Saturday, March 24, 2012

Louisville, Ohio State Advance to Final Four

Half the field for St. Louis is set.

In the first matchup, the upset-ridden West regional final, Louisville surged late to stun Florida by four. Full credit to the Cardinals, particularly Russ Smith (who made several big shots down the stretch in place of Peyton Siva, who had fouled out) and Chane Behanan (who had a big second half after being quiet in the first 20 minutes). But the Gators earn demerits for their lack of offensive execution in the second half and lack of poise down the stretch. Florida was red-hot from deep in the first half against the Louisville zone, but didn't adjust well when the Cardinals switched to man-to-man. And they took some bad, early shots down the stretch.

In the East regional final, Ohio State beat Syracuse in a game that managed to stay exciting despite the officials' intention, from the opening tap, to make themselves the focus of the game. The officiating was maddening and inconsistent on both ends of the floor. The Buckeyes were able to come out of a first half where they lost Jared Sullinger and Evan Ravenel to foul trouble relatively unscathed, in large part due to their own success at the free throw line. In the second half, they pulled away a bit, but the Orange kept within striking distance and actually had a late possession to take the lead. They couldn't convert, though, and the Buckeyes -- particularly Lenzelle Smith Jr. -- hit a couple of very tough shots to seal it. Syracuse was pretty much textbook in lengthening the endgame, but OSU eventually hit enough free throws to get the win.

On Sunday, Kentucky and Baylor, and then North Carolina and Kansas, will face off in an attempt to join the Cardinals and Buckeyes in the Final Four. I went to see The Hunger Games last night after the basketball action, and so I didn't get a chance to write up the rest of the Sweet 16 action. He's a quick recap, along with a couple of picks for Sunday's games.

In the Midwest, North Carolina lost an early 15-point lead and escaped Ohio in overtime. After the quick start, the Tar Heels were shaky all night on offense in their first game without Kendall Marshall. (Harrison Barnes' terrible individual game certainly didn't help.) While all the focus was on Carolina's high-powered offense, an overlooked part of Marshall's absence -- defense -- nearly cost the Heels the game. While Reggie Bullock absolutely locked up Bobcat star D.J. Cooper (who shot 3-for-20), Walter Offutt went crazy against Marshall's replacement, inexperienced freshman Stilman White. Offutt had 26 points and actually missed a free throw that might have won his team the game in regulation. Marshall isn't a great defender, but he certainly wouldn't have been the liability that White was.

In the nightcap, Kansas overcame a terrible start and a terrible finish to edge out North Carolina State. KU's Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey won the interior battle, but some bad plays late by Tyshawn Thomas gave the Wolfpack a chance to go ahead late. And the Jayhawks dodged another late bullet up three with the shotclock off, when NC State coach Mark Gottfried drew up a complicated play for Scott Wood that required Lorenzo Brown to throw a pass all the way across the court. Brown did a decent job, but the pass was a little high and when Wood landed after catching it, his heel came down on the sideline. It was an incredibly difficult pass to make and a classic case of over-coaching.

As for a pick for Sunday's regional final. With a healthy Marshall, I think Carolina is the clear pick, but while he was a limited participant in practice on Saturday, there's certainly no guarantee that he'll be even marginally effective even if he can go against the Jayhawks. The first game without a key players is the toughest, though, and I wouldn't expect Barnes to be as terrible as he was in the Sweet 16. UNC has the front line to match up with Kansas and the Jayhawks are pretty lucky to be here after having played poorly in each of the last two games. I don't really trust either of these teams, so I'm going with my bracket pick, which is Carolina.

In the South, Xavier let itself get down early, as it had in the two previous tournament games, but unlike those wins, the Musketeers couldn't quite get all the way back. Mark Lyons played a big part of the X comeback in the second half, but as his wont, he kind of killed his own rally with a few tough possessions. Baylor proved too tough inside, led by Quincy Acy's 20 points and 15 rebounds.

In the late game, Kentucky beat Indiana 102-90, a rare college game these days not marked by limited offense. UK withstood early foul trouble to Anthony Davis and started to pull away, forcing IU's Tom Crean to play Jordan Hulls and Cody Zeller in the first half despite their own foul trouble, just to stay within reach. Fortunately, the officials decided to let the kids decide the game (unlike the refs in the Syracuse-OSU game) and Kentucky just has a little too much talent.

Baylor has a chance to win on Sunday; they have a pretty good playmaking point guard in Pierre Jackson, a deadeye shooter in Brady Heslip, and plenty of depth up front in Acy, Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller, and Anthony Jones. But I'm not about to pick against Kentucky, the most talented team left in the field and one that, after hitting 35 of 37 free throws against the Hoosiers, seems to have addressed the one thing that has prevented coach John Calipari from winning a national title up to this point.

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