College Basketball Nation: Stilman White

North Carolina point guard Stilman White -- the freshman who rose from third-stringer to NCAA tournament starter because of injuries last season -- still doesn’t know where his Mormon mission will take him. According to a Wednesday story in The Daily Tar Heel, he’s still in the midst of filing the paperwork, and he could end up just about anywhere.

[+] Enlarge Stilman White
AP Photo/Jim R. BoundsStilman White will be taking a break from basketball while he serves a two-year missionary trip.
But the next two years of his life will be vastly different than the past season, when classes and practice took up most of his time.

According to the story, written by Kelly Parsons, White -- where-ever he goes -- will wake up near dawn most mornings, exercise and study the scripture, and leave his apartment by 10 a.m. Then, with a traveling companion, he could do anything from preach on the street to passersby, to perform community service. He’ll return to his home by 9:30 p.m., be in bed an hour later, then start all over again the next day.
Though he will be encouraged by the Church to send weekly emails or letters to family and friends back home, White is allowed to make just two phone calls a year while on his mission: one on Mother’s Day, the other on Christmas.

One day a week, missionaries observe preparation day, an afternoon during which they have free time to do laundry, write letters and prepare for the week ahead.

Though White said he might be able to squeeze in a little practice time on this day if the conditions of his new environment allow it, he’s prepared to not pick up a basketball for the full two years.

For some, that might seem like a sacrifice, especially for a player who has loved and played basketball for so long. But for White -- who became one of the great UNC stories of the season after he racked up six assists, with zero turnovers, while starting in place of injured Kendall Marshall during the Tar Heels’ overtime NCAA tournament win over Ohio -- it’s a calling.

And a dream.
“A lot of people ask, ‘Well you’re on such a roll right now, why would you give it up after all you have going for you?’” White, who is from Wilmington, N.C., told the newspaper. “But ever since I was young, it’s always something I’ve wanted to do … so I’m willing to put that all down for a little while for this.”

He is scheduled to return to UNC for the 2014-15 season.

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.
After Tyler Zeller walked off the Edward Jones Dome court last Sunday, still stunned by his team’s 80-67 loss to Kansas in the NCAA Midwest Region final, it was hard to put into perspective what this North Carolina team’s legacy might be.

“We did win 30-plus games,” the senior 7-footer said. “I mean, hopefully it’s a good [legacy]. We had a lot of great players, we just came up a little short.”

UNC didn’t meet its goals of reaching the Final Four, of winning the NCAA championship. And with the loss of Zeller (who is graduating), plus fellow starters John Henson, Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall (who announced Thursday they are entering the NBA draft early), this team leaves on a bittersweet note.

For some, it will always be the season of ‘What if?’ -- as in: What if Leslie McDonald, Dexter Strickland and Marshall had not been injured and in street clothes for that final game? What if Barnes had been able to make a few more shots? What if the Tar Heels hadn’t panicked in those final four minutes against the Jayhawks?

For others, it will be a season of unfulfilled promise -- a team chock full of NBA first-rounders that just couldn’t get it done.

And for still others, it will be remembered as a season of perseverance -- a group of players that came back from big losses and tough injuries, until they just couldn’t anymore.

For all, there will be memories -- some the players, coaching staff and fans will want to hold on to, some they might want to forget.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State vs North Carolina
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillUNC opened the season in memorable fashion, playing Michigan State on the USS Carl Vinson.
In that vein, here are 10 standout moments/happenings that shaped the season (in chronological order):

THE CARRIER CLASSIC: The final score (67-55 over Michigan State by the way) wasn’t what really mattered in the opening game.

Staged on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson, under the San Diego sunset, the game was about honoring the nation’s servicemen on Veteran’s Day, saying thank-you in the form of shots and dunks and camo-colored jerseys. All in front of President Barack Obama on 11-11-11.

After the final buzzer, the players stripped off those jerseys -- which also featured “USA” instead of their individual names -- and gave them to the Wounded Warriors sitting courtside.

"Hopefully I'll be coaching another 10 or 15 years,” coach Roy Williams said afterward, “but I think it's going to be hard to top this."

PANIC AND FREEZE: In 2010-11, UNC had been a team that thrived in late-game-situations. So when they panicked against UNLV in the second half on Nov. 26 -- allowing the Rebels a 14-0 run from which the Tar Heels never recovered -- then froze in the final five seconds at Kentucky about a week later -- inexplicably failing to call timeout after Henson’s shot was blocked with five seconds left -- it was a perplexing reminder that this team had some growing to do.

The UNLV loss pushed the Tar Heels out of No. 1 in the rankings, a spot to which they never re-climbed. The loss to Kentucky gave the Wildcats the bragging rights … and a bunch of folks hoped there would be a re-match in the Final Four. That will become another one of those ‘what-ifs,’ especially if UK wins the national title.

NINE-GAME HOME WINNING STREAK: Yawn.

Williams wanted to play Texas on the road instead of at the Smith Center, wanted some sort of test between Dec. 6 and Jan. 10. Instead, the Tar Heels got a nine-game home winning streak against the likes of Evansville, Nicholls and even ACC freshman-laden foe Boston College. It padded their record, but also their egos -- and set up the embarrassment that came next.

33 POINTS: UNC’s 90-57 loss at Florida State was so lopsided, so humiliating, that Williams ended up taking his team off the court early -- leaving three walk-ons and two freshmen to play it out and deal with the rushing crowd (the coach later said he didn’t mean to abandon the quintet).

Many analysts, and some fans, wrote the Tar Heels off during that Jan. 14 game, questioning their heart, their desire, their toughness. Until the end of the season (maybe even now), UNC kept the number '33' written on a board in the locker room, a reminder (and motivator) of what happens when you think it’s going to be easy, when you don’t play with focus and drive.

“That was the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever done in my life, because it was to the point where I never thought I’d leave a game early because we’d lost by that much, and they were going to storm the floor,’’ Zeller said in the days after loss. “And it was just something I hope to never experience again.”

LOSING DEX: What’s worse than playing in the most lopsided loss of the Roy Williams era? Losing a starter just three days later. It happened in the second half at Virginia Tech, when Strickland was driving toward the bucket and ended up on the baseline, screaming in pain.

UNC’s starting shooting guard/backup point guard/best perimeter defender was diagnosed with a torn ligament in his knee, and he became the second perimeter player sidelined, joining McDonald (out since the beginning of the season) on the bench in street clothes.

Sophomore Reggie Bullock filled in admirably at shooting guard, increasing his defensive focus while also burying shots. But from the beginning, Williams predicted that backup ball handler would be where Strickland was missed the most. And in the end, he was.

ZELLER BOUNCES BACK: Scribbled on the sidewalk outside the Smith Center prior to the Feb. 11 win against Virginia was a simple message: “Believe in Zeller.” Perhaps more importantly that game, the big guy believed in himself.

Just three days after a nightmarish loss to Duke -- during which Zeller missed two free throws, accidentally tipped in a Blue Devils shot, and was the defender on freshman Austin Rivers’ game-winning 3-pointer in the closing minutes -- the senior came back to record 25 points and nine rebounds against the Cavaliers. When he left the game for good, it was to a standing ovation.

“Z’s fine,’’ Henson said after the game. And Zeller was more than fine. That performance was the beginning of Zeller’s push to ACC Player of the Year honors.

REVENGE AT DUKE: This was the UNC team everyone had expected to see from the beginning of the season. Angered by the video board replay of Rivers’ game-winning shot at the Smith Center, the Tar Heels rushed to a 22-5 lead in the opening eight minutes of the March 3 re-match at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and ended up winning, easily, by 18.

This time, there was no hope for any comeback -- except for the Tar Heels, in the minds of those who had written them off.

“One thing that we talked about is people are going to put you on a pedestal to knock you down,’’ Marshall said after the game. “That’s what happens. We weren’t going to be perfect unless we went out and won every game by 30. That’s not what happened … we learned from our mistakes, we continued to get better. And now it’s all starting to come together.”

MARSHALL VS. NCSU: One dimensional? Bah.

The point guard proved he could do more than pass when he posted a career-high 22 points with 13 assists at NC State in late February. In the ACC tournament semifinals he took it another step: scoring when it mattered the most.

