Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.
As we did on Thursday, let’s delve into each Sweet 16 participant from both two polar opposite points of view: the indelible optimist and the hopeless pessimist. Everywhere from Lawrence to Richmond, fan bases are filled with those that see the glass half full and those that view the glass half empty. The optimist will take the viewpoint that their favorite team is destined for Houston while the pessimist sees the bitter end approaching tonight.
Will David Lighty be playing his last game in a Buckeye uniform Friday?
Optimist: It’s very easy to be optimistic about my Buckeyes. We’ve been the best in the nation all season long, losing two road games to teams that went undefeated on their home floor. Duke is the only other team with an offensive and defensive efficiency in the top six and they don’t shoot 42% from three. There are so many weapons in our seven-man rotation that even if two starters slump, there are two other all-conference caliber players to pick up the scoring load. Take David Lighty making seven threes against George Mason as a perfect example. Our two star freshmen are often confused with wily fifth year seniors they way they operate. People don’t talk about how we consistently keeping opponents off the free throw line, either. This team’s maturity and experience will outlast Kentucky and our ability to keep North Carolina in the halfcourt for 40 minutes renders their greatest strength inconsequential.
Pessimist: What does a #1 overall seed earn you in the eyes of this idiotic committee? The hardest road to the Final Four. If there are two teams remaining in the field other than fellow top seeds Duke and Kansas that can match our talent level, it’s Kentucky and North Carolina. I’m worried about Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb having a field day from three. If Terrence Jones decides to play physical in the post rather than drift around the perimeter, I’m worried he may be too big and strong for even an ace defender like David Lighty to handle. DeAndre Liggins can also give William Buford headaches with his length and athleticism. If there’s any weakness to this team, it’s our mediocre three-point defense and Kentucky can really shoot the basketball this season. John Calipari is a master motivator and will surely hammer that underdog mentality into his team’s head all week long, so the pressure is almost totally on us to win or this season’s finish will be tremendously disappointing.
Optimist: All season, Kentucky couldn’t win a close game on the road and struggled in neutral court losses to Connecticut and Notre Dame. Our freshmen were freshmen then. Starting with that road win in the season finale over Tennessee and extending through the SEC Tournament and Saturday’s hard-fought victory over West Virginia, these freshmen, notably Brandon Knight, have finally figured it out. I’m not overly concerned about Josh Harrellson attempting to corral Jared Sullinger. Our post defense – sixth in the country in two-point defense and block percentage – has been stellar all season long, and Harrellson is hitting his stride alongside the freshmen trio. Knight is the true game-changer, though. He’s got the quickness, athleticism and versatility to give Aaron Craft and Kendall Marshall fits trying to defend him. Those road woes masked what was a really strong and capable team all season. As demanding as our fan base may sometimes be, Calipari and his players know they’re not expected to win this region. I fully expect that loose mentality to translate into two shocking victories.
Pessimist: Our defense has been solid all season, but it’s never seen an offensive attack hitting on all cylinders like Ohio State. That team is coming off two NCAA Tournament games where they assisted on 49 of 65 field goals and we needed a Knight game-winner just to edge Princeton. Craft has been an unreal defender all season for them and if Knight is taken out his game similarly to Thursday, our offense becomes stagnant and the Buckeyes will pounce. I realize Harrellson, Liggins and Miller are veterans, but those three haven’t exactly been a model of consistency over their UK careers. Face it: this team depends on their three freshmen for scoring production. Ohio State has a fifth-year senior, two fourth-year seniors and a junior in their starting five. Experience is invaluable when you reach the second weekend.
Optimist: In case you haven’t noticed, Kendall Marshall completely changed this team. We’ve lost two games since January 16 and both came against #1 seed Duke. We’ve scored 75+ points in 11 of those games with Marshall running the show, a true difference maker at the most important position on the floor and someone that’s turned around Harrison Barnes’ rookie campaign. People love to discuss Marshall and Barnes and Tyler Zeller, but it’s our defense that has been steady since the first day of the season, ranking seventh in the nation in overall efficiency. A huge part of that is the shot-blocking ability of John Henson. How can the perennially undersized Marquette frontline possibly contain the constantly improving Henson and Zeller in the post? Remember that this is a Marquette team that lost 14 games this season. It’s not like they can’t be beat.
Pessimist: I’m scared to death of Buzz Williams throwing a zone at us. If there’s one glaring weakness with this Heels team, it’s our 33% mark from three on the season. If we get off to our usual slow start (see: ACC Tournament), Marquette grabs an early lead and starts to gain confidence, freshmen and sophomores like Barnes, Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald may start to press and chuck up ill-advised threes. Marquette did a fantastic job of preventing Syracuse from getting out in transition, so the blueprint is there to keep Carolina in the halfcourt against a zone. Our team-wide 67% mark from the charity stripe could also come into play late in games against Marquette and two proficient shooting teams in Ohio State or Kentucky. Contrary to the likes of David Lighty, Darius Miller or Jimmy Butler, the freshmen and sophomores that make up the brunt of our regular rotation haven’t experienced the overwhelming emotion, pressure and consequence that every possession the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament provides. Even Tyler Zeller, a junior, only played 32 minutes in six tournament games during our 2009 title run.
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