Sunday, March 18, 2012
What to watch in Sunday's games
By Eamonn Brennan
Slowly but surely -- OK, quickly and furiously -- we've arrived at the final day of the first weekend of the greatest sports competition in the world. (I used to be somewhat sheepish writing that, what with the World Cup and the Olympics and so on, but after this weekend? After two wins for two No. 15 seeds in three hours? I don't feel so sheepish now.)
After an occasionally ugly but universally hard-fought (and almost always exciting) Saturday, we have but eight spots for advancement available for the remaining 16 teams in the tournament.
The math is cruel. Someone has to go home. Let's take a look how that process may unfold:
No. 3 Georgetown vs. No. 11 NC State, 12:15 p.m. ET, CBS: The Hoyas were a relatively popular upset-pick victim in brackets, but they snuffed out any such notion against the plucky, this-could-be-their-year Belmont Bruins with ease Friday afternoon. How? Defense first. The Hoyas employ a downright stifling zone defense, one that allows the lowest opponent 3-point field goal percentage in the nation.
The Hoyas aren't quite so dominant on offense, but they are effective. Center Henry Sims has developed into a go-to post scorer whose best feature, believe it or not, is his passing, and the Hoyas have mastered John Thompson III's open-air Princeton system. Few teams that play this deliberately slow -- the Hoyas average 63 possessions per game -- are this much fun to watch. (The backcuts, the screens, the pivots, Sims' passing ... it can be downright beautiful.)
The Wolfpack happen to be playing their best basketball of the season -- they scored 1.17 points per trip against No. 6 San Diego State on Friday -- and their size and athleticism, especially that of emerging sophomore forward C.J. Leslie, gives them a chance to hang around by creating second chances on the offensive glass. Georgetown should win this game, sure, but this isn't the same NC State team we saw in the regular season, even down the stretch.
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 8 Creighton, 5:15 p.m. ET, CBS: You know the deal: Highly touted UNC star Harrison Barnes and long-ignored Creighton forward Doug McDermott both hail from Ames, Iowa, where they starred on the same state-title-winning high school hoops team, before Barnes made the Skype call heard 'round the college hoops world. Since then, McDermott -- who was passed over even by his own father, Greg McDermott, before the coach decided to leave Iowa State and take the vacant gig at Creighton -- has since morphed into a national player of the year candidate while Barnes, still a top NBA lottery prospect, has had two very good but-not-quite-great seasons for the ballyhooed Tar Heels. That matchup is the stuff of storyline legend -- my home state is certainly excited about it -- and it should be a lot of fun.
But there are other concerns here, too. Will Creighton choose to run with the fast-breaking Tar Heels, or try to hash things out in the half court? Can UNC guard Kendall Marshall provide the point of defensive attack required to stop a Bluejays team that enters the game ranked No. 1 in the nation in effective field goal percentage? Will Carolina forward John Henson play? And even if he doesn't, can Creighton -- a very good offensive team plagued by mediocre defense -- survive the Tar Heels onslaught? Signs point to no, but it will be fun to watch McDermott and Co. give it their best shot.
No. 12 South Florida vs. No. 13 Ohio, 7:10 p.m. ET, TBS: You may have picked South Florida to topple Temple. You might have imagined an Ohio upset of Michigan. The odds you picked both are slim. But these teams -- two Friday upset winners lost amidst the mania that rightfully surrounded Norfolk State's and Lehigh's legendary victories -- will hardly mind. USF continues to play its rather ugly brand of basketball, but that slow, defensive style works. It got the Bulls into the tournament, and with Anthony Collins and Augustus Gilchrist leading the way, it remained successful Friday.
Ohio, meanwhile, held a very good Michigan offense in check while scoring 1.14 points per trip in its own right. Last time the Bobcats were here, they upset Georgetown before falling in the second round. This is just South Florida's third appearance in tournament history; Friday was their program's first win. Needless to say, both programs would like to stick around for just a little bit longer.
No. 2 Kansas vs. No. 10 Purdue, 8:40 p.m. ET, TNT: Purdue was excellent down the stretch in Friday's first-round win over Saint Mary's, and Matt Painter has gotten more out of this team -- whose only real "star," Robbie Hummel, made a redemptive return from two straight ACL surgeries this season -- than anyone might have reasonably expected coming into the year. This just in: Painter can really coach.