With 10.2 seconds left, on March 10, Marshall buried a bank shot -- making contact with Wolfpack guard Alex Johnson, who wanted a charge called. Senior Justin Watts sealed the win for his team (which was playing without the injured Henson) with a steal.

[+] EnlargeUNC's Kendall Marshall and Stilman White
Robert Willett/Getty ImagesWith Kendall Marshall injured, Stilman White got the start against Ohio in the Sweet 16.
But the NBA scouts had to be impressed with Marshall's points, especially since had already set the ACC record for assists in a season during his first conference tournament game. Later, when pondering his NBA choice, Marshall had to know it, too.

STILMAN WHO? He should have been more scared. Later, he even admitted it. Instead, starting his first-ever college game -- and in the NCAA Sweet 16, to boot -- freshman point guard Stilman White was calm. Even a little confident.

With Marshall sitting on the bench in street clothes, his fractured right wrist in a brace, White recorded six assists and zero turnovers in the Tar Heels’ overtime win against Ohio. It was the stuff those of cheesy made-for-TV movies. Only it was true. And it resonated.

“It was one of the great stories in North Carolina basketball,’’ Williams said of White, who finished with 13 assists and zero turnovers in two NCAA starts.

THE PAINFUL DECISION: Williams admits he got his hopes up the day after the Ohio win, when Marshall was able to practice a bit to see if he could possibly play in the Midwest Regional final against Kansas. “We got him to run up the court, pass and catch and dribble. Being a one-armed player, he was still pretty good,’’ Williams said.

The coach thought his starting ball handler might just be able to contribute in his specially-fitted brace … until Marshall walked into a meeting room Sunday morning, and it was too painful to pass, dribble and shoot.

Without him -- and with Bullock playing in a knee sleeve, Henson competing on a newly sprained ankle, and Barnes struggling to hit shots -- the Tar Heels panicked, then collapsed in the closing minutes to the Jayhawks, falling short of their Final Four goals.

In the locker room, there were tears and ice bags and laments for the moments that were. And the ones that might have been.

“You can talk about talent, talent, talent … but it was off the charts, what this team had to face,” Williams said. “And I’m really proud of our team.”

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.

After winning the 2005 national title, North Carolina lost its top seven scorers -- but saw the youth-laden 2006 squad exceed expectations and advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

After winning the 2009 title, the Tar Heels lost their top four players -- and saw the 2010 team fail to even make the NCAA tournament.

Which way will next season's UNC team (which lost in the NCAA regional finals last Sunday) go, after absorbing the early departures of power forward John Henson, wing Harrison Barnes and point guard Kendall Marshall -- plus the graduation of ACC Player of the Year Tyler Zeller and reserve Justin Watts? Much will depend on cohesion, leadership and injuries, three things that didn’t go the Tar Heels’ way in ’10.

A few other very early questions to ponder:

1. Will James Michael McAdoo return?

The freshman’s father, Ronnie, said Wednesday that his son plans to travel home this weekend to discuss the situation (some mock drafts list him as a top-10 pick), but that right now, he expects the forward to be back in a Tar Heels uniform next season. McAdoo’s (6.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg) return would be key, because with starters Henson and Zeller gone, he’ll have the most experience (and be to the go-to guy) in the post.

Defensive-minded forward Desmond Hubert should also get plenty of minutes, and should be helped by an offseason to put on weight and work on his offensive moves. UNC also adds two big guys in freshmen Joel James and Brice Johnson. And UConn transfer Alex Oriakhi is still looking for a new home; might he end up in Chapel Hill?

2. Will the ballhandlers adjust quickly?

Point guard, UNC coach Roy Williams has often said, is the most difficult position for a freshman to grasp, especially in the Tar Heels’ fast-paced system. But the onus will fall on McDonald’s All-American Marcus Paige -- a 6-foot-1 Iowa product who Williams called “a great floor general” -- to do so.

With limited options, he’s the favorite to start next season. But just as important will be his back-ups. UNC doesn’t just lose Marshall, but Stilman White, the former third-string freshman who had to start two NCAA tournament games after Marshall broke his wrist, and because Dexter Strickland suffered a season-ending knee injury in January. White will leave for a two-year Mormon mission after this semester. Strickland, meanwhile, is still rehabilitating after surgery, but said last week he hopes to be able to play again in about two months.

UNC will also have another ballhandler available in sophomore Luke Davis. After transferring from Gardner-Webb, he sat out last season as per NCAA rules, but has had a year to learn the system.

3. How are the knees?

While Strickland is still recovering, the good news is that shooting guard Leslie McDonald, who redshirted in 2011-12 because of reconstructive knee surgery last summer, was able to practice with the team in the final months of the season, and should be eager to get back to his sharpshooting ways come the fall.

With so many wings on the team -- McDonald, Strickland, Reggie Bullock (who took over as starting shooting guard once Strickland was injured), P.J. Hairston and incoming freshman J.P. Tokoto -- it will be interesting to see how the minutes are divvied out. But the shooting guard and small forward positions should be a strength, because of the experience and depth that returns there.

Bill Self and Thad MattaAP PhotoWill Kansas' Bill Self, left, or OSU's Thad Matta devise the game plan that gets his team to the final?
By Saturday, John Calipari, Rick Pitino, Thad Matta and Bill Self will have had nearly a week to scout their opponents. As we type, they're breaking down film, analyzing their opponents' strengths and weaknesses and searching for ways to impart this knowledge to their players in simple, digestible form. They are ... pause for dramatic effect ... game-planning.

What will each come up with? We don't exactly know. That's why they're coaches in the Final Four, and we are, you know, not. But we can still venture a guess. In the latter of a two-part series, here's a look at what they may come up with.

Now: Kansas vs. Ohio State.

Kansas Jayhawks

Offense: By adjusted efficiency's lights, three of the four best defensive teams in the country are members of the Final Four. None of them, if you can believe it, is Kentucky.

They are, in order: No. 1 Louisville, No. 2 Ohio State, and No. 4 Kansas. (Kentucky is ranked No. 11; it's not like the Wildcats are slouches.) The cliche, as always: Defense wins championships.

Can the Jayhawks defend their way to a win? Would a game in which both teams hover around or below the 1.0 point-per-possession mark be in their favor? Maybe. But I tend to doubt it. Which means two things for Self as he prepares his squad for Saturday's "Clash of the Titans"-esque contest. (Or is it Wrath of the Titans?) In no particular order:

1. Kansas has to win the interior scoring battle.

2. Tyshawn Taylor has to stay in control.

The second might be the more important, but the first isn't far behind. Kansas is not a good outside-shooting team. This was true for much of the season (Kansas has shot 34.9 percent from beyond the arc), and it's true of the NCAA tournament, when the Jayhawks have made a downright blistering 16 of their 68 3-point field goal attempts. This might be a blessing in disguise: Last season, the Jayhawks were actually (and non-sarcastically) blistering from 3-point land; their reliance on that shot, and inability to adjust, ultimately ended their season in the Elite Eight against VCU. This season, the Jayhawks have no such reliance, so Taylor, the team's second-most important scorer, can somehow go 0-of-17 from 3 in four tournament games and Self's team can still make it to the Final Four. Fancy that.

No, what the Jayhawks do well -- as well as any team in the country -- is score around the rim. Kansas' 2-point field goal percentage this season is 53.3 percent, the 13th-best in the country. This comes in part thanks to Taylor's ability to get to the rim, but it is mostly to do with Kansas' two big men and the high-low motion offense -- Self's trademark -- that places them into prime, hard-to-double scoring positions.

And Thomas Robinson isn't the only threat. Jeff Withey is actually more efficient in the low block, averaging 1.045 ppp to Robinson's .902 this season, according to Synergy Sports Technologies scouting data. Robinson gets three times as many post-ups as Withey does, so his efficiency can naturally be expected to take a hit. But you get the idea. Robinson presents the high-powered NBA talent in this front line, but Withey -- with his 7-foot stature and even longer reach -- might be the biggest mismatch the Jayhawks have to offer against a team that plays the 6-9 Jared Sullinger as its putative center.

But No. 2 above is where things get really interesting -- and, for Kansas, especially dicey. Throughout his four-year career, Taylor has been known to commit his share of turnovers, wacky heat-checks and mental mistakes. The point guard's 2012 turnover rate (his percentage of possessions in which he coughs up the ball) is 22.3. That's not bad for a player charged with creating offense within a 3-point-bereft perimeter attack. But it's hardly an encouraging stat for a player facing off against the industrial-grade turnover robot we humans casually refer to as "Aaron Craft" (more on that below).

