quality turnovers. Thad Matta has used his bench for 27:28 over the first two tournament games, and the players who have shed the warm-ups have combined to take only one of the Buckeyes’ 35 field goal attempts during that time. By contrast, Tennessee easily has the deepest bench of the 16 remaining teams. What Tennessee lacks in relative talent in this matchup, they may be able to make up for with energy.
(9) Northern Iowa vs. (5) Michigan State (Friday, 9:37)
At the other extreme of bench-usage philosophy is Tom Izzo, who has no problem calling on seldom-used players in elimination games. As an example, we have former walk-on and defensive specialist Mike Kebler, who has seen ten minutes of tournament action with nary a box score stat of any kind recorded. With Kalin Lucas down and Chris Allen hobbled, Kebler will continue to get a few meaningful minutes. However, most eyes will be on Korie Lucious, who returns to a role as the primary point guard after a cameo in late February.
While most of the nation was able to see the tail end of a frantic Maryland comeback, one shouldn’t get the impression that the Spartans collapsed under Lucious’ leadership before his final game-saving three-pointer. The Spartans were only outscored by two with Lucious at the helm, and his line on the night was fine: 13 points on eight shots hindered by just two turnovers in 26:18.
It’s safe to say that replacing Lucas with Lucious doesn’t trigger the same nervousness in East Lansing that say, replacing Turner with P.J. Hill would in Columbus. But one important difference against Northern Iowa will be that nearly every Spartan possession will be against a set defense. The Panthers have yet to play a game faster than the D-I average of 67 possessions this season.
UNI head coach Ben Jacobson doesn’t have the phobia of offensive rebounds that his predecessor did, so the Spartans may get a fast break opportunity or two off a Panther miss. On five occasions Kansas was able to turn a defensive rebound into a shot in ten seconds or less. But for the most part this will be a slow-paced slug fest, with the emphasis on slug.
Northern Iowa’s first two tournament opponents have been able to grab at least 40 percent of their misses. The Panthers’ graded out well in keeping fellow MVC foes off the boards, but Valley offenses believe in getting it right the first time, so much so that no team in the conference ranks in the top 100 nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. Thus, Michigan State should be able to get its usual dose of put-back attempts.
The gang from Cedar Falls is otherwise solid but not spectacular in nearly every other component. As a slow-paced defense-first team (and a defense that is based on positioning rather than jumping passing lanes), the Panthers’ are not going to wow you with counting stats. What they will do is take a fair amount of jump shots and spread those attempts around very well. Given that the Spartans are in the habit of defending the paint first, the Panthers should get their fair share of good looks.
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Ken by clicking here or click here to see Ken's other articles.