The Sweet 16 is some of the best basketball we will see throughout the entire NCAA Tournament. With a trip to the regional finals on the line, we take in performances from name-brand programs and a slew of future NBA players. Thursday night offered up the usual madness, so let's take a look at the key storyline for all four games Friday night.
Spartan Seniors Swan Song?
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has taken the Spartans to 17 consecutive NCAA Tournaments. Perhaps more impressively, he has never had a senior class not reach the Final Four. This class however, has yet to earn such a trip, and with 1-seed Virginia looming, that streak remains in serious jeopardy. Potential NBA Draft lottery pick Gary Harris is a terrific scorer flanked by senior center Adreian Payne, a surefire first round draft pick. Fellow senior, point guard Keith Appling, thrives under pressure and is capable of taking over a game late. Virginia's Cavs though, are an elite defensive team that recently held Duke -- ranked first in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Kenpom.com -- to a meager 1.03 points per possession in the ACC tournament. This game will be an absolute slugfest for 40 minutes.
Lexington and Louisville are separated by 70 miles, and there is no love lost between the two schools. Rick Pitino -- who coached the Wildcats to a national championship in 1996 -- is trying to guide Louisville to its third straight Final Four and second straight title. Remember, Pitino is a remarkable 11-0 all-time in the Sweet 16. Senior guard Russ Smith has the keys to the car, while the vastly improved Montrezl Harrell gets the tall task of battling potential top pick Julius Randle of Kentucky. Randle, the SEC Freshman of the Year, is a pure physical specimen who wore down previous undefeated Wichita State in the round of 32. How Harrell handles him and how Smith handles the size of UK's backcourt will determine the outcome of this game. Don't sleep on boisterous 'Cats leader John Calipari either. Coach Cal seems to savor these types of games from the coaching bench: He is 5-1 against Louisville since arriving at Kentucky.
When UConn takes the floor Friday night against Iowa State, it will be at famed Madison Square Garden, where the Huskies once had so much success in the Big East Tournament. Those days are sadly over though, as the Big East disbanded before this season. The key matchup in this tilt lays in the backcourt between two very different senior point guards. UConn's Shabazz Napier is a jitterbug who puts a tremendous amount of pressure on opposing defenses with his superb quickness and shot-making ability. The American Athletic Conference Player of the Year is the unquestioned leader -- ala Kemba Walker three years ago -- for the red hot Huskies. Iowa State meanwhile, features Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane (pictured above), a rugged 6-foot-4 lead guard who dictates smaller guards with his size and physicality. He is an excellent passer (6 assists per game) and terrific all-around player, who will surely give Napier problems
Wooden Award winner Trey Burke has gone to the NBA, as has sharpshooting Tim Hardaway, Jr., but Michigan's fleet of young scorers remains very much intact. Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas has become a terrific all-around scorer (17 points on 47 percent shooting), while fellow sophomores Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III are first-round draft prospects as well. Their might will be tested against a very athletic and active Tennessee team that is red-hot and recently pushed Florida to the brink. The Vols feature leading scorer Jordan McRae and Josh Richardson on the perimeter, who will both be responsible for limiting Stauskas.
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