East Region Reset: Can anyone knock off Ohio State?
The three best teams remaining in the East are run by freshmen point guards
Marquette, a.k.a. Team Bubble Watch, is clearly the underdog of the region
There are so many intriguing angles to the Ohio State-Kentucky Sweet 16 bout
The three best teams remaining in the region are run by freshmen point guards, all of whom dominate in different ways to help their teams win.
Kentucky's Brandon Knight is a sublime talent who is just starting to harness his promise in a consistently good way. He just crushed West Virginia in the "third" round with a career-high 30 points, two days after beating Princeton with his only bucket of the game with two seconds remaining. His positive growth down the stretch of the season has been a key part of the 'Cats finding their stride.
North Carolina's Kendall Marshall wrested control of the Tar Heels from the now-departed Larry Drew II and neither player nor team has looked back. The silky distributor had 24 assists and just six turnovers in his first two NCAA games and has had at least eight assists in seven of his last eight games.
Ohio State's Aaron Craft is best known for his work on the defensive side of the ball, but he helped direct the rout of George Mason on Sunday with a career-best 15 assists. He's also shooting 47 percent from the field and 39 percent from the arc, so while he doesn't take many shots for the versatile Buckeyes, he can make them when needed.
We're guaranteed to get Knight vs. Craft on Friday and, if UNC can get past Marquette, the winner gets a crack at Marshall with a trip to Houston on the line.
THE UNDERDOG: Marquette
Team Bubble Watch is all grown up and into the second weekend! Still, this one's pretty obvious from a seed and pedigree standpoint, even though the Golden Eagles (nee Warriors) have won a national title (1977) more recently than Ohio State (1960). A team that more or less has specialized in close losses for much of the past two seasons first blew out Xavier and then came from behind to win a nail-biter against Big East foe Syracuse to punch its ticket. One thing is very certain: Carolina's freshmen better come ready to play Friday night because no team in the nation plays harder than Marquette.
BURNING QUESTION: How do you beat Ohio State?
Given the Buckeyes have only lost twice this season -- at Wisconsin and at Purdue, neither of which ever lose at home -- it's hard to say there's a master plan. In both of the losses, a guard went nuts. Wisconsin rode Jordan Taylor's second-half masterpiece to a huge comeback win and Purdue's E'Twaun Moore went for a career-high 38 two games later. Backcourt explosions aside, there weren't many other similarities between the two games.
A look at the Buckeyes' close calls in wins, though, suggests you are better keeping them in a slowdown, low-possession game (especially if you play an oddball system like Northwestern or Michigan, which played tough in all five combined meetings). Practically every close call the Buckeyes have had this season has come in a game that was in the mid-60s or lower in terms of possessions, which is a bit odd since Ohio State averages only 65 possessions a game. If that truly is a key, though, that doesn't bode well for North Carolina, should the Heels make the Elite Eight.
GAMEBREAKER: Jon Diebler, Ohio State
There are a lot of stars in this foursome, but very few things are more soul-crushing than the three-ball and no one in the nation is better at making them as often and in bunches than Diebler. The senior has made exactly 50 percent of his 212 three-point attempts this season, often finding himself open because a foe needs to double down on Jared Sullinger or pay heed to one of the Buckeyes' other dangerous scoring options. "3bler" went 4-for-8 from the arc in each of the Buckeyes' first two NCAA games, so he's basically been average. If he has one of those nights like he had at Penn State or against Wisconsin earlier this month (17-for-20 combined from distance), it will be lights-out for the opponent.
INTRIGUING MATCHUP: No. 4 Kentucky vs. No. 1 Ohio State
Down the stretch of the season, I thought the Wildcats were a very legitimate Final Four contender and very well would have picked them to make it to Houston had they not been saddled with this Sweet 16 matchup. There are so many things to watch for here. The surging Brandon Knight vs. the NORAD-like defense of Aaron Craft. Jorts vs. Sullinger inside. Calipari vs. Matta on the sidelines. Multiple X-factors on both teams. Multiple lottery picks in the upcoming NBA draft. A game worthy of April will be played in March. And that's not to say that Marquette vs. North Carolina won't be fascinating, either.
HOME COOKING: Kentucky
No fan base travels better than Big Blue Nation, although the light-blue clad Tar Heels fans may have something to say about that with their overall presence this weekend.
NUMBERS TO PONDER: 62.0 and 30.6
How good is Ohio State? Those numbers are the updated percentage chances that the Buckeyes make the Final Four and win the national title, according to Ken Pomeroy. Given the relative strength of the remaining opponents in Ohio State's bracket -- plus the fact that they will play a semifinal against a West region champ that will be a 1, 2, 3 or 5 seed -- those numbers are amazingly high. That's how good the Buckeyes are.
THE PICK: Ohio State
The Buckeyes were my national title pick before the dance, when this type of draw was possible, and there's no reason to change now. It probably won't be easy, but go with the best team in the land.
More NCAA Tournament Region Breakdowns:
Southeast: Wisconsin has guard, grit to advance
West: Duke will survive brutal regional
Southwest: Pressure rests squarely on Kansas Jayhawks
Ducks fend off Blackhawks for shootout victory
Hurricanes stage surprising rally against Sharks