NCAA Regional Reset: Midwest RegionPosted by EJacoby on March 21st, 2012
Evan Jacoby is the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Region correspondent. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter.
The Midwest Regional begins Friday night in St. Louis with with North Carolina vs. Ohio followed by Kansas vs. NC State. Our East Regional Reset and West Regional Reset published Tuesday, while our South Regional Reset will publish later today.Make sure to follow RTCMWRegion for news and analysis from St. Louis throughout the weekend.
New Favorite: #2 Kansas (29-6, 16-2 Big 12). How do the Jayhawks become the favorite in this region after nearly being upset last round by #10 Purdue, in a game they should have lost? First of all, the regional semifinals and finals are being played in St. Louis, a much closer destination for KU fans than any of the other teams, making for a solid home-court advantage for the #2 seed. But more importantly, the #1 seed just lost its point guard and floor leader to a broken wrist. Kendall Marshall is arguably the most indispensable player to his team in this entire tournament, and North Carolina has no backup for its star PG. This makes Kansas the favorite going forward in the wacky Midwest.
Horse of Darkness: #11 NC State (24-12, 9-7 ACC). Don’t let the #11 fool you; NC State is an incredibly talented team from the ACC that has the talent, size, and coaching experience to compete with anyone it matches up against. Despite underachieving for much of the season and barely getting into this tournament, the Wolfpack found that perfect match of offensive firepower and collective defense to take down their first two opponents. It won’t be a shock if this team can give Kansas a game on Friday night. NC State used its size inside (Richard Howell, C.J. Leslie) to hold Henry Sims of Georgetown to just four points last round, and they will look to do the same against Thomas Robinson and Kansas this weekend. Should they advance, the Wolfpack are familiar with conference foe UNC and nearly beat the Tar Heels in the ACC Tournament, and that was with a healthy Kendall Marshall. NC State is a serious dark horse here, despite facing the regional favorite on Friday.
Biggest Surprise, 1st Weekend: #13 Ohio (29-7, 11-5 MAC). We thought that John Groce’s team had a great matchup in the round of 64 against #4 Michigan, a team that plays a similar perimeter style, but it’s still a huge surprise that the #13 seed took down the Big Ten co-champions in a game that it controlled almost the entire way. D.J. Cooper and company then outplayed #12 South Florida in the second half to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, becoming this year’s Cinderella story as the mid-major, double-digit seed to advance to the second weekend. Now Ohio has to match up with powerhouse #1 North Carolina on Friday, but the Bobcats are on a roll and will try to make magic happen once again.
Completely Expected, 1st Weekend: #1 North Carolina (31-5, 14-2 ACC). It’s no shock to anyone that UNC averaged 82 points per game and a +16.5 margin of victory in its first two NCAA Tournament games to cruise to the Sweet Sixteen. The Tar Heels did not receive much of a threat from #8 Creighton, which could not contain Tyler Zeller, John Henson, and company inside with any success, nor could the Bluejays find enough perimeter scoring to keep this shootout close. The #1 seed looked like a National Championship favorite during the first weekend.
I’m Exceptionally Smart and Prescient: I thought that this region had crazy upset potential and specifically called #1 North Carolina and #2 Kansas a lock to meet in the Elite Eight because each team would likely face a less-challenging path due to their top competitors losing early. We’re not in the Elite Eight yet, but the general narrative has played out exactly like I thought. The #4, #5, #6, and #7 seeds all lost in the round of 64 (!), and the #3 seed lost in the following round to the #11 seed. That leaves us with UNC and KU taking on #13 Ohio and #11 NC State, respectively, in what has played out to be a messy region outside of the top two contenders. Spot on!
Except When I Make Stupid Predictions: Of course, the general narrative of this region played out well, but my specific predictions? Not even close. I thought #14 Belmont was the real sleeper of this region, but the Bruins had no chance against Georgetown in the round of 64. I then thought that #5 Temple was the Final Four sleeper, but the Owls got handled by #12 South Florida in their first game. In addition, I called #11 NC State an overseeded team that would lose to San Diego State, and look how that one turned out. So we indeed had a bunch of lower seeds advancing in the Midwest, but they weren’t the ones that I predicted.
First Weekend MVP: D.J. Cooper, Ohio. Most Cinderella stories have a hero, the leader who puts the team on his back a la Stephen Curry in 2008. The narrative held true once again this year, as Ohio U’s star point guard D.J. Cooper has lifted this team to great heights. The little (5’11”) guard has played huge, averaging 20 points, six assists, four rebounds, and two steals in the Bobcats’ two wins over Michigan and South Florida last weekend. Cooper was 5-12 from three and 11-14 from the free throw line with plenty of clutch shots for his team.
