Ohio State vs Kentucky, UNC vs Marquette: Sweet 16 East Region Preview

On Friday night, the Sweet 16 games continue in the Southwest region and East region. In the latter, played in Newark, New Jersey, the North Carolina Tar Heels play the Marquette Golden Eagles (7:15 EST, CBS) while the Ohio State Buckeys take on the Kentucky Wildcats (9:45, CBS). The winners meet for the right to go to the Final Four in Houston, where they’ll face the winner of the West region.

Below is a preview of the four teams (with the seed noted), outlining how each school advanced through the bracket as well as their strengths and weaknesses. There are also anecdotes from my trip to Las Vegas last weekend for the first two rounds of the Tournament.

No. 1 Ohio State
How they got here: By being the dominant team that people thought didn’t exist this season. Seriously, did those claiming there was no truly great team not watch the Buckeyes? Ohio State dismantled 16 seed UT-San Antonio by 29 points, then went and beat George Mason (an 8 seed) by even more, winning 98-66.

The victory over the Patriots in the second round (what CBS and the NCAA will try to fool you into believing is the third round) was beyond impressive. Ohio State shot 61 percent from the field and from deep, hitting 16-of-26 three-pointers. George Mason might have done better playing no defense at all, as the Buckeyes made just 55 percent (10-of-18) of their free throws.

In their two Tourney games, David Lighty has hit nine three-pointers, Jon Diebler eight, and William Buford seven. This long-range barrage is happening with the nation’s best big man, Jared Sullinger, manning the paint, and is why Ohio State is an offensive juggernaut capable of cutting down the nets in Houston.

Why you should have seen it coming: The success is nothing new. Ohio State entered the Tournament with a 32-2 record and ranked No. 1 in the country. The Buckeyes were placed in what many considered to be the toughest region, but one seeds rarely exit before the second weekend.

David Lighty was on the OSU team that went to the finals in 2007. (Credit: Ohio State Athletics)

Why they may not go much further: The above praise was warranted, but Kentucky is the type of team that could give Ohio State a run. The Wildcats excel in the half court and can push the tempo when they choose; basically, they can score a lot of points, and that’s what it will take to upset Ohio State. Potential regional final opponent North Carolina can do the same. In the Buckeyes’ two losses this season, an opposing guard just went off. Kentucky and UNC both have potential future lottery picks that might be able to assume that role.

Vegas anecdote: Ohio State opened as an 11.5-point favorite against George Mason, and I thought the underdog could give the Buckeyes a serious challenge. When I got to the betting window, the line had dropped a half point, to 11. I bet on George Mason anyway. If only the line had swung 21 points the other way, I would have won.

Bonus Vegas anecdote: Sitting at the Paris sportsbook watching the Buckeyes systemically destroy George Mason, a gentleman next to me started talking about how dominant they were. He mentioned forward Dallas Lauderdale, the least heralded Buckeye starter. Lauderdale, a senior bruiser, is often replaced by Aaron Craft, the team’s only true point guard, by the first media timeout. “That guy would start for any other team in the country,” the man said, referring to Lauderdale. Yes, even Ohio State!

No. 4 Kentucky
How they got here: On the strength John Calipari’s seemingly endless line of great freshman point guards. Brandon Knight was scoreless against 13 seed Princeton for nearly 40 minutes, having missed all seven of his shots, but his driving layup with two seconds remaining gave Kentucky a 59-57 victory in a game that was close throughout. Two days later, against the team that eliminated the Wildcats in last year’s regional final, West Virginia, Knight was brilliant throughout, scoring a career-high 30 points in a 71-63 win. Josh Harrellson, Kentucky’s lone senior, has scored 15 in each game, double his season average.

Why you should have seen it coming: The Wildcats came in hot, winning six in a row, including a decisive victory in the SEC championship game over Florida. Kentucky’s top three scorers are freshmen, and freshmen are typically going to improve more over the course of a season than upperclassmen. In other words, the Cats were only going to get better, and John Calipari is no stranger to Tournament success. (Note: The previous eight words have been stricken from the record by the NCAA.)

