What I Learned: Sweet Sixteen, Part 2Posted by zhayes9 on March 20th, 2012
Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.
The last four days I’ve successfully slipped into a hoops coma, watching every game from Murray State-Colorado State on Thursday afternoon to Cincinnati closing out Florida State to finalize this season’s Sweet 16. In between the thrilling last-second finishes, the shocking upsets and the blowout snooze-fests, stars were born and flaws were exposed. Finishing with the Midwest and South regions (East and West found here), here’s one prevailing lesson learned from each remaining team as I somehow try to survive without hoops until Thursday:
North Carolina: No Marshall means no title. Anthony Davis and Draymond Green are in the conversation, but Kendall Marshall is the most indispensable player in this tournament. His impact goes much further than the remarkable 9.8 assists per game or better than 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Marshall is an absolute maestro conducting Roy Williams’ patented fast break, high octane offensive attack. The sophomore point guard finds Tyler Zeller sprinting from rim to rim for layups and always delivers the ball on time to Harrison Barnes or Reggie Bullock off screens. His broken wrist is doubly devastating because of the lack of options at the position behind Marshall. Guards Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland are both on the shelf with torn ACL’s, leaving unheralded Stillman White as the Heels top option if Marshall is sidelined. That may be sufficient to beat Ohio, but Kansas or even NC State is a different story.
Ohio: I now understand why teams tried to poach D.J. Cooper. A New York Times report indicated that Baylor coach Scott Drew attempted to convince Cooper to leave Athens and transfer to Baylor following his team’s monumental upset of Georgetown in the 2010 NCAA Tournament. Cooper dismissed the overtures, opting to remain loyal to John Groce and Ohio rather than jump ship. His patience has been rewarded to the tune of a Sweet 16 berth after upsetting Michigan and South Florida, an effort led by Cooper’s combined 40 points and 12 assists. Cooper and his brilliant backcourt mates Walter Offutt and Nick Kellogg now prepare for their VCU over Kansas or George Mason over Connecticut moment when the Bobcats face with North Carolina on Thursday.
NC State: Lorenzo Brown’s maturation is evident. One of Mark Gottfried’s first calls after taking the job at NC State was to hand the keys over to Lorenzo Brown, a converted shooting guard who had to switch positions after Ryan Harrow transferred to Kentucky. Brown has answered the call with flying colors, balancing a solid scoring output (12.4 points per game) with an impressive 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Brown stuffed the stat sheet with 12 points, seven assists and six rebounds in NC State’s program-changing win over Georgetown on Sunday, delivering crucial shots and free throws down the stretch to secure the victory. Brown now faces the challenge of his life against Kansas’ Tyshawn Taylor, an equally explosive scoring guard who played his best basketball down the stretch in Big 12 play.
Kansas: Jeff Withey needs to play bigger and tougher. Kansas’ seven-foot center had a stretch in early February where he scored 61 points on just 31 shots, but since then Withey hasn’t posted more than 11 points in a single game and continues to trend downward. Part of it was due to Self opting for a smaller lineup around Thomas Robinson, but Withey’s no-show against Purdue (four points and two rebounds in 15 minutes) was another red flag. Kansas simply doesn’t boast enough depth on their frontline to overcome Withey’s sudden disappearing act, especially with Robinson and Taylor asked to carry such a heavy scoring load as it is. One of the major reasons I picked Kansas over Carolina was their ability to match Zeller and Henson on the frontline with Withey and Robinson.
Kentucky: Marquis Teague’s play makes them unstoppable. For most of the season, Kentucky’s one discernible flaw was at the point guard spot where Teague’s erratic play and turnover tendencies were viewed as a potential Achilles heel in a one-and-done scenario. Nitpickers will have to focus on Terrence Jones’ inconsistency or spotty outside shooting for their reasoning as to why Kentucky won’t win it all because Teague is quickly urning doubters into believers. The freshman point guard has posted 69 assists to 31 turnovers dating back to February 7. Teague also reminded everyone on Saturday he can score a little, exploding for 24 points on 10-14 shooting in the win over Iowa State.
Indiana: Turnovers are a definite bugaboo. The Hoosiers boasted one of the most efficient offenses in the country this past season. They excelled in nearly every capacity, shooting a robust 44 percent from three, 51 percent from two and 76 percent from the line. They led the Big Ten in free throw rate and grabbed their fair share of offensive rebounds. The one area where Indiana was merely average is turnover rate, a lingering issue exposed by VCU to the tune of 22 giveaways last Saturday. The Vanderbilt-devised recipe for beating Kentucky is to keep them in the halfcourt and make them hit jump shots. That won’t happen if Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford and Victor Oladipo fumble the basketball and allow the Wildcats to sprint out on the break.
Baylor: Pierre Jackson is their MVP. Perry Jones III receives the hype, Quincy Miller is the highly touted freshman and Brady Heslip is the recipient of a heaping of adulation following his three-point explosion over Colorado, but Jackson is this team’s most important player. The Bears season was totally derailed in 2010-11 because of inconsistent guard play and Jackson has proven the ideal antidote. The junior college transfer not only led the Big 12 in assist rate, but Baylor runs their entire late-game offense around Jackson’s use of ball screens where he’s equally adept at driving past his defender or draining 42 percent of his threes. Jackson also allows A.J. Walton to play off the ball and exert less energy on the offensive end, saving his bullets for stopping the other team’s best wing scorer.
Xavier: They’re an example of how the NCAA Tournament is a new season. Just make the playoffs and anything can happen is the common theme in sports today. Ask the Cardinals, Giants or last year’s UConn Huskies how that worked out. Xavier began the season 8-0 before brawling with Cincinnati and never truly regained their focus and mojo, going just 13-12 down the stretch and barely sneaking into the field. Tu Holloway plays like an All-American against Notre Dame, Duke beats Lehigh and suddenly all Xavier needs to do to is win one more game to reach the Elite 8. The Tournament is a beautiful thing.