GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 8 Kentucky 74, No. 4 Louisville 69
How does one pick a game of the night amongst a slate of four superiorly played contests? Each of Friday’s Sweet 16 games could have made this cut, but since John Calipari was able to snap Rick Pitino’s streak — prior to Friday, the Louisville coach was 11-0 in Sweet 16 match-ups — the Kentucky win gets top billing. The game did not start strongly for UK — Calipari said he knew his team would ‘pee down their legs‘ once the ball was tipped — and it appeared like Louisville, fueled by Russ Smith’s dunks, Luke Hancock taking each Wildcat off the dribble, and poor UK perimeter shooting, would make a consecutive Elite 8.
The play of Alex Poythress and Dakari Johnson, two of the less hyped UK bigs, helped balance the squad until UK could make its run late in the second half. Johnson scored 15 points and grabbed six boards, and Poythress, in particular, changed the contest’s dynamic — without his defensive intensity, which included forcing a Hancock steal and blocking Smith on an open court attempt, UK likely wouldn’t be playing on Sunday.
1) No. 7 Connecticut 81, No. 3 Iowa State 76: Until just over two minutes remained in the second half, Connecticut, whose fans packed Madison Square Garden like it was the Big East Tournament and Jim Calhoun was still on the sidelines, was in complete control. At that point, Iowa State was somehow awoken from their game-long stupor and began a too late charge. ISU junior Dustin Hogue put in some serious work, scoring a career-high 34 points (he made 15 out of 19 shots), and DeAndre Daniels was the game’s other DeAndre (as opposed to Kane), splashing the net with crucial jump shots (he finished with 27 points).
2) No. 2 Michigan 73, No. 11 Tennessee 71: When discussing this Sweet 16 tilt years from now, the charging foul on UT’s Jarnell Stokes will be the evergreen moment, while Caris LeVert’s swiping Stokes will be lost as memories fade. The Vols simply could not handle Michigan’s offensive fortitude in the first half, yielding 1.45 points per possession from countless jumpers off flare screens. A combination of tighter defense and careless Michigan turnovers kept this game much closer than the first half would have indicated, and the Wolverines, along with their electric and dynamic scoring, will next face Kentucky.
3) No. 4 Michigan State 80, No. 1 Virginia 78: This game had the feel of being played in a cramped, stuffy sweatbox that only seats a few hundred. It certainly didn’t feel like Madison Square Garden — for much of the second half, fans were standing, refusing to sit for fear of missing the back-and-forth shooting display. The Cavaliers’ pack-line defense was true to form — the duo of Gary Harris and Keith Appling were rendered ineffective, converting just three of eight field goals — but UVa had no match for Branden Dawson, a junior who overpowered (24 points, ten rebounds) the entirety of the Cavs’ frontcourt.
1) Branden Dawson, Michigan State: The junior big’s game against Virginia was spectacular, but his play throughout the NCAA tournament is noteworthy: through three games, Dawson is making nearly 60 percent of his twos, grabbing 19 defensive boards, and committing just two turnovers.
2) Alex Poythress, Kentucky: The sophomore only scored six points and grabbed four rebounds against Louisville, but without his defense late in the second half, UK would have likely been the twelfth team on Pitino’s Sweet 16 streak.
3) Jordan Morgan, Michigan : A picture of Morgan was published this week in the Detroit Free-Press, showcasing his transformation from a freshman to senior, and the big looks positively Gaston-esque. That buff physique helped Morgan handle the Vols’ burly interior, and combined with a thorough scouting report, put Morgan in the position to draw the defensive play of the game.
1) Willie Cauley-Stein’s ankle: Following the win, Calipari said his center’s ankle injury was “…not a good ankle injury.” It would be very surprising if Cauley-Stein played on Sunday against Michigan, but he could undergo a miraculous turnaround within the next 24 hours.
2) Michigan State’s backcourt: Harris, Appling, and Denzel Valentine combined to make just four field goals against a stout Cavalier defense.
3) Iowa State’s seniors: This isn’t how the Cyclones 2014 season should have ended. After helping to carry the team throughout the year, Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane suffered their worst offensive outing in ’14 — Kane was two of nine from the free throw line (he normally makes 63 percent of his free throws), and Ejim converted just three out of thirteen field goals.