North Carolina Tar Heels: Baylor Bears

The first day of the Sweet 16 featured plenty of drama.

Wisconsin lost to No. 1 seed Syracuse after botching its final possession. Michigan State forgot how to score. Ohio State won the battle between two in-state schools. Florida continued its surge with a win over Marquette.

What will Day 2 bring?

Xavier (10) vs. Baylor (3), 7:15 p.m. ET, CBS

Things to know: Both teams have endured their fair share of criticism this year.

[+] EnlargeKenny Frease
Bob Donnan/US PresswireXavier center Kenny Frease will be key to slowing down Baylor's bigs.
A December brawl with intra-city rival Cincinnati nearly ruined Xavier’s season. There were suspensions and public remarks about the incident from people around the country.

The fight seemed to take the wind out of a Xavier team that entered the year on numerous “Final Four dark horse” lists. Then, the scuffle happened and Xavier lost five of its next six.

But the Musketeers have begun the process of restoring their image. Tu Holloway has scored a combined 46 points in Xavier’s NCAA tourney victories over Lehigh and Notre Dame. This edgy, tough bunch will certainly put up a fight against a talented Baylor team, especially if Dezmine Wells can go.

Baylor has all of the tools to reach the Final Four in New Orleans. Some are even picking the Bears to upset Kentucky because they have the length and athleticism to match the Wildcats.

But the Bears have fallen short of their potential for most of the season. Perry Jones III, a possible lottery pick, has been inconsistent (nine points combined in two tourney victories). Scott Drew’s coaching decisions have been questioned.

Still, the Bears have a chance to reach their second Elite Eight in three years if they get past the Musketeers.

Look for Xavier to pressure the perimeter and try to neutralize Brady Heslip (9-for-12 from beyond the arc in Baylor's third-round win over Colorado). Kenny Frease will throw his weight around for buckets in the paint. Look for the Bears to continuously work their inside-outside game.

The journey: Xavier beat Notre Dame and Lehigh to reach the Sweet 16. Baylor defeated South Dakota State and Colorado.

Monitor his progress: Frease has scored in the single digits in four of his team’s last seven losses. The big man’s bulk will be vital for the Musketeers inside the paint.

Numbers to impress your friends: Heslip doesn’t have to dribble to score. He’s recorded his 14 field goals in the Big Dance via catch-and-shoot plays, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Game’s most critical question: Will Frease make an impact against Baylor’s length and athleticism?

The matchup: Frease against Quincy Acy. Two talented big men who don’t mind contact. Could get scrappy.

Don’t touch that remote because ... Baylor has one of the most impressive assemblies in the field on paper. But Xavier has a tough crew, too. Might be game of the night.

North Carolina (1) vs. Ohio (13), 7:47 p.m ET, TBS

Things to know: Ohio wasn’t expected to reach this point. But junior D.J. Cooper has been a gem for the Bobcats. He has recorded 40 points and 12 assists in NCAA tourney wins over Michigan and South Florida.

Cooper might be the most important player in the remaining field. He’s scored or assisted on 56 percent of the team’s 71 points, per ESPN Stats & Info.

Looking for this year’s Steph Curry? Cooper has earned that tag.

Ohio is facing a North Carolina team that will likely compete without its starting point guard. Kendall Marshall had surgery on a broken wrist earlier this week. He suffered the injury in the team’s third-round win over Creighton. Coach Roy Williams said he has a “strong inclination” that Marshall will not play against Ohio.

The Tar Heels are still the superior group without him. John Henson, Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes can lead the program to a Saturday matchup against the winner of NC State-Kansas.

The Tar Heels are ninth in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo ratings. They’ll certainly push the pace against the Bobcats.

Look for the Bobcats, however, to pressure new point guard Stilman White, Marshall’s replacement if he can’t go. The freshman has averaged just 4.3 minutes per game. Look for North Carolina to use its length and talent to overwhelm the Bobcats.

The journey: North Carolina defeated Vermont and Creighton to reach the Sweet 16. Ohio had to outplay Michigan and South Florida to reach the Sweet 16.

Monitor his progress: White might be the starting point guard for a North Carolina team that’s capable of reaching New Orleans, but he’s never played under these lights. Hard to know what to expect from the youngster. But he just became one of the most important players on the floor.

Numbers to impress your friends: Life without Marshall might not end well. The sophomore point guard has assisted on 41 percent of North Carolina’s points since the start of ACC play, per ESPN Stats & Info. North Carolina’s 38.4 points per game in the paint are the top mark among major-conference schools.

