Midwest Region

Russ Smith

POSTERIZED: Russ Smith dunks on Julius Randle … again (VIDEO)

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Russ Smith checks in at a generous 6-foot, 165 pounds. Julius Randle, on the other hand, stands 6-foot-9, weighing 250 pounds. The Kentucky freshman forward absolutely dominates the Tale of the Tape, but Russ Freaking Smith has put him on the wrong end of the poster twice this season. Remember this?

Sweet 16 Preview: No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 8 Kentucky

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On Wednesday and Thursday, we will be breaking down all eight of the Sweet 16 matchups. Here is our look at No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 8 Kentucky:

RELATED: Sweet 16 Power Rankings | Top 16 Players | Eight Critical Individual Matchups

WHEN: Friday, 9:45 p.m.

WHERE: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis (Midwest Region)

MAJOR STORY LINES: Louisville is looking to make their third straight Final Four and repeat as national champs, and they have a real chance of making that happen. Kentucky was the preseason No. 1 in the country, spent the first four months of the season underperforming and limiting expectations, and then they went out and played up to their potential for the first time all season while handing Wichita State their first loss of the year.

And, you know, it’s Louisville vs. Kentucky.

KEY STATS: Louisville is currently sitting at No. 3 in KenPom’s rankings in large part due to the fact that their defense is No. 2 in adjusted efficiency. And the reason their defense is that good is because they rank second nationally in defensive turnover percentage. Kentucky can be turnover prone at times, particularly Andrew Harrison. If Louisville is going to win, they are going to need Russ Smith, Chris Jones and Terry Rozier to wreak havoc on Kentucky’s guards, turning this into an uptempo game.

SWEET 16 PREVIEWS: Stanford-Dayton Wisconsin-Baylor | Florida-UCLA | Arizona-SDSU

Iowa State-UConn | Michigan-Tennessee | Virginia-Michigan State | Louisville-Kentucky

KEY PLAYERS: The most important matchup is going to be between the two back courts, but the most entertaining battle is going to be waged between Julius Randle and Montrezl Harrell. Randle was arguably the most talented player in the SEC this past season, a powerhouse power forward that is capable of utter domination in the paint. Harrell isn’t as highly-regarded by NBA types as Randle is, but he’s got a shot at being a lottery a pick largely because he is capable of … utter domination in the paint. This will be fun.

POINT SPREAD: It started at Louisville (-5.5) and is down to Louisville (-4) in some places.

THREE THINGS TO WATCH FOR:

1. Stephen Van Treese and Kentucky’s board work: Louisville does not have a big front line. Kentucky’s front line is as big and athletic as many NBA teams. Van Treese doesn’t need to be dominant, but he absolutely must have an impact on this game, especially on the glass. Louisville is 264th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage. Kentucky is second in offensive rebounding percentage. That’s a major, major concern.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the winner will likely be determined by whether or not Louisville gets more points off of turnovers than Kentucky gets off of second chance points.

2. Three-point shooting: Louisville is known for playing a lot of zone while Kentucky has made a 2-3 zone a priority late in the season. Who can take advantage of the looks they good over the zone? Kentucky shoots 32.7% from three. Louisville shoots 37.0%.

3. Which Russ Smith shows up?: Russ was a first-team all-american this season, and rightfully so. But he shot 6-for-19 from the floor and committed 13 turnovers in the first two games of the tournament while collecting just two steals. Those numbers simply won’t cut it.

CBT PREDICTION: Louisville

Sweet 16 Preview: No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 11 Tennessee

Caris LeVert (AP Photo)
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On Wednesday and Thursday, we will be breaking down all eight of the Sweet 16 matchups. Here is our look at No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 11 Tennessee:

RELATED: Sweet 16 Power Rankings | Top 16 Players | Eight Critical Individual Matchups

WHEN: Friday, 7:15 p.m.

WHERE: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis (Midwest Region)

MAJOR STORY LINES: Tennessee fans did not want Cuonzo Martin anymore. They wanted Bruce Pearl back, and they wanted him so badly that an online petition to fire Cuonzo and hire Bruce collected more than 36,000 signatures. That looks silly now, as Martin has the Vols in the Sweet 16 with a really good chance to make it all the way to the Elite 8. His team now ranks No. 6 on KenPom. In other words, Tennessee has had a terrific year and it was barely enough to keep the good folks in Knoxville happy. That’s pretty wild.

