Here’s what you can expect from Friday night’s NCAA tournament Sweet 16 games, featuring the region semifinals in the East and Midwest regions.
East: No. 1 seed Virginia vs No. 4 seed Michigan State, 9:57 p.m. in New York (TBS).
Madison Square Garden is hosting the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1961, and the “World’s Most Famous Arena” will feature perhaps the best matchup of the Sweet 16. Virginia, in the region semifinals for the first time since 1995, has won 18 of its last 19 games but will be the underdog against Michigan State.
The Spartans are a trendy pick to win the national title now that they’re healthy again, and Coach Tom Izzo has a track record of success when these sorts of stakes are on the line. Seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne are trying to avoid being the first four-year players to never make the Final Four under Izzo.
Virginia, meanwhile, features the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense and a balanced scoring attack that seems to become more efficient with each game. It’s the sort of team Izzo can appreciate, and apparently, New Yorkers are just as anxious to see how this one plays out. This is easily the hottest ticket of the regional round, with ticket prices on the secondary market that exceed what many will pay to go to the Final Four next week.
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Midwest: No. 8 seed Kentucky vs No. 4 seed Louisville, 9:45 p.m. in Indianapolis (CBS).
The entire Bluegrass State will turn its attention to Indianapolis on Friday night. Kentucky bested Louisville, 73-68, on Dec. 28, but the rematch should be better. Both teams seem to be peaking in March and the story lines are endless with two of the nation’s premier programs going head to head.
The Cardinals are trying to win back-to-back national championship and make a third straight Final Four in guard Russ Smith’s swan song. Kentucky, meanwhile, is out to prove the one-and-done critics gave up on its collection of talented freshmen far too soon after beating No. 1 seed Wichita State in the best game (to date) in this year’s NCAA tournament.
Oh, did we mention this one pits Rick Pitino against John Calipari? The coaches may say nice things about each other publicly, but the worst-kept secret in college basketball is that those two have developed a rivalry as intense as the one their schools share.
Midwest: No. 11 seed Tennessee vs No. 2 seed Michigan, 7:15 p.m. in Indianapolis (CBS)
This might be Michigan Coach John Beilein’s best coaching job yet. With Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. flourishing in the NBA and big man Mitch McGary out most of this season with a back injury, Beilein has the Wolverines eyeing their second straight Final Four appearance. Guard Nick Stauskas has morphed from a three-point specialist into one of the nation’s best guards, and Michigan has a wealth of three-point shooters around him. If they’re hot from outside, the Wolverines will be tough to beat.
But McGary’s absence could be felt against Tennessee, which might have the best big man remaining the field and seems to have hit its groove in the nick of time. Forward Jarnell Stokes has been a beast down low, averaging 20.3 points and 15 rebounds in three NCAA tournament games, and guards Jordan McCrae, Antonio Barton and Josh Richardson have been playing their best basketball of the year over the past week. The Volunteers could go from considering firing Coach Cuonzo Martin to the Elite Eight in a matter of a month.
Individual matchup to watch
Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier vs Iowa State’s DeAndre Kane (Connecticut vs. Iowa State, 7:27 p.m., TBS)
The old adage goes that strong guard play can be the key to a long NCAA tournament run, and the early game at Madison Square Garden features a pair of point guards who very well could be starting for NBA teams next season.
Napier, a freshman on the 2011 Connecticut team that stormed to the national championship, has morphed into the sort of dynamic threat his old pal Kemba Walker used to be. In the Huskies’ round-of-32 upset of No. 2 seed Villanova, Napier scored 25 points on 9-of-13 shooting despite suffering a bruised shin in the first half that limited him to 25 minutes of action. If he’s that efficient again, Connecticut could find itself in the Elite Eight a year after NCAA sanctions prevented the Huskies from even participating in the NCAA tournament.
But Kane, a graduate-student transfer from Marshall, might be the best player nobody seems to talk about. The 6-foot-4 Pittsburgh native came up huge when Iowa State managed to beat No. 6 seed North Carolina last Sunday, scoring 24 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing out seven assists as the Cyclones played without forward Georges Niang.
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