2011-12 Season Recap: Top 12 Storylines of the Year

Posted by EJacoby on April 6th, 2012

Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter.

Yesterday we captured the most iconic moments of the college basketball season, and today we highlight the most fascinating storylines from the year. What’s the difference? Yesterday’s list comprised of the “WOW” memories, the single moments in time that could be captured in recognizable photos and videos. Today’s list is a more encompassing review of full season narratives, which usually don’t culminate into a single visual. These are the defining stories that will be chronicled in history books to describe the season’s summary. Here are our 12 biggest storylines from 2011-12, in no particular order:

‘One-And-Dones’ Get it Done.

Kentucky's Collection of Youngsters Combined for the National Championship (AP Photo)

We’ll always remember 2011-12 for the Kentucky Wildcats’ start-to-finish domination that began with a #2 preseason ranking and ended with a National Championship as the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Big Blue Nation will remember it as UK’s eighth national title, while the national story focuses more on how coach John Calipari secured the championship with a starting lineup of all freshmen and sophomores. The team’s two best players were freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, both of whom are surely headed for the NBA Draft after just one season. Plenty of detractors didn’t think that a team full of ‘one-and-dones’ could mature quickly enough into a championship team, but the Wildcats proved them all wrong. Kentucky was the best team from start to finish, thanks mainly to the play of a bunch of 18- and 19-year-old star players.

Injuries and Suspensions Cost Top Contenders. Kentucky may have been the best team throughout the season, but there were several other elite squads that could have given the Wildcats a run for their money had it not been for costly absences. In fact, all of the other #1 seeds suffered crucial injuries at the very end of the season that may have cost them a chance to win it all. Michigan State lost its best athlete in freshman forward Branden Dawson to a torn ACL injury in the regular season finale, and the Spartans missed his ability during a Sweet Sixteen loss. Syracuse suspended its seven-foot center and best defensive player, Fab Melo, right before the Big Dance and clearly missed the big man during a loss in the Elite Eight. And perhaps the most devastating, North Carolina lost its Cousy Award-winning point guard, Kendall Marshall, to a fractured wrist at the end of its round of 32 victory. The Tar Heels could not recover without their lead guard and lost in the Elite Eight. As a result, Kentucky did not have to face a single other #1 seed en route to its National Championship.

Connecticut’s Title Defense Turns Tumultuous. Selected as the preseason Big East Conference favorites, Connecticut was expected to have another strong season as defending National Champions thanks to all but one starter sticking around combined with a very strong recruiting class. But the presence and leadership of departed star Kemba Walker proved to be invaluable. No Huskies player stepped up this season to lead by example, and a super-talented team struggled through an 8-10 record in conference play and a loss in its first game of the NCAA Tournament. UConn suffered multiple suspensions, the loss of its coach Jim Calhoun for several games due to health concerns, and an overall underachieving season whose results were the complete opposite of the year before.

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Big Ten Morning Five: 04.03.12 Edition

Posted by jnowak on April 3rd, 2012

  1. The changes at Illinois keep coming. The Fighting Illini will have a new coach in John Groce roaming the sidelines next season, but won’t have the same big man roaming the paint. Sophomore center Meyers Leonard announced Tuesday he is declaring for the NBA Draft and will leave college early. “This was a very difficult decision because I love the University of Illinois,” Leonard said in a statement. “But I feel the timing is right for me to follow my dream of playing in the NBA and having the opportunity to provide for my mom and family.” It shouldn’t really come as a huge shock. He averaged 13.6 PPG, 8.2 RPG and 1.9 BPG this year.
  2. Minnesota’s season ended on an ugly note, but that should not take away from the optimism some fans were generating the last few weeks. FOXSports.com‘s Tyler Mason writes that Andre Hollins and Rodney Williams gave fans something to cheer about during the NIT run and that should be the case again next year.
  3. Back to Illinois, we can talk about some personnel coming into the program instead of leaving it. John Groce is starting to round out his staff and has tapped former Ohio assistant Jamall Walker, a source confirmed to the Chicago Tribune on Monday. Walker is the first addition to Groce’s staff in Champaign; he played at St. Louis, and has a strong reputation for working with point guards and could be the guy to help Groce tap into Chicago recruiting.
  4. The clock is ticking for college players to make their decision about whether to stay in school or opt for the NBA Draft – they must declare that they are looking into the NBA by April 3 and must declare or withdraw by April 10, according to NCAA rules — but the Indianapolis Star‘s Bob Kravitz says this situation puts too much pressure on the players. Kravitz is talking about players like Christian Watford, who only have a small window of time to make a critical decision and give NBA evaluators just a small sample size. Is that fair?
  5. Things are looking up with the Iowa basketball program, but the program’s history got a little bit of a boost this weekend in New Orleans. Former Iowa player and coaching great Don Nelson was elected into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Monday morning. According to the Gazette, Nelson led Iowa in scoring and rebounding all three seasons he was eligible to play and ranks 11th all-time in scoring with 1,522 points. He is also now the NBA’s all-time winningest coach with 1,335 wins.
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Big Ten Morning Five: 04.02.12 Edition