Taylor's turnover rates have fluctuated all season. This is especially true of the tournament, wherein Taylor has posted respective rates of 33.3 percent, 20 percent, 31.2 percent, and, against North Carolina, 15 percent. Is that latest mark real? Or the product of playing against Stilman White?

Taylor's importance in this game can't possibly be underestimated. If Craft cripples him on the perimeter, Kansas loses a massive portion of its attack. It could take care of the first item above -- Withey and Robinson getting buckets on the low block -- but if Taylor doesn't deliver on No. 2, the rest probably won't matter.

Defense: Grim as Taylor's prospects may seem, the Jayhawks are the nation's fourth-best defensive team, and they have a secret weapon many people still don't seem to know about.

Quick: Name the nation's best shot-blocker. Anthony Davis, right? Davis' range and impact make it difficult to argue that point. OK then: Name me the nation's most frequent shot-blocker, the one that repels opponents on a higher percentage of possessions than any other in the country? Yep. That's Withey.

Withey and Robinson are the near-ideal defensive pair. When an opponent drives the line, Withey goes after the block; he succeeds 15.1 percent of the time, the nation's highest rate. When that opponent misses -- or when any opponent misses, frankly -- Robinson, the nation's leading defensive rebounder (who grabs 30.9 percent of opponents' available bricks) is there to clamp the board and find a guard for a quick outlet.

This is a massive advantage to hold over Ohio State. At 33.2 percent from long range in 2011-12, the Buckeyes are an even worse 3-point shooting team than Kansas. More often than not, they get their points from Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas. Which is why Withey changes the game. Robinson has the size and speed to move with Thomas out to 20 feet if needed; Withey has the height to make Sullinger -- who struggles scoring over just this kind of player -- ineffective near the rim.

In the meantime, keep an eye out for Kansas' triangle-and-two junk defense. The Jayhawks have used it twice in their past two games, and each time it has halted the opponents' chief offensive threats, formed a near-impenetrable wall around the rim and, it must be said, downright befuddled UNC coach Roy Williams.

But whatever defense the Jayhawks run, their rare combination of length and athleticism in the post may be their defense's Craftian trump card. It should be fascinating.

TL;DR game plan: Dominate down low, work Robinson and Withey relentlessly, take only the best possible outside shots, hope Taylor doesn't self-destruct against Aaron Craft TurnoverBot 5000.

Ohio State Buckeyes

Offense: Now that we know all about Kansas' interior defense -- and the relative impenetrability thereof -- what hope is there for Ohio State's offense?

Let's go with a two-point plan, similar to Kansas', in that it is one part prescriptive game plan and one part "hope for the best" wishcasting:

1. Use Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas to stretch the floor.

2. Hope William Buford makes some shots.

First up: Sullinger is generously listed at 6-foot-9. Thomas is listed at 6-7, which seems slightly closer to reality. But either way, the Buckeyes' starting forwards are at a major height disadvantage against the defense they'll face Saturday. With a slightly more lifty (new draft term alert; get Bilas on the horn at once!) Sullinger, that might not be as much of a problem. But Sullinger doesn't explode off the ground. Rather, he roots defenders out with his considerable posterior, achieves optimal position, and finishes with brute force. This season -- especially in the Syracuse win, when he flashed a dazzling little mid-range touch -- Sullinger has considerably expanded his game. But he remains at his best when he can clear defenders out of his way and score with his right hand over his left shoulder. Against the 7-foot Withey -- the likely matchup in any man-to-man defense -- that is going to be very difficult.

Which is why it's time for Sullinger to flash that 15-foot jumper he stayed in school to develop. Don't push Withey under the rim. Pull him out. Make him guard you at 15 feet. If you can't see over him, swing the ball and find a better look ... but don't play into the Jayhawks' strength. The Buckeyes are a good but not great offensive rebounding team, so if this means sacrificing position, so be it.

That goes double for Thomas. As Dana O'Neil noted in her excellent feature on Thomas from Wednesday, the stretch forward has morphed from an impulse bench gunner into one of the nation's most potent scorers. Thomas is leading Ohio State in scoring through its four NCAA tournament games, the mark of his continued expansion into one of the nation's most versatile threats. Thomas has no go-to scoring area, no preference for touch. Over the course of the season, per Synergy, he has spread his touches and scored almost equally on post-ups, spot-up jumpers, basket cuts and offensive rebound putbacks. In the tournament, Thomas has scored 1.643 on spot-ups (23 points on 14 possessions), by far his most efficient scoring trait.

This kind of versatile inside-out scoring from a 6-7 forward presents a major matchup problem for the Jayhawks. In the man-to-man, it could force Robinson to move further away from the hoop than he'd like. Thomas can look to shoot, or he can make Robinson move to stop his penetration; either way, Matta will like his chances. If Kansas goes to that famed triangle-and-two, Matta can use Thomas to stretch the corners all the way to the 3-point line, where the shot is (relatively) high-percentage and the defensive style is most vulnerable.

Whether the Jayhawks play man (likely) or triangle-and-two (less likely, but you never know when Self will bust it out), Thomas' and Sullinger's ability to score away from the rim will be key.

Which brings us, of course, to Buford. When Ohio State has struggled this season -- and those times, though rare, were highly publicized -- it was primarily because Buford and Craft and Thomas and even Lenzelle Smith were failing to provide the outside shooting that made the 2010-11 Buckeyes' offense so lethal. Actually, forget 2011: Ohio State was never even mediocre from long range. A large portion of that responsibility falls on Buford.

In this game, Buford presents the clearest matchup advantage for the Buckeyes. Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson aren't big enough to match up with the Buckeyes guard's size on the wing. But Buford is shooting just 13-of-44 in the NCAA tournament, the kind of offensive struggles he's dealt with all season. Ohio State has managed to progress this far without efficient wing scoring, but that may not get it done against a rim-protecting defense like this.

Can Buford come alive at just the right time? Can the Buckeyes stretch Kansas enough to get a few easy looks at the rim? The questions are intertwined and difficult to divine. But in this game, they couldn't possibly be more important.

Defense: Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn does a better job than anyone in the country processing advanced statistics and scouting data and presenting it to your eyeballs in visually attractive form, and Luke's 2012 Aaron Craft Turnometer may be his Symphony No. 9. All season, Winn tracked the turnovers Craft forced -- some for which he was credited in the scoresheet, many not -- alongside charges taken and offensive fouls forced. The end result is the picture of the nation's most dominant defensive player, one who individually forces turnovers on 7.56 percent of opponents' possessions and one who just had his best game of the season in the Sweet 16:
How many players can say their best performance of the season was in the NCAA tournament? That’s the case for Buckeyes pest/point guard Aaron Craft, who had the Turnometer" needle buried by creating 10 turnovers against Cincinnati in the Sweet 16. According to SI’s charting, it was Craft’s top turnover-creation game of the season, beating his previous best of 9.5 against Jackson State on Nov. 18.

If it has become fashionable to pick Ohio State to win this game -- for the record, I think it's a toss-up, but we'll see -- Craft, the friendly turnover-forcing robot, is why.

He pokes. He prods. He cuts penetration off with his shoulders and chest. He shows a double-team, then recovers too quickly to expose it. He is almost always in perfect defensive position, and his ability to give contact without fouling is almost unparalleled. He's a one-man antidote to the screen and roll. And if there's a player better at stripping opposing guards of the ball 25 feet from the hoop, I haven't seen him.

Craft is a nightmare matchup for the previously discussed, turnover-prone Taylor. Taylor is the second-most-important piece of Kansas' offense. Not only does he initiate that offense, but he also is relied upon to penetrate the lane, finish with a floater or drive, or find an open player with a dish. Craft makes that possibility remote.

Another major part of Taylor's game is transition; he and Johnson can be fearsome on the break. (Their connection on the closing-moments half-court alley-oop against Purdue was one of the more simultaneously questionable and amazing plays of the season.) But Craft is good at this, too: He is uniquely able to pressure defenders in the open court -- to "turn them," in coach speak -- cutting off any ball advancement (at best) and creating enough havoc to win a turnover (at worst). The Jayhawks would sure like to see Taylor and Johnson get out on the break whenever possible; it's the best way to score against Ohio State. But is it even possible?

