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March 18, 2012
Day Three
Chalk Is Not a Lost Medium

by Jeff Nusser

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EAST

(1) Syracuse 75, (8) Kansas State 59 [64 possessions]
When the bracket was unveiled on Sunday, this was a potential matchup that immediately caught the eyes of tempo-neutral fans. Syracuse is one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the country, while Kansas State is one of the best offensive rebounding outfits you'll run across. When Fabo Melo was suspended, the rhetoric only picked up steam. Turns out, everyone was right -- and everyone was wrong. The Wildcats did indeed rebound more than half of their own misses, but the Orange showed why they've been able to survive all these years as a mediocre defensive rebounding team. Syracuse's length bothered K-State tremendously, even on point-blank put-backs, to the extent that the Wildcats could manage just a 34 effective FG percentage. Of course, Rodney McGruder tweaking his ankle early in the contest and Jamar Samuels' suspension right before the game probably didn't help matters.

As for missing Melo? Previously little-used freshman Rakeem Christmas totaled eight points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in 34 minutes. He's played 59 quality minutes in the first two games of the tournament after totaling 58 minutes the final 11 games of the regular season. We also don't want to overlook Syracuse's offensive performance: 1.16 points per possession, including an astounding 50 points on 30 second half possessions. That's the kind of efficiency against a very good defense that makes you wonder if Syracuse didn't go from overrated to underrated with the way so many dismissed the Orange after the Melo news.

(2) Ohio State 73, (7) Gonzaga 66 [62]
Jared Sullinger is the Ohio State name even casual basketball fans recognize, but if the Buckeyes are going to make a deep run in this tournament it's going to be the strength of his teammates that makes it happen -- teammates who were the fuel behind this victory. Sullinger scored his eighth point at the 12:35 mark of the first half, but didn't score again for more than 20 minutes of game time. In between, Deshaun Thomas (who finished with 18 points) and Aaron Craft (17) supplied the offensive spark. Then, when it was closing time, Sullinger came up huge. Craft also had 10 assists while playing masterful defense on Kevin Pangos, through whom Gonzaga's offense runs. If Thursday showed how good the Bulldogs' offense can be when Pangos is hitting his shots, Saturday showed how it can struggle when he's not -- 1.06 points per possession with Pangos 3-of-13 from the floor. Craft deserves a ton of credit for that. While the Bulldogs haven't made the Sweet 16 since 2009, nothing they did this weekend diminished their season, as they looked like a team that could have gone deeper if not for running into an Ohio State squad that appears to be getting hot at the right time.

(4) Wisconsin 60, (5) Vanderbilt 57 [57]
We knew going in that this game featured two of the most extreme three-point shooting teams in the tournament -- each shot threes on more than 40 percent of their field goal attempts this year -- but what transpired over the two-plus hours in Albuquerque strained the limits of believability. Of the 101 combined field goal attempts, 52 were from beyond the arc. The Badgers alone shot 33 threes, three more than their two-point and free throw attempts combined. They hit just enough of them (10), capped by Jordan Taylor's 25-footer with 1:42 to play that gave the Badgers the lead for good, while Vanderbilt did not (just 5-for-19). A generally below-average offensive rebounding team, Wisconsin salted the game away by picking up a pair of clock-killing offensive boards in the final minute. The Badgers advance to take on Syracuse, which gives up more three-point attempts than everyone left in the tournament but Florida State. That should be fun!

WEST

(3) Marquette 62, (6) Murray State 53 [72 possessions]
We don't keep official records of such things, but this might have been the most entertaining game we've ever seen where each team scored under 0.87 points per trip and posted effective FG percentages south of 42. As both teams continually missed shots, the frenetic pace and stakes masked most of this game's deficiencies. (It also didn't hurt to have Buzz Williams' attire to look at for entertainment.) The Golden Eagles have become well known for their strong finishes this season, and this game was no exception: Marquette outscored Murray State 13-5 over the final five minutes of the game. As they usually do, Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom led the way, each scoring 17 points.