Posted by jnowak on April 2nd, 2012

  1. It came down to the wire for Ohio State in its national semifinal loss to Kansas on Saturday, and it did not end well. The Buckeyes let a game that they were seemingly in control of nearly throughout slip away as the Jayhawks climbed back from a 13-point margin. Thad Matta saw his team playing some of its best basketball at the end of the year, but did not see it execute well at the end of the game that mattered most.
  2. And with that, we likely bid farewell to Jared Sullinger, possibly Deshaun Thomas and definitely William Buford as the last Big Ten team puts the finishing touches on its season. Sullinger surprised a few by coming back for his sophomore season and Thomas has emerged as possibly the team’s best talent. So how much will be left in the cupboard next year? Possibly more than you think, says Bob Hunter of The Columbus Dispatch.
  3. The clock ran out on Michigan State‘s exceptional season, but the accolades continue to pile up for star senior Draymond Green and coach Tom Izzo. Green was named the National Player of the Year by the NABC on Sunday, the first Spartan to receive such an honor since Shawn Respert in 1995. In turn, Izzo was named Coach of the Year for the second time of his career. “For me to win an award of such great magnitude means a lot for me to be able to contribute to making this an even better program,” Green said.
  4. Michigan coach John Beilein had a few things to say on Yahoo! Sports Radio this weekend, but did not get into the situation regarding his star point guard’s possible return to Ann Arbor. Beilein reflected on the season, refusing to call it a disappointment. “We had a great group of young guys that played their tails off, we won a Big Ten championship, which has only happened 13 times in Michigan history,” Beilein said. “(It) hasn’t happened in (26 years). We feel good.” The topic of Trey Burke, who is expected to make a decision about the NBA Draft early this week, did not come up.
  5. For Patrick Chambers, his first year at Penn State was all about attitude. He saw enough, and he’s looking for more. Chambers looked back on this past season, said he liked what he saw, but is hopeful for a brighter future for the Nittany Lions.
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Morning Five: National Championship Monday

