EAST REGION SWEET 16 PREVIEW
Site: Newark, N.J.
The East Region moves to the swamps of New Jersey for the Sweet 16, with top seed Ohio State advancing in fairly easy fashion. The Buckeyes manhandled UTSA and George Mason to earn a trip to the Garden State. Meanwhile, Kentucky needed a buzzer-beater to defeat scrappy Princeton, while gutting out a 71-63 win over West Virginia. UNC had its troubles against a feisty Long Island squad and needed all 40 minutes to defeat Washington. Nevertheless, the Heels managed to dance their way to a matchup with Marquette. Nearly all of the games in the East Region went as planned except for those played by the Golden Eagles. Buzz Williams' squad dispatched No. 6 seed Xavier in the first round and scored the upset over fellow Big East squad Syracuse in the Round of 32. Marquette ended up defeating Syracuse twice this season in their only two matchups. Who will ride off into the sunset and into Houston for the Final Four? Let's preview the Sweet 16 contests in the East Region.
No. 4 Kentucky vs. No. 1 Ohio State
Key Matchup: Kentucky's Josh Harrelson against Ohio State's Jared Sullinger. Harrelson must stay out of foul trouble for the Wildcats to have a chance against the Buckeyes. Harrelson was borderline dominant in the first two rounds against Princeton and West Virginia, respectively, but those two squads lacked a true post presence like Sullinger. Harrelson will certainly get some help on double-teams, but his task will be to not allow Sullinger to get such deep post position. Some scoring would help too, making Sullinger work on the defensive end and possibly pick up fouls himself. We all know what Jared Sullinger can do, and while Harrelson might not be able to completely shut him down, he will certainly needs to make him as uncomfortable as possible.
Kentucky will Win IF: the Wildcats turn up the tempo. That starts with point-guard Brandon Knight, who hit the game-winner against Princeton and poured in 30 points against West Virginia. Knight will have to speed up the game for the Wildcats, get into the paint and give easy looks for his teammates. The idea is to get the Buckeyes out of their comfort zone, which is in the half court. Knight will also have to pester OSU on the defensive end, tipping balls and forcing turnovers, which in turn can lead to transition hoops. Few teams have accomplished this feat, but the Wildcats have the athletes to pull it off.
Ohio State will Win IF: it continues to hit three-pointers. When the Buckeyes are hitting the three, they are virtually unstoppable. Jared Sullinger is such a presence down low that teams have to double, leaving wide open shooters like Jon Diebler, David Lighty, William Buford and Aaron Craft who can knock down the trey. If the Buckeyes fail to hit the outside shot, they become slightly easier to guard. Kentucky can match up with the Buckeyes athletically, so expect Kentucky coach John Calipari to have his players guard the three-point line and perhaps live with Sullinger's statistics down low. If the Buckeyes score both inside and out, they will be tough to beat.
Player to Watch: Kentucky's Terrence Jones. Although Brandon Knight will be the motor for the Wildcats, Kentucky is going to need a Herculean effort from another dynamic freshman, Jones. The SEC Freshman of the Year, Jones had just 10 points against Princeton and 12 against West Virginia. Not only will Jones need to shoot better, but he'll have to be a presence on the glass and help Josh Harrelson in the post against the beastly Jared Sullinger. He should have a fairly favorable matchup on the offensive end against smaller defenders in William Buford or David Lighty, meaning Jones should look to take the ball down low and assert himself.
Prediction: Ohio State has simply too much firepower for the young Wildcats to handle. The veteran hands of David Lighty, William Buford and Jon Diebler will frustrate the Wildcat freshmen, and OSU's own freshmen tandem of Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft will come up big for the Buckeyes. Expect Craft to hound Brandon Knight up and down the court, impeding his progress at every turn. This season's version of the Wildcats is talented, but not as talented as last year's squad that featured five first-round draft picks, including John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. That squad made it only to the Elite Eight. OSU is the complete package, and the Wildcats will come up a bit short.
No. 11 Marquette vs. No. 2 North Carolina
Key Matchup: Marquette's Jimmy Butler vs. North Carolina's Harrison Barnes. This matchup pits the two best players on the floor against each other, with the grizzled veteran Butler going up against the freshman sensation Barnes. Barnes leads the Tar Heels in scoring and has really matured as the season has progressed, improving his shot selection and taking over in end-game situations. He'll have a slight height advantage over Butler, a savvy, athletic senior who can also fill it up. Butler will be asked to shoulder much of the rebounding load against Carolina, though, a task he has embraced over the year with a 6.1 per game rebounding average. While Barnes has played exceptionally well in the tourney thus far, Butler has only been average. The Golden Eagles likely will need a superior effort from Butler in the scoring column, as well as in locking up Barnes, to have a chance against the taller Tar Heels.
Marquette will Win IF: the Golden Eagles can rebound effectively and prevent second-chance points. Aside from the 17.5 minutes per game from 6-11 Chris O'Tule, the Golden Eagles do not have a single player in their usual rotation that stands above 6-7. Meanwhile, Tyler Zeller and John Henson both stand around seven-feet tall for the Heels and could make life extremely difficult for Marquette on the boards. The Golden Eagles are going to need a total team effort on the glass to prevent Zeller, Henson and the rest of the Tar Heels from running roughshod over them down low.
North Carolina will Win IF: the Heels can limit turnovers. The Golden Eagles forced Syracuse into 18 turnovers in their Round of 32 victory and got the win despite the Orange shooting 55.3 percent from the field. The Tar Heels have a freshman point guard in Kendall Marshall and turned the ball over 18 times against LIU in their opening-round victory. Marquette has a bevy of guards in Darius Johnson-Odom, Dwight Buycks and Junior Cadougan who can pressure the ball effectively, so UNC must take care of the ball to position itself for the victory.
Player to Watch: North Carolina's Tyler Zeller. Neither LIU nor Washington had an answer for Zeller, who at 7-foot-0, 250, will tower over any of Marquette's players. Zeller has refined his post game, but remains an effort player with intensity on the boards on both ends of the floor. Zeller has accumulated 55 points and 14 rebounds in his first two contests in this year's tourney, while shooting 60.7 percent from the field and 80.8 percent from the foul line. He has gotten to the charity stripe an impressive 26 times in two games, meaning that even if you prevent a dunk or an easy hook, Zeller can still make you pay.
Prediction: Marquette's quasi-Cinderella jaunt will run out, as North Carolina is simply too big for the Golden Eagles to handle. UNC's tall trees in the post will prevent the Marquette guards from getting into the paint, forcing them to shoot from the outside. Although the Golden Eagle guards can hit the three, they will likely not shoot more than 43.0 percent collectively as they have in the first two games. The Tar Heels should eke out a tough, hard-fought win, setting up an Elite Eight tilt with The Ohio State University.