NCAA Tournament Preview: Midwest Region
Why No. 1 North Carolina will make the Final Four:
North Carolina was the preseason No. 1 team for a reason. The Tar Heels might be the most talented team in the country. They have the ACC player of the year in 7-foot senior center Tyler Zeller (16.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 55.5 FG%) and stellar 6-8 sophomore forward Harrison Barnes (17.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg). The list goes on, from the length of 6-11 junior John Henson (13.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg) and court savvy of sophomore Kendall Marshall at the point (No. 2 in nation 3.6-1 assist-to-turnover ratio). The ACC regular season champions slipped up against Florida State in the conference tournament title game, but after falling behind by 16 in the first half, the Tar Heels came within one with 30 seconds remaining before Florida State held on.
A quick look at the stats tells the story for the Tar Heels. A coach Roy Williams staple, the Tar Heels led the ACC and ranked 10th nationally in possessions per game, averaging nearly 73 per game while scoring a country-best 82 points per game. Want an unselfish and efficient offensive team? You’ve got it — 17.4 assists per game, fourth nationally. They’re also the top rebounding team in the nation, grabbing 45.1 per game. Their defense isn’t too shabby, either, holding opponents to an abysmal 39.3 percent from the field, ranking second in the ACC and 20th nationally.
Why the Tar Heels will fall short:
Although depth hasn’t appeared to be an issue after shooting guard Dexter Strickland went down with a season-ending injury after 19 games, another health issue might have a big effect heading into the Big Dance. Henson injured his wrist in the quarterfinals of the ACC tourney against Maryland, and he had to sit out the next two games. It’s unclear whether he’ll be at full strength or even play starting Friday against Lamar or Vermont, but he adds such a dimension down low in addition to Zeller. Henson and his 7-4 wingspan averages nearly three blocks per game (10th nationally).
Strickland gave the team defense, toughness and added depth in the backcourt and Marshall getting into foul trouble could spell doom for the Tar Heels in the later rounds without the luxury of having Strickland.
In its five losses, North Carolina allowed opponents to hit 40.3 percent of their 3-pointers, making10.8 in those games. For the season, it did a much better job — allowing just 31.9 percent shooting from the arc. UNC will need to make defending the perimeter an emphasis, especially if it meets a team like Florida State, who had the Tar Heels’ number this season. North Carolina isn’t a great 3-point shooting team (sixth in ACC at 33.9 percent), relying mostly on getting the ball out in transition for easy layups and feeding it down low to Zeller, Henson and often Barnes, who also can hit shots from the wing. The Tar Heels also are battle-test, playing the sixth toughest schedule in the land.
Best non-No. 1 seed:
Thomas Robinson. That’s all you really need to say about Kansas, which boasts the national player of the year candidate in the post who was second in the Big 12 in scoring (17.9 points per game) and first in rebounding (11.8 per game). The 6-9 junior forward is quite the athletic specimen and has improved dramatically with more of an opportunity for playing time after the departure of the Morris twins.
Kansas has one of the best defenses in the Midwest Region, holding opponents to 38.3 percent from the field — which ranks first in Big 12 and sixth in the nation — and hold opponents to 61.9 points per game, second in the Big 12 and 51st nationally. The Jayhawks also collect 5.6 blocks per game, ninth in nation. They need to defend the perimeter better, though, after they allowed 34.7 percent shooting from the arc — eighth in Big 12 and 193rd nationally. They also aren’t a good free-throw shooting team at 69.6 percent, seventh in Big 12. But Kansas played the 11 strongest schedule.
Sweet 16 sleeper:
No. 14 seed Belmont has been in the tournament five of the last seven years now, and while it hasn’t won a game, 26th-year coach Rick Byrd and his team are poised to get it done this season. They’re led offensively by 6-1 junior point guard Kerron Johnson, a former Alabama Mr. Basketball who averages 14.1 points per game and sports a 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Three other upperclassmen starters score in double figures. The Bruins lost at Duke by one point to open the season and won their final 14 games. Their 81.5 points per game ranks fourth in the nation, while their field goal percentage of 48.4 percent ranks 13th. Senior guard Drew Hanlen is the fourth-most accurate 3-point shooter in the country, making 48.1 percent for the year (91-of-189).
The Bruins open against perennial first-round disappointment Georgetown, which has lost its first game of the tournament the past two seasons — last year against No. 11 VCU and in 2010 against No. 13 Ohio. Georgetown is more talented, but could have its hands full. Belmont would then move on to face San Diego State or North Carolina State on Sunday.
Final Four sleeper:
Michigan is kind of an afterthought in this region after having its worst game of the season against Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament, a 77-55 nightmare. Point guard Trey Burke finally looked like a freshman, going 1-for-11 with eight turnovers as Michigan shot just 31 percent. But the co-Big Ten champions haven’t lost back-to-back games all season and their experience in the tourney (minus Burke) is an asset. If the extra time off helped Tim Hardaway Jr. figure out his shooting stroke, watch out. One of the more streaky players in the nation certainly has the ability to take over a game. Add in senior deep threats Zack Novak and Stu Douglass, and the Wolverines can grab ahold of a game in a hurry. Burke has played as well as any freshman in the nation this year, looking like a seasoned veteran running coach John Beilein’s shooting-heavy offense. Can it continue against the elite on the biggest stage? If it does, Michigan is a definite threat to beat anybody, as it showed against Memphis, Iowa State, Indiana, Michigan State and Ohio State earlier in the season. The Wolverines attempted the eight-most 3-pointers in the nation this season, but ranked 133rd in percentage at 35.2.
