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Much like virtually everything over the last 12 months, very little about the 2021 NCAA Tournament has felt normal. Having attended a game last week, I witnessed firsthand one of the strangest sports environments I’d ever seen: Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts of the NFL, split down the middle by a massive curtain into two basketball arenas. I had tickets to Morehead State and West Virginia’s first round matchup, scheduled for a 9:50 p.m. EST tipoff to end the night of games. The game was being played on the “Unity” court on the south side of the massive football stadium, while on the north side, North Texas had just completed a wild overtime upset of 4th-seeded Purdue.
The viewing experience was strange to say the least - seated near the 45-yard line, I could have been watching two courts at once had the game times not been staggered. I wore a mask for the entirety of it, had plenty of room to stretch my legs, and had to walk what felt like five miles to buy a beer. When the action started, though, none of it mattered - it was live basketball. Fans from all over coal country were passionately screaming at referees. West Virginia fans sang John Denver’s “Country Roads” in unison as they descended back toward the parking lots in winning jubilation. I even saw another group nearby clearly sweating the 13-point spread. All in all, it was comforting - clearly, we haven’t forgotten how to do this.
With four double-digit seeds still around as we enter the Sweet Sixteen, this tournament has been full of surprises. The East region, while the chalkiest of the four entering the second weekend, hasn’t been immune to the carnage either. The pod that was supposed to produce a Texas/BYU matchup in the round of 32 disintegrated into a UCLA/Abilene Christian blowout, allowing Alabama the opportunity to potentially reach the Elite Eight before playing against one single-digit seed. In the top half, there haven't been nearly as many surprises - the result, in this case, is a Florida State matchup with Michigan that should absolutely deliver. Michigan, Florida State, Alabama, and UCLA are four of the strongest brands in collegiate athletics; and in this instance, I believe they’re going to make for a hell of a weekend of hoops.
#4 Florida State vs #1 Michigan
5:00 PM ET, CBS (Sunday)
Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN
Michigan showed once again why they’re an incredibly tough out in a tournament setting in the Round of 32. LSU led most of the first half before coughing up a lead heading into the break, and the Tigers also regained the advantage again for large parts of the second half. LSU pushed the basketball in transition, played great defense, and had a 63-60 lead inside the final 10 minutes before Michigan opened a 14-1 run that all but sealed the win. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this from Juwan Howard’s squad, either:
- February 21: 13-2 run in the final five minutes to defeat Wisconsin on the road, 67-59
- December 31: 19-2 run late in the second half to earn a win on the road at Maryland, 84-73
- March 13: 11-1 run in the final three minutes in a loss to Ohio St., 68-67, in the Big Ten semis
With or without Isaiah Livers, Michigan has shown an ability to fight through the late stages of games like very few teams in the country have. The Wolverines a team you absolutely cannot take your foot off the gas against, something you'd have to believe Leonard Hamilton has certainly spoken to his Florida State team about more than once in the last several days. And if this matchup feels familiar, that’s because it is - Michigan and Florida State met in the 2018 Elite Eight in Los Angeles, a game the Wolverines won 58-54.
Leonard Hamilton was met with media scrutiny postgame for not using his timeouts late as the clock ran down on the 'Noles, seemingly either giving up or confused as to the game situation in big moments
down the stretch. While this Florida State team comes with better talent and higher expectations than the one in 2018, so does Michigan: last time these teams met, they were the #3 and #9 seeds, respectively.
Sunday is an opportunity for Florida State to exact revenge, and yet another chance at taking a step toward the Final Four, a plateau the program has never reached under their beloved 18-year head coach. With an average height across the roster of over 6’7”, KenPom ranks FSU the tallest team in the nation. On Sunday, they will need to flex their 14.6% block rate on the inside and force the ball away from Michigan’s bigs (the inside matchup Hunter Dickinson vs. Balsa Koprivica alone makes this game worth watching).
Michigan is 240th in KenPom’s 3PA/FGA, which measures the % of a team’s shots taken from three, and while the Wolverines are an excellent three-point shooting team, they’re usually being taken by open shooters and created by assists. If the 'Noles can create problems in the passing lanes with their length and deny the ball into the middle, they’ll force Michigan into shots from distance that they don’t want to be taking. Assuming Eli Brooks and Chaundee Brown don’t go 8-for-14 from distance like they did against LSU, that should work out pretty well for Hamilton and company come tipoff on Sunday afternoon.
On the other side of the ball, Florida State runs into a stout all-around Michigan defense. The Wolverines rank 9th nationally in defensive efficiency, making this a strength-on-strength matchup with FSU’s 14th ranked offense. The only visible advantage for Florida State comes on the perimeter, where their 16th-ranked 3PT% offense will need to take advantage of Michigan’s defense ranking 112th in that area. Florida State also turns the ball over on more than 20% of possessions, generally a serious concern in the NCAA Tournament; luckily for them, Michigan doesn’t turn people over at all (337th in forcing turnovers).
