By Joseph Bonanno
INDIANAPOLIS– No. 3 Tennessee and No. 11 Michigan are set to face off in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Gainbridge Fieldhouse on Saturday. Tip-off is at 5:15 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on CBS.
What’s happened so far…
The Vols head into Saturday after a drama-free, 88-56 win over 14-seed Longwood in which the team had one of the best NCAA Tournament shooting performances in program history.
Tennessee’s impressive offensive showing was led by the team’s veteran presence from junior guards Santiago Vescovi (18 points, 6-8 3FG) and Josiah-Jordan James (17 points, 6-9 FG) as well as sixth-year senior John Fulkerson (15 points, 7-8 FG).
Once the Vols took the lead, there was no turning back. The offense never saw one of its season-paining scoring droughts that have allowed big leads this season to dwindle. Combine that with Tennessee’s ever-suffocating defense and the result is a 32-point win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Vols tied or set several program records in Thursday’s offensive showing, including the highest team field goal percentage (60%), the most steals (13) and the most assists (29) in an NCAA Tournament game. Vescovi also tied Chris Lofton’s program record of most 3-pointers made in an NCAA Tournament game with six in the win against Longwood.
On the other side of the floor, the Wolverines completed a comeback in a 75-63 victory over No. 6 Colorado state, led by sophomore center Hunter Dickinson (21 points, 8-10 FG) and senior guard Eli Brooks (16 points, 6 assists, 7 rebounds).
Michigan, which struggled against Colorado St. early with several misses on easy buckets in the first half, was able to find its post presence in the second half and dominate the Rams in the paint. The offense improved on its 47.8% shooting mark in the first half to an even 60% after halftime, as well as an increase from 0% 3-point shooting to 57.1% in the second half.
The Wolverine defense also found its groove in the second-half of its first round game. Michigan held the Rams to just a 29% shooting mark (26.7% from 3-point range) after giving up 41.2% shooting (40% 3-point shooting) in the first.
History between these two teams….
Tennessee and Michigan are tied 5-5 in the all-time series and the teams have only seen each other in the NCAA Tournament twice, with Michigan winning both, The first in 2011 when the Wolverines won 75-45 in the first round and the second in 2014 with a 73-71 Michigan win in the regional semifinal.
Rick Barnes has faced Michigan only once as a head coach, as his Texas squad fell to the Wolverines in the third round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament in Milwaukee.
The lack of familiarity between these two teams should make this game an interesting matchup.
What to expect on Saturday…
Tennessee is coming off of a game against an undersized Longwood team that although looked fast and smooth on offense at times, really didn’t give any pressure on the defensive side of the floor.
The Vols are set to face a much bigger and more athletic Michigan team that will have more of a post-presence, especially with Dickinson controlling the paint. However, despite being known as a 2-point team, Michigan can efficiently shoot the 3-ball as seen in the second half of its round one game.
While I think all eyes will be on how Tennessee’s bigs will handle Dickinson, the real test is going to make sure the Wolverine’s guards aren’t getting any easy shots. Michigan is going to get points in the paint, but keeping it from extending its offense to outside the arc will be important for the Vols defense, especially if Tennessee’s offense shoots anything like it did on Thursday.
That being said, Tennessee can’t just let Dickinson roam free in the paint.
Dickinson is an extremely skilled big-man with finesse around the rim. The Vols are going to need bigtime minutes from freshmen Jonas Aidoo and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield to bring a “rim protector” aspect to the Vols’ defense. However, Barnes is going to need to pair the freshmen with Uros Plavsic or John Fulkerson.
One thing that is still uncertain for Saturday’s matchup is whether or not Michigan’s third-leading scorer on the season DeVante Jones will play after missing the first round due to concussion. According to Barnes, Tennessee has prepared for Michigan at full strength which includes Jones despite him being listed as a game-time decision according to Michigan coach Juwan Howard.
Jones would elevate Michigan’s offense to a whole other level. If he is good to go for the game, Tennessee is going to have a challenge guarding the trio of Dickinson, Brooks, and Jones, the perfect tournament test for the nations second best team in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.
All in all, the Vols are facing a much more difficult task in the second round. Michigan is more physical, bigger, and more athletic than Longwood. However, Tennessee comes from the SEC where just about every team can be described that way.
In order to advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the ninth time in program history (and the second while under Barnes), Tennessee needs to play its game on defense and continue to play with confidence on offense.
Tennessee is going to continue to shoot the ball from deep. Expect the Vols to take around 25-30 3-pointers, making anywhere from 11-15, especially with Vescovi, James, and Kennedy Chandler shooting well.
Michigan is going to get its points in the paint, but I see the Vols doing a good job stopping the deep shooting from the Wolverines. Add Tennessee’s ability to create turnovers with steals, Michigan’s guards are going to have a difficult time.
With that being said, this game feels like it is going to be 78-69 Tennessee win to give Rick Barnes and the Vols their ninth win in a row and send them to their second Sweet Sixteen in the Barnes era in Knoxville.