Syracuse-Wisconsin, UNC-Ohio, more Sweet 16 predictions
Ohio State's solid perimeter defenders, halfcourt game will prove tough for Cincy
N.C. State has been impressive, but it's doubtful the Wolfpack will beat out Kansas
With Marquis Teague's improvement, Kentucky is unquestioningly the team to beat
Crazy upsets? Freak injuries? Dramatic comebacks? What else could happen?
Everything, that's what. This is the NCAA tournament, folks. We've learned to expect the unexpected.
In other words, March happens. Here's what will happen next:
Syracuse vs. Wisconsin
When Fab Melo was declared ineligible, the two players who were pegged as the next-men-up were Dion Waiters, the sophomore guard who has played the sixth-man role for most of the season, and Rakeem Christmas, the 6-foot-9 freshman forward who started 33 games this season but averaged just 11.4 minutes. In reality, the player whose role has increased the most is 6-8 junior forward James Southerland, who is a much better three-point shooter than his 33.6 percent clip would suggest. Southerland scored in double digits just once in his last 15 games going into the tournament (he went scoreless in three of those games), but he had 15 in each of the Orange's wins in Pittsburgh and made a combined 5-for-7 from three-point range. I think Southerland is capable of having the same kind of game against the Badgers, who have made a living off of so-called "stretch fours" -- that is, power forwards who can step out and shoot long jumpers.
I know Syracuse likes to fast break out of its zone, but don't expect the Orange to speed up Wisconsin. Nobody speeds up Wisconsin. Then again, Vanderbilt almost knocked off the Badgers by switching to a zone late in the second half. Syracuse might prefer to play fast, but it has proven it can win slow. I say the Orange will do just that.
Syracuse 68, Wisconsin 61
Cincinnati vs. Ohio State
Presbyterian must be really good. Playing at Cincinnati back on Nov. 19, the Blue Hose erased a 15-point deficit midway through the second half and won by two. That night, if you had told Mick Cronin that the loss wouldn't be his team's rock bottom, he might have quit on the spot. That nadir, of course, came three weeks later during the fight with Xavier. Ironically, the Xavier game also marked 6-3 junior guard Jaquon Parker's return from a groin injury that had kept him out the first seven games. That addition, combined with the suspension of senior center Yancy Gates, forced Cronin to play smallball, which eventually spurred his club to the Big East tournament final and now the Sweet 16.
Still, Ohio State is a bad matchup for the Bearcats. The Buckeyes have the athletes to get out in transition, but they're plenty comfortable in the halfcourt, and they have as good a collection of perimeter defenders as any team in the country. In Jared Sullinger, they have a true hoss inside who will not only be able to score on Bearcats' center Yancy Gates but get him into foul trouble as well. And while the rest of us have been begging for William Buford to play Robin to Big Sully's Batman, 6-7 sophomore swingman Deshaun Thomas stepped into the void by averaging 24.5 points in the Buckeyes' games last weekend in Pittsburgh. That's too much firepower for the Bearcats to handle.
Ohio State 70, Cincinnati 60
Regional final: Syracuse vs. Ohio State
Each time they have taken the court without Melo, the Orange have improved. But they can only improve so much. The NCAA tournament is all about matchups, and even with Melo in the fold the Buckeyes would have been a tough out. Syracuse's biggest deficiency is its tendency to give up offensive rebounds in that zone; the Buckeyes are ranked 38th in the country in offensive rebound percentage. Syracuse's biggest strength is its ability to shut down the three-pointer and get fast breaks off turnovers; the Buckeyes are 34th in the nation in turnover percentage, and since they rank last in the Big Ten in made threes per game (4.9) they have nothing to shut down. Finally, as much as I love Scoop Jardine, he will be going up against the best on-ball defender in the country in Aaron Craft.