KEY STATS: Michigan shoots 39.8% from beyond the arc and gets more than 34.9% of their points off of threes, which is 21st highest-rate nationally. It’s quite clearly a massive part of their powerhouse offensive attack, but Tennessee is one of the best teams in the country at chasing shooters off of the three-point line. On the other hand, the Vols are top five nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. Michigan isn’t bad on the defensive glass, but they are going to have to be much better than ‘not bad’ to keep Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon from getting second chance buckets.

SWEET 16 PREVIEWS: Stanford-Dayton Wisconsin-Baylor | Florida-UCLA | Arizona-SDSU

Iowa State-UConn | Michigan-Tennessee | Virginia-Michigan State | Louisville-Kentucky

KEY PLAYERS: I’ve written before and I’ll write it again: the most important matchup here is going to be the battle of the fours. Tennessee’s front line might as well be the Titans’ offensive line, as Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon are both about as strong and physical as an NFL left tackle. Michigan? When their best lineup is on the floor, Glenn Robinson III plays the four. What wins out? Can the Vols bully Michigan on the offensive glass enough that John Beilein is forced to use a bigger lineup, or will Robinson be able to capitalize on the advantages he will have over whoever Cuonzo Martin decides to put on him?

POINT SPREAD: Michigan (-2.5)

THREE THINGS TO WATCH FOR:

1. Who guards Nik Stauskas?: Josh Richardson is probably the best perimeter defender that Tennessee has on the roster, but the scouting report on defending Stauskas is to put a smaller guard on him, someone that can keep him from coming off of screens cleanly and that can prevent him from using his array of moves off the dribble. As good as Stauskas is, he hasn’t really developed his postgame to the point where he can capitalize on a size advantage. Will Martin use the smaller Antonio Barton to guard him?

2. Josh Richardson: Richardson is playing his bet basketball of the season right now. After missing his first five shots against Iowa in the First Four, he’s hit 20 of his last 28 from the floor and is averaging 19.3 points in the three tournament games. Jarnell Stokes is a hoss and Jordan McRae is probably Tennessee’s most talented player, but when the Vols have a tertiary scoring threat, they become that much more dangerous.

3. Jordan Morgan’s fouls: Maymon and Stokes both draw a ton of fouls. Jordan Morgan, Michigan’s best interior player, cannot get into foul trouble. It’s as simple as that.

CBT PREDICTION: Tennessee

No. 11 Tennessee overpowers No. 14 Mercer

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No. 14 seed Mercer had cinderella written all over them.

They were a senior-laden team led by a fiery coach bursting with personality and a bench that featured at least one guy that can flat out dance.

They were fun, they were easy to root for, and they were a No. 14 seed.

But on Sunday, we found out why they were a No. 14 seed, as Jarnell Stokes almost outrebounded the entire Bears roster in an 83-63 win for No. 11 Tennessee. He finished with 18 boards to add to 17 points and five assists while Mercer grabbed 19 rebounds as a team. The Bears cut the lead to single digits on a couple of different occasions in the second half, but the outcome was never really in doubt.

The Vols are on their way to the Sweet 16 where they will take on No. 2 Michigan in Indianapolis on Friday night.

The best player on the floor for Tennessee was Josh Richardson, who continued his terrific play this tournament by dropping 26 points on 9-for-13 shooting. He’s now averaged 19.3 points in Tennessee’s three tournament games, and is 20-for-28 from the floor since missing his first five shots against Iowa.

Tennessee is going to have their work cut out for them. The Wolverines are streaking right now and they’ll put Tennessee’s massive front line in tough spots defensively. Stokes or Jeronne Maymon will likely end up being forced to guard Glenn Robinson III, who is going to get drafted at some point to be an NBA small forward. The Vols will have a clear advantage in the paint, however, which likely means that whoever is able to take advantage of that mismatch will likely end up advancing.

It’s funny when you think about it.

Tennessee fans wanted Cuonzo Martin fired. Now he’s off to the Sweet 16 after winning a trio of games in the first week of the Big Dance.

Don’t let Sunday’s loss sully what Wichita State accomplished this year

Fred VanVleet, Cleanthony Early
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ST. LOUIS — Wichita State finishes the 2013-14 college basketball season at 35-1 and as one of the biggest historical question marks in recent college basketball history.