There are other defensive matchups to watch in this game -- how Ohio State handles T-Rob and Withey, whether the Buckeyes need to worry about Releford on the wing, whether reserve Conner Teahan can provide shooting off the bench -- but by far the most important is what Craft can and will do against Taylor.

Lucky for us, it's also the most fascinating. This game is going to be awesome.

TL;DR game plan: Stretch Kansas' big men out to 15-20 feet, hope Buford makes some shots, protect the rim and stay out of foul trouble, unleash Craft on Taylor.
ST. LOUIS -- If North Carolina had managed to pull out a win Sunday, point guard Kendall Marshall said, maybe he would have been able to return for the Final Four.

But he sat out his second straight game with a fractured right wrist, he said, “because if I did play I wouldn’t have been effective.”

“If I’m just standing off to the side, catching and passing, it was a struggle,’’ he added. “Maybe with three or four more days, maybe I could have helped the team. But I can’t really catch a pass right now.”

[+] EnlargeStilman White
Jeff Curry/US PresswireStilman White had 13 assists and no turnovers in his two NCAA tournament starts.
Coach Roy Williams said he had some hope after Saturday’s practice that the sophomore point guard -- who fractured his wrist last Sunday, had surgery Monday and had the cast removed Wednesday -- might be able to contribute in the NCAA Regional Final game against Kansas.

“We let him run up and down the court and catch and pass a little bit; and I really got a little excited at that point,’’ Williams said after Sunday’s 80-67 loss to the Jayhawks. “ But I think that it got even sorer last night after just that little activity. We weren't even on the court probably 25 minutes doing anything. At that point during practice I thought he had a chance to go. But last night, I got less confident, and then this morning it just didn't feel right for him.

“You hate that for that kid. You hate it for our program, hate it for our team. But Kendall Marshall is all about winning and is all about team. And if you've ever watched him play, you realize that he's one of those point guards that cares about his team maybe more than anybody I've ever seen. So you hate it for him.”

SWITCHING IT UP: The Tar Heels said they had not seen a triangle-and-two defense all year, so Kansas coach Bill Self’s decision to switch to it in the second half made a big impact.

“I don’t know what they were playing, but they sagged the big man into the lane,’’ forward John Henson said. “And I think that really disoriented our defense. Me and [Tyler Zeller] couldn’t figure it out, and that’s why we’re here right now.”

Small forward Harrison Barnes said that what makes the triangle-and-two so difficult is that there is always “help” defense present. On one play, the sophomore said, he got Jayhawk Travis Releford to bite on a pump fake. But after he had taken one dribble, there was another defender there.

Barnes said the triangle-and-two was not on UNC’s scouting report.

Self said the Jayhawks played that defense the last eight or nine minutes of the game. During the final eight minutes, UNC scored only three points.

WHITE DELIVERS: Freshman point guard Stilman White, who made his second straight start in place of Marshall, was red-eyed after the game, disappointed in the outcome and wondering what more he could have done.

But Williams said he was proud of his former third-string ballhandler who finished with four points, seven assists and zero turnovers.

In two NCAA tournament starts -- the only starts in his career -- White had 13 assists without a turnover.

“My gosh, the little rascal sitting beside of me, Stilman, just competed his rear end off,’’ Williams said after the game. “It wasn't smooth for him because it's hard all of a sudden to be thrust into this role, three practices before this regional. But, boy, he did some really good things, and I just admire him and admire what he did and admire how he competed. And you look down there and he played 28 minutes today and 32 yesterday, that's 60 minutes. And the little rascal had zero turnovers and hadn't been in this position all year.”

BRIEFLY: Williams said he expects he’ll have initial discussions with his players about the NBA draft by the end of the week. … Henson used a pain-relieving shot, and numbing cream, on his still-healing left wrist before the game. He also sprained his right ankle early the game, and never looked quite comfortable playing on it.

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.
ST. LOUIS -- It was an eerily familiar scene Sunday: a moist-eyed Harrison Barnes emerging from a long lament under a locker-room towel; talking about what went wrong, the sudden-ness of losing, the disappointment of falling one game short of the Final Four.

A season ago at Newark's Prudential Center, UNC’s loss in the NCAA regional final felt like it could be a beginning – a learning process for a young team that wasn’t supposed to make it that far.

This time, though, the 80-67 crumble to Kansas at the Edward Jones Dome felt like the end – a goodbye from a squad that expected to go so much farther.

“This year, going into this season, we had a lot of weapons,’’ Barnes said. “We just didn’t have them all at the end. That was the most devastating thing. We didn’t have Kendall [Marshall], we didn’t have Dex [Strickland], we didn’t have Leslie [McDonald]. That’s no excuse. We had an opportunity to win it, we just didn’t.”

Even with McDonald and Strickland (shooting guards relegated to the sidelines since last summer and January, respectively, with knee injuries) sitting in the stands -- and Marshall (the starting point guard who missed his second consecutive game with a fractured wrist) on the bench in street clothes -- the Tar Heels looked as if they could do again what they’ve been doing so often the past two seasons: overcome.

[+] EnlargeHarrison Barnes
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson"We had an opportunity to win it," said sophomore Harrison Barnes, here in the locker room after Sunday's loss to Kansas, "we just didn't."
With freshman Stilman White playing fearlessly in his second straight start, UNC pushed back from multiple Jayhawks surges. When Kansas made a 7-0 run in the first half to take a 40-33 lead, UNC countered with an 8-0 rally.

When the Jayhawks opened the second half with another 7-0 run, the Tar Heels came back again, this time 6-0.

That’s why, when Barnes went to the free throw line to try to knot the score with 3:58 left, teammate James Michael McAdoo (15 points) wasn’t worried. “I was like, ‘All right, we’re good,’” the freshman forward said.

Except, they weren’t.

Barnes made one of two free throws to cut the Jayhawks’ lead to 68-67 lead. But then a turnover by Tar Heels sophomore Reggie Bullock turned into a 3-pointer by Kansas’ Elijah Johnson. Barnes, then forward John Henson (who played most of the game on a twisted ankle) missed jumpers. And White – who finished with 13 assists and zero turnovers in his two starts in place of Marshall – fouled Tyshawn Taylor for a 3-point play to give the Jayhawks a 74-67 advantage.

That’s when, as coach Roy Williams said, “we panicked a little bit out there.”

Utilizing a triangle-and-two defense – something the Tar Heels hadn’t faced in a game before this season – Kansas finished the game on a 12-0 run.

UNC, meanwhile, misfired on its final seven shots after the Barnes free throw and finished with its worst field goal percentage in a half in NCAA tournament history (7-31, 22.6 percent). The Tar Heels also recorded their worst 3-point percentage in an NCAA tournament game (2-17, 11.8 percent).

Yes, they missed Marshall, a Cousy Award finalist who had been key to calming, and creating for, his teammates.

But the Tar Heels also missed the rebounding advantage they had prided themselves on all season (Kansas beat them on the boards 41-35). And they missed the accuracy of Barnes, their leading scorer who finished 5-for-14 Sunday and 20-for-61 in four NCAA tournament games.

“I missed a lot of shots I usually make and big-time players come through in big-time games,” the sophomore said. “And it just wasn’t there tonight.”

Now the question is, will it ever be again (at least in a UNC uniform)?

Barnes, Henson, Marshall and McAdoo (who are all considered first round NBA draft choices) shrugged off questions about their futures, saying they weren’t thinking about their next steps during the NCAA tournament. So it’s still unknown who or how many will leave along with scholarship seniors Tyler Zeller and Justin Watts; White (who is leaving for a two-year Mormon mission after this semester); and walk-ons David Dupont, Patrick Crouch and Stewart Cooper.

A year ago, after crying under towels in the locker room, Barnes, Henson and Zeller ultimately returned, saying the goal was to win a national title. There was a sense, even before their official decisions were announced, of what could be.

Sunday, there was more disappointment about what might have been.

“We got to this point last year, and we couldn’t get over the hill,’’ said Henson, who playing with a pain shot and numbing cream on his still-healing left wrist. “And this year, the same way. It hurts. But that’s just how basketball is.”

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.
Two down. Two more to go.

