All games played at the Edward Jones Dome in Saint Louis
In theory there could be a mighty showdown on Sunday between two of the bluest blue-chippers, but Ohio and NC State wish to cordially remind you that they made it here too. If you see the Bobcats exultant in victory Friday night, know that you have just witnessed what my friend Ken has flagged as the most unlikely possible Sweet 16 occurrence. True, said flag is unaware that a certain point guard for OU's opponent has gone missing, but there are good reasons why you should still be surprised if this comes to pass....
(13) Ohio vs. (1) North Carolina (Friday, 7:47 on TBS)
Every March when a Cinderella makes the second weekend, your doughty and thorough tempo-free types will head down into the engine room to take a close look at said team's inner workings and then inevitably come puffing back up the stairs sounding the alarm. This team is winning close games! This can't last!
Which is sound enough analytically, but too harsh ethically. Of course they're winning close games. They're a low seed who was paired with big boys right from the start. Put them in a game with Western Kentucky and maybe they'd show you a nice scoring margin.
So I am here to tell you that Ohio has been winning close games against Michigan and South Florida, and this can't last against even a Kendall Marshall-less North Carolina. It's true, but I admire the Bobcats' run just the same. Forget the NCAA tournament, John Groce's team won their MAC tournament games by eight, three, and one point(s), the last two as the lower seed. Lose any of those and you're not seeing the men from Athens take the floor against the Wolverines in the round of 64, much less popping up in the Sweet 16.
Ohio has played five postseason games, all of them under win-or-perish pressure, and their average margin of victory has been between four and five points. Furthermore where the Bobcats were a defense-first outfit during the regular season, they've morphed into a bunch of unconscious three-point shooters over the past 15 days.
In MAC play Groce's men ranked No. 12 in a 12-team league in three-point accuracy. Tell that to Stan Heath. Since the close of the regular season 40 percent of OU's attempts from the field have been launched from beyond the arc, and they're hitting 41 percent of their threes. Ohio has CAN'T LAST tattooed on every last square inch of their analytical surface area. But they got here. D.J. Cooper (shooting 44 percent on his postseason threes), Nick Kellogg (39 percent), and Walter Offutt (44), I salute you!
As for Carolina, I am on the record as believing that Marshall was their Eli Manning, and all they need now is a Trent Dilfer. Tyler Zeller can still draw fouls and sink the freebies, if he gets the ball. Harrison Barnes can still draw fouls and drain threes, if he gets the ball. The best thing about the Heels' offense in the postseason has been a microscopic five-game turnover rate of 14 percent. That offense is about to lose much of its aesthetic appeal, but as long as turnovers are avoided the actual performance gap between with-Marshall and without- can be kept to a minimum. (Look, just get a shot up. The absence of Marshall impacts Zeller's beastly offensive rebounding not one whit.) And, of course, there's no no-Marshall worries on D, where UNC's been sound as a pound against all comers in March except Florida State, who pretty clearly held a monopoly on that kryptonite.
(11) NC State vs. (2) Kansas (Friday, 10:17 on TBS)
If you'd told me ten days ago that Norfolk State would beat Missouri and additionally that NC State would reach the Sweet 16, only one of those news items would have rocked me to my core. However if you'd also told me that the Wolfpack would arrive at the second weekend in part through the medium of sound defense, you could have elicited a least a raised eyebrow from me.
It's been a long while since we've had occasion to bring up the subject of defense with a positive valence where the team from Raleigh's concerned, but oh look at Mark Gottfried's men now. NC State held a 6-seed and a 3 (San Diego State and Georgetown) to 128 points in 131 possessions. Part of that was luck. The Aztecs are hardly mighty on that side of the ball, the Hoyas' Henry Sims fouled out in just 21 minutes, and both opponents combined to hit just 29 percent of their threes. But give credit where it's due. If we expand the sample size to take in the whole of the Wolfpack's five-game postseason we see that these guys are pulling down an incredible 76 percent of opponents' misses. (They're Bizarro Syracuse! Har!)
On offense Scott Wood has provided a reasonable facsimile of Brady Heslip, hitting 43 percent of his threes since the close of the regular season. That came in very handy on a day when Georgetown was holding his teammates to 33 percent shooting inside the arc.
I'm happy for Gottfried, and happier still for long-suffering fans of the Pack, but my sense is this run ends here. If Kansas can rally to win that game against Purdue after that first 25 minutes they put in the books, they can beat an aberrantly athletic 11 like NC State. Against the Boilermakers, Bill Self's team shot 40 percent on their twos, 25 percent on their threes, and won. Feels like a Team of Destiny kind of thing to me.
In the wake of the close scrape in the round of 32, many observers gave Matt Painter the Rick Majerus treatment and hailed his cunning schemes for limiting Thomas Robinson. Painter deserves every scrap of praise -- Robinson was 2-of-12 -- but know that every opponent throws the kitchen sink at the Big 12 POY (Robinson needed 14 shots to get 15 points against Baylor in KU's loss to the Bears in the Big 12 tournament semifinals), and so too will the Wolfpack. I just think the Kansas defense constitutes its own kitchen sink. Detroit and the Boilers combined to score 0.87 points per trip against this D, and that remarkable figure actually includes 20 minutes of Robbie Hummel flashing a "Do whatever you want, kid, you've earned it!" card deservedly bestowed by the hoops gods.
KU's exploits in recent Marches have not been uniformly happy affairs for Jayhawk fans, but the good news for the citizenry in Lawrence is that NC State's not a plucky mid-major. In Self's last five appearances in the NCAA tournament he's 4-1 against major-conference opponents. As long as they don't have to face Ohio on Sunday (just imagine: KU fans would book time in advance at the cardiac arrest unit), I can envision this Kansas team getting to New Orleans.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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