Posted by nvr1983 on April 2nd, 2012

  1. In a rather surprising move, Kansas State announced that it was hiring Bruce Weber to be its next head coach. Weber replaces Frank Martin who left the school earlier in the week to take over at South Carolina (technically that was more surprising than the Weber hire). Weber, who has a 313-155 record in stops at Southern Illinois and Illinois, reached the national championship game at Illinois in 2005, but was criticized by Illini fans for having done so with Bill Self’s recruits and then failing to land many of the top recruits out of Illinois. Now he will be tasked with running a program that Martin revitalized and will also have to deal with a familiar foe in-state: Bill Self.
  2. Less than a month after getting fired from Tulsa, Doug Wojcik has found a new head coaching position at Charleston. Wojcik, who went 140-92 at Tulsa in seven seasons, replaces Bobby Cremins, who retired due to health issues. Interestingly, Wojcik was fired in large part because of his inability to make the NCAA Tournament, but he takes over a program where Cremins was widely praised despite his inability to get his team to the NCAA Tournament. Will Charleston be as forgiving if Wojcik continues to fail to make the NCAA Tournament when he is at Charleston?
  3. Mississippi State is taking another route to find its next head coach. Instead of hiring a retread the Bulldogs are going with Rick Ray, who has served as assistant at Indiana State, Purdue, and Clemson. Although Ray has not had any experience as a head coach he has experienced a good amount of success as an assistant and comes in with high praise based on the quotes we have seen. Some may view hiring someone without head coaching experience as a risky proposition and it is to some degree, but we would rather see a program do that than hire someone with a track record of mediocrity as a head coach.
  4. Like Wojcik, Jim Baron did not have to wait long after being fired to find another job. The former Rhode Island coach, who was fired after going 184-165 in 11 seasons, but went 7-24 this past season is set to be named as the next head coach at Canisius later this week. Even though we have been critical of teams hiring retreads (see above) this seems like it would be a decent hire for Canisius as Baron’s team had won 20 or more games in the past four seasons, which would be a huge turnaround from where Canisius has been recently.
  5. In a sign that the times may be changing, Ohio is reportedly has taken Jim Christian away from TCU. Yes, a (soon to be) Big XII school might be losing a coach to a MAC school. Christian’s record at TCU (56-73) is not exactly inspiring, but he was very successful at Kent State, another MAC school, going 138-58 there including 10-5 against Ohio. The school has not released a statement on the topic, but is expected to introduce Christian on Tuesday so we suspect that an official announcement would come out some time later today.
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Morning Five: 03.30.12 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on March 30th, 2012

  1. After getting passed over by some other coaches they were pursuing Illinois introduced John Groce as their head coach yesterday. Groce, who compiled a record of 85-56 in four season at Ohio, led his team to the Sweet Sixteen this year. While he may not be the marquee name that some Illinois fans hoped for he does have some credentials that should make them more comfortable. In addition to having knocked off three power conference teams in his two tournaments (Georgetown, Michigan, and South Florida; ok, South Florida is a stretch), Groce also worked under Thad Matta (someone he will see a lot in his new job) at Butler and Xavier. So at least Groce should not be intimidated by the coaches on the opposing sideline.
  2. Illinois fans were probably concerned that losing Bruce Weber would affect their recruiting, but Jabari Parker, the school’s biggest target, says he is still interested in Illinois. The more interesting thing to us is how his high school coach is inserting himself into the picture. Although he appears to be a successful coach in his own right doing this at the same time you have the #1 recruit in the country will raise some eyebrows particularly with some of the unique package deals we have seen in the past few years.
  3. Yesterday, Danny Manning was announced as the the next head coach at Tulsa although the press conference will not be held until next week for reasons that we will get into. As we mentioned yesterday, this seems like it has the potential to be an excellent hire particularly with Manning’s reputation in that part of the country and the years he has spent as an assistant at the dominant program in the area. Of course, that’s the long-term effect. The near-term effect might not be so good. As you may remember, Manning’s current team, Kansas, is sort of occupied this weekend. With Manning (an assistant coach) and Barry Hinson (director of basketball operations) taking new jobs as head coaches in the past few days, you would think that they might be a little distracted from the task at hand. Bill Self says that should not be an issue, but if the Jayhawks come out flat there may be rumblings in Lawrence.
  4. Yesterday was an interesting day in Chapel Hill as Kendall Marshall won the Cousy Award as the top point guard in the nation. Oh, and there was that little thing about three players–Marshall, John Henson, and Harrison Barnes–declaring for the NBA Draft. As we mentioned yesterday, this group will have an interesting legacy. As individuals they could all be spectacular at times, but didn’t seem to put it together at key moments although Marshall cannot be faulted for his scaphoid fracture. All three are first round picks and potentially lottery picks (Marshall is the only one we question out of the three) so nobody will fault them for leaving early, but North Carolina fans could be in for some growing pains next season while the new group gets settled in.
  5. It is pretty rare for a high level school official to get into a controversy on Twitter, but Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis managed to do so when he sent a response on Twitter to Trey Burke. The Michigan freshman, who is considering putting his name in the NBA Draft, made a comment about all the people trying to give him advice on his life so Hollis responded by telling him to follow his heart and mind and seek out people that he trusts rather than having others come to him, which is sort of amusing because Hollis was coming to him with that advice. Anyways, it created a mini-controversy about questions of attempted recruitment, which was quickly refuted. Hopefully Hollis learned his lesson and also will learn to lenient to athletes for minor transgressions, which could come up as he is the chairman of the NCAA Division I Amateurism Cabinet and will join the NCAA Division I men’s basketball committee later this year.
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Big Ten Morning Five: 03.29.12 Edition

