Can Michigan play the role of spoiler against Tennessee and advance to its fifth consecutive Sweet 16 when the two teams battle in the second round on Saturday?
The Wolverines (18-14) took one step closer to reaching the Sweet 16 yet again when they rallied to beat No. 6 seed Colorado State 75-63 in the first round on Thursday. Michigan sputtered in the first half without DeVante' Jones running the offense. Jones, the starting point guard, missed the NCAA Tournament opener after suffering a concussion earlier in the week. The Wolverines trailed by as many as 15 points before halftime, but rallied behind 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting from Hunter Dickinson.
The Volunteers (27-7) had no trouble dismantling No. 14 seed Longwood 88-56 on Thursday. Tennessee shot 60 percent from the field and had four players score in double figures while recording 29 assists on 33 baskets. After suffering a first-round upset against Oregon State a year ago, the Volunteers did not let Longwood hang around. They raced to a 54-29 halftime lead after holding the Lancers to just 14 points over an 11-minute stretch and ending the half on a 13-0 run. Josiah-Jordan James led the way with 17 points and nine rebounds.
The all-time series is knotted at 5-5. Michigan and Tennessee are facing one another in the NCAA Tournament for the third time. The Wolverines won both previous meetings in 2011 and 2014.
South Region: No. 11 Michigan Wolverines (18-14) vs. No. 3 Tennessee Volunteers (27-7)
Time: Saturday, March 19 at 5:15 p.m. ET
Where: Gainbridge Fieldhouse (Indianapolis)
Spread: Tennessee -5.5
Keys for Michigan
Stringing together efficient possessions on offense will give the Wolverines a fighting chance. Tennessee had the best scoring defense in SEC play entering the NCAA Tournament. Eleven of the last 13 opponents the Volunteers faced have scored 65 or fewer points. Tennessee averages 9.3 steals per game, which ranks in the top 10 among Division I teams. Michigan struggled for a half against Colorado State without Jones running the offense, committing nine turnovers in the first 12 minutes. If the Wolverines suffer through a similar rash of bad shots and turnovers out of the gate against Tennessee, the Volunteers will run them right out of the arena.
Getting Hunter Dickinson involved early will help Michigan start out on the right foot. Dickinson is the catalyst for what the Wolverines want to do on offense and defense. His ability to impose his will around the rim can help lower the defensive pressure from the Volunteers. Frankie Collins and Caleb Houstan made Dickinson's impact inside even more pronounced against Colorado State with timely baskets from the wings. DeVante' Jones could be back in the lineup after practicing with the team on Friday. If Jones can go, it will be important for him to get things going on the perimeter to open up the rim for Dickinson.
Keys for Tennessee
Before getting hot down the stretch, Tennessee had a penchant for enduring lengthy cold spells on offense. The Volunteers made just 43 percent of their shots coming into the NCAA Tournament and average 12.4 turnovers per game. That led to some ugly-looking losses to the likes of Villanova, Texas Tech, and Arkansas. Tennessee has cultivated better offensive balance and cannot afford to fall back into bad habits from earlier in the season. Efficient offense will make the Volunteers' normally stingy defense even tougher for the Wolverines to cope with for long stretches.
Santiago Vescovi and Kennedy Chandler are both capable of making game-changing plays in bunches. Vescovi is deadly from the perimeter, making 101 3-pointers so far this season and shooting 41 percent from long distance. Chandler is a guard who can affect the game in many different areas. He leads the team in scoring (13.8 ppg), assists (4.6 apg), and steals (2.2 spg). Both players are skilled passers who do a good job of getting teammates involved. The Volunteers go as they go. If Vescovi and Chandler come out on fire, Michigan will have a tough time extinguishing the flames.
Tennessee is a 2 seed masquerading as a 3 seed. The Volunteers have 11 Quad 1 victories over teams like Arizona, Auburn, Kentucky, Arkansas, and North Carolina this season and are winners in 13 of their last 14 games. Michigan is wildly inconsistent from game to game. You never know which version of the Wolverines will show up. A battled-tested Tennessee team built around a stifling defense will have no trouble dispatching Michigan and ending their Sweet 16 streak at four.
Prediction: Tennessee 68, Michigan 60
– Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports journalist based in Utah. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.