Game’s most critical question: How quickly will White adjust to his new role as starting point guard?

The matchup: Cooper versus White. Cooper is a veteran guard who’s put Ohio on the national radar with two great performances in his first two NCAA tournament games. White will have his hands full.

Don’t touch that remote because ... Ohio continues to surpass expectations. And North Carolina could crumble without Marshall.

Indiana (4) vs. Kentucky (1), 9:45 p.m. ET, CBS

Things to know: Get your popcorn ready for this one.

On Dec. 10, Indiana beat Kentucky at Assembly Hall and changed the trajectory of its season. Christian Watford’s 3-pointer at the buzzer. Court-storming. Players standing atop the scorers’ table. Legendary.

[+] EnlargeChristian Watford
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireChristian Watford hit a clutch 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat the Wildcats during the regular season.
And here we go again.

A rematch, but both teams have matured since that game. Following that loss to Indiana, Kentucky didn’t lose again until the SEC tournament title game.

From Dec. 28 through Feb. 1, the Hoosiers went 5-6. But they’ve amassed a 10-2 record since that rocky sequence.

Cody Zeller’s transformation from impressive freshman to potential lottery pick helped the Hoosiers reach the Sweet 16. Zeller, ranked seventh in John Hollinger’s PER ratings (31.16), recorded 14 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 6 steals in his team’s second-round win over New Mexico State. He followed that up with 16 points and 13 rebounds against VCU.

With the assistance of Zeller’s development and a 43.7 percent clip from the 3-point line (No. 2 in the country), the Hoosiers possess the No. 4 offense in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings.

But against Kentucky, it’s always a game of “anything you can do I can do better.” The Wildcats have the No. 2 offense in Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings. They’re ninth in defensive efficiency.

They have Anthony Davis (14.3 ppg, 10.1 rpg and 4.6 bpg), too.

After that Indiana loss, the Wildcats stopped all arguments about the best team in America. They separated themselves from the field and entered the NCAA tournament as the favorites to win it all.

That hasn’t changed.

In this matchup, look for the Hoosiers to attack Davis again -- he picked up early fouls in the first game -- and hoist 3s early to stretch Kentucky’s defense. Look for the Wildcats to burst up the floor off misses and turn this into an up-and-down affair.

The journey: Indiana beat New Mexico State then dismissed VCU with clutch plays down the stretch. Kentucky beat Western Kentucky then overcame Royce White’s 23-point, nine-rebound effort to beat Iowa State.

Monitor his progress: The Wildcats are a different squad without Davis on the floor. The Wildcats were outscored by 12 points during the 16 minutes the team had to go without Davis because of foul trouble in the first Indiana-Kentucky game in Bloomington.

Numbers to impress your friends: Davis is one of the toughest defenders in recent history. Teams are perplexed as they try to find ways to score with Davis inside. But he’s not just a post defender. Davis has blocked 14 3-point attempts this season, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Game’s most critical question: If Davis picks up early fouls, can Kentucky still win?

The matchup: Davis versus Zeller. Must-see TV.

Don’t touch that remote because ... This is Indiana-Kentucky: The Rematch. It’s that simple.

North Carolina State (11) vs. Kansas (2), 10:17 p.m. ET, TBS

Things to know: NC State lost four in a row in February. The Wolfpack were the last to hear their name called on Selection Sunday.

But the Wolfpack revived their entire season with a surprising outing in Columbus last week. The 11-seed upset San Diego State in the second round. The Aztecs didn’t have answers for NC State’s size and athleticism. Then, the Wolfpack recovered from a 10-point deficit in the first half to beat Georgetown, a No. 3 seed.

It’s all coming together at the perfect time for Mark Gottfried’s team. C.J. Leslie, a player whose effort has been questioned in the past, is leading the charge.

But they’re going into an environment that will resemble a home game for the Jayhawks. The Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis will be packed with Kansas fans. And that’s just the start of NC State’s worries.

The Wolfpack have to deal with National Player of the Year candidate Thomas Robinson (16 points and 13 rebounds in a second-round win over Detroit; 11 points and 13 rebounds in a third-round win over Purdue) and one of the best defensive teams in the country (No. 5 in Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency ratings).

The Jayhawks were on the verge of suffering an upset late in the third round, but a Purdue turnover gave the squad the opportunity it needed to secure the win in the final minutes. Part of Kansas’ challenges thus far are tied to its subpar shooting. Its 26.3 field goal percentage outside the paint in its first two games was the worst mark entering the Sweet 16, per ESPN Stats & Info.

