When I was asked to pick the most intriguing Thursday or Friday contest for an SB Nation-wide poll, a few factors popped into my head. I wanted to select a game that involved...
- polarizing teams
- serious conference bragging rights
- interesting storylines for one or both teams
- at least one SB Nation blog, if not two.
I quickly decided on a West region contest between the No. 9 seed, the Tennessee Volunteers, and the eighth-seeded Michigan Wolverines. Both of these teams have been on a bit of a roller coaster this season. The winner will have at least one high point in the Tournament, along with the challenge of facing the top-seeded Duke Blue Devils in the Third Round on Sunday, while the loser will end on a low. In the case of the Volunteers, that low may very well involve the eventual departure of head coach Bruce Pearl at the end of the season, at least according to comments made by Athletic Director Mike Hamilton on Wednesday, which turned into Twitter reports that Pearl would be out the door after this weekend.
Tennessee has been in the news for numerous reasons this year besides the Pearl NCAA violations firestorm, as they've collected some really nice wins (at Pittsburgh in the Big East/SEC Invitational, against Villanova in the NIT Season Tip-Off, and a sweep of Vanderbilt) while dropping some headscratchers (at home against College of Charleston, Oakland, and Mississippi State, and on the road against Charlotte and Arkansas). You truly don't know what you're going to see when you watch this team from one night to the next.
As for Michigan, things looked grim this season after the young Wolverines, a team that features no seniors, returned from a tour of Belgium with one win in four games. After an 0-2 trip to the Legends Classic in Atlantic City over Thanksgiving weekend, it appeared the Wolverines would be lucky to make the NIT. A 1-6 start to Big Ten play had many wondering if coach John Beilein would soon be looking for a new job.
However, a seven-point overtime home loss to Kansas on January 9th and a four-point loss to Ohio State three nights later showed this team had promise. They finished the Big Ten slate with on an 8-3 run, good enough to get them to 9-9 in the league, and to earn the No. 4 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, where Michigan bowed out in the semifinals, falling by seven to their ancient rivals from Columbus.
After the jump, I'll have the poll results.
Which team would you like to see win the 8 vs. 9 matchup betweeen the surprising Michigan Wolverines and unpredictable Tennessee Volunteers in the West Region?
- Michigan 42%
- Tennessee 34%
- Do I have to pick one? 22%
Total votes: 4,142
There are so many ways to interpret these polls results without having solid info about who voted. For starters, you can guess that Michigan's eight-point margin is based on either more Wolverine fans than Volunteer ones voting in the poll, or the general population just having a bit more confidence in the Maize and Blue, thanks to all of the news swirling around the Tennessee program.
Plus, this game features two programs from a pair of conferences that have developed a serious rivalry over the years, mostly because of football. However, bragging rights often take a backseat when the teams representing a particular league are polarizing. So, I wonder how many Big Ten fans actually want Michigan to win this one. On the opposite side, I can tell you, as the graduate of an SEC institution, that there will be a lot of fans rooting against Tennessee. Those ESS EEE SEE taunts will be conveniently discarded by some for an all too brief moment. The question is, will these fans root for the rival conference's representative, or stay neutral precisely because of the opposition involved?
Perhaps this factor explains the 22 percent who decided to pass on this question.
Even if you don't have a specific winner in mind, it should be an exciting game. The fun begins Friday at 12:40 p.m. ET on truTV.