A Mercer upset and a few wins by No. 11 seeded Tennessee later, including a play in win over Iowa, and the Volunteers, equipped with their vaunted frontcourt, now stands between the Wolverines and their second straight Elite Eight appearance.
On paper, it’s easy to see what makes Tennessee successful and so difficult for opponents to stop. The Volunteers are experienced, veteran laden and big, running through a starting five that includes four players 6-foot-6 or taller.
Flipping over to Michigan, the car starts with Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas and his dead eye shooting from the outside. Beyond that, Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III offer athleticism and energy to go with the old man of the group, senior center Jordan Morgan inside.
Coming off of a performance that at times looked dominant over a much bigger Texas team, Michigan feels they’re ready to take on a similar challenge in Tennessee.
Things tip-off Friday night at 7:15 p.m. ET, here’s some of the keys to look for for both teams:
Defending Nik Stauskas
Will Nik Stauskas be able to roam the perimeter unfettered or could Josh Richardson be ready to step-up and shut down the sophomore All-American? Ok, maybe Richardson won’t be able to shut down Stauskas, but limiting his opportunities from the outside will be key. Earlier in the season, against the aforementioned Blue Devils, Stauskas was a non-factor, completely taken out of the picture with physical face guarding. Later in the season, in a match-up at Michigan State against a very good on the ball defender in Gary Harris, Stauskas handled himself well. Despite limited opportunities, Stauskas was able to score 19-points on just 12 shots from the field. How Tennessee handles Stauskas will say a lot about how this game could trend. Richardson is all of 6-foot-6 and 196-pounds and should try to make Stauskas uncomfortable handling the ball, showing tremendous aggression getting over screens.
The Foul Situation
Tennessee lives at the free throw line and so far in just three NCAA tournament games the Volunteers are averaging 29 per game. Between big men Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon Michigan will need to play defense straight up and avoid contact as shots go up. Fortunately for the Wolverines, fouls are scarce, averaging just 14 per game this season. Look for Tennessee to get Michigan in foul trouble early, especially Jordan Morgan who dealt with a similar issue in the Wolverines Big Ten tournament championship game loss to Michigan State. If the Volunteers can get Morgan out early and start chipping away at Jon Horford or Max Bielfeldt, the situation could be trouble for Michigan.
This could be a key to any game but in this one it’s more about how Michigan rebounds the basketball as opposed to if they win the battle with Tennessee or not. Overall, the Volunteers are probably going to walk out of Friday night’s game with more rebounds than the Wolverines, but Michigan’s guards will need to help for two reasons; 1. Tennessee crashes the boards hard and the Michigan bigs will need extra hands out of necessity. 2. If the guards, LeVert specifically, can grab a few defensive rebounds, Michigan will be able to get out in transition quickly and look to ware out a big Volunteers’ team.
Transition Points and Depth
As formidable as Tennessee’s starting five is, their bench leaves much to be desired. The starters for the Volunteers are going to log the bulk of the minutes, ready to go 38 or 39 minutes each; Advantage Michigan. No, Michigan doesn’t have the greatest depth in the world, but they have players capable of coming in, giving good minutes, and providing some production to boot. The Wolverines are going to look to run up and down the floor so for Tennessee, the use of timeouts and quick substitutions could become necessary.