Look for NC State to push the pace and find Scott Wood (41.7 percent from beyond the arc this season) and Lorenzo Brown (3-for-5 from the 3-point line in the NCAA tourney) on the perimeter. Look for Kansas to feed Robinson and Jeff Withey and challenge NC State’s frontcourt.

The journey: Kansas beat Detroit in its first game and escaped Purdue in its third-round win. The Wolfpack defeated San Diego State and Georgetown to reach the Sweet 16.

Monitor his progress: Tyshawn Taylor (17.3 ppg) is one of the most explosive guards in the tourney. But he’s committed 16 turnovers in the team’s last five games. Similar mistakes in Friday’s game could give the Wolfpack the opening to pull off the upset.

Numbers to impress your friends: NC State has scored 58 points in the paint (38 against San Diego State and 20 against Georgetown).

Game’s most critical question: Will 7-footer Withey (11 points) show up?

The matchup: Leslie versus Robinson. This matchup between a pair of talented forwards will have a critical impact on the outcome of the game.

Don’t touch that remote because ... Kansas hasn’t looked great thus far. NC State has surpassed expectations. A third upset for the Wolfpack is possible.
Quincy AcyNelson Chenault/US PresswireQuincy Acy's superior offensive skills help make him Baylor's most indispensable player.
When North Carolina guard Kendall Marshall fractured his wrist in Sunday's win against Creighton, it was momentarily easy to forget Marshall isn't the most talented or productive player on his team. There's Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes and John Henson, and that's just for starters. So why is losing Marshall such a big deal?

Because he is, without question, UNC's most important player. The most efficient? No. The most gifted? Probably not. But there's little question Marshall -- with his visionary, table-setting passing (second nationally in assists), intelligent tempo management and offensive initiation, and the lack of a viable backup -- was/is the most crucial personnel component to Carolina's style, identity and ultimately success.

Which got us thinking: Who is everyone else's Marshall? Who's the most indispensable player on each of the Sweet 16 rosters, the one each team could least afford to lose? Well, we're glad you (OK, we) asked. Here's what we came up with:

South Region

No. 1 Kentucky: Anthony Davis, forward -- No overthinking this one. Sure, there's an argument to be made for Marquis Teague, who appeared for much of the season to be Kentucky's lone potential weakness; Teague's two months of consistently increased success -- culminating in a brilliant performance in a rout of Iowa State -- have cast doubts about whether he could be easily replaced. But one can envision a scenario in which guard Doron Lamb, whose ballhandling is probably slightly underrated at this point, would be able to get UK into its offense. Coach John Calipari would find a way to make it work. Without Davis, the Cats lose a downright transcendent shot-blocking force and the source of countless easy baskets on the other end of the floor, the type of player who opposing coaches frequently say "changes the game." It's Davis, and it's hard to find the counterintuitive argument here.

No. 3 Baylor: Quincy Acy, forward -- While not the most talented big man in Baylor's lineup, Acy's absence would irreparably harm the Bears for two obvious reasons: He scores easy buckets in the low block, and he rebounds. Perry Jones III does some of these same things, too, but hardly to the level Acy does (and not nearly as consistently), and the Bears -- a very good offensive rebounding team that struggles on the defensive glass -- would not be nearly as good on offense were Acy not around to clean up so many misses.

No. 4 Indiana: Cody Zeller, forward -- Again, no use in overthinking this. Zeller is by far IU's leader in offensive efficiency and rebounding, and he has changed the way the Hoosiers -- who were immensely foul-prone the past three years under Tom Crean -- guard the rim and chase down misses. Plus, without him, Indiana's big man rotation would consist of Tom Pritchard and Derek Elston. We've seen that movie before. It was not critically acclaimed.

No. 10 Xavier: Kenny Frease, center -- Sticking with the all-big-men theme here, Frease is the most indispensable player because Xavier really doesn't have another guy who can do what he does, primarily on the glass. If star guard Tu Holloway went missing, the Musketeers would certainly lack for offensive creativity, but they'd have another talented (if mercurial) guard in Mark Lyons, who would no doubt be more than willing to hoist a few extra shots. Without Frease, Chris Mack's team would be in no-man's-land on the low block.

West Region

No. 1 Michigan State: Draymond Green, forward -- When you do this much for your team, your membership on this list requires no explanation. Really, it's not even close.

