MIDWEST REGION SWEET 16 PREVIEW
Site: St. Louis
The Midwest Region saw top seed North Carolina advance to the Sweet 16 with decisive wins over Vermont and Creighton, while No. 2-seed Kansas came back to defeat No. 10 Purdue to reach the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in six seasons. But upsets abounded in the first two rounds elsewhere in the region. No. 13-seed Ohio upset No. 4 Michigan before defeating No. 12 South Florida, which rode the momentum of a "First Four" victory to upset fifth-seeded Temple in the Round of 64. No. 11-seed North Carolina State continued its solid play in the postseason by taking down No. 6 San Diego State fairly decisively in the first round before a 66-63 victory over third-seeded Georgetown to reach the Sweet 16. It will be two double-digit seed Cinderellas and two of the more renowned programs in college basketball heading to St. Louis with a trip to New Orleans and the 2012 Final Four at stake.
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 13 Ohio
Key Matchup: North Carolina's Kendall Marshall against Ohio's D.J. Cooper. Marshall's status for the Sweet 16 and beyond is in question after suffering a fractured right wrist against Creighton in the second round, but if there is any way he can play he likely will, and the fact he is left-handed also bodes well for his availability. Cooper has continued to be catalyst for the Bobcats in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 20 points, six assists and four rebounds per game, and if Marshall is out or limited Friday, Cooper should be able to take full advantage. The Tar Heels have had injuries deplete their point-guard depth even prior to Marshall's injury, so if Marshall is out they may have a hard time handling Cooper and controlling the tempo of the game.
North Carolina will Win IF: Marshall plays, and plays fairly effectively, through his wrist injury. With or without Marshall, the Tar Heels frontcourt trio of Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson, who himself suffered a wrist injury in the ACC Tournament and returned to action after missing the first game, need to use their size and athleticism advantage to challenge the Bobcats' three-guard attack, decisively win the rebounding battle and establish a defensive presence around the basket. Three-point shooting could also be a key factor for the Tar Heels, as they have been inconsistent in that regard thus far in the NCAA Tournament. In the third round against Creighton they made half of their three-pointers (8-for-16) but went just 5-for-18 (27.8 percent) from that range against Vermont in their previous game.
Ohio will Win IF: Marshall does not play, and Cooper takes full advantage of what would almost certainly be a big mismatch against a lesser player such as backup point guard (and freshman) Stilman White. The Bobcats' outside shooting, as they went 9-for-18 from three-point range against South Florida in the Round of 32, could lessen the advantage the Tar Heels have along the frontcourt and give them a big advantage if North Carolina can't make shots consistently from long-range.
Player to Watch: North Carolina's John Henson. Henson returned to action against Creighton after missing three games with a sprained left wrist and had a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds along with four blocked shots and two assists. Henson is an important player for the Tar Heels on both ends of the floor, and his length (6-foot-11) stands to make him hard for the Bobcats to handle all-around as long as the wrist issue is behind him.
Prediction: North Carolina has three top-flight NBA prospects in the frontcourt now that Henson is back, and Ohio simply cannot counter with similar size and talent on its frontline as it starts three guards. Marshall's status will be the main story all week leading up to this game until there is definitive word whether he will play, but with or without him the Tar Heels should advance to the Elite Eight and end the Bobcats' Cinderella run.
No. 11 North Carolina State vs. No. 2 Kansas
Key Matchup: North Carolina State's Lorenzo Brown vs. Kansas's Tyshawn Taylor. Brown has been a postseason stalwart alongside teammate C.J. Leslie, as he has averaged 14.4 points, 7.4 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game the last five games. He also had just one turnover against Georgetown in the Round of 32, and his ability to fill the stat sheet and take care of the ball stands to be a key factor in any upset bid the team makes. His ability to defend Taylor and stay out of foul trouble is also important if North Carolina State is to have any chance to advance to the Elite Eight. Taylor has not been very productive in the Jayhawks' first two tournament games, scoring just 10 points in each and averaging 2.5 assists per game, but he will almost certainly have to step up for Kansas to continue winning. Whoever wins this individual matchup will give his team a big lift and perhaps be the most important part of an Elite Eight berth.
North Carolina State will Win IF: Brown and Leslie continue their postseason production, and Leslie's frontcourt mates Richard Howell and Scott Wood again make valuable contributions as they have recently. The Wolfpack have also played solid defense lately, allowing no more than 67 points in six consecutive games while opponents have made just 41 percent of their shots from the floor over that span. That will have to continue, as well as Leslie and Howell staying out of foul trouble against the Jayhawks frontcourt (forward Thomas Robinson and center Jeff Withey, most notably) for there to be a chance at an upset.
Kansas will Win IF: Taylor steps up his offensive production to what it was for most of the season prior to the NCAA Tournament and wins his individual matchup with Brown. Withey has also not been particularly productive thus far in the NCAA Tournament, and his presence defensively (3.3 blocked shots per game this season) and as a rebounder (6.2 rebounds per game) will be important against North Carolina State's deep frontcourt.
Player to Watch: Kansas's Elijah Johnson. Johnson has risen to give the Jayhawks a third scoring option recently, averaging 18.5 points per game the last four games, and he has made 48 percent of his three-pointers (12-for-25) over that span. If he can continue to give the Jayhawks some scoring punch while also offering some production elsewhere (3.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game over the last four contests), North Carolina State's defense will pay for giving extra attention to Robinson and Taylor.
Prediction: Kansas has the star power to give North Carolina State trouble, and if the Jayhawks can get Taylor and Robinson on track after they struggled against Purdue, the Wolfpack may not have an answer. If Leslie and Brown struggle in their individual matchups with Robinson and Taylor, Kansas wins easily. It could be a close game if the Wolfpack's depth is not depleted by foul trouble and they can hold their own defensively, but Kansas should be able to "Rock, Chalk" their way to the Elite Eight regardless.