The No. 1 seed Shockers were the first team to go undefeated into the NCAA Tournament since UNLV in 1991 but many questioned how good Wichita State legitimately was, not only this season, but historically speaking.

The Shockers made the Final Four last season and lost to Louisville in a close contest, but head coach Gregg Marshall’s team only played five NCAA Tournament teams this season — Tulsa, BYU, Saint Louis, Tennessee and North Carolina Central — and many questioned how good the Shockers could actually be if they played such a weak schedule.

RELATEDHype was justified | How good can Kentucky be?

Those questions were answered — in full — on Sunday afternoon when Wichita State lost on its final shot of the season against preseason No. 1 Kentucky.

Many talked about Kentucky potentially going 40-0 in the preseason; Wichita State nearly lived it.

A Shocker team led by a junior college transfer, a former walk-on and a vast array of under-recruited “mid-major” prospects came one missed three-pointer away from beating a team with seven All-Americans after those All-Americans threw their best combination in a 15-round heavyweight fight.

“That was an Elite 8 game,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said after the game. “The winner of that game could have gone to the Final Four.”

College basketball hasn’t seen a mid-major storyline like this since Gordon Hayward nearly gave Butler a national championship in front of its home crowd in Indianapolis against powerhouse Duke.

Media members were buzzing in the hallways of the Scottrade Center on Sunday about the high caliber of play from both teams with many asking aloud if it was the greatest Round of 32 game ever played.

“It’s just tough to end such an amazing run like this,” sophomore guard Ron Baker said. “(We) lost to a very good team that came out and played well. And I feel like if they continue to play like that throughout the tournament, they will be tough to beat.”

Wichita State should feel no shame for going on college basketball’s biggest stage — with Sunday’s game being the only game televised at the time — and shooting 55 percent from the field and 47 percent from the three-point line. Like Butler, the Shockers came one shot away from beating one of college basketball’s biggest perennial juggernauts.

MOREKansas loses to No. 10 Stanford | Bill Self’s fifth tourney loss to No. 9 seed or lower

“You know, it’s hard. You mention the finality of it. We won’t be able to coach these seniors anymore. But it’s been such a fun, enjoyable, magical season. I mean, it’s literally been a magic carpet ride that I mentioned a week or so ago. And to have it end is going to be something that we have to get used to,” Marshall said. “But I still think in retrospect we will look back at it and just be so proud. I hope that you’re around when we come back for the ceremony in 20 years or whatever it’s going to be and we can reminisce and it’s pretty special.”

Wichita State was not a “mid-major” program this season. Or last year for that matter. The Shockers only had six wins come within single digits and only one win went to overtime. The Shockers didn’t just beat people, they dominated them.

College basketball hasn’t seen a mid-major program sustain a two-year period of success like this since Butler made back-to-back national title games in 2010 and 2011. Now, Brad Stevens is coaching the Boston Celtics and the Bulldogs reside in the Big East.

With a tremendously loyal fan base and a blossoming program, Wichita State might be the next team to make a similar leap to the permanent big leagues of power conference play.

And they deserve it.

Cleanthony Early, Baker, Tekele Cotton and Fred VanVleet were household names this season — receiving every team’s best shot along the way — and they still held court 35 straight times.

“It’s bittersweet. I wanted it to end a little different, but I have to understand certain facts,” Early said. “I’m sure I’ll continue working really hard to be successful. I am sure my teammates will, and it is what it is.”

“I feel for their team and I feel for their coach,” Calipari said. “And Gregg, understand what he did to keep these guys on point was nothing short of miraculous. I have done it where I had to coach teams that were 26-0, 20-0. I’m telling you, each game there is more and more pressure to win.”

Wichita State might have lost to Kentucky on Sunday — and its perfect season to boot — but they should take pride in knowing that they gave one of college basketball’s most talented teams of all-time all that it could handle.

College basketball fans will be talking about this game for a long time.

“I don’t have any control over what folks want to believe or think that they saw. I know what’s in my heart, I know what I saw,” Marshall said. “I thought I saw a very high-level basketball game between two incredibly gifted teams, that one team won by one play, one basket, two points. And to take anything away from what these young men have done all season long, and more importantly, how they’ve done it, if they want to do that, so be it, good for them.”

For the first time all season, Kentucky lived up to their potential. Can it last?

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ST. LOUIS — Kentucky has been under a national microscope for John Calipari’s entire five-year tenure as head coach of the Wildcats, but this season’s team might have been the most critiqued group of them all.

With seven McDonald’s All-Americans — six of them freshmen — many college basketball analysts considered the 2013-14 version of Kentucky to be the greatest collection of talent the college game had ever seen. The Wildcats had pros backing up pros and the preseason No. 1 team in the country carried so much hype that some people insanely wondered if they could go 40-0.

Growing pains and a number of tough matchups gave Kentucky a 24-10 regular season record, though, as it quickly became apparent that so many ball-dominant players with dominant personalities was having a tough time gelling and playing together.

RELATED: The most anticipated game of the year lived up to the hype

There were the eye rolls and bad body language and the camera shots of Calipari yelling at players that were staring into the distance. Many wondered if this team would ever live up to its vast potential.

None of that matters for now, however, as the Wildcats knocked off undefeated No. 1 seed Wichita State on Sunday to advance to the Sweet 16 to face Louisville. Kentucky played its best game of the season and there’s a sense of relief among some of the players as they head into next weekend’s Midwest Regional matchup with the rival and defending champion Cardinals.

“It feels like five million pounds off your shoulders when the buzzer went off,” sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein said. “It was just a good feeling. Everyone was yelling and super hype and it was just a good win.”

Freshmen have been the talk of college basketball this season, but as elite freshman like Duke’s Jabari Parker and Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins had disappointing early-tournament exits, Kentucky saw its own hyped freshmen take turns carrying the game against Wichita State.

Twin brothers Andrew and Aaron Harrison took turns hitting shots early in the game and forward Julius Randle played his most complete all-around game of the season, as he finished with 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Down the stretch, wing James Young hit two critical shots and grabbed a big defensive rebound in traffic. Dakari Johnson made a key offensive rebound off of a missed free throw that kept an important second-half possession alive that Calipari cited as, “the most important play of the game.”

MOREKansas loses to No. 10 Stanford | Bill Self’s fifth tourney loss to No. 9 seed or lower

When Kentucky needed plays, its freshmen took turns making them and after the win over Wichita State they shared a lot of laughs during the postgame press conference. The eye rolls and dropping heads seemed like a thing of the past.

“I know I have great teammates and they have my back out there,” Randle said. “(Our) coaches always say, ‘don’t worry about winning or losing, just go out there and play.'”

Kentucky finally played up to their tremendous capabilities on Sunday and they have the look of a team that could contend for the title. The abundance of talent was always present for the Wildcats, but they’ve come together and gotten through a lot of adversity and they’re finally defending and sharing the ball as a team.

“Early in the season, when we’d get down, we’d get down on ourselves and hang our heads. I don’t think anyone sees that anymore,” senior guard Jarrod Polson said. “We’re just focused. Whether the game is going good or going bad we just stay together and that’s the biggest thing.”

Polson has an interesting perspective. As the elder statesman on Kentucky this year, he’s played with plenty of talented teams that have come through Lexington with high expectations to perform in March. The senior sees this team as coming together at the right time.

“Pretty much every team besides last year, we’ve really come together and it’s been at different times (of the season),” Polson said. “This year, it might have been the latest we’ve ever come together but I think that we really have, especially on the defensive end. We really have each other’s backs and we’re just fighting together and it’s great to see.”

Kentucky might have been criticized by any basketball fan with a pulse at some point during the season, but Calipari has remained patient with this group and it might finally be paying off.

“This team and what people said about this team, all we have done all year is continue to get better,” Calipari said. “We hit some shots, we missed some. Like every team, you hit a hole (where) you don’t play well. But they believed in themselves.”

Kentucky might have aspirations for bigger and better things than a Round of 32 victory over the Shockers, but now its young team can at least sleep a little bit better tonight as they prepare for the rest of the NCAA Tournament.

Earlier this season, Kentucky was seeing red, but now the only red they’ll see this week is the Friday night clash against Louisville in Indianapolis. Kentucky has the potential to still win a title as long as they continue to play together and on Sunday they showed they’re a major threat in the Midwest Regional next weekend.