Bill Koch, National Columnist
Eight more games are all that separate us from the Sweet 16, and today’s matchups feature far more than the usual suspects.
Duke, Michigan, Temple, Missouri and Notre Dame are the big-name absentees from the third round, all downed on a fantastic Friday by lower-seeded opposition. Several programs playing on Sunday will never enjoy a better opportunity to advance to the second weekend than they will this season, making the action some must-watch television on the CBS family of networks.
Just who will join yesterday’s eight winners is anybody’s guess, but we’ll try to give you some insight here. Again, we remind you that we obviously know very little about how these games will shake out. Our own busted bracket is all the proof you need.
No. 3 Florida State (25-9) vs. No. 6 Cincinnati (25-10)
The Seminoles fought through a tough matchup with St. Bonaventure to score a 66-63 victory that should test them for the road ahead. Florida State didn’t enjoy the lead until the final five minutes and needed some inspiration from its own resident staff sergeant, Air Force veteran Bernard James, to make the difference. James finished with a team-high 19 points and did just enough to slow Bonnies’ star Andrew Nicholson, who finished his college career with a 20-point outing.
The Bearcats showed their Jekyll and Hyde tendencies while squeaking past Texas, 65-59, inconsistency that could doom Cincinnati against Florida State. Good Cincinnati held Texas to 16 percent shooting while building a 31-17 halftime lead and enjoyed a double-double from Yancy Gates, who stuck a late wing jumper as part of his 15 points and 10 rebounds. Bad Cincinnati allowed the Longhorns to eventually tie the game at 52-52 and was a nightmare from 3-point range (3-for-16) and at the foul line (8-for-16). Such transgressions won’t go unpunished against a quality opponent like the Seminoles.
The pick – Florida State
No. 1 North Carolina (30-5) vs. No. 8 Creighton (29-5)
Primarily known as offensive stalwarts, the Tar Heels nabbed 14 steals and forced 21 turnovers in all to turn back game Vermont, 77-58, in their opener. Double-doubles from Tyler Zeller (17 points, 15 rebounds) and Kendall Marshall (11 points, 10 assists) were enough to overcome 41.5 percent shooting and a 5-for-18 effort from 3-point range, but it was another statistic that should be North Carolina’s focus going forward. The Catamounts took advantage of John Henson’s absence by posting a 42-37 advantage on the glass, something that can’t happen repeatedly if the Tar Heels hope to stick around past the second weekend.
The Bluejays survived one of their poorest offensive performances of the season in a 58-57 thriller against Alabama, stifled by the stingy Crimson Tide into 44 percent shooting and hitting at a 5-for-13 clip at the foul line. Creighton needed a late blocked shot by Josh Jones to advance, the sort of defensive play that Alabama typically produces and one that the Bluejays will need to repeat rather often against North Carolina to spring an upset. The Tar Heels’ shooters rarely have two bad nights in a row.
The pick – North Carolina
No. 2 Kansas (28-6) vs. No. 10 Purdue (22-12)
There was nothing pretty about the way the Jayhawks dropped Detroit in their opening game, but style points matter little this time of year. Kansas rode Thomas Robinson (left, courtesy Jeff Jacobsen/Kansas Athletics) and suffocating defense to its 65-50 victory, as Robinson racked up 16 points and 13 rebounds while the Titans shot 31.7 percent from the field and finished 3-for-17 from 3-point range. Much like North Carolina, Kansas figures to be more potent on offense next time out.
Winning ugly is nothing new for the determined Boilermakers, who needed a late Saint Mary’s turnover and a missed 3-pointer at the buzzer by Rob Jones to clinch a 72-69 triumph. Purdue squandered a 13-point lead down the stretch before clinching a berth in the third round, finishing off a Gaels team that went just 4-for-25 from 3-point range. The bad news for the Boilermakers is that Saint Mary’s shot 58.9 percent from inside the arc, and the Jayhawks have plenty of players who can find their way into the cracks of the Purdue defense.
The pick – Kansas
No. 3 Georgetown (24-8) vs. No. 11 North Carolina State (23-12)
The Hoyas were a terrific 25-for-37 on 2-point attempts against Belmont, cruising to a 74-59 victory that illustrated why Georgetown has been so successful this season. Henry Sims and Nate Lubick, a pair of frontcourt players, each recorded five assists while guard Jason Clark finished 9-for-12 from the field on his way to a game-high 21 points. Such balance and resourcefulness has brought the Hoyas this far and could put them back in the Sweet 16 for the 12th time.