Why they may not go much further: Midway through the second half of the SEC title game many were probably considering Kentucky as a sleeper Final Four team. That likely changed once the brackets came out later that evening. Ohio State is the No. 1 overall seed for a reason, and the young Wildcats will need a tremendous effort to beat the Bucks.

Vegas anecdote: My friend Danny, who I referenced in my 2010 March Madness diary, liked Princeton and the 13 points they were getting as his lock of the first round. I bet on Kentucky. This is why I bet a lot less money than Danny does.

No. 2 North Carolina
How they got here: By dominating the paint in a 102-87 shootout against 15 seed Long Island and making enough plays down the stretch to hold off 7 seed Washington 86-83 in round two. In game one, Carolina got 84 points out of its three starting frontcourt players and dominated the boards (52-36). But the game wasn’t a blowout because the Heels made just 3-of-17 three-pointers and committed 18 turnovers. They played a more complete game against the Huskies in what turned out to be a wild ending.

Why you should have seen it coming: Since freshman Kendall Marshall became the starting point guard in mid-January, the Heels were 15-2 entering the Big Dance, with the only losses coming to Duke. The team basically had to be reevaluated after mediocre start, and all signs indicated this team had the firepower to reach Houston. With three starters that could be first round NBA draft picks this year and size that few teams can match, it would have been very surprising if this squad didn’t reach the second weekend.

Harrison Barnes of UNC is one of many standout freshmen in this region. (Credit: Niirvash)

Why they may not go much further: Carolina is expected to beat Marquette, but a regional final matchup with Ohio State would be a tall task. If Kentucky can upset the Buckeyes, however, Carolina would get to play a team it beat already this season.

Vegas anecdote: I was on the betting line ready to take Long Island (local team, sort of) in the first half against UNC, but because one of the bettors in front of me was apparently placing wagers on the NBA, golf, and NASCAR in addition to the Tournament, the game started before I could make my bet. I can’t remember exactly how many points LIU was getting—it was 9 or 10—but I know I was mad because for most of the first half it seemed like the bet was going to be a winner. But in the final few minutes, the Tar Heels pulled away to take an 11-point halftime lead, which meant I would’ve lost my bet. Later that night, I saw the guy who held me up on line (he was in the hot dog line, likely delaying that, too) but decided not to thank him for inadvertently saving me a few bucks.

No. 11 Marquette
How they got here: By pulling off two upsets, first against Xavier and then against Big East foe Syracuse, a three seed. The Golden Eagles never trailed against Xavier, but their second-round game was much different. The margin was one possession for most of the second half, but Darius Johnson-Odom’s three with 27 seconds left broke a tie and propelled Marquette to a 66-62 victory. Johnson-Odoms scored 19 and 17 in the first two Tourney games.

Why you should have seen it coming: This is a tough sell. Marquette was the 11 seed in the Big East Tournament, where it won a couple of games, and, off the strength of its overall resume, received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament (where it also received an 11 seed). But if you thought the Big East was a really, really strong conference—as many did, at least before last weekend—then Marquette’s .500 record (plus the two league tourney wins) and wins over Syracuse, West Virginia (twice), and UConn probably impressed you.

Why they may not go much further: If you thought the Big East was overrated all season—or you turned on the conference after last weekend—you might be thinking Marquette got a favorable draw by facing Xavier and then another Big East team, Syracuse, and now it’s time for them to bow out of the Dance. But it’s not about conferences, it’s about teams, and the remaining teams in the East region are all better than Marquette. I like coach Buzz Williams, but if North Carolina has been preparing itself in the last few days, its edge in talent will be tough to overcome.

Vegas anecdote: When it became clear that Marquette was going to beat Xavier, the conference bashing began. “The A-10 sucks,” one disgruntled bettor said. “This is the best team in the league?” another asked. It happens every year, albeit with different teams/conferences. Xavier breezed through the Atlantic 10, finishing in first with a 15-1 record. They did get bounced by Dayton in the opening round of the conference tourney, however.

Meanwhile, Temple won a game before falling to a 2 seed in double overtime, and Richmond is still alive, making the A-10’s showing in this year’s Dance very respectable. It’s silly when people point to one team’s failures as proof that the entire conference is weak. And given that it’s only one weekend’s worth of games, it’s silly to do it even if a larger group of teams struggle.

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