Ohio State 74, Syracuse 68
North Carolina vs. Ohio
Talk about your bad breaks. When Kendall Marshall went down against Creighton, he took the Tar Heels' championship hopes down with him. Even if Marshall plays in this game -- and count me as skeptical that a kid can play in an NCAA tournament game four days after having a screw inserted into his wrist -- he will not be nearly as effective as he needs to be for the Tar Heels to win a title.
Still, I do think North Carolina has enough talent to get by an Ohio team that shot well above its season averages during this tournament. I've also long believed that while underdogs enjoy a huge psychological advantage during the first week of the tournament, they are at a disadvantage in week two. When a team like Ohio reaches the Sweet 16, they go home to a parade. When a team like North Carolina gets there, they think to themselves, OK, our season can begin now.
North Carolina 79, Ohio 67
Kansas vs. North Carolina State
N.C. State fans have thirsted so long for a run in the NCAA tournament, it's enough to make them forget that Mark Gottfried was somewhere around the 11th choice when the school went looking for head coaches last spring. It's easy to see now that Gottfried was the perfect hire for this group of players. His experience and easy going manner lent a badly-needed even keel to a rudderless, but talented locker room. Yes, the development of C.J. Leslie (Gottfried calls him Calvin because he wanted the kid to have a fresh start) and Richard Howell have been important, but Gottfried's best move was to look at 6-5 sophomore Lorenzo Brown and see something nobody else saw: a point guard.
Unfortunately for the Wolfpack, the joy ride will end in St. Louis. Awaiting them there is a Kansas team that showed impressive bend-but-not-break elasticity during its Great Escape against Purdue. With Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor combining to shoot 4 for 23 from the floor, Kansas got 18 points and four rebounds from Elijah Johnson as well as 10 points and six rebounds from glue guy Travis Releford. Robinson and Taylor have already had their clunkers in this tournament. No way they'll have another.
Kansas 78, N.C. State 71
Regional final: North Carolina vs. Kansas
In my original bracket I had Kansas beating the Tar Heels, so I'm obviously not going to reverse that now. It's unfortunate, too, because I would have liked to see the Tar Heels take on the Jayhawks at full strength. As it stands, Kansas' toughness will be an even bigger difference with an absent or limited Marshall. Besides Robinson and Taylor, Jeff Withey was also quiet in Omaha, putting up a combined 11 points and 11 rebounds in the two wins. The Jayhawks will need him to provide an extra lift against the Tar Heels' front line.
Kansas 80, North Carolina 69
Kentucky vs. Indiana
I'm often asked which team in this tournament can beat Kentucky. I finally have my answer: Kentucky. For the Wildcats to lose this or any other game, they'll have to do things that are uncharacteristic. They'll have to take (and miss) a ton of threes. They'll have to play more for NBA scouts than for each other. They'll have to get into foul trouble -- especially Anthony Davis, who fouled out just once all season and had four fouls in a total of three games, none after Jan. 21. And of course, they'll have to get a somnambulant performance from Terrence Jones along the lines of his four-point, one-rebound effort in UK's loss at Indiana Dec. 10. Davis also had just six points in that game, but he has improved exponentially offensively since.
Indiana has done well to get back to the Sweet 16, but the reality is the Hoosiers were a missed three-pointer away from being sunk by VCU in the third round. I'm not saying the Hoosiers can't beat Kentucky, but they're going to need a lot of help from their opponents. Given what's at stake -- not to mention what happened in Assembly Hall back in December -- the Cats will not be in a very giving mood.
Kentucky 78, Indiana 65
Xavier vs. Baylor
Some people might look at Brady Heslip's 9-for-12 performance against Colorado and think there's no way he can do that again. I saw it and wondered why he hadn't done it before. It has taken Baylor long enough to figure out that it can't depend on consistent scoring from its front line (any basket by Perry Jones III is gravy), but with Heslip and juco transfer Pierre Jackson spearheading the attack, this team becomes much more potent. Xavier also has some potent guards in Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons, but the Musketeers would not be in the Sweet 16 if senior center Kenny Frease did not hang a career-high 25 points (to go with 12 rebounds) in the third-round win over Lehigh. One thing about Jones, Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller -- they can defend and rebound in the post (unlike Lehigh). With Frease frozen, Xavier will need more from its guards than they'll be able to provide.