(4) Louisville 59, (5) New Mexico 56 [58]
If "survive and advance" is the motto of teams in the NCAA tournament, the Cardinals are the poster-children. On its current six-game win streak, Louisville has exceeded 1.03 points per possession just once, so Saturday's 1.02 effort fit right in. Rick Pitino's men actually rode some hot three-point shooting to a 15-point lead with 13 minutes to play, but the Cardinals seemed to wake up and remember they were the Cardinals, and it was hang-on time as the Lobos chipped away. The defense was just good enough despite the superlative effort of Drew Gordon: 21 points, 14 rebounds -- nine of them offensive. In fact, the Lobos picked up nearly 50 percent of their own misses, yet weren't able to capitalize, a missed opportunity that Steve Alford surely rues.

SOUTH

(1) Kentucky 87, (8) Iowa State 71 [67 possessions]
This was actually a four-point game six minutes into the second half. But very few teams put the kind of pressure on an opposing defense that the Wildcats do, and Iowa State finally caved as so many Kentucky opponents have before them. UK used their balanced attack to outscore the Cyclones 28-8 over the next eight minutes to effectively put the game out of reach. In all, four Wildcats would finish with 15 or more points, led by Marquis Teague's 24 points on 14 attempts. Teague is the only Kentucky regular with an offensive rating under 100 this season, so when he gets it going it's almost unfair. Royce White did all he could for Iowa State, scoring 23 points on 12 FG attempts. He also tallied nine rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block. The sophomore forward struggled with consistency this season, but the Big 12 has officially been put on notice for next season. Or is it the "next level" that should be on notice?

(3) Baylor 80, (11) Colorado 63 [66]
When Drew Cannon wrote in his predictions that Colorado's "generally strong defense is in for a long night against the Bears," I'm fairly certain this is not how he envisioned it going down. You won't often see a team shoot under 40 percent on its twos and post 1.21 points per possession, but that's exactly what Baylor did in this one. Nine made three-pointers by just one player -- in this case Brady Heslip -- will help in that regard. In a larger sense, though, Cannon was correct. The Buffaloes were a game bunch, but they simply didn't have the athleticism to match up with the Bears. Perhaps there was no greater sign of that than Colorado's Andre Roberson grabbing just 17 percent of the available defensive rebounds while he was on the floor, far below his season mark of 30 percent. Even without Heslip's historic night, it was clear Colorado probably just wasn't going to be able to keep up with Baylor.

(4) Indiana 63, (12) VCU 61 [66]
You know what else you won't often see? A team turning it over on one out of every three possessions and still winning. VCU flustered yet another normally sure-handed team into copious turnovers, but the Hoosiers were able to piece together 0.96 points per possession by getting to the rim and hitting a high percentage of their relatively infrequent three-point attempts. On possessions that didn't end with a turnover, Indiana actually averaged 1.43 points.

For a while, it looked as if Shaka Smart's team was going to roll into the next round the same way it rolled through the tournament a year ago: on the strength excellent three-point shooting. However, this edition of VCU hasn't been a great perimeter shooting team all season (just 34 percent on the year), so after the Rams hit nine of their first 22 attempts (41 percent) on their way to a nine-point lead in the second half, it wasn't surprising that the touch deserted them. The Hoosiers gave up 20 points in the paint in the first half but just four in the second frame thanks to a change in defensive emphasis that protected the paint and dared VCU to beat them from outside. The Rams couldn't, missing their final eight shots from beyond the arc -- including an open look in the waning seconds that would have won the game. The three-point line lottery strikes again.

Jeff Nusser is the Editor of CougCenter and a regular contributor to Basketball Prospectus. Follow him on Twitter at @NussCoug. This free article is an example of the content available to Basketball Prospectus Premium subscribers. See our Premium page for more details and to subscribe.

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