- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Here's Part III in our Know-It-All's Guide to the Sweet 16: The East. Click here for Part IV, which previews the Southwest region.
No. 2 North Carolina vs. No. 11 Marquette
Friday, 7:15 p.m. ET (Newark)
Breakdown: If there's a current poster child for tempo-free statistics in college hoops, it might be Marquette's Buzz Williams. The raspy-voiced, haggard Golden Eagles coach is no stranger to advanced statistics; he frequently uses the words "per possession" in his postgame news conferences, the sort of basketball-geek dog whistle that makes guys like me reflexively swoon.
Perhaps Williams has adopted tempo-free stats (Ken Pomeroy fever: catch it!) because the numbers were on the Eagles' bandwagon long before Marquette found its way through Xavier and Syracuse on the way to the Sweet 16. (For much of the season, Marquette was something of a tempo-free darling; the Eagles were one of the best offenses in the country on a per-possession basis, but their scattershot results kept them on the bubble until the Big East tournament.) Or maybe it's just smart coaching. Every decision is better made with more information, and preparing for college hoops opponents is no different.
Williams isn't just on the tempo-free bandwagon, though. As Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn pointed out in his power rankings this week, Williams also apparently uses Synergy Sports Technology scouting data with a nigh-obsessive interest. It's that data that helped Williams recognize just how much Xavier's Tu Holloway thrived on ball screens, knowledge that proved key in Marquette's second-round win over the favored Musketeers.
Which brings us to this week. Unless Williams has radically changed his pregame routine, he no doubt spent a good portion of this week looking at Synergy's data on the second-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels. Or maybe he just watched UNC's game with Washington on Sunday. Either way, what he probably learned is this: North Carolina is an excellent defensive team overall, but the Heels are especially difficult to score on in the half court.
In transition? Not so much. According to Synergy, the Tar Heels have allowed 0.75 points per possession in the half-court defense. When opponents run at them in transition, they yield 1.08 ppp. That's not horrible -- Synergy rates Carolina's transition defense as "average" -- but it's far below the impressive defensive heights the Heels reach when they have time to set up in the half court.
That's a big reason the up-tempo Washington Huskies were able to shred UNC on Sunday, and that's exactly what Williams will ask of his quick, versatile team on Friday night. Marquette's defense won't stop these Heels; the Golden Eagles just aren't a great defensive unit, and UNC's interior players (Tyler Zeller and John Henson, especially) are likely to overwhelm MU's undersized frontcourt around the rim. No, if Marquette wants to stay in this game, it will have to run with UNC, push with UNC and attack UNC after every make and miss.
Some coaches might be loathe to get into an up-and-down game with the Tar Heels. Some coaches might reflexively hesitate at the idea of trying to outrun Roy Williams' vaunted secondary break. It's fair to assume Buzz Williams won't be one of those coaches.
Impress (or annoy) your friends: "Did you guys see the postgame analysis of North Carolina-Washington? A lot of people were saying UNC had to outscore its opponents to win. But that's not true at all. In fact, this team is much better on defense, and the Heels have always been a good defensive team this season, even before Kendall Marshall turned this offense into one of the nation's most dynamic. Look at the numbers! Just because a team pushes the pace doesn't mean it doesn't defend. That's just stereotyping, guys. Not cool."
No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 4 Kentucky
Friday, 9:45 ET (Newark)
Breakdown: How do you stop the Ohio State Buckeyes? The better question is: Can you? The Bucks haven't been flawless wire-to-wire this season -- they were drawn into plenty of low-scoring, close Big Ten games on the road (see: Northwestern) -- but when they're clicking, which is pretty much all the time, and certainly in the past three weeks, the Buckeyes' offense is basically unstoppable.
There's a reason this team is ranked No. 1 in adjusted offensive efficiency: Jared Sullinger can dominate you on the block, Jon "Threebler" Diebler (best or worst nickname ever?) can scorch you from the arc, and David Lighty, William Buford and even Aaron Craft can hurt you anywhere in between. You can't double Sullinger, you can't shade Diebler and you can't leave Buford, Lighty, Craft or even reserve forward Deshaun Thomas. You almost have to play this team straight up. At that point, as George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said after OSU closed its 37-minute clinic Saturday, prayer is probably your best option.
That's why Ohio State was the consensus pick to the win the NCAA title on Selection Sunday. That prospectus was only cemented last weekend.
So what's a coach like John Calipari -- a guy in command of a storied program with a roster full of blue-chip recruits -- to do? My humble suggestion: Play like VCU.
If the Wildcats want to avoid the hopeless sinkhole that is a game spent trying to defend Ohio State in the half court, they'll press early and often. If there's one advantage Kentucky has over Ohio State -- and remember, I said "if" -- it's speed, quickness and athleticism. Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, DeAndre Liggins: These are fast, rangy, athletic guys who can put plenty of pressure on opposing guards. If I was Calipari (and I'm not, which is why he coaches the game and I merely type about basketball, so again: humble suggestion), I'd have spent all week showing my players tape of Virginia Commonwealth's win over Purdue.
The Rams were out of their minds on offense in that game, of course, but they also got the slower, bigger Boilermakers out of their rhythm with a healthy dose of frenetic pressure, including, but not limited to, full-court traps, half-court traps and constant harassment of ball handlers and extended zone pressure. The Buckeyes are a team of larger, slower guards with one true point in Craft, and he is not immune to turnovers. (At 26.8 percent, he leads OSU in turnover rate this season.) Why not force Craft to get past Knight before the Bucks get into their offense? Why not force Ohio State to work the entire length of the floor for every shot? Why not see if you can steal a few extra points off turnovers?
Then, once Ohio State does get the ball past half court, I'd slip into a matchup zone. The Wildcats don't have a big to stop Sullinger; Josh Harrellson might be the most improved player in college hoops this season, but that doesn't mean he can contain Sully without help in the low block. According to Synergy, the Buckeyes have been the best team in the country this season against man-to-man defense. Against the zone, they've been somewhere in the 70th percentile. That's still very good, of course, but it's not hide-ya-kids, hide-ya-wife great.
No, the Bucks are not suddenly going to start coughing the ball up all over the place just because they get a little pressure. They are too experienced and seasoned for that. But when the alternative is trying to defend Ohio State man-for-man in the half court, with all the problems the Sullinger-Diebler inside-out combination creates ... well, that's not really an alternative at all.
Impress (or annoy) your friends: "You know what's amazing about John Calipari? His teams always rely on highly touted freshmen, the kind of players who spend much of their four years playing me-first AAU hoops. But somehow, Calipari always gets those guys to defend. In the five seasons before this one, Calipari has yet to coach a defense ranked below No. 11 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. Say what you want about his style, his coaching, his penchant for one-and-dones, whatever, but for a guy with a reputation lacking in X's-and-O's respect, Calipari deserves credit as one of the best defensive coaches in the country. For real."