My region-by-region predictions (cont.)
MARQUETTE VS. NORTH CAROLINA
Friday, 7:15 p.m. ET, CBS
Marquette is such a scary and unconventional team that if North Carolina had just two days to prepare instead of five, I would pick the Golden Eagles to pull off the upset. This team is not particularly big, but it's loaded with a bunch of junkyard dogs. Jimmy Butler was brilliant in forcing Xavier guard Tu Holloway into shooting 1-for-8 (though he had a lot of help), and the Eagles harassed Syracuse into committing 18 turnovers in a low-possession game. I think the extra days of practice and preparation will allow North Carolina's edge in personnel to be decisive. The Heels' big men have been playing big in this tournament, and Kendall Marshall has been magnificent at the point. Despite being a freshman, Marshall had 24 assists to just six turnovers in North Carolina's two wins in Charlotte. The Tar Heels will leave the court with more points on the scoreboard, but they'll know they've been in a fight.
North Carolina 69, Marquette 67
OHIO STATE VS. KENTUCKY
Friday, 9:45 p.m. ET, CBS
Between Jared Sullinger's power, Jon Diebler's shooting and Aaron Craft's, well, craftiness, nobody seems to spend much time praising Ohio State's defense. So let me do that. The Buckeyes are ranked eighth in the country in defensive efficiency, and they're first in both steals per possession and defensive free-throw rate. In other words, they shut you down, turn you over and keep you off the foul line. They're also playing their best basketball of the season, as evidenced by their bone-rattling routs of UTSA and George Mason. In that first game the Buckeyes had 26 assists on 29 made field goals, and against the Patriots it was David Lighty, not Diebler, who drilled all seven of his three-point attempts. This is the worst kind of team for a young Kentucky squad to face in the Sweet 16. The Wildcats have gotten by for most of the season on pure talent, and while they have played much smarter basketball the last three weeks, they still can't match the poise and efficiency -- not to mention the pure talent -- that Ohio State will put on the floor.
Ohio State 80, Kentucky 68
REGIONAL FINAL: OHIO STATE VS. NORTH CAROLINA
The East might be the toughest region, but Ohio State will be fortunate to have faced two of the youngest teams in the country in Newark. Like Kentucky, North Carolina has gotten past a lot of teams because of its superior talent, but in the Buckeyes it will play a team that can match its talent but exceed its experience. As long as Ohio State stays focused enough to prevent North Carolina from getting lots of runouts after made baskets, the Buckeyes can win this game by out-executing the Heels in the half court. I also think Sullinger and Dallas Lauderdale will be able to get John Henson and Tyler Zeller into foul trouble.
Ohio State 77, North Carolina 70
KANSAS VS. RICHMOND
Friday, 7:27 p.m. ET, TBS
The reason Richmond is so hard to defend is that every player can dribble, pass and shoot. Six players made three-pointers in Richmond's two wins last week. That includes Justin Harper, a 6-10 senior forward whose 46.5 percentage from three-point range ranks 19th in the country. Most teams the Spiders play have two or three (and maybe even four) defenders who can extend to the three-point line and switch off ball screens, but somewhere down the line there is always a mismatch. Well, there won't be here. All of Kansas' big men, most notably the Morris twins, are quick and agile and will be able to bother Harper as he cuts and curls his way to open looks. Meanwhile, the Kansas offense is also a sight to behold. The Jayhawks lead the nation in field-goal percentage, and they're ranked 34th in assists per field goals made. The biggest question I had about this team was the stability of Tyshawn Taylor at the point, but Taylor was terrific in Tulsa, where he had a combined 11 assists and six turnovers and made eight of his 14 field-goal attempts.
Kansas 74, Richmond 63
VCU VS. FLORIDA STATE
Friday, 9:57 p.m. ET, TBS
These two teams registered the most surprising results of the tournament with the way they thumped Purdue and Notre Dame, respectively. Purdue's bailiwick is supposed to be its defense, yet VCU shot 57 percent and out-rebounded the Boilermakers by two. Notre Dame is a crisp offensive team, yet the Seminoles grinded the Fighting Irish into shooting 31 percent from the field and 23 percent from three. That makes this a hard game to pick, but I'm going with the Rams because I think they have a bevy of options to turn to on offense. Their leading scorer, Jamie Skeen, scored a pedestrian 13 points and had zero three-pointers against Purdue, but five other Rams scored in double figures. I also like VCU's advantage at the point guard spot manned by Joey Rodriguez, who had 18 assists and just two turnovers in the Rams' last two games. Most of all, I like the Rams because they're on a mission stemming from the controversy generated by the committee's decision to extend them an at-large bid even though they lost seven games in a mid-major conference. I'm banking that will be enough to maintain their focus despite all the attention they're going to get the next few days.
VCU 68, Florida State 66
REGIONAL FINAL: KANSAS VS. VCU
Kansas strikes me as one of those teams that is harder to beat the deeper it advances in the tournament. The Jayhawks might have been susceptible to an early-round upset (as they showed last year), but now that they've reached the regional I think they're going to continue to play well. Bill Self has too many options that he can mix and match depending on where the best matchups are and who has the hot hand. VCU is a great story, but in the end Kansas is just the better team.
Kansas 80, VCU 64