Ohio State and Louisville locked up their trips to the Final Four on Saturday. Now four more teams will look to secure the final two spots this afternoon.

Today’s matchups feature three traditional powerhouse programs that are quite familiar with this stage of the NCAA tournament. The fourth participant, Baylor, is in the Elite Eight for the second time in three seasons.

Baylor (3) vs. Kentucky (1), 2:20 p.m. ET, CBS

Things to know: Baylor has the tools, talent and length to make this game interesting.

When the NCAA tournament field was announced, this potential matchup was as intriguing as any in the South Region because Baylor possesses the type of athletes and size to challenge the Wildcats.

Five players with 7-foot wingspans (or greater). A 1-3-1 zone that’s as unique -- with its athletes, talent and size -- as Syracuse’s.

Quincy Acy is more than a beard. The 6-foot-7 senior had 20 points and 15 rebounds in Friday’s win over Xavier in the Sweet 16.

Brady Heslip is 15-for-25 (60 percent) from beyond the arc in the NCAA tournament. And even though he’s been inconsistent in the Big Dance, Perry Jones III (14 points, five rebounds against the Musketeers) is built for this matchup.

The Bears were overlooked and criticized as Missouri and Kansas fought for the Big 12 title, but they're solid on offense (10th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings) and defense (39th in defensive efficiency).

But. But. But, they’re playing Kentucky.

Indiana scored 90 points against the Wildcats on Friday. The Hoosiers hit 52 percent of their shot attempts and only committed eight turnovers. Christian Watford (27 points) and Cody Zeller (20 points) led five double-figure scorers. And Kentucky's Anthony Davis played just 25 minutes after early foul trouble.

And still, the Hoosiers couldn’t pull off the upset.

Kentucky scored 102 points and only turned the ball over six times. The Wildcats always seem to have another gear, another level that their opponents can’t match.

Indiana would have advanced past every other remaining team with its effort Friday. But the Wildcats are different.

Baylor, however, could offer Kentucky its greatest matchup challenges since its nonconference game against North Carolina. The Wildcats, however, won that game, too.

Look for Baylor to go at Davis hard in the first half. They have the bodies and they’ll use them and try to lure Davis into early foul trouble. On defense, the Bears will try to use their length to force difficult shots in the lane. Look for Kentucky to challenge Baylor on both ends of the floor and exploit the Bears’ tendency to play timid early in physical games.

The journey: Baylor defeated South Dakota State, Colorado and Xavier to reach the Elite Eight. Kentucky beat Western Kentucky, Iowa State and Indiana to earn the opportunity to compete in the Final Four.

Monitor his progress: Perry Jones’ length, athleticism and talent make NBA scouts salivate. But the bulk of his career has been defined by potential, not production. This has to be the game in which Jones proves himself. He had just nine points combined in his team’s first two NCAA tournament games. The Bears will need him, however, against Kentucky. If he’s really a lottery pick, if he’s really worthy of that multimillion-dollar contract, then one would think that Jones has to showcase his abilities in this matchup.

Numbers to impress your friends: The Bears have reached the Elite Eight twice. But they didn’t beat a single-digit seed either time. In the 2010 NCAA tournament, the Bears beat Sam Houston State (14-seed), Old Dominion (11-seed) and Saint Mary’s (10-seed). This year, they beat South Dakota State (14-seed), Colorado (11-seed) and Xavier (10-seed). Davis has blocked five or more shots in 17 games this season.

Game’s most critical question: Will Baylor point guard Pierre Jackson’s shot selection disrupt Bears' offense?

The matchup: Acy versus Davis. Zeller drew quick fouls against Davis. Acy will attack Davis early, too.

Don’t touch that remote because ... Kentucky is playing. Seriously. The Wildcats have had a special season thus far. With that talent and swagger, they’re always entertaining. But a Baylor upset isn’t a ridiculous notion.

Kansas (2) vs. North Carolina (1), 5:05 p.m. ET, CBS

Things to know: Nine years ago, Roy Williams left Kansas for North Carolina.

And his stand against his former team in the Elite Eight is actually a secondary storyline in this matchup.

Ohio took North Carolina to overtime Friday in a fascinating Sweet 16 matchup. The Tar Heels didn’t look like the same team without starting point guard Kendall Marshall.

The sophomore suffered a wrist injury that kept him out of that game. And now, we’re all wondering if we’ll see a Willis Reed-like appearance on Sunday.

Marshall told reporters that he wouldn’t have played if the game had been held Saturday. But he did go through practice. Will he play?

Well, Marshall also told reporters that “I could be out there playing” when asked if the Kansas matchup is a possibility.

Instead of chatter about Williams facing Kansas, the main intrigue surrounds Marshall. He’s such a crucial player for the Tar Heels and that was evident as the Tar Heels struggled with Ohio.

The Jayhawks haven’t been flawless, either. They beat both Purdue in the round of 32 and NC State in the Sweet 16 by three points.

But they’re here. And they definitely have the talent to beat the Tar Heels, especially if Marshall can’t go.

Jeff Withey (10 blocks against the Wolfpack) and Thomas Robinson (18 points and 15 rebounds against NC State) have comprised one of the nation’s top frontcourts. Plus, the Jayhawks are fourth on Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency ratings.

But the Tar Heels are still a potent force even without Marshall. Tyler Zeller recorded 20 points and 22 rebounds against Ohio. Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes could carry the Tar Heels to New Orleans. Reggie Bullock played a star role against Ohio with 17 points.

Stilman White, Marshall’s replacement, only scored two points but he played above-average defense.

With or without Marshall, this should be a great game. If he plays, it might be a classic.

Look for Tyshawn Taylor to challenge White early on both ends of the floor. Look for the Tar Heels to minimize White’s role and get the ball to Zeller and Henson early in the shot clock so they can attack and try to draw first-half fouls against Withey and Robinson. This is all assuming Marshall remains sidelined.

The journey: Kansas beat Detroit, Purdue and NC State to reach the Elite Eight. North Carolina defeated Vermont, Creighton and Ohio.

Monitor his progress: White doesn’t have to replace Marshall’s offensive production. He can’t. But his defense will be crucial again, especially with the explosive Taylor running the show for the Jayhawks.

Numbers to impress your friends: Taylor has committed 10 turnovers in the NCAA tournament (three games). Prior to playing 32 minutes against Ohio, White registered double-digit minutes just once during the regular season (11 minutes against Nicholls State Dec. 19).

Game’s most critical question: If Marshall plays, will he be healthy enough to make an impact?

The matchup: Withey versus Zeller. The tournament’s top interior defender (not named Davis) against one of the nation’s top big men.

Don’t touch that remote because ... Zeller has been a beast. Marshall might play. Withey nearly broke an NCAA tournament record for blocked shots against NC State. Robinson is a star. Need any more reasons?

UNC notes: Big night for Zeller

March, 24, 2012
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ST. LOUIS -- Earlier this season, when North Carolina forward Tyler Zeller was racking up double-double after the double-double, he said he didn’t know what it would take to record a 20-rebound game.

After Friday, he does.

“Overtime,’’ he said, grinning after UNC’s 73-65 OT win over Ohio.

The 7-foot senior finished with 20 points and 22 rebounds, becoming only the fourth player in the past 30 seasons to record 20 points and 20 rebounds in a Men's Basketball Championship game and the first since Tim Duncan in 1997, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He joins quite a trio:

  • [+] EnlargeUNC's Tyler Zeller
    Shane Keyser/Getty ImagesTyler Zeller became the first player since Tim Duncan in 1997 to score at least 20 points and grab at least 20 rebounds in an NCAA tournament game.
    In 1997, Wake Forest’s Duncan finished with 22 points and 22 rebounds against St. Mary’s.
  • In 1995, Maryland's Joe Smith had 31 points and 21 rebounds against Texas.
  • In 1983, Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon recorded 21 points and 22 rebounds against Louisville.

Zeller credited his size (Ohio's tallest starter was 6-8) for the performance. But injured point guard Kendall Marshall said there's more to it.

"The steps that he's made each year have been great. He's a senior, he knows that this is his team,'' Marshall said. "He wants to lead us ... the effort he puts in every day is a testament to the kind of player he is, and I'm extremely happy for him. We wouldn't be where we are without him."

WHITE’S DEBUT: Freshman Stilman White admits he probably wasn’t as nervous as he should have been, making his first collegiate start -- in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen.

