Bill Koch, National Columnist
A rematch of a regular season thriller and the continued Cinderella runs of three double-digit seeds highlight the second night of Sweet 16 play in the NCAA Tournament.
Contrasting styles and an education on pace and tempo Thursday night give way to four of college basketball’s bluebloods on Friday, with Kentucky, Indiana, North Carolina and Kansas all taking the court with a chance to add another Elite Eight appearance to their lengthy lists of accomplishments. The Wildcats and Hoosiers tip off in what should be the most anticipated battle of the evening, but don’t overlook Xavier, Ohio and North Carolina State attempting to continue their roles as spoilers. Let the action resume.
No. 1 Kentucky (34-2) vs. No. 4 Indiana (27-8)
Consider the following from the Hoosiers’ 73-72 upset of the Wildcats on Dec. 10:
-- Anthony Davis, the consensus No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, was held to six points and a single blocked shot in 24 minutes.
-- Terrence Jones totaled four points and a lone rebound while committing six turnovers, his worst performance by far during two otherwise excellent seasons with Kentucky.
-- The Wildcats turned the ball over 17 times. They’ve turned it over as many as 14 times just once in 20 games dating back to Jan. 11.
-- Indiana shot 60 percent (9-for-15) from 3-point range.
-- There were 17,000-plus red-clad maniacs inside Assembly Hall who howled at their Hoosiers’ every made basket and rode Kentucky’s callow freshmen halfway back to Lexington.
And the Wildcats still only lost by one point, with Indiana needing a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Christian Watford to spring the upset – a shot that was only taken because Kentucky’s players forgot that they had a foul to give inside the final five seconds.
Is there any doubt who should win this game? Indiana’s renaissance under the brilliant Tom Crean is the story of the season to date in college basketball, but it ends here.
The pick – Kentucky
No. 3 Baylor (29-7) vs. No. 10 Xavier (23-12)
This is the most difficult game in the Sweet 16 for me to handicap, mainly because both teams are maddeningly inconsistent. I could see the Bears winning by 20. I could see the Musketeers winning by 20. I could see a double-overtime slugfest and a last-second shot by Baylor guard Brady Heslip or Xavier guard Tu Holloway. I’m really not sure what to think.
How can Baylor knock off Kansas Sate and Kansas in the Big XII Tournament and then struggle with South Dakota State in its NCAA opener? How can Perry Jones III, a potential lottery pick in the NBA Draft, be held to nine points and 15 rebounds in 60 total minutes through two tournament games? How much longer can Heslip continue his scorching run from 3-point range? Is Pierre Jackson (15 points, 10 assists and five steals in an 80-63 win over Colorado) really this good?
How does Xavier go from the top 10 to the bubble in two short months? How much longer can the Musketeers survive in this tournament while falling behind by 10 points (against Notre Dame) and 15 points (against Lehigh)? Will Xavier continue its solid 3-point shooting (12-for-25 through two games) after finishing at 36.2 percent for the season? Is 7-foot center Kenny Frease (career-high 25 points and 12 rebounds in a 70-58 win over the Mountain Hawks) capable of back-to-back superb performances?
I’m tempted to yield to Xavier’s experience – this is the Musketeers’ fourth trip to the Sweet 16 in the last five years – and the fact that this club did something right to reach the top 10 in the first place. I also believe that Holloway is the best guard on the floor in this game. That tends to make a difference this time of year.
The pick – Xavier
No. 1 North Carolina (31-5) vs. No. 13 Ohio (29-7)
I think we’ve seen the last of Tar Heels’ point guard Kendall Marshall in this tournament. North Carolina can say whatever it wants about his potential return from a broken bone in his wrist and subsequent surgery, but I know from living in the Northeast that when New England Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi suffered the same injury he missed six weeks of action. This is a man who returned to football after suffering a stroke – his toughness can’t be questioned. If Bruschi could have been playing he would have. I suspect the same is true with Marshall, and much like Bruschi I don’t think he’ll be able to go.
With that said, the Tar Heels’ frontcourt will be enough to overcome Bobcats’ guard D.J. Cooper and his pesky band of teammates. North Carolina still counts Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes in its lineup. James Michael McAdoo will come off the bench and matchup nightmare Reggie Bullock, a 6-foot-7 sophomore who hit for 13 points and eight rebounds in an 87-73 victory over Creighton, should play an increased role to compensate for Marshall’s absence. It’s going to take a team with more depth than Ohio, a club that has been outrebounded in each of its two NCAA games, to knock North Carolina out.
The pick – North Carolina
No. 2 Kansas (29-6) vs. No. 11 North Carolina State (24-12)
The Jayhawks survived a scare against Purdue to reach the tournament’s second weekend, escaping with a 63-60 victory after forcing a late turnover and surviving a 2-for-12 night from Player of the Year candidate Thomas Robinson. The Boilermakers rotated bodies against Robinson in the paint and dared Kansas to win the game on the perimeter, a strategy that nearly worked as the Jayhawks struggled to a 6-for-24 effort from 3-point range. Another such performance and Kansas will be heading home early, setting up a potential regional final between North Carolina State and North Carolina that will threaten to close down what would be a buzzing Tobacco Road.
The Wolfpack have been one of the most impressive teams in the field to date thanks to their execution at both ends of the floor. North Carolina State has outrebounded both San Diego State and Georgetown, turned the ball over less than the Aztecs and Hoyas and held its opponents to 33.3 percent shooting from 3-point range. The Wolfpack also has a full cadre of athletic big men in Richard Howell, DeShawn Painter and C.J. Leslie, a group who will give Robinson all he can handle down low.
Two mercurial point guards could decide this game. Kansas senior Tyshawn Taylor has racked up a dozen 20-point games this season and shot better than 50 percent from the field in six of his last seven. North Carolina State sophomore Lorenzo Brown has posted an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 2-to-1 in four of his last five games, including seven assists against a single turnover in 38 minutes against Georgetown.
There’s a lot to be said for good teams who dodge bullets in the NCAA Tournament. Duke edged Kentucky in that famous 1992 East Regional final and overcame a 22-point deficit against Maryland in the Final Four in 2001, both times going on to win a national championship. Tyus Edney’s mad dash in the second round against Missouri in 1995 sparked the Bruins to their 11th crown in program history. Arizona survived overtime against upset-minded Providence in the 1997 Southeast Regional final before eventually cutting down the nets. Connecticut erased an eight-point deficit with less than three minutes to play to nip Duke in the 2004 Final Four before capturing the program’s second national championship. We’re not prepared to say that Kansas will end its season like those teams did, but history appears to be on their side for at least one more game.
The pick – Kansas
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Bullock photo courtesy Jeffrey A. Camarati, UNC Athletic Communications