Sweet 16 Tennessee vs Michigan Preview

Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

One of the best three point shooting teams in college basketball faces one of the best defensive teams in college basketball. Giddy up.

Before we go any further, let's remember to celebrate. It's been a rare verb in Knoxville this decade, not seen on the hardwood since the last time we took this stage four long years ago. And after a season of questions and quarreling I'd hate to think all our angst, earned and unearned, has caused us to forget how to celebrate well. We know heartbreak and misery in this athletic department and in this fanbase. But we should also be people who celebrate well, and the past week the occasion has called for it. What Cuonzo Martin and these Vols have done has rapidly exceeded the expectations we held just two weeks ago and now met the expectations we held when the season began. Through peak and valley, this has been a good and successful season for Tennessee Basketball, and I don't want to forget that if we lose one more game.

Having said that, let's talk about how to win one more game.

We've discussed previously Michigan's story and its cast of characters. There is a dominant narrative for both teams, and it appears likely whoever tells it best on Friday night will still be telling it on Sunday. How will each team's strength stand up to the opposition?

Highest seed has the honors...

Michigan Three Point Shooting vs Tennessee Perimeter Defense

The Wolverines shoot 40.2% from the arc, seventh best in the land, and have four guys in their rotation who shoot that percentage or higher while averaging 3-6 attempts per game each. Tennessee allowed fewer three point makes and attempts during the regular season than any other SEC team.

You're going to get length-on-length here: Michigan starts three 6'6" players at the 2-3-4. Nik Stauskas is the All-American, but all three can hurt you. The other two match-ups are getting the bulk of the conversation, but it will be very important for Jordan McRae to defend at an exceptionally high level on what we assume will be Caris LeVert.

But the biggest task should once again fall to Josh Richardson. Here's what Tennessee's best defender and most outstanding player during the NCAA Tournament has done in the month of March:

UMass ran most of its offense through Chaz Williams at point and Cady Lalanne inside, while Mercer's Langston Hall still got his average of 15 points on 6 of 14 shooting. But overall, Richardson has completely shut down a number of elite scorers during this run. Will he be able to slow Stauskas?

Richardson and Stauskas is the main event, but the most intriguing match-up is Jeronne Maymon vs Glenn Robinson III. As many have pointed out this week, GRIII can draw Maymon away from the basket and is a volume three point shooter despite hitting just 28.1% this season. It will be a big defensive challenge for Tennessee's emotional leader.

Four years ago against Ohio State's undersized lineup the Vols had a choice: adjust their rotation in hopes of better match-ups, or dance with the one that brought them. Tennessee elected to leave Wayne Chism and Brian Williams on the floor together, and the two combined for 31 points and 23 rebounds in securing Tennessee's first trip to the Elite Eight. Four years later, the Vols are still dancing with the one that brought them: Cuonzo Martin said the Vols will play the way they play. That means Maymon getting lots of minutes and plenty of chances against Glenn Robinson III.

That also means the Vols will be able to unleash their greatest strength against the Wolverines...

Tennessee Rebounding vs Michigan Posts

Jordan Morgan has had a great NCAA Tournament thus far, and there appears to be some talk among Michigan and national circles that Tennessee is similar to Texas on the inside. But the Vols are one of the few teams in college basketball even better than the Longhorns on the glass.

Texas won the rebounding battle against Michigan 41-30 and 21-11 on the offensive glass. But Texas really didn't run their offense through their posts: guard Isaiah Taylor took 22 shots and backcourt mates Javan Felix and Martez Walker added 10 each, giving those three players roughly two-thirds of the Longhorn field goal attempts. The Texas bigs Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes combined for just 14 shots. That combined with Michigan hitting 14 of 28 threes equals a loss no matter how big your rebounding advantage.

It's not that Michigan is going to win the rebounding battle in this one. The Wolverines finished in the bottom third of the Big Ten in every rebounding category this year; it's not who they are. Tennessee is going to get second chance opportunities. Perhaps the bigger point here is how much of Tennessee's offense will run through Jarnell Stokes. UT's best basketball has included a slightly diminished scoring focus for Jordan McRae and more touches for the big fella inside. And Michigan is not a good defensive team: 12th in the Big Ten in FG% allowed and effective FG% allowed, 9th in points per possession allowed. If the Vols continue to be patient - something Michigan will probably encourage us to do, actually - they should find plenty of opportunities for Stokes.

The magic numbers for Tennessee, one more time:
  • 21-1 when shooting 43.9% or better (season avg: 45.0%)
  • 17-2 when shooting 33.3% or better from three (season avg: 32.5%)
  • 19-2 with 12+ assists (season avg: 12)

Tennessee's best basketball, represented in those numbers above, includes an offense going through Stokes and then sharing the basketball off the double team. It has always included a massive interior presence. And most recently it has included an identity built around defense, led by Josh Richardson on the other team's superstar but requiring the presence and effort of every man on the floor. This identity has helped the Vols keep teams from beating them from the three point line throughout this season.

Michigan is one of the best in the country at what they do; there's a chance this ends with the Wolverines shooting 50+ percent from the arc again and we shake our heads and their hands and say good game. But there's also a chance Tennessee's defense frustrates the Wolverines into shooting something less, and Tennessee is able to take advantage with something more on their own end. Michigan is a great basketball team, worthy of their seed and the hype. But right now, Tennessee is a great basketball team too. And tonight, with two contrasting styles among the best of the best, I believe it is truly anyone's game.

For Cuonzo Martin and the Vols, Tennessee is one win away from equaling the best result in school history, earning only the second Elite Eight appearance in school history, and a chance to play one more day for an even greater prize. We have come so far, and there's so much still out there in front of us. But the Vols have continued to be about their business one day, one game, and one moment at a time. Teams take on the nature of their head coach. Right now, I'm glad to see Cuonzo Martin standing over there, because it is his toughness, consistency, effort, and presence that this team has adopted as their best basketball has emerged at just the right time.

7:15 PM ET, CBS. Let's see if tonight's still our night. Go Vols.

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