But that worked in his favor. Saying “my main goal was not to turn the ball over very much,’’ he achieved that, finishing with a career high six assists, plus zero turnovers, in 32 minutes. He also buried the last two free throws of the game.

“He was really something,’’ coach Roy Williams said.

Of the eight Tar Heels who played, White was the only one who did not commit a turnover.

“I’ve got a great team; I’ve just got to get the ball to some great players,’’ he said.

ROUGH NIGHT FOR BARNES: It was a frustrating night for sophomore Harrison Barnes, who shot 3-for-16, including a missed game-winner at the end of regulation.

"The youngster has an ability to make plays and he's not afraid to try to make plays,'' UNC coach Roy Williams said. "Some kids will always say, 'Yeah, I want to have that shot,' but he's the kind of kid that does really want it, and he focuses on the play, not the result.

"So we all have a tremendous amount of confidence. It didn't work out there at the end of regulation, but give the defensive player credit, too."

Barnes went on to score five of the Tar Heels' 10 points in overtime -- a jumper and two free throws. He finished with 12 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 5 turnovers for the game.

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.
ST. LOUIS -- North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall said it was difficult watching from the bench as his team beat Ohio 73-65 on Friday. With his surgically repaired right wrist in a splint, he even had to be careful if he clapped.

"I had to pull back a couple of times, but I got a good fist-pump with my left hand going,'' he said. "That was my go-to a couple of times after a big play."

[+] EnlargeUNC's Kendall Marshall and Stilman White
Robert Willett/Getty ImagesWith Kendall Marshall out with an injured wrist, Stilman White got the start and had two points, six assists and no turnovers.
The sophomore, who fractured his wrist Sunday, would not talk about the state of his injury after the game, saying he wanted to concentrate on his team's victory. Meanwhile, coach Roy Williams said after the game that he has "no idea" if the Cousy Award finalist will be able to play in the NCAA Midwest Region finals on Sunday. The top-seeded Tar Heels will face No. 2 seed Kansas.

Asked if the player was able to do anything in the shootaround before the game, Williams said: "No."

"And I would love to give you guys an answer, but I really can't,'' he continued. "I have no idea. He is much better. And he's gotten off some of the medication and he's much better. He brushed his teeth today. He didn't jump down and do 10 one-handed pushups, which I told him he was going to have to do before I would let him play.

"Is there a chance he would play Sunday? There's a better chance he would play Sunday than it was today. I really didn't ever expect him to play today, but Oral Roberts University, they said expect a miracle, so I guess I was hoping for a miracle type of thing.

"But we tried to prepare all week that he was not going to play and that's what we'll try to prepare for for Sunday. But if he can play, needless to say, I would take him."

Marshall said Thursday there were two factors that would determine if he would tell Williams he was ready to play: pain, and range of motion.

He had surgery to insert a screw into the wrist Monday, and his hard cast was removed Wednesday. Doctors told him his injury is healing fine, that the bone is strong and the blood flow has been good. If he were to play, doctors told him he would not risk further damage, Marshall said.

If Marshall is once again a scratch Sunday, expect freshman Stilman White -- who recorded six assists, zero turnovers and two free throws in Friday's win -- to make his second straight start.

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.

Zeller comes up with elite effort

March, 24, 2012
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Tyler Zeller’s historic game was barely enough to help the North Carolina Tar Heels reach the Elite Eight.

This win over the Ohio Bobcats kept an impressive streak alive. The Tar Heels have now won each of their last 11 Sweet 16 games and are 5-0 all-time in Sweet 16 games against double-digit seeds.

How the Tar Heels won

Zeller finished with 20 points and 22 rebounds. He’s the fifth player to have a 20-point, 20-rebound game with at least four blocked shots in the Men’s Basketball Championship since 1975, as noted in the chart on the right.

Zeller's eight offensive rebounds were one more than Ohio had for the entire game.

Reggie Bullock supported the effort with a rare statistical combination.

He’s the fourth player in tournament history to have at least 10 rebounds, five assists, and five 3-pointers, joining Mitch Richmond (1987 Kansas State), Hersey Hawkins (1988 Bradley), and Ray Allen (1996 Connecticut).

Stilman White, starting in place of injured guard Kendall Marshall, was the only Tar Heels player who didn't turn the ball over. He's the first North Carolina player to play at least 32 turnover-free minutes, and finish with at least six assists in the Round of 16 or later since Kenny Smith in 1985.

How Ohio hung in
North Carolina won despite committing 24 turnovers, its most in a game since 1989, when it had 26 against Loyola Marymount. Ohio’s defense entered forcing an average of 17 turnovers per game, best among those teams left in the Sweet 16.

The Tar Heels also survived an inefficient game from Harrison Barnes, who took a season-high nine 3-pointers and finished with a career NCAA tournament-low 12 points.

Barnes was 16-for-31 in the paint in the first two games of the tournament, but just 0-for-1 in this contest.

Oh, so close
This was the seventh time that a team seeded 13th or lower played in the Round of 16. None has won, but Ohio was the first of those teams to take the game to overtime.

Ohio's D.J. Cooper, just missed the game-winner in regulation for Ohio. He went 3-for-20 from the field, tied for the second-worst shooting percentage by a player since college basketball went to a shot clock in 1986.

The only one to fare worse in a game with at least 20 shot attempts was Loyola Marymount's Bo Kimble in 1988 -- a 3-for-21 effort that also happened to come in a loss against North Carolina.

Ohio finished the season 1-5 when Cooper took at least 17 shots (Ohio was 28-3 in all other games).

Looking ahead
What’s next for North Carolina?

The last time a No. 1 seed played an overtime game in the Sweet 16 was 2006, when Villanova and Connecticut did it.

Both of them won those Sweet 16 games and lost in the Elite Eight.


ST. LOUIS -- North Carolina sophomore Reggie Bullock was playing defense near Ohio’s bench with somewhere around 12 minutes left in regulation when he overheard a Bobcats assistant coach say it: “They can’t win without Kendall Marshall.”

And boy, that made him mad.

“That just got to me, for someone to say that my team can’t fight, can’t win without our starting point guard,’’ said Bullock, usually one of the most mild-mannered members of the team. “That lit a fire under me.”

And he took it out on the Bobcats, right when the Tar Heels needed it the most.

With Marshall (UNC’s Cousy Award finalist) on the bench in a suit because of a fractured wrist, and top scorer Harrison Barnes struggling to make just about anything, it was Bullock’s blaze -- from beyond the 3-point line and on the boards -- that helped push top-seeded UNC to a 73-65 overtime victory.

Bullock scored 12 of his 17 points after his accidental eavesdrop. As a result, the guard who missed the entire NCAA tournament last season because of knee surgery will be playing Sunday in the Midwest Regional final. The Tar Heels will play Kansas at the Edward Jones Dome.

“I think Reggie really grew up as a player tonight,’’ said Marshall, who declined to discuss the state of his fractured right wrist after the game. “People take it for granted, but he didn’t play in the NCAA tournament last year. This is his first time going through this. And … to have the [guts] to take those big shots and knock them down, that’s big-time. One of his downfalls is how unselfish he is. But he was huge for us tonight.”

Indeed, with little-used freshman point guard Stilman White (two points, six assists, no turnovers) making his first start and senior wing-turned-backup-ballhandler Justin Watts (four rebounds, three turnovers, one assist) backing him up, UNC built, then lost, a 15-point lead. Even against a smaller Ohio team -- its tallest starter was 6-foot-8, compared to UNC’s starting frontcourt of 7-foot Tyler Zeller, 6-11 John Henson and 6-8 Barnes -- the Tar Heels seemed out of sync without Marshall, who set the ACC record for assists in a season before breaking his wrist last Sunday.

[+] EnlargeNorth Carolina's Reggie Bullock
Shane Keyser/Getty ImagesUNC's Reggie Bullock scored 12 of his 17 points after overhearing a slight from Ohio's bench.
And they were sloppy, turning the ball over a season-high 24 times.

UNC also got a scare with 16:29 left, when Bullock limped out of a game after his surgically repaired left knee buckled while he was trying to grab a rebound.

“All I could think was, ‘Not another one. Not another bad knee,’’’ said Barnes, who had already seen two other UNC guards, Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland, sidelined by knee injuries this season.

