#2 Michigan vs #11 Tenneessee: A Sweet 16 Preview

The Tennessee Volunteers have gone from the NCAA Tournament’s First Four all the way to the Sweet 16. Their impressive run has not only secured coach Cuonzo Martin’s job, it has also energized Rocky Top’s fan base. The Vols first dominated Iowa 78-65 in overtime. They followed that up with routs of UMASS and Mercer by scores of 86-67 and 83-63, respectively. Their next opponent, the Michigan, stand between Tennessee and their first trip to the Elite Eight since 2010. The Wolverines present a monumental task for the Volunteers. Just last year they reached the championship game before succumbing to the Louisville Cardinals. They have ranked among the best teams all season and their #2 seed is a reflection of that. In examining the match-up, there are some burning questions for the Vols,  whose answers will ultimately decides who advances to the Elite Eight tonight.

Can Michigan Stop Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon?

The play of Jarnell Stokes has been an absolute revelation for the Volunteers this tournament. He has recorded a double-double in each of Tennessee’s first three games and his rebounding has allowed the team to dominate the boards. This hasn’t been a sudden shift, as the Vols rank among college basketball’s leaders in offensive rebounding percentage. Michigan will certainly have its hands full with Stokes, especially if Jeronne Maymon rebounds from his (relatively) poor effort against Mercer. The dynamic duo of Stokes and Maymon have been the Vols 1-2 defensive tandem. The Wolverines woefully rank 303rd in rebounds per game. If they can’t reverse this trend, it will be a long night for Michigan.

Can Josh Richardson Maintain His Hot Streak?

Josh Richardson’s deadly shooting enabled the Vols to prevail in their last two games with ease. The junior guard’s  scoring average for the tournament is 19.3 and is coming off a career-high 26 points against Mercer. If Tennessee is to prevail against Michigan , another stellar outing is imperative. The classic NCAA Tournament maxim is that you should be playing your best in March. Richardson seems to be taking this to heart and his play has provided another scoring threat for the suddenly-formidable Volunteer attack. This attack is firing on all cylinders at the perfect time, with Richardson’s red-hot game elevating it even further.

Will The Vols Maintain Their Stifling Defense?

While the improvement of the offense has heartened Rocky Top’s faithful fans, the strength of the Vols has been their defense. Tennessee’s late-season surge has seen this impressive defense tighten the screws even further. The Vols have disrupted offenses to the point they they’ve only averaged 61.4 points per game and 41 percent shooting. Another strong outing is pivotal to Rocky Top’s success, as the Wolverines have been among the Big Ten’s leaders in these categories. Their attack has been spurred by Nik Stauskas and Glen Robinson III all season and will be key players for Michigan tonight. Stauskas promises to be a key focus for coach Martin’s game plan.

The anticipation has been building up for several days now and tonight all the trash talking and hype will reach its apex come tipoff at 7:15 P.M. The Volunteers have essentially been playing with house money the entire tournament, as it was uncertain whether Tennessee would even make the Big Dance. It’s important to note that the season has been a complete success regardless of tonight’s outcome. But if the Vols manage to pick off the Wolverines, let the party begin on Rocky Top.

(All stats courtesy of ESPN.com)

Edited by Will Lomas