But, for the record, Bill Self can, too, and his team has a major advantage over the Boilermakers for one obvious and simple reason: The Jayhawks have really, really good big guys. Purdue does not. How do the Boilers, who started essentially a five-guard lineup Friday (with Hummel and D.J. Byrd serving as stretch forwards) stop Thomas Robinson? How does an overmatched big man corps of Sandi Marcius and Travis Carroll give Purdue anything inside with block machine Jeff Withey patrolling the paint? The answer: I don't know. I'd wager a guess Painter doesn't, either.
No. 1 Michigan State vs. No. 9 Saint Louis, 2:45 p.m. ET, CBS: Admit it, the moment you saw Memphis' name pop up next to No. 1 seed Michigan State in the West Region on Sunday's selection show, you thought, "Wow, that's a brutal No. 8 seed for the Spartans." And it was. But as Saint Louis proved, that No. 9 seed was no slouch, either. Rick Majerus' team boasts one of the 10 best defenses in the country, one that held a previously scorching (and immensely talented) Tigers team to just 0.86 points per trip Friday afternoon. For the Spartans to avoid the same fate, they will have to limit turnovers and prove equally stout on their own defensive end (the latter of which just so happens to be a specialty). "Majerus in the tournament" is scary enough, but nothing will come easy against these Billikens.
No. 7 Florida vs. No. 15 Norfolk State, 6:10 p.m. ET, TNT: Can the magic continue? Can tiny Norfolk State take down another high-major heavy? Can forward Kyle O'Quinn -- who, after Friday's shocking upset of No. 2-seeded Missouri, gave one of the greatest on-air postgame interviews in college hoops history and later told reporters "We busted my bracket, too!" -- go to work on the Gators the way he went to work on the Tigers?
The Cinderella optimist would say that Norfolk matches up just as well with Florida as it did with Missouri; the Gators are another guard-oriented, 3-point reliant squad with just one true big man (Patric Young) left to rebound and patrol the paint. The pessimist would say Young is much more of a defensive force than Missouri's Ricardo Ratliffe, and more than athletic enough to contain O'Quinn while the Gators' sharpshooting guards (Kenny Boynton and Bradley Beal, chiefly) go to work on the offensive end.
Still, you have to like Norfolk State's chances. There's something special going on in the Spartans' first NCAA tournament appearance. Could more history -- the first No. 15-seeded insurgent in the Sweet 16 -- be on the horizon?
No. 10 Xavier vs. No. 15 Lehigh, 7:45 p.m. ET, TruTV: Xavier has made a habit of attending Sweet 16s in recent years -- before last season, the Musketeers had played into the second weekend in three straight seasons -- and thanks to the miracle that was C.J. McCollum's 30-point performance in an upset over Duke, their chances are suddenly looking downright likely. But to make that happen, they'll have to get great perimeter defense from Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons. If McCollum is slicing and dicing the Musketeers like he sliced and diced the Blue Devils, Chris Mack's team may yet be one more victim on McCollum's ride to NCAA tournament immortality. But if he isn't? Xavier might just get into the Sweet 16 again. Given the depths this team experienced this season, the way the Dec. 10 brawl with Cincinnati derailed a once-promising year, that would be an upset in and of itself.
No. 3 Florida State vs. No. 6 Cincinnati, 9:40 p.m. ET: Speaking of Cincinnati, the Bearcats are still here, too, and they've played the best basketball of their season at the best moments. They overcame a weak RPI to seal a tournament bid, then toppled Syracuse in last week's Big East tournament, then handled, in impressively clutch fashion, a better-than-its-seed Texas team that stormed back from a deep deficit in Friday's win. But do they have enough to get past Florida State?
The Seminoles are the Seminoles: They still play one of the toughest, most physical brands of straight-up man-to-man defense in the country. They still occasionally struggle on the offensive end. But FSU's improvement from beyond the arc led to its ACC conference tournament title and, in general, the most successful season of Leonard Hamilton's slow-burn tenure. If FSU is merely good on the offensive end, and its usual self on defense, the Noles should get through to the Sweet 16. But Cincinnati will be the toughest -- with all due respect to Murray State -- sixth-seeded out in the tournament field.