Zagoria: NCAA Sweet 16 Preview

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March Madness resumes Thursday and Friday with a Sweet 16 that features all four No. 1 seeds, four teams from Ohio (representing four different conferences), four from the Big East and four from the Big 10.

The remaining teams are led by a Who’s Who of big-time college coaches, including Kentucky’s John Calipari, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, Louisville’s Rick Pitino, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Kansas’s Bill Self and Florida’s Billy Donovan.

Calipari is the only man on that list not to have won at least one title and his Wildcats are the overwhelming favorite to cut down the nets next month in New Orleans.

Here’s a sneak peak of what’s on hand this week:

EAST REGION

THURSDAY/SATURDAY

(1) Syracuse (33-2) vs. (4) Wisconsin (26-9)

Playing without sophomore center Fab Melo, Syracuse nearly became the first No. 1 seed to fall to a 16 (UNC-Asheville) in its opening game, and may have been saved by a couple of blown calls before holding on for a 72-65 victory.

Yet the deep Orange bounced back and looked very impressive in beating Kansas State, 75-59, in their second game. Without Melo, the Orange must rely on 6-9 freshman Rakeem Christmas and 6-10 sophomore Baye Keita to anchor the famous 2-3 zone.

The Badgers will appear in their third Sweet 16 appearance in the last five years and their fifth under head coach Bo Ryan.

When Vanderbilt went to a zone late during Wisconsin’s 60-57 second-round victory, the Badgers looked tentative and launched from outside to the tune of 10-for-33 from beyond the arc.

Against Syracuse, Wisconsin can’t afford to be passive or to settle for too many 3-pointers. The Badgers’ chances at an upset will hinge on whether point guard Jordan Taylor can penetrate the zone and either make shots within it or kick out to open shooters on the perimeter.

Prediction: Syracuse 72, Wisconsin 65

(2) Ohio State (29-7) vs. (6) Cincinnati (25-10)

Ohio State may be the favorite in this All-Ohio battle, but the Bearcats are hoping for a repeat of their previous two NCAA encounters. During the post-Oscar Robertson Era, the Bearcats won consecutive national titles after defeating the Buckeyes in the 1961 (70-65 OT) and 1962 (71-59) title games.

Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger is the premier big man in this game and has accounted for 30 points and 15 rebounds in the team’s first two wins.

Cincinnati big man Yancy Gates can match Sullinger for strength in the low post, but the wild card could be Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas, a 6-7, 225-pound shooting guard. He is coming on strong with 49 points and 19 rebounds in two games and could be a real problem for the Bearcats.

Prediction: Ohio State 65, Cincinnati 61

MIDWEST 

FRIDAY/SUNDAY 

(1) North Carolina vs. (13) Ohio (29-7)

The dominant storyline in this game — and of the tournament — is North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall and his fractured right wrist.

He underwent surgery Monday and a screw was inserted into the wrist. His father told the AP he simply doesn’t know if his son, a left-hander, will be able to play this weekend.

“I don’t know because Kendall’s just coming out of his anesthesia, we haven’t talked and I don’t know how he’ll feel four days from now,” Dennis Marshall said. “We just don’t know.

“Is it impossible he plays this weekend? No, it’s not. Is it likely he plays next weekend? It definitely is. It’s something we just don’t know.”

North Carolina’s chances of winning it all took a major hit when Marshall was injured against Creighton, and if he is unable to come back, the Tar Heels will be forced to rely on Stillman White or Justin Watts, which would be a huge drop-off.

Prediction: North Carolina 73, Ohio 57

(2) Kansas (28-6) vs. (11) N.C. State (24-12)

Kansas trailed for virtually the entire game against No. 10 Purdue on Sunday before getting three breakaway layups from Elijah Johnson and Tyshawn Taylor in the last minute of the game to turn a 60-57 deficit into a 63-60 victory.

They can’t afford to get down again to an N.C. State team that is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006 and flying high after an impressive win over Georgetown.

One key matchup will involve Kansas’s Thomas Robinson, a 6-8 forward and National Player of the Year candidate, against 6-8 N.C. State forward C.J. Leslie. If Leslie and teammate Richard Howell can be aggressive and get Robinson in foul trouble, that would help the Wolfpack’s upset chances.

