Michigan State vs. Tennessee (2:20 PM): Two teams that were written off at various times this season will battle for the right to go to the Final Four. Michigan State struggled down the stretch and then lost starting point guard Kalin Lucas in the second round. However, the Spartans have escaped in the final minutes against New Mexico State, Maryland and Northern Iowa – and are just one win away from Indianapolis. Tom Izzo has done an unbelievable job. On the other side, Tennessee had its best player dismissed in January and three other players suspended, but the Volunteers held off San Diego State in the first round, dominated Ohio in the second and then upset favored Ohio State in the Sweet 16.
The key for Michigan State will be to take care of the ball against Tennessee’s intense ball pressure. The Spartans have struggled with turnovers all season, and they will now be without Lucas. Korie Lucious will play a huge role at the point. The Spartans also need to crash the boards and get second opportunities. Draymond Green and Raymar Morgan are excellent on the glass, and Tennessee is not the most effective defensive rebounding team. Moreover, the Spartans need to attack the basket and draw fouls. Durrell Summers has provided a huge boost with Lucas out, and he needs to have another good game. Defensively, Michigan State needs to defend the two-point shot. Tennessee hits a high percentage of its two-point attempts and likes getting to the rim. Along with that, the Spartans have to stop the Volunteers’ transition opportunities.
On the other side, in order for Tennessee to continue its winning ways, it will have to force tempo and get easy baskets. The Volunteers love to force turnovers and attack the rim for lay-ups and shots in the paint. If they are able to get opportunities when Michigan State can’t set up its defense, they will have a big advantage offensively. Tennessee also has to knock down some perimeter shots to open up driving lanes. Michigan State is vulnerable to three-point shots, so the Volunteers need to exploit that. On the defense side, forcing turnovers and boxing out will be the main keys. Michigan State does not take care of the ball very well, and are much less dangerous at the point of attack without Lucas running the show. The Spartans are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, so Tennessee will need to control the glass and limit the Spartans’ second chances.
The difference in this one will be Tennessee’s ability to force turnovers and make life difficult for Michigan State’s half-court offense. Korie Lucious is no Kalin Lucas, and it might be tough for the Spartans to get points besides on the offensive glass. If Tennessee can limit second opportunities for Michigan State, the Vols will advance. Prediction: Tennessee 71, Michigan State 68
Duke vs. Baylor (5:05 PM): This has the potential to be one of the better games in the NCAA Tournament thus far. Both teams have been playing very well lately, and are clicking at the right time. Each team has offensive balance, plays good defense and are the chops to win a national title. Duke has been tested a couple of times in the NCAA Tournament, but the Blue Devils have yet to win a game by fewer than 13 points. They dominated Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the opener, then pulled away from California in the second half to win by 15. Against Purdue, the Boilermakers hung close for awhile, but Duke was too much in the end; it won by 13. As for Baylor, the Bears have yet to play a single-digit seed. They pulled away in the second halves against both Sam Houston State and Old Dominion, but saved their best performance for the Sweet 16. Baylor absolutely annihilated Saint Mary’s from the opening tip, beating the Gaels by 23.
The primary offensive key for Duke against Baylor will be to knock down shots. The Bears are susceptible to three-point shots, and the Blue Devils are excellent from behind the arc. Jon Scheyer has struggled with his shot in the NCAA Tournament, but he and Kyle Singler can really stroke it. Duke also has to continue to get offensive rebounds with Brian Zoubek and co. down low. However, Baylor starts three 6-10 guys in the frontcourt, which will make it difficult for the Blue Devils to get second chances. On the defensive side of the ball, Duke needs to slow down the Baylor backcourt of Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn. When those two get hot, the Bears are awfully difficult to contain. Duke also needs to keep Ekpe Udoh, Josh Lomers and the rest of the Baylor bigs off the offensive boards. The Bears are athletic and long, and can pose problems for Duke. If Duke can force turnovers and get transition opportunities, it will help too.
On the other side, Baylor needs to make shots and play to its strengths. Duke is the best team in the country at defending the three-point shot, but Baylor – namely Carter and Dunn – thrives when it is gunning from the perimeter. When those are making three-pointers, it opens up the paint for Udoh to make plays around the rim. Furthermore, Baylor is more effective when it is getting offensive rebounds and scoring on second opportunities. On the defensive side, Baylor has to guard the perimeter and slow down the Duke backcourt. If Scheyer isn’t knocking down shots and Nolan Smith can’t penetrate at will, Duke is that much easier to defend. Moreover, Baylor has the size to pose problems for Kyle Singler on the wing. Anthony Jones is 6-10, athletic and long and he is active in Baylor’s zone defense. Boxing out and controlling Zoubek on the offensive glass is another major key.
The difference in the end will be Baylor’s edge in the frontcourt and its ability to get points in a variety of ways. The Bears have the size to slow down Singler and control the backboards. If Carter and Dunn are able to get some points early, it will open things up for the rest of the Baylor offense. Prediction: Baylor 76, Duke 72