No. 3 Marquette: Darius Johnson-Odom, guard -- Jae Crowder's breakout senior season has been a huge factor in this team's success, no doubt about it. But DJO's relentless, attacking, bruising style -- not to mention his all-court game, his lockdown perimeter defense and his ability to go end-to-end on the fast break both with rim finishes and pull-up jumpers -- gives this Marquette team its hard-won identity.

No. 4 Louisville: Gorgui Dieng, forward -- I promise, this list isn't all forwards. The obvious answer here is Peyton Siva, but the Cardinals already have a pretty willing on-ball defender and shot-happy penetrator in guard Russ Smith, while Dieng -- a crazy-lanky shot-blocker, rebounder and defensive anchor -- has keyed so much of the Cards' No. 2-ranked per-possession defense this season.

No. 7 Florida: Kenny Boynton, guard -- The original temptation was to go with another big man, in this case Patric Young, but let's be real: The Gators don't use their frontcourt on offense anyway. Which is why Boynton's ability not only to take a lot of long-range jumpers but actually make them at a high rate is so important. That isn't always the case with the rest of this backcourt. Plus, Boynton -- with the possible exception of Bradley Beal -- happens to be Florida's most creative scorer off the dribble, one of the Gators' few players who can do more than chuck long-range shots to fuel this high-powered offense.

[+] EnlargeLorenzo Brown
Tony Dejak/AP PhotoLorenzo Brown and NC State will be facing high expectations this upcoming season.
Midwest Region

No. 1 North Carolina: Kendall Marshall, guard -- By now, you get the idea.

No. 2 Kansas: Tyshawn Taylor, guard -- The obvious choice is Thomas Robinson and, you know, duh: Dude's a national player of the year candidate for a reason. But at this stage of the season, Kansas' ability to win a national title rests in large part on Taylor's play at the point guard spot. If he is on -- attacking the rim and finding teammates without coughing up turnovers -- he's truly the biggest X factor on Bill Self's team. If he's off, the Jayhawks turn to Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford and ... Conner Teahan? The defense rests.

No. 11 North Carolina State: Lorenzo Brown, guard -- C.J. Leslie has blossomed into this team's most impressive player, but its point guard deserves as much if not more credit for the unlikely late-season Sweet 16 run this Wolfpack team has somehow managed to piece together. On a team with no tournament experience and plenty of young players, Brown's calming influence on the ball is a major asset.

No. 13 Ohio: D.J. Cooper, guard -- Cooper demonstrated his worth with huge shots down the stretch against a South Florida team that prides itself on disallowing exactly the kind of offensive display Cooper generated. For a team with the No. 2-ranked opponents' turnover percentage in the country, Cooper's 4.3 percent steals rate (the 22nd-ranked individual mark in the country) truly makes it go.

East Region

No. 1 Syracuse: C.J. Fair, forward -- It's hard to pick from Syracuse's still-stacked-minus-Fab lineup, but Fair gets the nod. With all due respect to Scoop Jardine, Dion Waiters, Kris Joseph and Brandon Triche, the Orange wouldn't exactly hurt for scoring guards were one of them to suffer an injury. If Fair went down, Jim Boeheim would lose his last truly effective big man, and the only viable interior option this side of Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita.

No. 2 Ohio State: William Buford, guard -- This is a bit of a tricky one, because there's simply no replacing Jared Sullinger's interior prowess or Aaron Craft's incredible perimeter defense. But if OSU is truly a national title threat -- and it looks the part thus far -- that's because Buford, who struggled with his shot in nearly every Ohio State loss this season, isn't cashing in from the perimeter. Having Buford as a go-to option on the outside only aids Sullinger's load and takes as much pressure off Craft and the rest of the Buckeyes as possible. The senior has to score efficiently for this team to make a run. Simple as that.

No. 4 Wisconsin: Jordan Taylor, guard -- Again: No overthinking required, no explanation needed. May a resounding duh ring forth across the land.

No. 6 Cincinnati: Yancy Gates, forward -- With all due respect to Sean Kilpatrick, who has quietly become one of the stars of the tournament, the Bearcats would be a team full of guards with no interior punch (sorry) were it not for the indomitable Gates. Losing Kilpatrick would be a major blow, but lineup and skill-set facsimiles abound. Not so with Gates. He's crucial.

President Obama picks UNC-UK rematch

March, 14, 2012
3/14/12
9:46
AM ET

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama wanted to show British Prime Minister David Cameron something that America has come to love.

March Madness.

So he took him aboard Air Force One to Dayton, Ohio, for the first of Tuesday's First Four games: a 16-seed battle between Western Kentucky and Mississippi Valley State.