The N.C. State backcourt of Lorenzo Brown and C.J. Williams will also have their hands full with Kansas guards Johnson and Taylor, who put on a show down the stretch against Purdue.

Prediction: N.C. State 63, Kansas, 61

SOUTH 

FRIDAY/SUNDAY

(1) Kentucky (34-2) vs. (4) Indiana (27-8)

Perhaps the most anticipated Sweet 16 matchup, this game is a rematch of the Dec. 10 epic won by Indiana, 73-72, at home on a last-second 3-point shot by Christian Watford.

That shot has replayed over and over as part of an ESPN commercial to the point where the Kentucky players often turn off the TV when it comes on.

The way Kentucky is playing now, though, it will take an extremely special effort by Indiana’s Cody Zeller and company to beat them. The Wildcats rattled off a game-changing 20-2 run in the second half of Saturday’s rout of Iowa State.

“Cal after the game came up to me and told me that’s the best game they played all year,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. “They can’t play any better than they did.”

Already loaded with future first-round NBA picks, Kentucky got its best game of the year from freshman point guard Marquis Teague, who had a career-high 24 points on 10-for-14 shooting to go with 7 assists and 2 turnovers.

While Kentucky was cruising, Indiana needed a 15-footer from Will Sheehey with 12.7 seconds left to beat No. 12 VCU.

Prediction: Kentucky 73, Indiana 64

(3) Baylor (29-7) vs. (10) Xavier (23-12)

While Baylor has several future pros on its front line, it was guard Brady Heslip who was the story in team’s 80-63 win over No. 11 Colorado.

Heslip went 9-for-12 from beyond the arc and finished with a career-high 27 points. His nine 3-pointers were only two short of the NCAA tournament record set by Jeff Fryer of Loyola Marymount in 1990.

“I know whenever he gets hot, he can outshoot anybody,” Baylor forward Quincy Acy said.

Acy and fellow big men Perry Jones and Quincy Miller were limited to 22 total points in the Colorado game and that doesn’t figure to happen again.

The key guy for Xavier is New York point guard Tu Holloway, the team’s leading scorer and best player. He will need to defend Baylor guard Pierre Jackson well and also penetrate the Baylor zone to set up his teammates.

Prediction: Baylor 77, Xavier 69

WEST

THURSDAY/SATURDAY

(1) Michigan State (29-7) vs. (4) Louisville (28-9)

This is an intriguing matchup of two of the best coaches in college basketball in Izzo and Pitino, both of whom have won national championships.

There are few players in the entire tournament with higher basketball IQs than 6-7 Michigan State senior forward Draymond Green, who has piled up 40 points, 25 rebounds and 16 assists in two tournament games. He posted a triple-double of 24 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in the second-round win over LIU.

Michigan State’s massive front line of 6-10 Adreian Payne, 6-9 Derrick Nix and the 6-7 Green may be the biggest and strongest in the tournament. Louisville, by contrast, doesn’t have nearly the size to match up down low and will have to win with a smaller lineup.

Louisville point guard Peyton Siva, who led his team to the Big East tournament title at Madison Square Garden, is playing as well as any point guard in the nation right now and must continue to pace one of the nation’s stingiest defenses.

Prediction: Michigan State 68, Louisville 62

(3) Marquette (27-7) vs. (7) Florida (25-10)

This game figures to be an up-tempo track meet with two teams that like run and put  points up on the board.

Florida rattled off a 25-0 first-half run en route to crushing the dreams of upstart No. 15 Norfolk State, the team that knocked out No. 2 Missouri.

Florida may have as deep a guard group as there is in the country with Kenny Boynton, Brad Beal, Erving Walker and Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario combining for a whopping 61 points in the Norfolk State game.

Marquette counters with the dynamic duo of Jae Crowder, a  6-6 forward who was the Big East Player of the Year, and athletic 6-2 guard Darius Johnson-Odom.

Florida doesn’t appear to have a natural matchup for Crowder and may be forced to use stretch four Erik Murphy on him.

On the flip side, Marquette’s guard group isn’t as deep or athletic as Florida’s crew.

The game could come down to whether Marquette can hold the prolific Florida offense to a game in the 60s as opposed to one in the 70s.

Prediction: Florida 71, Marquette 67

Adam Zagoria of Zags Blog covers the future stars of the NBA for SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear  Saturdays. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamZagoria.

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