Posted by jnowak on March 29th, 2012

  1. Could this nightmare of a coaching search finally be coming to an end for Illinois? According to the Chicago Tribune‘s Shannon Ryan, the hire of Ohio’s John Groce as the next Fighting Illini coach is “imminent.” Donors and alumni at Ohio have been scrambling over the last few days to find ways to offer Groce a pay bump to stay in Athens, but it seems that it’s only a matter of his contract at Illinois that is keeping Groce from officially donning a new school’s colors.
  2. So what does this whole circus say about Illinois, the state of its basketball program, and the coaching job itself? The Tribune‘s David Haugh doesn’t sugarcoat it when he writes that it just goes to show that Illinois is not the prestigious program perhaps it thought it was. It wasn’t so much the number of mid-major (and even power conference) coaches who turned the job down, but the way in which Groce was able to negotiate the terms of his pending contract. It’s humbling for Illinois fans but surely the next coach will be looking to restore that luster.
  3. Minnesota was left out of the NCAA Tournament, but Tubby Smith’s club is making the most of its postseason. The Golden Gophers have worked their way into the NIT championship game tonight in New York, where they’ll take on Stanford. Coincidentally, that’s the same program that Minnesota freshman point guard Andre Hollins nearly played for. Thursday, Hollins — who had 20 points and five assists in Tuesday’s 68-67 overtime win over Washington — will have the chance to show Stanford what it missed out on.
  4. With all the attention paid toward All-American Jared Sullinger, X-factor Deshaun Thomas, and feisty point guard Aaron Craft, senior William Buford has practically fallen by the wayside. The Ohio State veteran has big-time capabilities that we’ve seen before. The problem is, we’ve also seen him go unnoticed. If those former qualities emerge in New Orleans, it could mean big things for Ohio State.
  5. Speaking of Sullinger, Ohio State’s big man has done what he came back to do, taking the Buckeyes to a Final Four with a reasonable shot at a national title. And, as Michael Rosenberg writes, in doing that, he’s silenced some of his critics. But most importantly, the extra year in college has allowed him to mature and prepare himself for a professional basketball life ahead.
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Big Ten Morning Five: 03.28.12 Edition

Posted by Ryan Terpstra on March 28th, 2012

  1. One coaching vacancy in the Big Ten has been filled as Nebraska welcomed Tim Miles as the newest leader of their basketball program. Miles comes with a solid resume from Colorado State, but some former players have expressed disappointment that the school wasn’t able to get a coach who moved a needle a little more. Miles was able to guide Colorado State to the NCAA Tournament this year, which is something the Huskers were unable to do, but his lack of experience at the helm of a big-time program has given some fans pause knowing that competing in the Big Ten is different than the Mountain West.
  2. Meanwhile, it appears that Illinois will soon have their man, as a deal appears imminent with Ohio head coach and former Ohio State assistant John Groce.  However, since Illinois publicly courted other candidates, including VCU’s Shaka Smart and Butler’s Brad Stevens, and came up empty; many who have been following the hiring process are wondering whether becoming the head man of the Illini is still a premiere position. Some have used the term “national embarrassment”, and while I think that is harsh, it is true that Illinois has been publicly rebuffed by a number of candidates.
  3. Michigan State has a storied basketball program, and that has led to the Spartans honoring nine former players by retiring their jersey numbers. Tom Izzo thinks that there should be a tenth jersey hanging from the rafters, and he wants that jersey to belong to Draymond Green. Green was honored as an AP All-Amerian first team member this week, and his leadership off the court and skills on the court certainly would qualify him to join Spartan lore. Izzo has noted that the leadership and chemistry from this team is not lost on the younger players, and State will be looking for a couple of leaders to fill the void left by Green come next season.
  4. With the Final Four back in New Orleans, ESPN.com decided to reminisce about some classic moments when college basketball’s premiere event was held in the Big Easy. Two Big Ten moments made the list, one being Keith Smart’s epic shot against Syracuse in 1987 and the other being Chris Webber‘s infamous timeout against North Carolina in 1993. The best and the worst of the NCAA tournament, both taking place at the same site, six years apart.
  5. Though their NCAA Tournament exit was heartbreaking, Wisconsin gave Syracuse a run for their money, and while senior point guard Jordan Taylor will certainly be missed, the Badgers will bring back four starters from a team that won 26 games this year.  It is never easy to replace a leader at the point guard position, but Wisconsin will return 71% of its scoring and 84% of its rebounding next season. The future looks good in Madison for the Badgers to again be a factor in the Big Ten.
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The Other 26: And Then There Were Two

