Sweet 16 Preview: East
No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 4 Kentucky
The team of freshmen against the freshman's team.
Ohio State is one of the nation's most disciplined teams. You know this. The Buckeyes base their offense on the post game of Jared Sullinger and the veteran wings surrounding him, all of whom can shoot. In fact, the Buckeyes are the best three-point shooting team in the nation. They rarely turn the ball over (15.9 percent of possessions, seventh-best nationally) and pretty much never foul (opponents get roughly five field goal attempts per free-throw try, the best rate nationally).
But here's what might surprise you: Kentucky is one of the nation's most disciplined teams, as well. Last season, the Wildcats turned the ball over on 20.3 percent of their possessions, the 163-best rate in the country. Their three-point shooting was 218th-best, making 33.1 percent of their attempts. What a makeover, then, this year. That turnover rate has dropped to 16 percent, ninth-best in the country, and Kentucky is making 39.6 percent of its threes, 11th-best.
These numbers come from one team with a veteran backcourt and the freshman Sullinger's mighty impact in the post, and one with a dynamic group of freshmen controlling the offense from the perimeter. The point being, a glance at the rosters might make you believe Ohio State and Kentucky couldn't be much more different. A deeper inspection finds two similar teams.
KenPom.com, the source for the pace-adjusted stats quoted above, rates Kentucky as the eighth-best team in the country in terms of efficiency. There's no good argument for why the Wildcats were served with a No. 4 seed and pitted in the same region as the nation's best team. But Ohio State should watch carefully, or an upset could come their way.
The key for Kentucky? Fluster Sullinger inside. Josh Harrellson is tall and energetic enough to do the trick, but he's struggled against some of the better post scorers the Wildcats have faced, including JaMychal Green, Trey Thompkins and Tyler Zeller. And Sullinger is better than any of those guys.
Another key will be Terrence Jones, who hasn't quite been himself lately. After starting the season looking like a legitimate national player of the year candidate, Jones has drawn the ire of his coach for sloppy and selfish play. He hasn't scored more than 16 points since Feb. 19, and he's posted just two double-doubles in that span while the Wildcats have played well.
Against Ohio State, Jones will need to be more of a factor because he's the one guy the Buckeyes don't have an answer for on defense. Sullinger and Dallas Lauderdale are good interior defenders, while David Lighty is capable of shutting down anyone on the perimeter, but Ohio State lacks anyone with the size and quickness to match up with Jones.
Still, the Buckeyes hold several crucial edges in this game. For one, they've got Sullinger. They also boast experience in the form of Lighty, Jon Diebler and William Buford. And they have the nation's second-best effective field-goal percentage, a crucial measure of offensive effectiveness.
Kentucky's on a roll, and an upset here would not be terribly surprising. This might be Ohio State's toughest test of the entire tournament, as the Wildcats boast tremendous athleticism at all positions. But the Buckeyes should win.
No. 11 Marquette vs. No. 2 North Carolina
None of the four remaining double-digit seeds is as surprising to see in the Sweet 16 as Marquette. But that's not a comment on the Golden Eagles as much as the road they faced, compared to Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth and Florida State.
By beating Xavier – a team that was going for its fourth straight Sweet 16 bid – and Syracuse – going for its third straight Sweet 16 after a significantly stronger Big East season – Marquette proved its meddle under coach Buzz Williams. On paper, there's not a whole lot to be thrilled about. Advanced scouting and statistics show that Marquette was a very good No. 11 seed, but beating Syracuse, in particular, was a bit of a shock.
North Carolina should provide an even more sizeable mismatch. The Tar Heels are huge – easily the tallest team left in the NCAA Tournament. How Marquette plans to match up with Tyler Zeller and John Henson inside, or even Harrison Barnes on the wing, remains to be seen.
The Big East was not a very tall league this season, perhaps a contributing factor in the survival of just two of 11 teams to make the NCAA Tournament. Marquette has rarely been matched up against one good post player, much less the group of three, including reserve Justin Knox, that North Carolina boasts.
The key, then, will be for Marquette to use its veteran backcourt (featuring Darius Johnson-Odom, Dwight Buycks and the less-experienced Junior Cadougan) to frustrate North Carolina's young guards into mistakes. Kendall Marshall has been a revelation and may be the nation's best passer, but he's still a freshman who occasionally tries to do too much. Neither Dexter Strickland nor Leslie McDonald has proven consistently capable of replacing Marshall at the point.
But the matchup that everyone will be talking about is Barnes against Jimmy Butler and Jae Crowder. Barnes has come into his own over the last month, looking like he deserved the recognition as the Associated Press's first preseason all-American freshman after all.
Butler and Crowder are tough, proven players, but neither can physically match up with Barnes' size and athleticism. Still, the pair of juniors must keep Barnes under control if the Golden Eagles even have a shot to win this game, and that means strong efforts on both ends of the floor.
Marquette shouldn't beat North Carolina. That's not to say the Golden Eagles can't, but Buzz Williams will have to completely outcoach Roy Williams for it to happen.
Final Four Prediction
North Carolina has the length and athleticism to fluster Ohio State. What it lacks is the veteran leadership. Lighty, Diebler and Buford will come to play, and Ohio State will make its second Final Four under Matta. This time, though, the Buckeyes will have survived the toughest region and be in good shape to cut down the nets in Houston.