Sweet Sixteen Preview: Midwest Region
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 13 Ohio
The talk of the tournament now revolves around North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall’s ability to play after surgery on a wrist he fractured Sunday during the Tar Heels’ relatively easy win against eighth-seeded Creighton. But even if Marshall, who scores or assists on about 27 percent of the Tar Heels’ points, doesn’t play, it shouldn’t matter against the 13th-seeded Bobcats. Ohio knocked off a recently offensively-challenged No. 4 Michigan team in the second round and defensive-minded South Florida to advance to St. Louis. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels beat Vermont and Creighton by an average of 16.5 points.
How has Ohio gotten this far? The Bobcats play defense. Their 9.3 steals a game rank ninth in the country, and their quickness, led by junior point guard D.J. Cooper, is understated. The length just isn’t there to compete with the Tar Heels, though. The Bobcats’ tallest player is 6-foot-10 Ethan Jacobs, a sophomore who has played in just 12 games. But Ohio does sport some size in 6-7 Jon Smith, a sophomore Saint Louis transfer. He averages 1.2 blocks, nearly half of his team’s 2.8 average. Compare that to North Carolina’s 5.8, though, and you’ve got a mismatch anywhere near the basket — especially with John Henson looking like his sprained wrist won’t affect his game much. He had 13 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks vs. Creighton.
The teams’ offensive tendencies differ. The Tar Heels, who average 72.7 possessions a game, 11th in country, love to run it up and down. The Bobcats average66.9, good for 157th nationally. Ohio launched 777 3-pointers this season (14th most in nation), and Cooper isn’t afraid to take them, shooting 6.5 per game. But his team doesn’t make a good percentage — just 34.2 percent.
The Mid-American Conference isn’t known for fast-paced play, and that works for Ohio, which is a great defensive team on the perimeter. The Bobcats hold opponents to just 29.3 percent from the arc, 11th-best in the nation. The Bobcats will get takeaways, but don’t expect too many fastbreak points (none vs. Michigan, 4 vs. USF, an average of 8.3 a game over three MAC tourney games). The Tar Heels should watch out for Cooper (2.3 steals, eighth nationally) and junior guard Walter Offutt, a 6-3 Ohio State transfer (1.6). Offutt led Ohio with 21 points against USF, hitting all four of his 3-point attempts.
North Carolina should move on by taking advantage of height mismatches created by 6-11 senior Tyler Zeller (11 points, six rebounds vs. Creighton) and 6-10 Henson, who returned Sunday despite a sprained wrist (note to UNC players: brace yourselves less awkwardly vs. Ohio). Henson looked fine, though, scoring 13 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and recording four blocks. Harrison Barnes should have no problem finding shots over the backcourt and wing players of Ohio (5-10 Cooper, 6-3 Offutt, 6-3 Nick Kellogg, 6-7 Smith).
Marshall’s absence will be a bigger problem should North Carolina advance. The team got just one assist from the bench in each of its first two tournament games, and Marshall accounted for 21 of its 30 assists in those games. He’s also averaged 14.5 points in the tournament — add up when he’s been involved, and Marshall is responsible for 80 points this tournament, the most of any player and six more than Michigan State’s Draymond Green. So who plays the point in his absence and eats up his team-high 33 minutes? It’ll be a team effort. Signs point to 6-foot freshman Stilman White (4.3 MPG) or 6-5 senior Justin Watts (6.8 MPG). Freshman P.J. Hairston (13.1 MPG, 5.9 PPG, 0.7 APG), though 6-6, could get some looks too, based on his point guard past and coach Roy Williams’ trust in playing him more minutes.
Bottom line: The Bobcats have won 10 of 11, but have just one senior and play four to five freshmen and sophomores a significant amount of minutes. That might not be a problem for a program like North Carolina that trots out top talent, but for Ohio, it could spell trouble. With or without Marshall, the Tar Heels are too talented and will find ways to score over the undersized Bobcats. Prediction: UNC 78, Ohio 63
No. 11 North Carolina State vs. No. 2 Kansas
N.C. State has found new life late in the first season of coach Mark Gottfried, who has a starting lineup that can play with anybody — all five starters average more than 10 points per game. The Wolfpack are led by Calvin Leslie (the player formerly known as CJ Leslie), a 6-8 sophomore who just recently decided it would be beneficial to take things up a notch. The requested name change is reflective of that. He the main reason N.C. State has won six of its past seven after a four-game skid in February, averaging 17.1 points and 9.6 rebounds while making 64.3 percent from the field in that span. He’s cut down on the turnovers so far in the tournament and will need to do so again if N.C. State is to get to the Elite Eight or beyond. Down low, the Wolfpack rely on Richard Howell, a 6-8 junior who dropped 22 points, twice his average, against San Diego State on March 16.
Kansas missed 15 of its first 17 shots Sunday against Purdue and fell into an early double-digit hole before climbing back to win 63-60. Star forward Thomas Robinson had his worst shooting night of the season, going 2-for-12, and the Jayhawks didn’t get much of anything from center Jeff Withey, who had just four points in 15 minutes. They’ll need the 7-footer against the Wolfpack, who don’t play anyone over 6-9 on a regular basis. Howell and Leslie will need team up in the post to contain Robinson, so look for N.C. State to give 6-9 junior center DeShawn Painter, who averages 6.3 points and 4.3 rebounds a game, more minutes to guard Withey. These both are very good rebounding teams — N.C. State had a +4.5 rebounding margin and Kansas +5.7. The game could be won on the boards, as is often the case.
The Wolfpack shot eight more threes against the taller Hoyas than they did against the Aztecs, making 7-of-15 (46.9 percent). Not bad for them (35.8 percent for the season), but they shouldn’t rely on the long range game unless 6-6 junior Scott Wood (an ACC-best 41.7 percent) gets hot. He drilled 4-of-5 against Georgetown. Wood is joined in the backcourt by Lorenzo Brown, a 6-5 sophomore whose 6.4 assists a game rank 11th in the country and who posts nearly two steals a game on the other end. He also gets to the free-throw line more than four times per game and has scored in double figure in 13 consecutive games. Senior leader C.J. Williams can also step up when needed. He had 14 points in the win over Georgetown and is a solid 50 percent shooter for the season.
Meanwhile, Kansas might want to shy away from the arc as it shot an atrocious 6-of-24 (25 percent) against Purdue and 5-of-16 (31.3 percent) vs. Detroit. Elijah Johnson had the most success, knocking down some clutch shots and going 3-for-8 vs. the Boilermakers, but as a 35.2 percent 3-point shooting team on the year, the Jayhawks need to get Robinson and Withey going to control the inside.
Bottom line: N.C. State is playing as well as it has all season and will find a way to get to the Elite Eight against the rival Tar Heels. Kansas has all the tools to get to the regional final, but recent sloppy play and decision making from senior Tyshawn Taylor might catch up with them, especially if shots don’t fall early. Look for the Wolfpack to control the perimeter on both sides of the ball and force some turnovers. If they can cut down on their own (especially Leslie), they’ll get a chance to play for a Final Four berth. Prediction: NC State 67, Kansas 65
Final Four Prediction
North Carolina gets past N.C. State for the fourth time this season as Marshall returns for the game. The Tar Heels get to New Orleans because they have the tournament experience and weapons to beat anyone. Their size down low and on the wings is again too much for an opponent.