NCAA Tournament Game Analysis: Sweet Sixteen FridayPosted by EJacoby on March 23rd, 2012
RTC Region correspondents Kevin Doyle (South) and Evan Jacoby (Midwest) contributed to this preview.
#3 Baylor vs. #10 Xavier – South Regional Semifinal (at Atlanta, GA) – 7:15 PM ET on CBS
Baylor was supposed to be here, Xavier was not. That is the beauty of March Madness and the NCAA Tournament though: play it out on the floor. One can review all the matchups, crunch the numbers, and look at past tournament history, but sometimes simply getting hot at the right time is a more important factor than anything else. The Xavier Musketeers, an up-and-down team all year following the brawl against Cincinnati back in December, are peaking at just the right time. After a 21 game stretch in the middle of the year that saw Xavier go 10-11, they rebounded by winning five of six; the melee seems like a thing of the distant past right now. What teams should now begin to take notice of: Tu Holloway is back to playing at the level of an All-American. Not to mention, Kenny Frease is looking like one of the most dominant big men in the country after dismantling the Lehigh front line last Sunday. Despite all of this, Baylor is a downright scary team to be playing this weekend, especially with the shooting prowess of Brady Heslip who is a combined 14-22 from downtown. Xavier’s three-point defense is one of the best in the nation as they allow opponents to shoot just 30% from the outside, but can they contain the hot shooting Heslip and the steady Pierre Jackson? Consequently, if Heslip and Jackson are not connecting from distance, the onus will be on Perry Jones III. The Jones-Frease matchup down low is one to keep an eye on, and if we are to take any stock in the first two games, Frease is the one playing better of the two as Jones has combined to score just nine points on 4-14 shooting against South Dakota State and Colorado. A streaky scorer throughout the year, Jones has scored in single digits nine times and double digits 19 times; the Bears will need the latter of Jones’ scoring efforts to keep Xavier honest on defense. Baylor’s only losses this year have come against Big 12 opponents, and I expect this trend to continue as the Bears hold off Holloway and the Musketeers.
The RTC Certified Pick: Baylor
#1 North Carolina vs. #13 Ohio – Midwest Region Semifinals (at St. Louis, MO) – 7:47 PM ET on TBS
The storylines leading up to this game have been completely taken over by Kendall Marshall’s “wrist watch”, but once the ball tips off on Friday night and Marshall is presumably unable to play, then we can finally focus on the matchups in-game. Of course, Marshall’s expected absence will then be the main factor to watch in the game. How will North Carolina distribute minutes at the point guard position against the harassing perimeter defense of D.J. Cooper? Expect Roy Williams to explore several different options, including seldom-used reserves Stilman White and Justin Watts. Both White and Watts average under seven minutes per game and were never expected to be significant factors for the team, but they are the only players with experience at the lead guard spot. But since neither guy is likely to make much of an impact offensively, UNC also could experiment by placing Harrison Barnes at the position in a point-forward role. Barnes has the size to see over any defenders but has never been asked to run an offense. P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock, two primary wing shooters, could help Barnes bring the ball up in a point guard by-committee approach, as well.
Regardless, as long as the point guard replacements or by-committee members don’t turn the ball over at an alarming rate, then Carolina should still have the advantage in this game on both ends because of its tremendous forwards. Ohio’s regular rotation only includes two bangers in the post in Reggie Keely and Jon Smith, and while Keely is a solid post defender with bulk at 265 pounds, neither of those players is taller than 6’8”. It will be an adventure trying to defend the most talented front line in the country. Tyler Zeller, John Henson, and James Michael McAdoo should have a field day in the paint, and the lack of a point guard means that every UNC possession should include an early paint touch. Expect big numbers from this trio. But if Ohio is somehow able to key on the UNC bigs and stop the domination in the paint, then the Bobcats can pull another upset by gaining an advantage on the perimeter. Nick Kellogg and Walter Offutt must hit a high percentage of shots from the outside and D.J. Cooper will need another breakout performance to carry this team. It just seems unlikely that Ohio has enough firepower to hang with Carolina’s athletes on the interior. With or without Marshall, roll with North Carolina in this one.
