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Thursday, March 25, 2010
Three things to watch: Midwest Region

By Eamonn Brennan

Three things to watch is a quick preview of the NCAA tournament's second weekend. It is exactly what it says it is.

Friday's games in St. Louis: No. 6 Tennessee vs. No. 2 Ohio State, 7:07 p.m. ET and No. 9 Northern Iowa vs. No. 5 Michigan State, 9:37 p.m. ET

Evan Turner
Evan Turner is averaging 16.5 points per game in the NCAA tournament.
Thing One: Seeking Volunteers to wear down Evan Turner. Get it? Volunteers? See what I did there? OK, I apologize. But the point remains: Tennessee's best chance of beating Ohio State will come in the 42 feet between Ohio State's basket and the half-court line. When Georgia Tech and UC Santa Barbara pressed Turner hard in the backcourt, they were able to not only force turnovers -- 13 total, nine of which came against the Yellow Jackets -- but sincerely frustrate the surefire national player of the year into the sort of outward frustration Turner seemed to have eliminated from his on-court personality years ago. Tennessee just so happens to be one of the better pressing teams in the country. This strategy has the added ostensible benefit of tiring out the Buckeyes, who almost never go to the bench. That aspect is slightly overrated; Ohio State has seemed to do just fine with its five starters playing big minutes thus far. These are college athletes who, at this point in their hoops lives, can play 40 minutes of intense basketball in their sleep. The real benefit of the press is getting after Turner, forcing him to give up the ball, and hoping he cracks under the pressure. Once Turner gets past half court, stopping Ohio State becomes much more complicated.

Thing Two: In which a No. 9 seed from the Missouri Valley Conference is favored to beat Michigan State. Really? Really. After their win over Kansas, the Northern Iowa Panthers seem to be the consensus pick to take down an injury-hobbled Michigan State team in the Sweet 16. This makes sense: UNI has played really well in its two wins -- one of which, you know, was over Kansas -- and Michigan State will be without its most productive player and leader in guard Kalin Lucas. But calling UNI the prohibitive favorite here seems a little overblown. The teams are just about equal in overall adjusted efficiency. Northern Iowa is a very good defensive team that excels at keeping opponents away from the glass and off the free throw line. But Michigan State -- a decidedly bigger and stronger team than UNI (though so was Kansas, I suppose) -- is the sixth-best offensive rebounding team in the country. Both teams prefer a glacial pace. This is going to be a very slow, very grindy sort of basketball game, and those sorts of games typically end up being close. Who says the Spartans can't win another?

Thing Three: Please welcome to the floor ... Mr. Korie Lucious! If Michigan State does that, it will be in large part thanks to the way Lucious fills in for the injured Lucas. Lucious got off to a pretty good start in the second round, scoring 13 points in 27 minutes, the most important of which came just before the buzzer, when Lucious hit a 3 to put Michigan State past Maryland, 85-83. I'm not big on the psychological element of analysis -- how do we know what makes any given player tick? -- but if Michigan State fans are hoping their substitute point guard comes to play with a certain level of confidence, that shot couldn't have hurt.

Bonus bold Eamonndamus Midwest region prediction!: Michigan State and UNI play one of the slowest, least entertaining games of the year ... until the final minute, when Tom Izzo and Ben Jacobson stage a coaching clinic that sees each team trade game-winners on one beautifully designed inbound play after another. Finally, in no small measure of karmic realignment, UNI's Ali Farokhmanesh takes -- and misses -- a shot much too early on what would have been the final possession, giving Michigan State the ball with more than enough time to score. They do. Eamonndamus has spoken!