Assuming Florida State can take care of the basketball, then they will have a massive size advantage all over the perimeter and should have a much easier time getting to the shots they want. Michigan's Brown, Brooks, and Mike Smith bring to the table an average height of around 6’2”, while Florida State doesn’t roster a single player under 6’4”. Scottie Barnes and MJ Walker will need to take advantage on each end, both shooting over Michigan’s defense and closing out on perimeter shots to pull off the minor upset.
Ultimately this game will come down to execution, and FSU has both the bodies and athleticism it needs to bully Michigan here. And while a focused effort from the 'Noles likely sends the Wolverines packing, that is actually where I have my doubts - we’ve seen time and time again how Michigan performs late in games when the chips are down. Unfortunately for Leonard Hamilton, FSU has melted away leads and faltered late several times this season in losses to North Carolina, Georgia Tech, and Clemson - all games that could've been wins with better execution late. If the Wolverines smell blood in the water, they’ll capitalize.
Prediction: Florida State 67, Michigan 63 (FSU +3)
#11 UCLA vs #2 Alabama
7:15PM ET, CBS (Sunday)
Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN
If you only look at seeding, UCLA reaching the Sweet 16 as a #11 seed who had to fight through a play-in game is quite the story. The Bruins faltered down the stretch of the regular season, losing three in a row before immediately flaming out in the Pac-12 conference tournament against Oregon State (also still alive) due to an inability to make big free throws. The reality, however, is more charitable and more clear now - this was a coordinated effort by the Pac-12 to get the Beavers into the field so that America could witness that even the team picked to finish last in the conference still belonged on the big stage.
A ruse, and a damn good one at that, leaving us with four Pac-12 schools still remaining heading into the second weekend. While I’m obviously joking about UCLA throwing a game to Oregon State, it’s clear the Pac-12 was disrespected by the committee for playing their games later at night (a 17-9 record with a 13-6 in-conference mark might’ve earned UCLA a #2 seed had they come from the Big Ten, based on Ohio State’s resume entering the tournament). The Bruins’ #11 seed is nothing more than a number at this point. After all, UCLA’s #22 KenPom ranking puts them ahead of top-4 seeds like Purdue, Kansas, West Virginia, Texas, and Oklahoma State - and I now suppose it’s no surprise that UCLA outlasted them all.
Alabama, in direct contrast to UCLA, made clear improvements as the season went along. The Crimson Tide had the opportunity to play six more regular season games than the Bruins, and they got their lumps out of the way early in losses to Clemson, Stanford, and Western Kentucky. Nate Oats’ team plays fast - they rank 12th nationally in pace - and also rank third nationally in defensive efficiency thanks to a swarming defense that gets in shooters’ faces. As a result, the Tide are 21-0 this season when scoring 72 or more points. Alabama’s biggest offensive weakness is that they occasionally become careless with the basketball - they rank 159th nationally in TO%, losing 18.6% of their possessions this way. They’ve also allowed 14.1% of their shots to be blocked and have been victims of steals on another 10.6% of their possessions, ranking outside the top-300 nationally as an offense in both of those KenPom categories.
Fortunately for the Tide, Mick Cronin’s Bruins aren’t particularly excellent at taking advantage in any of these areas defensively. But UCLA does rank 12th nationally in offensive efficiency and posted excellent showings of 1.19 and 1.22 points per possession against Michigan State and BYU before taking its foot off the gas in a 20-point laugher over Abilene Christian. UCLA will want to play this game in the halfcourt and continue to take good care of the basketball while setting up Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr. UCLA has turned the ball over a total of 20 times through three NCAA Tournament games, and if the Bruins want to keep 'Bama from turning this one into a track meet, they must continue to take care of the basketball.
Alabama’s offense, on the other hand, ranks 28th nationally in efficiency despite not cracking the top-50 in a single category. The Crimson Tide do an excellent job of turning defensive pressure into run-outs and fire off three-pointers at the 17th-highest rate in the country. When they’re hot, it can look like an avalanche, as they’ll look to run off every UCLA Bruin miss. If the Crimson Tide can turn this into an 80-possession plus type of game, their pedestrian shooting numbers won’t be an issue whatsoever.
If UCLA performs the way they have so far in the tournament, however, then this will be tight all the way through. Juzang and Jaquez are more than talented enough to carry UCLA to the Elite Eight if they can control the pace of the game with ball control and stay hot shooting. But the problem for the Bruins is that it’s difficult to buy into their consistency - playing three games in five days last week kept them in a rhythm and allowed them to keep their demons at bay. Now, after a longer layoff, can we reasonably expect the same level of execution from a team that’s fallen apart for stretches against the likes of Washington State and Oregon State earlier this season? I’m not sold, but I’m excited to find out.
Prediction: Alabama 79, UCLA 73 (OVER 145.5)