By Adi Joseph
Wed, 03/24/2010 - 1:01am
As a believer in accountability, the first step here is to discuss why Kansas will not be winning the Midwest Region in this year's NCAA Tournament, as I've been projecting since Cole Aldrich decided to return to school about 11 months ago. The Jayhawks dragged their feet. They didn't make in-game adjustments until it was too late. And they threw up far, far, far too many 3-pointers in a game where that might have been their only disadvantage. Kansas could have won a national championship. Bill Self deserves the blame more than anyone for why they didn't. But I, and so many others throughout the media world, was suckered into believing in the Jayhawks as a flawless team, when their greatest flaw is such an important one: Kansas made poor decisions. Northern Iowa made all the right ones. And now you know how to say “Farokhmanesh” – well, at least you recognize the name.
Still, there are four teams left to choose from in the Midwest Region. Kansas' early exit should not take the spotlight off Northern Iowa, Michigan State, Tennessee and Ohio State, who did all the right things to make the Sweet 16. So let's take a look at those four and their upcoming matchups.
Northern Iowa vs. Michigan State
The biggest thing going for the Panthers, the best reason to put them into the Final Four, is the simple fact that this team does not lose. At 30-4, the Panthers are tied with Butler and Syracuse for the second-best record in the Sweet 16 (Kentucky stands at 33-2). While Ali Farokhmanesh has drawn all the national attention with his big shots in the first two rounds, the shooting guard is actually Northern Iowa's fourth-best player.
Seven-footer Jordan Eglseder, Missouri Valley player of the year Adam Koch and sideburns superstar Lucas O'Rear give Northern Iowa the strength up front to compete with any team in the country. Koch and O'Rear, who comes off the bench, bring a physicality to match Michigan State's, something few teams can say. And the Spartans don't have anyone who can defend Eglseder's height.
Korie Lucious, Kalin Lucas' backup, hit the big shot against Maryland to win it in the second round. Now Lucious will attempt to replace the Big Ten's best point guard, as Lucas is out with a torn achilles. Still, Northern Iowa point Kwadzo Ahelegbe is more of a game manager, and it's doubtful he'll burn the Spartans too badly.
The biggest advantage for Michigan State is on the wings, where super-athlete Durrell Summers, oversized combo forward Raymar Morgan and limping-but-dangerous Chris Allen take on Farokhmanesh and Johnny Moran. Summers had a field day against Maryland and could do the same with height, strength and athleticism all favoring him in this one.
And I'd be remiss to not mention the Tom Izzo factor: this guy just doesn't lose in the early rounds of March. It's tough to favor Cinderella in this one.
Pick: Michigan State
Top Player Matchup
Adam Koch vs. Draymond Green
Green doesn't even start for Michigan State, while Koch is a leader for the Panthers. Still, this is the most important matchup for Northern Iowa to win. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound Green is simply too strong and physical for anyone but Koch and O'Rear to handle, and he's probably too quick for O'Rear. He's the ultimate matchup problem, a versatile point-forward who ran the show extensively after Lucas went down against Maryland. After the game, Izzo described Green as “Tragic Johnson.” Allow Green to put up 12 points, 10 rebounds and five assists – as he's entirely capable of doing – and you're just not going to win. Luckily, Koch is a hardnosed senior leader who probably won't be in the mood to let some sophomore reserve get the best of him. Koch has been taken to the perimeter by a number of teams this year, and he's generally held his own. He's deceptively quick and not afraid to get physical. Not the traditional pick for a league MVP, Koch earned the award by doing all the right things. Now, he's got to shut down a compact matchup nightmare or his career is over.
Tennessee vs. Ohio State
With Kansas and Lucas eliminated, the winner of this game becomes the clear favorite against its Elite Eight opponent. I'm not sure I'm buying that, but if it's so, it should be an interesting one. Remember when Tennessee melted away a big lead against Greg Oden and Co. in the 2007 Sweet 16, only to watch as the Buckeyes rolled into the national championship game? Bruce Pearl probably would like some revenge.
The man in Orange has done perhaps his most impressive coaching job this season, dealing with the dismissal of Tyler Smith and temporary suspensions of three other players while pulling off wins against the top two seeds in the tournament, Kansas and Kentucky. Pearl's now coaching in his fourth Sweet 16 in six years, but the previous three trips have all been losses.
This year could be different, and it all starts with the matchups. Ohio State starts four natural wings. In fact, starts might be putting it lightly, as Evan Turner, William Buford, David Lighty and Jon Diebler rarely go near the bench in big games. The Volunteers start two true big men, two true wings and a true point guard. It will be interesting to see how Ohio State deals with Bobby Maze's quickness or the size of both Wayne Chism and Brian Williams, particularly if Williams is having one of his good days.
That lack of depth on Ohio State could also be a factor, as Tennessee has a deeper lineup and likes to push the tempo on occasion. But Ohio State's four wings are all in great physical shape. These guys simply don't tire, as evidenced by their impressive run through the Big Ten Tournament's three games in three days.
It helps that Turner is simply the best player in the country. It helps that this tough matchup comes on the first game of the weekend, rather than the second. It helps that Tennessee is loaded with streaky players who occasionally fall flat on their faces. An all-Big Ten regional final it is.
Pick: Ohio State
Top Player Matchup
Because of Ohio State's wide assortment of wings, it's tough to know who will draw what assignments. I'm hoping these two streaky sophomores go one-on-one, though. Hopson and Buford are both potential lottery picks in 2011, should either develop any sort of consistency. They're great athletes and great natural scorers who occasionally seem to disappear from games. Buford is ahead of Hopson right now, as he's developed some point guard skills playing without one for two years. He's also a better shooter and rebounder. But Hopson is a springy, big shooting guard who has a huge wingspan and is impossible to guard when he's hitting his jump shots. Both of these guys should return to school, but they're both clear-cut NBA prospects. And with how erratic each can be at times, whoever has the bigger game could lead their team to victory.
So we're talking about an Ohio State-Michigan State game. If that's the case, we're looking at the Big Ten's two most athletic teams. With Lucas, this would be a different story. But Ohio State should be able to handle all of Michigan State's wing options while the Spartans will hope for the best with Morgan, Summers and whoever else wants to give it a shot on Turner. I project a huge game for Turner in the Elite Eight that will have people trying to put him into the NBA Draft's top spot above John Wall unless Wall has his own big game. And I project Ohio State advances. Tennessee should be a tougher matchup than Michigan State, even if the Spartans do have Tom Izzo.