The rugged Wolfpack battered San Diego State on both sides of the ball while recording an impressive 79-65 victory. North Carolina State shot 58.5 percent from the field to the Aztecs’ 37.7 percent, enjoyed a 38-29 advantage on the glass and placed four players in double figures. Richard Howell was the Wolfpack’s primary weapon in the paint, hitting for a team-best 22 points in just 28 minutes. Howell and North Carolina State’s frontcourt is more talented than Belmont’s and its execution at both ends of the floor against San Diego State was no fluke. In fact, we think we’ll have the chance to see it at least one more time after this one.
The pick – North Carolina State
No. 12 South Florida (22-13) vs. No. 13 Ohio (28-7)
This is one of only two matchups in the third round where two underdogs square off, and they advanced to
within a single victory of the Sweet 16 in similar fashion. Defense ruled the day (as usual) in the Bulls’ 58-44 upset of Temple and in the Bobcats’ 65-60 upending of Michigan. The Owls and Wolverines combined to go just 9-for-35 from 3-point range and bricked their way out of the field.
South Florida received another solid performance from freshman point guard Anthony Collins, who finished with 17 points and five assists, and its defense did the rest by holding Temple to 35.7 percent shooting. Ohio kept Michigan scoreless for the final 4:12 to preserve its second victory as a double-digit seed in three seasons, as D.J. Cooper was an efficient 7-for-11 while pouring in 21 points.
Will these two teams combine for 100 points on Sunday? Don’t laugh. It’s possible that the loser of this one could finish in the 30s. We think Ohio is more likely to be that team, but offense will be the only true sufferer in this matchup.
The pick – South Florida
No. 1 Michigan State (28-7) vs. No. 9 Saint Louis (26-7)
The Spartans will be virtually impossible to stop if Draymond Green keeps playing at such a high level. The 6-foot-7 forward finished with a triple-double in Michigan State’s 89-67 cruise past LIU-Brooklyn, closing with 24 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. There might not be another player in the country who possesses Green’s versatility, and he’ll present a matchup problem for just about any opponent going forward.
If there was ever a coach who could devise a scheme to shut down Green, it’s Rick Majerus. His triangle-and-two that stopped Arizona’s Mike Bibby and Miles Simon and brought Utah to the national championship game in 1998 is still the stuff of legends, and the Billikens also will need to have something special in store after edging past Memphis, 61-54. It’s doubtful that Saint Louis can successfully execute such a scheme and trip up Michigan State, but we can’t wait to see them try.
The pick – Michigan State
No. 7 Florida (24-10) vs. No. 15 Norfolk State (26-9)
The Spartans pulled one of the all-time stunners by beating Missouri at its own game and knocking the Tigers, a popular Final Four pick, out of the tournament with an 86-84 victory. Norfolk State shot 54.2 percent, went 10-for-19 from 3-point range and exploited the Tigers’ weakness on the glass to the tune of a 37-25 rebounding advantage. Kyle O’Quinn, a 6-foot-10 forward whose last name would suggest that the luck of the Irish visited the Spartans a day early, finished with 26 points and 14 rebounds while dominating the paint. It was a historic night for a program that finished under .500 in each of O’Quinn’s first three seasons.
The Gators should take note of exactly how they laid a 71-45 thumping on Virginia. Florida shot 80 percent from 2-point range and was just 4-for-23 from beyond the arc. The Gators hammered the Cavaliers on the glass, 39-23, and held Virginia to 38.3 percent shooting. Casey Prather was the unlikely hero off the bench with 14 points while Patrick Young went 6-for-6 from the floor and finished with 13. To recap, shoot fewer 3-pointers, pound the ball inside, hit the glass hard and defend like demons. That’ll be enough to stop Norfolk State from making Florida upset victim No. 2.
The pick – Florida
No. 10 Xavier (22-12) vs. No. 15 Lehigh (27-7)
There were four No. 15 seeds who had experienced the thrill of an NCAA victory coming into Friday, and that number jumped to six thanks to Norfolk State and the Mountain Hawks. C.J. McCollum was the best player on the floor while leading Lehigh to a 75-70 upset of Duke, outplaying a more heralded backcourt featuring two sons of professional basketball royalty – Austin Rivers and Seth Curry.
To put McCollum’s performance into perspective, consider that he outscored Rivers and Curry 30-26, matched them with six rebounds and tripled their assist total with six to their two. Rarely have the Blue Devils been outmanned during Mike Krzyzewski’s tenure, but they were exactly that on Friday.
The Musketeers await for a ticket to the Sweet 16, a group as talented as they are temperamental. Xavier used a Tu Holloway bank shot with less than 30 seconds to play to survive past Notre Dame, 67-63, and appears to be peaking at the right time. The Musketeers have been the sort of team all season who need the most intense pressure to produce their best basketball – a stumble here against an unheralded opponent is possible, if rather unlikely.
The pick – Xavier
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Cody Ellis photo courtesy Saint Louis Athletic Media Relations; Chris Mack photo courtesy Bob Stevens/Xavier Athletics