Friday's Sweet 16 games feature an in-state rivalry, a pair of style clashes and a battle between power-conference tournament winners. If the first three rounds of the NCAA Tournament are at all predictive of how the next few rounds will play out, college basketball fans will remember this as one of the most exciting tournaments in the history of the event.
Here are the matchups that will be instrumental in determining who reaches the Elite 8.
No. 7 Connecticut vs. No. 3 Iowa State: Shabazz Napier vs. DeAndre Kane
The hottest matchup on Friday will be between two primary ball-handlers. Both Connecticut's Shabazz Napier and Iowa State's DeAndre Kane are coming off their showcase performances of the season. Napier, despite foul trouble and just 25 minutes of playing time, scored 25 points in an upset over Villanova. Kane took it to North Carolina, tallying a line of 24 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. In addition, the fifth-year senior hit the game-winning layup in traffic to finish off the Tar Heels.
Kane is the more physical player, holding three inches and 20+ pounds on the 6'1 Napier. Both have similar season averages (17 points, 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio), but Kane has put them up on more possessions, as Iowa State plays at a blistering pace compared to UConn. Napier has a less talented supporting cast, and at times it seems can swallow up the ball for minutes at a time. But when he hits a groove, there isn't a better pure scorer in college basketball.
The length of Kane and 6'4 Naz Long will be the Cyclones' best chance of bothering Napier. They could also attack him on the other end, because while pesky (1.8 steals per game), Napier has just a 6'2 wingspan. Kane and Long should be able to turn the corner against the AAC Player of the Year.
No. 11 Tennessee vs. No. 2 Michigan: Jarnell Stokes vs. Michigan's bigs
Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes is making his case to NBA scouts with a stellar performance so far in March, putting together three straight double-doubles in Tournament play. Stokes has averaged 20 points and 15 rebounds in the first three rounds, well above his impressive season averages. The 6'8, 260-pound big plays with a fierce motor under the basket that is matched only by a player like Joakim Noah. No, Stokes isn't Noah, but he plays with the same passion and desire to come up with every rebound.
For Michigan, stopping Stokes will be a two-man effort. Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford will have to cobble together a back-line defense to stop Stokes and Jeronne Maymon. Both Wolverines are capable bigs, but neither has averaged over 20 minutes of play this season. Michigan likes to play small, with its size advantage coming on the wings with Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas.
Pacing will be important for both teams, and if Michigan can get off to a good start on offense it could complete negate Stokes' production. Tennessee likes to win inch-by-inch, while the Wolverines can score by the foot.
No. 4 Michigan State vs. No. 1 Virginia: Adreian Payne vs. Akil Mitchell
With the top-scoring performance in the Tournament thus far -- 41 points against Delaware -- Michigan State's Payne will be one of the toughest to guard in Friday's games. The 6'10, 245-pound big is the most versatile big left in the field, as he can maneuver out of the post or facing the basket. Also in his arsenal is an ever-developing jump shot, one that saw him hit over 43 percent of his three-point attempts this season.
His counterpart on Friday will be Virginia's Akil Mitchell, a 6'8 forward who plays more around the basket than his Spartan brethren. Mitchell is very efficient from the block, hitting 57 percent of his shots on the season. The North Carolina native is no slouch on the boards either, grabbing 15 in the Cavaliers' ACC Tournament final win over Duke.
The issue won't be around the basket, where both men can back down, fly high and rebound. The difference will be how Mitchell handles Payne's range. And even if the Cavs' big man is able to front the future first-round pick around the three-point line, Mitchell's absence from the paint should open up driving lanes for the very crafty Keith Appling and leading scorer Gary Harris.
No. 8 Kentucky vs. No. 4 Louisville: The Harrison twins vs. Russ Smith/Chris Jones
The in-state clash between these teams in December was a great spectacle of Kentucky basketball, with both backcourts displaying their top-notch talent. Smith and Jones combined for 37 points, while the Harrisons hit 11 buckets of their own. Friday should be much of the same, as the beefy frontcourts of both teams will most likely battle to a standstill.
Smith is the most consistent performer of the four, shedding the negative aspects of the nickname "Russdiculous" by doubling his assist-to-turnover ratio while averaging 18 points per game on a defense-first squad. Jones is a faithful sidekick, chipping in an average of 11 points over the Cardinals' last five games. The pair also have experience on their side, with Smith on his farewell tour and Jones in his junior season after transferring from a junior college.
The Harrisons -- part of another talented freshman avalanche at UK -- are first-year players with size and distinct skill sets. Aaron is a better scorer, finishing the season averaging over 14 points per game. Andrew has taken on the role of distributor, adding almost four assists to his 11-point scoring average. All of Kentucky's starting backcourt -- including fellow freshman James Young -- stand 6'6, a huge advantage over the 6'0 Smith and 5'10 Jones.
The issue with the twins is consistency. At various points in the season, each brother has shown the potential to no-show. Aaron had a three-game stretch in SEC play where he failed to score seven points per contest. Andrew really struggled down the stretch, shooting just 30 percent from the field in the 10-game stretch that preceded his 20-point outburst against Wichita State. If the same brothers that sparkled against Louisville in December show up on Friday, Kentucky should knock off the defending national champs.