Rebounding, where Michigan averages a -1.8 margin, could also be a big key.
Top first-round matchup:
No. 7 St. Mary’s vs. No. 10 Purdue, 7:30 p.m. Friday. This is the first matchup for these programs, and it should be a good one.
The Gaels are the West Coast Conference tournament champions, doing it without 6-4 sophomore guard and key contributor Stephen Holt, who’s been out for three weeks with a sprained knee. Holt’s return still is questionable for this game. They swept rival Gonzaga in three meetings, a rarity in the WCC. St. Mary’s is led by 6-4 junior guard Matthew Dellavedova, an Australian who has one of the best names in the tournament. He’s scored in double figures the past 13 games and his 6.4 assists per game ranks 11th in the country. He also boasts a 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Purdue was helped late in the season by its only win against a Top 25 team, beating Michigan on the road. Fifth-year senior Robbie Hummel came on late in the season, knocking down tough shots while looking like his old self before his knee problems. He averaged 16.3 points and 7.1 rebounds per game this season, both career highs. The Boilermakers start three seniors, including Hummel and lightning-quick point guard Lewis Jackson.
So who wins? Both teams are good decision-makers, with Purdue ranking first in the nation with its 1.58 assist-to-turnover ratio and St. Mary’s 11th at 1.37. Both are in the nation’s top 50 in 3-point shots attempted. It might come down to how Hummel shoots and whether or not he’s able to will the Boilermakers to a semi-upset against the tournament-experienced Gaels.
Top potential matchup:
Former high school teammates Harrison Barnes (UNC) and Doug McDermott (Creighton) could meet in the second round in Greensboro, N.C. The pair won two straight undefeated national titles at Ames High School in Iowa as part of the same graduating class. They averaged a combined 46 points and 18 rebounds their senior years. The difference? Barnes was the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2009 class. McDermott, the son of Creighton coach Greg McDermott, didn’t start at the beginning of his junior year and initially committed to Northern Iowa (because his father, who was at Iowa State at the time, didn’t recruit him). Then, Greg resigned and took the Creighton job and brought Doug along before his freshman season. Now, Barnes and McDermott each are considered among the nation’s top collegiate players. Both are 6-8 and have the tools and build to reach the NBA. McDermott finished third in national scoring at 23.2 points per game and added 8.2 rebounds, while claiming Missouri Valley Conference player of the year honors. Meanwhile, Barnes put up 17.4 and 5.2 rebounds. The matchup goes beyond the duo, though — it could be as compelling a basketball game as you find between a No. 1 and No. 8 seed.
Top potential one-on-one matchup:
Thomas Robinson vs. John Henson/Tyler Zeller. The Kansas forward and potential national player of the year might need to combat both of North Carolina’s 6-11 big men in the post, which will undoubtedly be fun to watch if both teams advance to the Elite Eight.
Top coach: Roy Williams, North Carolina
He has two national titles and is one of the most respected coaches in the game. He has a knack for motivating players come tournament time and has led the Tar Heels to at least the Elite Eight in five of his nine seasons in Chapel Hill.
Sleeper coach: Fran Dunphy, Temple
He led Pennsylvania to 10 Ivy League championships in 17 years and has turned Temple around by winning the Atlantic 10 regular season title twice and the tournament title three times, earning five straight NCAA tournament bids. Last year’s team beat Penn State in its opening game, then lost to San Diego State. He’s never won more than one game in the tournament, but this season’s Temple team beat Wichita State, Duke and St. Louis, and could spell trouble.
Top 5 NBA prospects:
1. Harrison Barnes, UNC
We all know he’s a consensus top-five player in the country, and he’s still developing as a wing player. Part of that this season has come from taking less outside shots. He sort of fell in love with the 3-point shot a little bit during his freshman season, when 39.2 percent of his shots came from behind the arc and he sank just 34.4 percent. But he’s improved his shot selection as a sophomore, taking 3-pointers on 24.8 percent of his shots. As a result, Barnes’ field goal percentage has increased from 42.3 percent to 45.4. He’s also averaging 17.4 points per game this season, 1.7 higher than last year. His 6-foot-8, 220-pound frame has only grown sturdier and more built during his time in Chapel Hill, and he looks to be an impact player from day one in the NB
2. Thomas Robinson, Kansas
Get the ball to this guy around the rim, and chances are you’ll see an easy dunk, lay-in or a double-down the opens up a perimeter shot. Or lob it near the basket — that usually works, too. His athleticism makes him able to throw it down with the best of them. Robinson also excels at finding his own shot in space and has a somewhat underrated mid-range game.
3. John Henson, UNC
Length. That always helps on the next level, and this 6-10 guy has a lot of it (7-4 wingspan). He’s an excellent shot blocker who averages right around three per game and averaged a double-double for the second consecutive season. He still could use a few more pounds to bruise down low in the NBA, but he’s very controlled around the rim, maneuvering his way around defenders for baskets.
4. Kendall Marshall, UNC
Marshall, still just a sophomore, sees the floor better than a majority of seniors. The 6-4 point guard ranked second in the nation this season in both assists per game (9.7) and assist-to-turnover ratio (3.5). He had four double-doubles in points and assists, all coming in the final month of the regular season when the Tar Heels were without Dexter Strickland.
5. Tyler Zeller, UNC
A 7-footer who can face up to the basket and knock down a long-range jumpshot, he’s improved pretty much all of his numbers his senior season in winning ACC player of the year. He set career highs in points (16.5), rebounds (9.3), field-goal percentage (.555), free-throw percentage (.809), blocks (1.3) and steals (1.0).