The Volunteers are one of the bigger surprises in the Sweet 16, a team that barely snuck into the Tourney and had to win a game in Dayton before even making the field of 64. They are the proof in the SEC pudding. Florida and Kentucky are nationally recognized - for a previously obscure team like Tennessee to make it to the second weekend says something about the strength of the conference.
They went to OT with Iowa, but they won the extra 5 minutes by 13 points. They beat UMass by 19 and they beat Mercer by 20 - they have been blowing teams off the floor. They are only 2 point underdogs to Michigan, a 2 seed. With the 1 seed and the 3 seed already gone, the bracket is pretty wide open. Tennessee has a chance to pull a VCU - going from the First Four to the Final Four.
Cuonzo Martin has built a college team in the image of the state's NBA team, the Memphis Grizzlies. Tennessee has a pair of big, physical bruisers upfront who try to maul you with their size. On the perimeter, he's got a bunch of NBA-caliber athletes and they try to dig into you. It's very late 90's Eastern Conference basketball - we're just going to brutalize you for 40 minutes.
I always like when Jimmy Dykes calls Tennessee games because he makes the action sound like an MMA match. It really kind of is - if you aren't prepared to have pain inflicted upon you, don't come into the paint against Tennessee. Watching them against a smaller, more offensive minded team like Michigan will be an interesting clash of styles.
PG - Antonio Barton (6'2 180) - The younger brother of Will Barton and a transfer from Memphis. A caretaker PG who shoots the ball, doesn't turn it over and starts the offense. If his jumper isn't falling, he isn't helping the team and he shoots 34% from 3 on 4 attempts a game.
SG - Josh Richardson (6'6 195) - As good an athlete as you will see in the country - an elite defensive stopper who has become a more complete player over the last two years. Throughout his career, Richardson has been prone to taking bad shots and making bad decisions with the ball. It's been his growth as a player that has taken this team to the next level - if he's knocking down 3's, they are a tough team.
SF - Jordan McRae (6'6 185) - A year ahead of Richardson on the same path. McRae is an elite NBA athlete with long arms and quick hands - he really gets into people on defense. He tends to fall in love with the jumper and he doesn't always have the best shot selection, but he's shown much growth in his senior season in terms of being a more efficient player. A likely second-round pick with a good shot at a long career as a 3-and-D wing at the next level.
PF - Jeronne Maymon (6'8 260) - One half of the Bash Brothers duo upfront. Maymon has not recovered the lift in his legs after knee surgery last season, but he's still a wide-bodied, physical big man with a good feel for the game. While he can struggle finish over length, he still manages to grab over 11 bounds a game - this is a guy you have to battle for 40 minutes down-low.
C - Jarnell Stokes (6'8 260) - Quietly one of the best big men in the country. Stokes, a junior who turned 20 in January, more than held his own against Julius Randle when the two behemoths faced each other in conference play. He's a deceptive player - you think he's all brawn and muscle and then he hits you with a soft hands, quick feet and a ton of touch around the basket. Unless you have an elite 6'10+ NBA big man who can cover him up, it's almost impossible to single-cover him.
G - Darius Thompson (6'5 180) - A big freshman guard who serves as their backup point. He has a lot of talent but he's not a very consistent contributor or outside shooter at this point in his career.
G/F - Armani Moore (6'5 215) - Another big-time athlete with a questionable outside shot - are you noticing a trend in the types of players Cuonzo Martin recruits? When his bench comes in the game, he's going to want to speed up the tempo, since they aren't as big and they can't shoot as well as the starters. For the most part, though, he's riding his starters all the way.
C - Rawane Ndiaye (6'10 275) - Here to give Stokes and Maymon a breather. Rebounds, blocks shots and picks up fouls when he's in the game.
G/F - AJ Davis (6'9 215) - The son of Antonio Davis. A freshman big man with a ton of talent whose fallen out of the rotation.
When Tennessee has the ball:
They are going to try and impose their will on the other team, especially a small, 4-out team like Michigan. There's no way GR3 can hold up behind either Maymon or Stokes, so Tennessee is going to pound it inside and force Beilein to make a choice - either play 2 big men (and sacrifice offensive spacing) or sit in a zone (and give up the outside shot).
That's been the key for them in this Tourney - they've been playing smaller teams who have had to pack the paint to defend their big men and their guards have been able to punish them from deep. When they aren't getting consistent outside shooting, Tennessee is very beatable, but when their guards are on (and they have been in March), they are TOUGH.
When Michigan has the ball:
They have to make Tennessee pay for having the bigger, slower team so expect to see Maymon and Stokes in a lot of pick-and-rolls. That will also free up Nik Stauskas and Caris Levert from the duo of Richardson and McRae - those 4 going at it will be one of the best individual match-ups in the Tourney. Michigan against Tennessee is a battle of strength on strength - the Wolverines offense is designed to get their wings in space to make plays, the Volunteers defense is designed to suffocate perimeter ball-handlers in 1-on-1 situations.
The key on Friday will probably be the transition game. The more Michigan can get the game going up-and-down, the better their chances are. If Tennessee can turn it into a half-court slog, where they bludgeon the smaller Wolverines with their post players, they have a good chance of pulling the upset. But if their guards get sped up, turned over and take bad shots, they will negate their size advantage down-low.