Breakout Star: Lorenzo Brown, NC State. He’s not exceptionally flashy or a big-time scorer, but Brown is a stat-stuffing point guard that’s incredibly efficient and has turned his game up a notch in this postseason. The sophomore is coming into his own, a 6’5” guard that has a size advantage against opponents that’s allowed him to work the Wolfpack offense effectively. Last weekend, Brown averaged 14.5 points, 7.5 assists, and 7.0 rebounds in two ‘upset’ wins over San Diego State and Georgetown. Those are gaudy numbers that the Kansas coaching staff are surely making note of while preparing for Friday’s matchup.
More Home Cooking: #2 Kansas, 287 miles from St. Louis. The Jayhawks have a great geographical advantage in the regional semifinals, playing in a city that’s just about five hours away from their campus in Lawrence, KS. We’ll see what kind of home court advantage this can provide for Kansas, which didn’t exactly bring a raucous crowd to the opening weekend in Omaha.
Best Regional Semifinal Game: #2 Kansas vs. #11 NC State, Friday, March 23. NC State comes in as the #11-seed but is actually playing much better basketball than its opponent. The Wolfpack are not a true ‘sleeper’ team, as a talented ACC squad that outplayed both San Diego State and Georgetown in this tournament already. But facing the #2-seed Kansas in St. Louis will be their toughest task yet. The Jayhawks survived last round’s shaky performance against #10 Purdue and now get a full four days to prepare for their hot opponent. KU will be the favorite to win, but NC State has been playing better and anything could happen here.
Best Regional Final Game (projected): #1 North Carolina vs. #2 Kansas, Sunday, March 25. This is the matchup we’ve all been waiting for. Two powerhouse programs, the top seeds in the region, consensus Top 10 teams all year long, Roy Williams against his former team, and a rematch of the 2008 Final Four matchup. Kansas would likely be solid favorites in this game, playing closer to home in St. Louis and more importantly going against the point guard-less Tar Heels. But who knows how UNC will adapt to its guard’s injury? This is still the most talented team in the land (alongside Kentucky) that has elite players at all four other positions. But who knows if we’re even going to see this matchup on Sunday? Stay tuned!
Top Storyline: Kendall Marshall’s Wrist. There’s no way to possibly overstate the significance of the fractured wrist injury to North Carolina’s point guard. ESPN and other media outlets surely won’t keep you from hearing about it. But the storyline is that big; UNC is a #1-seed and a top national title favorite that just lost its only irreplaceable player. Kendall Marshall is not only the best point guard in college basketball and the nation’s leader in assists, but he’s the only point guard on the roster. Earlier season-ending injuries to Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland means that only Stilman White, an end-of-the-bench freshman, remains with point guard experience. And ‘experience’ is a stretch, considering he’s averaged 4.2 minutes per game this season. How Carolina decides to fill the point guard role – seldom used White or Justin Watts? Harrison Barnes as a point/forward? Point guard by committee? – is the million dollar question going forward, as well as whether or not Marshall can recover from the broken wrist to return during this tournament.
Top Storyline for Contrarians: #13 Ohio can make history. Ohio is the lowest remaining seed in the Sweet Sixteen and has emerged as this year’s feel-good story in the tournament, yet the media is likely going to be entirely fixated on North Carolina and its point guard’s right wrist. We’ve probably heard the updates about Kendall Marshall’s surgical procedures over 50 times on national media outlets, but I’ve yet to hear anybody on ESPN mention that NO seed lower than #12 has ever advanced to the Elite Eight. I read this on Twitter, so it must be true (just kidding, it is true). Ohio has a chance to be the first #13 seed to ever advance past the Sweet Sixteen, and this storyline should pick up major steam if the Bobcats hang close with Carolina on Friday night.
My Pick: North Carolina. Kansas is the favorite playing closest to home, NC State is on fire and playing the best in the group, and Ohio is the Cinderella story with recent history on its side (see: Butler, VCU), but I’m sticking with my original prediction of North Carolina advancing to New Orleans. I’m expecting Kendall Marshall to be absent or at least extremely limited for this weekend, but UNC has enough talent across the board to still win this region. The Tar Heels have elite talents with Tyler Zeller, John Henson, and Harrison Barnes that should embrace this opportunity to step up and do more on the floor than they’re used to, with everyone now counting them out. Add in the size, strength, and talent of Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston at the guard spots, and James Michael McAdoo for more forward reinforcement, and there are enough pieces here to still create matchup problems. I don’t think Carolina can win a championship without a healthy Marshall, but I’m picking them to still advance out of the Midwest Region this weekend thanks to a special team effort from talented players across the board.
Revised Vegas Odds to Win Region: