6 Tennessee (27-8) vs. 2 Ohio State (28-7), 7:07 pm EDT - The Volunteers have survived suspensions and injuries to advance to the Sweet 16, and they'll put it all on the line versus the Buckeyes, a team they match up well against. The Vols' big time player is 6'9" forward Wayne Chism, who doesn't always stuff the stat sheet, but contributes in a variety of ways: on the boards, setting picks, passing and floor leadership. Chism has been fairly quiet in the first two wins - a close 62-59 win over San Diego State, and a relatively easy advance past Ohio, 83-68 - scoring just 9 and 11 points, respectively, though against Ohio, he did add 12 boards and 4 assists.
A trio of guard -forward hybrids - Bobby Maze, J.P. Prince and Scotty Hopson - will be counted upon to do most of the scoring and rebounding, providing some balance, but no dominating inside presence. That's the Tennessee make-up, and they've done well with it thus far.
Ohio State features a similar squad of players between 6'3" and 6'8", led by budding superstar Evan Turner, who is a triple-double threat every time he steps onto a court. The NCAA Player of the Year, Turner average 20 points, 9.2 rebounds and 6 assists through the season and had a huge game (24, 9, 9) in the second round, 75-66, win over Georgia Tech after virtually walking through the opening win past UC Santa Barbara, 68-51, with 9 points.
The Buckeyes are dangerous on the perimeter with sharp-shooters Jon Diebler, David Lighty and William Buford, and led by upper-classmen. 12 of the 16 players on their roster are either seniors or juniors and there are no freshman. Rounding out the starting five - each of whom will play almost the entire game - is the potential game-changer, 260-pound Dallas Lauderdale, who provides heft inside. Tennessee does not have a player that can match up with him well, nor do they have anyone with Turner's all-around ability. The Vols tenacity and team play should keep this one interesting.
10 St. Mary's Gaels (28-5) vs. 3 Baylor Bears (27-7), 7:27 pm EDT - To many, it's no surprise that either of these teams have advanced this far as Baylor was near the top of the Big 12 standings and ranked all season long and the Gaels knocked off Gonzaga in the WCC tourney final to receive the automatic bid. One could make the case that, with the PAC-10 sending only two teams, St. Mary's was under-seeded and could have been as high as a 4 or 5. At least that the way they've been playing, with 6'11" Omar Samhan dominating the interior in both of St. Mary's blowout wins in the tourney.
Though the Gaels beat Richmond by 8 in the opening round and Villanova by 7, the games were really not that close. St. Mary's held the lead for most of both contests. Complementing Samhan's interior play are a couple of gunners in Matt Dellavedova and Mickey McConnell, both gritty guards with good range. Dellavedova will also drive the ball to the hoop and always seems to be on top of loose balls. Forward Ben Allen is a key on both ends of the floor and Clint Steindl operates well on the wings and is an excellent passer.
The Bears haven't impressed much with wins over Sam Houston St. and Old Dominion, but the guy who St. Mary's will find hardest to handle is guard LaceDarius Dunn, who can light it up from anywhere on the court and is one of the quickest players in the country. Additionally, the Bears bring plenty of inside heft with Ekpe Udoh (6'10"), Quincy Acy (6'7"), Josh Lomers (7'0") and Anthony Jones (6'10"). St. Mary's hasn't seen that kind of size thus far in the tournament, though they did handle Gonzaga just prior, who can put big bodies on the floor.
This one promises to be one of the most entertaining games of the entire tournament.
9 Northern Iowa Panthers (30-4) vs. 5 Michigan St. Spartans (26-8), 9:37 pm EDT - Besides Cornell, the Panthers are the real Cinderella story of the tournament. Prior to beating #1-ranked and top-seeded Kansas on Saturday, N. Iowa hadn't even played a Top 25 team, so beating the Jawhawks was a shock and busted many a hopeful bracket sheet in the process. The big star thus far has undoubtedly been Ali Farokhmanesh, who has hit timely 3-point bombs, enabling the Panthers to move forward through the field.
However, Ali is not even one of the team's top scorers. He's actually 4th, after center Jordan Eglseder, forward Adam Koch and point guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe. Johnny Moran fills oout the starting five, who each play about 33-35 minutes per game. Northern Iowa is the classic "five iron men" who will go toe to toe with anyone in the nation. They are well-organized, solid in fundamentals and good defenders. They also have that extra X-factor that comes with winning 30 games in a season - they know what they are.
Michigan State comes into this game battered and bruised. Starting point guard Kalin Lucas will miss the remainder of the season with a ruptured left Achilles. He was replaced in the Spartans' second round win over Maryland by Korie Lucious who hit the game-winner at the buzzer for the 85-83 victory. Coach Tom Izzo's kids are trained to be tough and resilient, so it's no surprise they're here even without their point guard. They absorb adversity like a sponge and move forward, much of the load now shifting to forwards Durrell Summers and Raymar Morgan, both of whom have stepped it up in the first two rounds.
Inside, Draymond Green will provide an interesting match-up with Eglseder, though he's giving up 6 inches and about 50 pounds to the Northern Iowa center. A couple of inside bangers, Delvon Roe and Derrick Nix will see plenty of action, as Izzo will try to wear down the Panthers with fresh bodies. On the wing, Chris Allen is a real unknown, though he's capable of big games as well as being somewhat invisible for long stretches.
This one will go to the team that displays the best survival skills, especially if the refs let them go at it physically.
1 Duke (31-5) vs. 4 Purdue (29-5), 9:57 pm - Here is a game in which a #1 seed could easily been seen waving good-bye to its tournament hopes at the final buzzer. Purdue has regrouped after injury sidelined their #2 scorer and rebounder, replacing Robbie Hummel with gutsy, tough-as-nails senior guard Chris Kramer, a defensive specialist who will likely have the assignment of taking Duke's sharp-shooting Jon Scheyer off his game.
Should Kramer be successful, the rest of the Boilermaker squad looks like a solid match for the Blue Devils. Purdue can get plenty of scoring from center JaJuan Johnson and guard E'Twaun Moore, who is plays with emotion and quickness. Duke will be going to their best player, Kyle Singler, along with guard Nolan Smith for their scoring punch, while using Brian Zoubek and twins Miles and Mason Plumlee to clog up Johnson inside.
There isn't much separating these two teams, especially considering that, with Hummel, the Boilermakers might have even been the favorite. Coach K gives Duke an edge, though Purdue is by no means an easy out.