But Bullock checked back in with 15:21 left, overheard the Ohio assistant’s comment, and told his team about it during the 12-minute TV timeout.

Then he got busy taking out his angst on the court.

With 11:26 left, he buried a much-needed 3 to give his team a 42-38 cushion.

With 7:36 left, he did it again, this time giving his team a 51-47 advantage.

And with 40 seconds left -- and with the 13th-seeded Bobcats leading by one -- he hit another big 3-pointer that gave his team a 63-61 lead.

“Right when I caught the ball, I heard my whole bench, from managers to everybody, say ‘Shoot!’” Bullock said. “And right then, I just pulled the trigger and I saw it go in. And I just was like, I was just thinking to myself, ‘It's like my time to perform.’ And it was a big shot for our team and all my teammates just believing in me to make those shots.”

A jumper by Ohio’s Walter Offutt (26 points), and then a miss by Barnes, sent the game to the five-minute extra period. But it was Bullock -- who else? -- who opened overtime with -- what else? -- a 3-pointer.

"He was,'' Zeller said, "incredible."

The 6-7 athlete from Kinston, N.C., wasn’t the only standout in the survival. Zeller, who finished with 20 points and a career-high 22 rebounds, became only the fourth player in the last 30 seasons to record a 20-20 in an NCAA tournament, and the first since Tim Duncan in 1997, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Henson added 14 points and 10 rebounds.

But Bullock (6-for-13 overall, 5-for-10 on 3-pointers) was especially key on a night when Barnes made only 3 of 16 shots and Ohio got hot in the second half, making 50 percent of its shots after going 8-for-35 in the first half.

“I think we feel like we got away with one,’’ Zeller said. “Ohio played the better game, they hit a lot of shots; I think we just were able to make a lot of plays at the end that made us capable of pulling it out.”

Including a few from Bullock, who also grabbed 10 rebounds to record his second career double-double.

“I want Kendall out there, but he wasn’t able to be out there -- he was helping us fight from the bench,’’ Bullock said. “And I wanted to show that our team could still compete.”

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.


ST. LOUIS -- Quick thoughts from North Carolina's 73-65 overtime victory over Ohio in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

Overview: On a night when it didn't have star point guard Kendall Marshall, No. 1 seed North Carolina couldn't have been more thankful for Reggie Bullock after its overtime win against No. 13 seed Ohio. A sophomore, Bullock helped bail out a sloppy Tar Heels team that clearly wasn't at its best with its floor leader out and leading scorer Harrison Barnes struggling to find his groove.

Bullock's clutch 3-pointer with 39 seconds remaining turned a 61-60 deficit into a 63-61 lead. Ohio forced a tie on its next possession when Walter Offutt was fouled while making a layup. Offut squandered the opportunity for a 3-point play when he missed the ensuing free throw. Offut blocked Barnes' game-winning shot attempt on the other end to force overtime.

Bullock came up huge again moments later when he opened the extra period with a 3-pointer to put his team ahead 66-63. The shot set the tone for the game's final five minutes, when North Carolina cruised to a victory by outscoring the scrappy Bobcats, 10-2.

Bullock finished with 17 points and made five of his 10 attempts from beyond the arc. The victory had to be special for the Kinston, N.C., native, who missed last season's NCAA tournament with a knee injury.

Fearless as Bullock was Friday, the best player on the floor was North Carolina's Tyler Zeller, who 20 points and a career-high 23 rebounds. Eight of Zeller's boards came on the offensive end, which helped North Carolina outscore Ohio 14-4 on second-chance points.

Barnes, who averages a team-high 17.4 points, was just 3-of-16 from the field Friday and finished with 12 points. Offut had a game-high 26 points for Ohio on 10-of-18 shooting.

Gutsy as the victory may have been, North Carolina's chances of advancing to the Final Four appear to be in jeopardy without Marshall, who is generally regarded as one of the top two or three point guards in all of college basketball. Marshall, who injured his wrist in last Sunday's victory over Creighton, averages 9.7 assists and is the key reason the Tar Heels have been able to play at a fast, frenetic pace all season.

With combo guard Dexter Strickland out with a knee injury, North Carolina's only option Friday was to turn to freshman Stilman White, who entered the game averaging 4.3 minutes and 0.7 points on the season. Considering the circumstances, White did a more than admirable job Friday. His only points came on a pair of free throws, but he had 6 assists in 32 minutes and didn't commit a single turnover.

Still, the Tar Heels will have a tough time beating either Kansas or North Carolina State on Sunday without Marshall, whose status is uncertain.

Turning point: Bullock's 3-pointer at the beginning of overtime set the tone for the extra period and appeared to deflate Ohio. Bobcats guard D.J. Cooper missed a 3-pointer on the other end on Ohio's next possession, and UNC responded with a 17-footer by Barnes. At that point, the Tar Heels had a 68-63 lead and momentum they would never relinquish.

Key player: Bullock's 3-pointers were huge and Zeller, as he's been all season, was steady from start to finish. But in this situation it's hard not to praise White for his performance on such a big stage. As coach Roy Williams likes to say, White helped the Tar Heels by not hurting them.

Key stat: North Carolina has now won 11 consecutive Sweet 16 games.

Miscellaneous: North Carolina opened the game on a 26-11 run before allowing an 11-3 march by Ohio to end the half. It was 29-22 at intermission. ... Ohio shot just 23 percent in the first half. ... Barnes missed 11 of his first 12 shots.

Up next: The Tar Heels will take on No. 2 seed Kansas. The teams haven't met since the 2008 Final Four. Kansas won that game and went on to win the NCAA title with an overtime victory over Memphis two nights later.
ST. LOUIS -- Ohio point guard D.J. Cooper received so many messages after his 13th-seeded team topped South Florida to reach the NCAA Sweet 16 that he couldn’t keep count.

But the most special one came from his mom, Dionne.

“She has this habit of texting me during the game -- even though I can’t read them until after," he said, noting that he’ll sometimes have five or six waiting for him after the final horn. “In this one, she told me how proud she was of me, and how much she loved me. She always does … but that was an especially good feeling, in that moment.”

[+] EnlargeD.J. Cooper
Tim G. Zechar/Icon SMIOhio point guard D.J. Cooper can score, but his defense has proved to be just as dangerous.
The goal now: to experience a similar feeling (and moment) after his team’s matchup with top-seeded North Carolina on Friday night at the Edward Jones Dome.

With Tar Heels point guard Kendall Marshall’s availability in doubt after surgery to repair his fractured wrist Monday, Cooper’s play will be especially key to whether the Bobcats -- the lowest-seeded squad to make a regional semifinal since Bradley in 2006 -- keep their postseason run alive.

The 5-foot-11 athlete from Chicago averages 14.9 points, but more importantly, 2.3 steals a game on a team that ranks fourth in the nation in swipes per contest (9.3 per game) and sixth in turnover margin (plus-4.2).

That’s important against a foe that might have to start a freshman point guard (Stilman White) who is averaging only 4.3 minutes per game.

“All year, coach has been talking about playing with our hands up, keeping it tight, being able to guard our yard," Cooper said. “And that’s what we have to do Friday, too, no matter which [point] guard we’re playing against.”

Also key against the Tar Heels will be getting back in transition. Not only does UNC play fast but it boasts one of the best frontcourts in the country in 7-foot Tyler Zeller, 6-11 John Henson and 6-8 Harrison Barnes. The tallest contributors in the Bobcats’ rotation are 6-8, and no one averages more than five rebounds per game.

Still, Henson called Ohio a dangerous team.

“They're shooting better than they shot all year, 3-point wise, playing more confident," he said. “I mean, even in practice, when our [scout] guys are running their offense, it's tough to guard. So it's going to be a challenge, and we're going to play hard and see what happens.”

Ohio coach John Groce said his team is preparing as if Marshall will play but has contingency plans if he does not.

And even though he doesn’t know exactly who his opponent will be, Cooper is sure of one thing: His mom will be sending texts throughout the game, offering comments and feedback.

“It’s fun to look back and read what she was thinking," he said, smiling.

He hopes that looking back after Friday’s game will give him that especially good feeling again.

WHO TO WATCH:

OHIO: Cooper. The junior is a do-it-all guy, averaging 20 points, 4 rebounds and 6 assists in the NCAA tournament. “He's really a gifted kid who, the last couple games, has really been dominant for them," UNC coach Roy Williams said.