Posted by IRenko on March 23rd, 2012


I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on twitter @IRenkoHoops.

Thirty-three TO26 teams entered the greatest weekend in sports, and just two — Xavier and Ohio — survived to make it to the second weekend.  This is the weakest showing for non-BCS teams since 2005, when only Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Utah made it to the Sweet Sixteen (where they were dispatched by Illinois and Kentucky, respectively). But that’s not to say that it wasn’t an exciting first weekend for the TO26. Indeed, Friday was a historic day, as not just one, but two #15 seeds notched wins. It was mad, it was March, and it was why we — especially those of us who relish the mid-major game as much as the high-major one — love college hoops.

Below, we take a look at how those 15 seed upsets confounded us and and how they didn’t, the likelihood that Xavier and Ohio will continue to carry the TO26 banner into deeper rounds, and reflect on the surprising and not so surprising first round losses suffered by some of the best TO26 teams.

The Survivors

Can the TO26 makes its mark on the regional final or — gasp — the Final Four?

Ohio — For the second time in three years, D.J. Cooper has taken the NCAA Tournament by storm, scoring 40 points in two wins.  More generally, the Bobcats are a young, athletic, and dangerous team with a surprisingly high talent level for a MAC squad.  Their #13 seed reflects a bit of trouble that they had in the middle of the season, but this team is playing better than that, almost as well as the ’06 George Mason and ’11 VCU teams did when they stormed the Final Four with a #11 seed.

Can John Groce D.J. Cooper, and the Ohio Bobcats Make History?

Still, under normal circumstances, we wouldn’t give them great odds against a North Carolina squad that tends to dominate inside.  But for those of you who just returned to civilization from a one-week absence, be advised that these are not normal circumstances.  Kendall Marshall’s likely absence (or limited ability, at the least) may leave UNC vulnerable to Ohio’s turnover-generating defense and without the ability to run its vaunted transition offense.  If the Bobcats can rattle the Tar Heels and UNC is unable to push the ball effectively, this could be a real contest.  And after that, who knows?  Kansas, with its effective interior game, would be a real challenge, but NC State would be eminently beatable.  It is not inconceivable that the Bobcats could become the first team with a seed higher than 11 to land in the Final Four.

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NCAA Tournament Tidbits: 03.23.12 Edition

Posted by WCarey on March 23rd, 2012

The NCAA Tournament is here and there’s more news, commentary and analysis than any of us can possibly keep up with. To make things a little easier, we’ll bring you a list of daily links gathered about teams in each of the four regions all the way through the Final Four.

Midwest Region

  • Kansas star forward Thomas Robinson’s personal tragedies have been well-documented. The junior, who just turned 21 last week, is the key player for the Jayhawks as they look to move into the Elite Eight.
  • Kansas senior guard Tyshawn Taylor has faced a lot of adversity in basketball and in life. The guard from New Jersey has developed into a leader for Bill Self’s squad and he will look to lead the Jayhawks into an Elite Eight on Friday night.
  • Going into this season, there were many differing opinions regarding NC State forward CJ Leslie. Leslie has developed into a key player and a team leader for the overachieving Wolfpack that have already pulled two upsets in the NCAA Tournament.
  • When NC State athletic director Kay Yow named Mark Gottfried head coach last April, many people were surprised by the decision. As it turns out, Yow had the right idea, as Gottfried has led the Wolfpack through some hard times this season and into the Sweet Sixteen.
  • North Carolina star forward Harrison Barnes has a history as a saxophone player. Putting the music aside, the Tar Heels’ leading scorer is a key component to the team moving on in the NCAA Tournament.
  • Ohio head coach John Groce has seen his name tied to the openings at Nebraska and Illinois, but the Bobcats’ head coach will not say if he has any interest until his team’s run in the NCAA Tournament has concluded.