The RTC Certified Pick: North Carolina
#1 Kentucky vs. #4 Indiana – South Regional Semifinal (at Atlanta, GA) – 9:45 PM ET on CBS
Arguably the most highly-anticipated game of the Tournament to date, Kentucky will look to prove their loss to Indiana earlier in the season was nothing more than a mere fluke. Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones combined to score just 10 points in the loss, while Christian Watford stole the show and hit one of the biggest shots of the year at the buzzer to knock off the previously unbeaten Wildcats. But, as the saying goes, “that was then and this is now.” Kentucky is a far better team now than they were three months ago. Anthony Davis is a more polished, smarter, and overall better basketball player now than he was earlier in his freshman season. Indiana, meanwhile, has ostensibly regressed since the upset and lost a bit of their mojo—it was impossible for them to remain perched atop cloud nine for the entire season. Moreover, the Hoosiers will be playing without Verdell Jones who provided 34 steady and serviceable minutes in the first meeting against Kentucky. On paper, the Wildcats are supposed to win this game by double digits. Indiana, however, has a real knack for rising to the occasion and playing up to their opponent. They are the only team this year to defeat three different teams ranked in the Top 5: Kentucky, Ohio State, and Michigan State. On a more tangible level, Indiana can shoot the ball—I mean really shoot the ball. The Hoosiers are the best three point shooting team in the NCAA Tournament hitting nearly 44% of their attempts from distance. In their first meeting, Indiana went 9-15 from three against the Cats; a similar shooting performance in round two is a must if Tom Crean’s squad is to advance to the Elite Eight. While Cody Zeller has proven that he is one of the best big men in the nation, it will be slim pickings for him with Davis and Jones patrolling the paint. The game ultimately boils down to whether Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford are hitting shots from the outside. If they are, Indiana has more than a fighting chance to pull the upset. Look for coach Calipari to really extend Kentucky’s defense and make life difficult for the Hoosier sharpshooters.
The RTC Certified Pick: Kentucky
#2 Kansas vs. #11 NC State – Midwest Region Semifinals (at St. Louis, MO) – 10:17 PM ET on TBS
These two teams are trending in opposite directions, as NC State has knocked off elite opponents in the first two rounds by playing efficiently on both ends of the floor while Kansas has not played its best and barely hung on to beat Purdue in the round of 32 in a game it trailed for 38:50 of the game. But nonetheless, both teams are here in St. Louis for the Sweet Sixteen, which automatically gives the advantage to the Jayhawks. Playing closer to home, more of the Kansas faithful should be in attendance to give the #2-seed a home court edge. With four days to prepare for the #11 seed, Kansas has to feel good about its chances after coming off a terrible performance in its last game. Thomas Robinson shot just 2-12 against Purdue and must have a better game in this one, preferably a dominant one, for Kansas to open things up offensively. But the Wolfpack have the size down low with Richard Howell, C.J. Leslie, and DeShawn Painter that has frustrated interior scorers in the first two rounds. NC State will look to attack Kansas with a balanced offensive attack led by Lorenzo Brown, the breakout star of this Midwest Region who will have a size advantage at point guard. Scott Wood went off for 4-5 from three-point range last game and cannot be left open. Kansas has been strong defensively all season and in this tournament as well, but the Jayhawks need to find more easy offense in this game against an emerging Wolfpack ‘D’. NC State has good size at all five starting positions that has allowed it to play strong straight up defense and go toe-to-toe with talented interior threats. Elijah Johnson had a huge game in the round of 32 and will need to step up once again to give the Jayhawks someone besides Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor to rely on to score. If Kansas gets a strong performance from Johnson or Jeff Withey or Travis Releford, this game is theirs to lose. But a poor offensive showing, such as the one it put up against Purdue, will spell trouble for Kansas as NC State is more locked in on both ends right now. With extended time to prepare for the emerging Wolfpack, as well as a strong home crowd backing and a fired up Robinson wanting to atone for a previous 2-12 performance, we’ll ride with the Jayhawks to advance to the Elite Eight.
The RTC Certified Pick: Kansas