NORTH CAROLINA: White and Justin Watts. UNC’s bigger guys should be able to have big games -- if the fill-in point guards can get them the ball. White and Watts, the third and fourth ballhandling options at the beginning of the season, have 24 assists combined this season. Marshall, by comparison, had 21 in his previous two games. Williams has stressed that these two don’t need to play like the Cousy Award finalist, but they do need to protect the ball from the thief-prone Bobcats and get it into the hands of the playmakers.

WHAT TO WATCH: Outside vs. inside.

Ohio has made 15 of 34 3-pointers in the NCAA tournament, led by Cooper and Walter Offutt. That’s been an Achilles' heel for the Tar Heels, who struggled against foes (at Florida State and versus Duke, for instance) that got hot from behind the arc.

North Carolina, meanwhile, is at its best when its frontcourt is playing its best. UNC needs Zeller, Henson, Barnes and James Michael McAdoo to use their size advantage on the boards -- and to finish plays.

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ST. LOUIS -- North Carolina sophomore Harrison Barnes jokingly pondered recently exactly how play-every-position senior Justin Watts prepared for a game: Does he work on his dribbling, Barnes asked, or on defending big guys in the post?

Friday’s game against Ohio is easier in one respect: With starting point guard Kendall Marshall questionable to play because of a fractured right wrist, Watts will be working on the former.

“I’m ready,’’ Watts said Thursday. “If my number is called, I’ll be ready.”

That’s been the 6-foot-5 athlete’s mantra throughout his tenure in Chapel Hill. A natural wing, he played a lot of power forward when the Tar Heels were thin in the post last season. This year, after backup point guard/starting shooting guard Dexter Strickland tore his ACL in January, he played two stints at ballhandler -- a position he’s not totally unfamiliar with.

“The first position I played with my AAU team was point guard,’’ Watts said. “So I’ve got a little of that under my belt.”

Keep that in perspective, though. Freshman Stilman White (who will likely start if Marshall is a scratch) and Watts have combined for only 24 assists this season. Marshall had 21 in his previous two games.

“[Kendall] just told me to be myself, to play my game, to get the ball to my teammates,’’ Watts said.

“…It’s not about me, it’s about what I need to do to help my team win.”

ZELLERS’ CHOICE: Steve and Lorri Zeller said during the ACC tournament that if their two younger sons (UNC’s Tyler, and Indiana’s Cody) made the NCAA tournament in different brackets, they’d follow the elder one.

They’re sticking with it, and will be at the Edward Jones Dome to watch Tyler play Ohio, while Cody plays Kentucky in Atlanta on Friday.

“Both my parents are coming here because of seniority,” Tyler said.

JAYHAWK TALK: Coach Roy Williams said he was out for his morning walk Thursday when a passerby said, “Rock Chalk Jayhawk.”

His response, he said, was “Go KU.”

Old feelings die hard, even with the chance that his Tar Heels could meet up with his old team, the Jayhawks, on Sunday if both prevail Friday (Kansas plays NC State).

“I'll be ecstatic if we're still playing on Sunday regardless of who we're playing,’’ Williams said. “And I'm a Kansas fan. I'm a North Carolina fan first. For 15 years I was a North Carolina fan, but I was a Kansas fan first."

THE OTHER WRIST WATCH: UNC forward John Henson, who missed three games because of a sprained left wrist before returning Sunday against Creighton, said his wrist is feeling better; it remained wrapped during Thursday’s open practice.

Asked if he wished people were writing his number (31) on their wrists, like they’re now doing with Marshall’s No. 5, he said: “No. He actually broke his … so he’s a little more deserving of that.”

QUOTE-WORTHY: Williams on Marshall: “I just know the kid tells me he can't brush his teeth yet, how the dickens can he play basketball game if he can't brush his teeth? I mean, he can go out there with bad breath, but you still got to be able to play the dadgum game.”

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ST. LOUIS -- Hoggard (Wilmington, N.C.) High coach Brett Queen won't be at the Edward Jones Dome this weekend to watch top-seeded North Carolina play in the NCAA Midwest Regional semifinals.

“I’m saving my money for the Final Four in New Orleans,’’ he said.

That’s how much confidence he has that his former point guard, Stilman White -- who may have to play extended minutes, at the very least, with starter Kendall Marshall's status in question -- will help UNC get there.

“I spent a lot of time handing the ball to him, and watching him do what needed to be done to help us win,’’ Queen said. “And I’m sure he’ll do the same thing for North Carolina.”

[+] EnlargeStilman White
Geoff Burke/US PresswireInjuries have led to more meaningful minutes for UNC's Stilman White.
With Marshall’s status unclear for Friday’s game against No. 13 seed Ohio because of a fractured right wrist, the Tar Heels have been preparing White and senior wing Justin Watts to run the point.

What a whirlwind.

This time last year, White never expected to be in this position. Heck, he didn’t really think he’d be playing competitive basketball.

The 6-foot, 160-pounder originally planned to serve a two-year Mormon mission right after high school before eventually playing basketball at Utah State, BYU or UNC-Wilmington.

That was before the Tar Heels, who were in need of another point guard after Larry Drew II transferred near midseason last year, came calling.

“And I fell in love with this place,’’ White said of Chapel Hill.

He was supposed to be an insurance policy, a guy to play behind Marshall and Dexter Strickland. Maybe even hit a shot or two while competing with the walk-ons at the end of blowouts.

Instead, UNC’s coaches had to cash in that policy in mid-January, when Strickland suffered a season-ending knee surgery. All of a sudden, White was in the game at more crucial times, spelling Marshall around timeouts. He didn’t necessarily play a lot more minutes -- only 4.3 per game for the season -- but he played more key minutes, enough to give Marshall more of a breather.

And teammates saw growth.

"When he first got out there, we were a little scared that he might have an anxiety attack or pass out," teammate Harrison Barnes said, laughing. "He looks more fluid out there and he can kind of push the ball and get up and down."

But fluid enough?

Against Ohio, White will face a small, quick perimeter, led by 5-foot-10 playmaker D.J. Cooper, that forces about 17 turnovers a game.

But White and the Tar Heels have several advantages that Ohio does not: 7-foot ACC Player of the Year Tyler Zeller, 6-11 Defensive Player of the Year John Henson and 6-8 small forward Barnes, a first-team All-ACC selection.

“We’re saying, ‘Guys, everybody’s got to elevate your level of play. Everybody’s got to do a little bit better. You’ve got to do a little bit better on the defensive end; you’ve got to do a little bit better here, a little bit better there,'” coach Roy Williams told ESPN’s "Mike & Mike in the Morning" on Wednesday. “ … But Harrison, John and Tyler, that frontcourt is really good, and we’ve got to be able to get the ball to them. That’s the big thing.”

White, Queen said, can be counted on because he's always risen to the occasion when the pressure is on.

During his first game playing varsity at Hoggard his sophomore season, White stole the ball and laid it in at the buzzer on the road to beat a taller, favored Raleigh-Wakefield team. Starting his junior and senior seasons, he found a way to lead, even when opposing teams were trying to find ways to get the ball out of his hands. He even jumped center a few times when his team needed it.

“He’s never played in the Sweet 16 before, and a lot of fans might look at that as incredible pressure,’’ Queen said. “But when you’re a sophomore playing on varsity, that’s pressure. When you’re a junior and senior and opponents are trying to stop you, but you still need to score and find ways to win, that’s pressure.”

“He’s always thrived in pressure situations,’’ Queen added. “And I expect him to do it again.”

White said earlier this week he has experienced a jumble of emotions since Sunday, when Marshall got hurt: surprise, nervousness, determination.

But he's also excited, because he sees this tournament as an opportunity -- his last as a college player until he returns to UNC from his mission in 2014.

And wouldn’t it be nice to leave with a national championship ring on his finger?

“The NCAA tournament’s new to me, but also knowing that this is the last competitive basketball for a while … I definitely want to live it up now,’’ he said.

“… I’m ready to do whatever the coaching staff asks me to do. Being able to play through the whole ACC season, playing against that level of competition and through hostile environments like that, was huge. My confidence has only risen since then, and it’s shown me that I can play out there with the best of them."

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.

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