Baylor 75, Xavier 70
Regional final: Kentucky vs. Baylor
You'll notice a theme here: I don't pick against Kentucky. I'll give you one more reason: Marquis Teague. The freshman point guard was one of this team's few questions coming into the postseason, but he picked a heck of a time to have his best game of the season when he went for 24 points and seven assists in the third round against Iowa State. Coming one week after he put up a bagel against Vanderbilt in the SEC championship game, that had to give Teague some badly-needed confidence. If he's going to keep scoring like that, we might as well just send the trophy to Lexington right now.
Kentucky 79, Baylor 66
Michigan State vs. Louisville
One of the emerging themes from the first weekend was point guards who don't usually score a lot scoring a lot. That list includes Craft, Teague and Marshall; let's add Louisville's Peyton Siva and Michigan State's Keith Appling. Siva has been plagued by injury and inconsistency, but he had a fabulous Big East tournament and opened with 17 points in the second-round win over Davidson. (Though he took just six shots and scored six points against New Mexico.) Appling, meanwhile, still struggles at times to score, but he racked up 19 points on 7 of 14 shooting against Saint Louis.
The difference is, Louisville can't win without a big game from Siva. Michigan State can win without a lot of points from Appling. In Draymond Green, the Spartans have the best player in this tournament, but they also have a pair of tough glue guys in 6-10 sophomore Adreian Payne and 6-9 junior Derrick Nix. Louisville is a good team, but Michigan State is a great team that's still getting better.
Michigan State 69, Louisville 63
Marquette vs. Florida
Billy Donovan gets a lot of criticism for the way he has coached Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton. I think it's undeserved. Yes, those guys take a lot of ill-advised shots, but they make a lot, too. The smart thing to do as a coach is to let them go, not rein them in. Boynton and Walker combined to shoot 6-for-18 from the floor (and 0-for-7 from three) in the Gators' second-round win over Virginia, but they bounced back to make 10-of-19 (3-of-10 from three) against Norfolk State.
Of all the teams in the Sweet 16, the Gators had the easiest road. That road is going to be a lot rockier in Phoenix. In many ways, Marquette is a mirror image of Florida, only better and tougher. Those Gators' guards are going to be defended as well as they have all season. (I only say "as well as" and not "better" because Florida is in the same conference as Kentucky.) We know Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder are the Golden Eagles' offensive stars, but the other two perimeter starters -- Junior Cadougan, a 6-1 junior, and 6-4 sophomore Vander Blue -- will play critical, and decisive, roles on defense.
Marquette 79, Florida 74
Regional final: Michigan State vs. Marquette
Anthony Davis and Thomas Robinson were the frontrunners for National Player of the Year (I voted for Davis), but as I noted earlier, the Spartans' Draymond Green is the best player in this tournament. Not only the best, but also the most unique -- which is why it's so compelling to see him go up against a player who is almost as unique and versatile. Marquette senior guard Jae Crowder isn't quite the anomalous playmaker that Green is, but he's the only other player in this tournament who matches Green's impact in as many areas of the game. The Big East Player of the Year was ranked 14th in the country in steals (2.33 per game). He also ranked second in the Big East in field goal percentage (51.1), fifth in scoring (17.4), ninth in three-point percentage (40.5) and 10th in rebounding (7.7). True, the Golden Eagles don't have much answer inside for Payne and Nix, but they present the Spartans with the rare opponent who can actually match their mental and physical toughness.
With the intangibles a wash, we're left with a choice between a team that has an advantage in the frontcourt against a team that has the advantage on the perimeter. Since the NCAA tournament is all about guard play, I'll go with the Eagles in an overtime squeaker.
Marquette 73, Michigan State 72 (overtime)