“I love it because it’s one and done," President Obama said earlier in the White House library as he filled out the men’s bracket for ESPN for a fourth straight year (and the women's bracket for a third straight). “You never know what’s going to happen and then it makes it exciting that every one of these teams is imagining themselves being the Cinderella team. ... You can’t beat it."

Like the rest of us, Obama said he tries to overthink every pick and looks for hidden trends when combing over his bracket.

"I am big on momentum, especially in a tournament like this. So whoever is looking hotter at the end of the year, those are the teams that I tend to be a little more inclined to pick," Obama said. "I like teams with good point guards because I think the ability to control the game and limit turnovers, I think that’s a big difference. Being able to make free throws, that ends up counting a little bit. Other than that, it’s all throwing darts."

[+] EnlargeKatz/Obama
Official White House Photo by Pete SouzaPresident Barack Obama picked North Carolina over Kentucky in the NCAA title game.
Obama didn't shy away from the favorites. He was quick to point out the impact Anthony Davis will have for Kentucky in the NCAA tournament. And that’s one of the main reasons he had UK reaching the title game.

"There is a reason why they are the overall No. 1 seed," Obama said. "Anthony Davis is an Illinois kid. He is proving to be unbelievably talented across the board and he keeps on getting better. When they get out in the open court, they are pretty hard to beat."

Obama was aware of Davis’ growth spurt in high school from a 6-foot-2 guard to a 6-10 center.

"That’s why he had good handles," he said. "He just woke up one day and he’s 6-10, but the way he plays defense -- the number of shots he is altering -- he looks a lot like Marcus Camby, and that’s what he reminds me of."

Obama fancies himself as someone who pushes for the underdog, but he didn’t pick any to advance to the Sweet 16 outside of New Mexico, if the Lobos can even be given such a label.

"I am generally somebody who is rooting for the underdog, but this year when I look at the Big Ten, when I look at the Big 12, at some of the conferences, there are just a lot of excellent teams that are pretty balanced," Obama said. "I think that is going to get them through."

When asked about Murray State’s terrific run to 30 wins and why he's not jumping on the Racers’ bandwagon, he said, "Congratulations to them, but you got to go with Marquette on this one," as he chose the Golden Eagles over the Racers in the round of 32.

At the time of the taping early Tuesday afternoon, Obama was unaware that Syracuse big man Fab Melo was ineligible for the NCAA tournament. But even so, he still went with Ohio State over the Orange in the Elite Eight.

In the other regions, he took Missouri over Michigan State in the West, Kentucky over Baylor in the South and North Carolina over Kansas in the Midwest.

"I am just a sucker for the Tar Heels," Obama said. "I love the way [Kendall] Marshall handles the ball, the way he distributes. They just have a balanced team. I am worried about [John] Henson [who is battling a wrist injury]. This is all a premise that Henson is going to be able to play."

Obama picked a title game between Kentucky and North Carolina, a rematch of a thrilling regular-season showdown in Lexington back in December. Davis blocked Henson’s shot in the final seconds to secure a 73-72 win for the Big Blue. The president initially leaned toward Kentucky, but then switched to the Heels.

“I am going with North Carolina getting revenge for the regular-season victory,’’ Obama said. “They are an older team, a more experienced team. I think Kentucky is unbelievably talented. But I think Marshall’s play, [Tyler] Zeller’s play, I see North Carolina winning it all.

“And since they won it for me the last time I picked them, hopefully I will be able to get a little redemption for the last two years,’’ said Obama, who picked Kansas in 2010 and 2011 after taking UNC in 2009.

“I went back and forth,’’ he said. “I thought about it hard and I think this will be a great game. I think it will come down to the wire. But in the end, I think it goes back down to Chapel Hill.’’

Midweek Madness Live

February, 8, 2012
2/08/12
10:21
AM ET
On Wednesday night, six of the nation’s top 11 teams face off in three games on the ESPN family of networks: No. 11 Georgetown at No. 2 Syracuse (ESPN, 7 ET), No. 10 Kansas at No. 6 Baylor (ESPN2, 7 ET) and No. 9 Duke at No. 5 North Carolina (ESPN, 9 ET). It’s one of the best nights of the regular season and we want to experience it with you, our readers.

So from 7 p.m. ET until the end of Duke-UNC, join us for Midweek Madness Live as our writers -- some reporting on site, some watching at home like you -- answer your questions and field your comments as we discuss college basketball and the action-packed slate of games.


SPONSORED HEADLINES