West Region

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ACC in the NCAAs: Scouting North Carolina vs. Ohio

Posted by KCarpenter on March 23rd, 2012

Before Kendall Marshall‘s injury, this was a very tough match-up for the Bobcats. With Marshall’s injury, it’s still a tough match-up. There are several things going against Ohio in this match-up, but the toughest to overcome is simply size. Reggie Keely is a big body at 6’8″ and 263 pounds, but the rest of the line-up is shorter and lighter. Against the NBA-caliber size of North Carolina, this will be a problem, particularly for a team that struggles with defensive rebounding as it is. Worse, against the foul-drawing bigs of North Carolina, Ohio may quickly find itself in foul trouble. Ohio is easily the most foul-happy team left in the tournament, and Keely fouls 5.1 times per forty minutes and the rest of the front line posts similar marks. If Ohio can’t hold the interior against North Carolina, there is little to stop Tyler Zeller for going off for the game of his life.

Marshall May Not Play, But How Will Ohio Deal With UNC's Big Men?

Still, despite this distinct mismatch, Ohio comes into this game with a set of skills that could make life miserable for the Tar Heels. As a team, the Bobcats force turnovers on over a quarter of all possessions, and over the season have turned over offenses at the second best rate in the entire country. North Carolina, despite its fast pace, was one of the better ball-control teams in the country this year, and a lot of that credit goes to the masterful generalship of Marshall. Without the team’s 35 MPG point guard (or his back up), the Tar Heel’s of a distinct lack of battle-tested and sure-handed ball-handlers. Stilman White, Justin Watts, and (I suspect) Harrison Barnes are all but certain to endure hellacious ball-pressure as Ohio tries to leverage North Carolina’s inexperienced ball-handler into frequent turnovers and easy fast-break points. The success of both teams likely hinges on the ability of North Carolina to successfully break pressure, play out of traps, and otherwise initiate the Tar Heel offense before the ball hawks of Ohio make the big play.

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Ohio University Fighting the Cinderella Label

Posted by dnspewak on March 23rd, 2012

Danny Spewak is an RTC Correspondent covering the Midwest Regional in St. Louis this weekend. You can follow him on Twitter @dspewak.

They hail from a league nestled in America’s heartland, playing in relative anonymity in the Mid-American Conference. Each winter, they travel through Ypsilanti, Mount Pleasant, Kalamazoo and a host of other industrialized college towns with funky names, occasionally appearing on ESPNU or regional television. They toil in obscurity behind one of the largest and most powerful state universities in the United States, keeping to themselves in a town called Athens situated about 157 miles away from Cincinnati and 217 miles from Cleveland.

The point guard grew up in Chicago but had no offers from the Big Ten out of high school. The team’s vocal leader and second-leading scorer used to average five minutes a game at Ohio State. The two leading rebounders stand tall at an undersized 6’8”, each averaging just 5.0 boards per game. The head coach is a young, refreshing sparkplug with a load of energy, but his shaved head and small stature seem to fit the mold of an athletic trainer– not the leader of a team in the Sweet Sixteen.

D.J. Cooper Is Getting the Last Laugh in the Sweet 16 (AP Photo/T. Dejak)

At first glance, nothing about the Ohio Bobcats suggests they should have any shot against top-seeded North Carolina Friday evening, even if standout point guard Kendall Marshall’s wrist injury leaves him unavailable to play. UNC center Tyler Zeller, a former McDonald’s All-American from a well-known basketball family in Indiana, paid polite compliments to the 13th-seeded Bobcats on Thursday afternoon. But even he admitted they are vulnerable in the frontcourt, claiming his team “can attack them a little bit down low and try to play to our strengths.” So it’s settled: as long as the bigger, badder Tar Heels show up to play, they’ll have no trouble dispatching a little Cinderella that finished third in the MAC East Division.

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NCAA Tournament Game Analysis: Sweet Sixteen Friday

Posted 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

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