8 Kentucky vs. 1 Wichita State, 2:45 pm ET, CBS
For the Wildcats, today might feel familiar. Almost like they're playing this game for the fourth time this season.
Tell me if this sounds familiar. The team they're playing today is stacked with experience, as its regular rotation is largely made of upperclassmen. UK will have an advantage in size, as no one in that rotation is taller than 6-9. It's a team that has proven extremely difficult to beat this year, and it knows its way around this tournament from having made a deep run before.
Yes, in a lot of ways, this might feel like playing Florida. It's not a perfect comparison, of course; WSU doesn't have a Patric Young, and Florida's closest analogue of Cleanthony Early (Dorian Finney-Smith) comes off the bench and isn't the centerpiece of the team. Critically for Kentucky's chances today, it's also not as athletic a team as UF is. Wichita State is, after all, not a power conference team full of McDonald's All-Americans. It's still a really, really good team, but it doesn't win based on pure talent.
Kentucky stands a pretty good shot today no matter what the seedings say. Opposing coaches said before the tournament that being able to drive on WSU was a key, and UK certainly can do that with the Harrison brothers and James Young. The coaches also suggested getting out into transition to keep the Shockers from being able to set their defense, and the Cats can do that too. The most similar team to Kentucky that Wichita State has played this year is Tennessee, and obviously they won that one, but it was by single digits. That's also to say, WSU hasn't really played a team quite like Kentucky this year.
UK is more than capable of using its unique advantages to be the first team to take down Wichita State. It's also fully capable of getting flustered and falling victim to its inexperience against a veteran team. Maybe Kentucky has played this game three times already, but it didn't win a one of them.
14 Mercer vs. 11 Tennessee, 6:10 pm ET, TNT
Everyone knows that, thanks to last year, there's only been a single 15-seed to make the Sweet 16. What you may not know is that only two 14-seeds have ever made it that far: 1986 Cleveland State and 1997 Chattanooga. At least one 14-seed has won a game in half of the 64-team tournaments played, but winning that game is generally all they get.
It's true that Mercer knocked off Tennessee in the NIT last year, but this game is not as close as that one was. In the final 2013 KenPom ratings, UT was 75 and Mercer was 119. The Vols should have won, but it wasn't a titanic upset. As of now, Tennessee is No. 6 while Mercer is No. 83. Both teams are better than they were last year, but UT is massively so.
It's not that Mercer can't beat Tennessee; if it can beat Duke, it certainly can take down the Vols. It's just that the Bears are very unlikely to do so. It also doesn't help that reserve center Monty Brown is out after taking a nasty concussion two days ago. He would have been useful against UT's burly front court. If there's a key to this game, it's that UT gets something from its reserves. The Vols have three losses to teams of Mercer's caliber or worse—UTEP and Texas A&M twice—and in each of those, they got almost nothing from the bench.
Given the impressive showing against UMass on Friday, Tennessee looks like it came to this tournament ready to play. If they don't walk in thinking they can just blow right past the Bears—and they shouldn't, because those Bears just beat Duke—then they probably will win with some amount of comfort. If they don't take it all that seriously and settle for bad jumpers, turn it over a lot, and have the bench score six points combined, then this is the last we'll see of this team.