Monday, March 19, 2012

Round Two, Day Two

The marathon portion of the college basketball season is over. Since Thursday, it's been nothing but wall-to-wall hoops, 12 straight hours of basketball a day for four days. (And all this coming on the heels of Championship Week, an even more grueling endurance test!) Yeah, I know; I'm sad, too.

Sixteen teams remain. A bit later in the week, I'll put up a Sweet 16 preview post breaking down the upcoming action. For now, though, let's take a quick look at Sunday's games.

Actually, let's start with a headline, for the game between North Carolina and Creighton was really incidental to the news coming out of Greensboro soon after the final buzzer. Tar Heel point guard Kendall Marshall, enjoying a record season in terms of assists, fractured his right (non-shooting) wrist midway through the second half. He played most of the rest of the game, but Carolina announced after the game that the sophomore had broken his wrist. Word came later Sunday that Marshall would undergo surgery on Monday, and that his status for the rest of the tournament is uncertain.

"Uncertain" may seem like an overly optimistic prognosis for a broken wrist. The Tar Heels play Friday night, which gives Marshall little time to heal from the surgery, never mind the break. There's something to be said for the fact that he played the rest of the game, but popular wisdom and a little bit of personal experience suggests that adrenaline helped Marshall through the final minutes, and that the swelling wouldn't really kick in until after the game.

If Marshall can't go, it's a total game-changer for Carolina. Marshall is perhaps the country's best passer, but more importantly, he's the guy that organizes UNC's fast-paced, diverse offensive attack. His on-court leadership and decision-making cannot be replaced. The loss of Marshall would be particularly devastating to Carolina in light of the fact that the player on the roster most able to take his place, junior Dexter Strickland, tore his ACL against Virginia Tech in January. That leaves freshman Stilman White, who is averaging 4.3 minutes per game this season and has been spelling Marshall for a minute or two here and there, at the point guard spot. White is steady with the ball -- his turnover against Creighton was only the fourth he's committed in over 140 minutes of floor time this season -- but it's a big ask for him to step into Marshall's shoes.

One possibility to watch, if Marshall is available, is for Roy Williams to sit him for the Sweet 16 game against Ohio as long as the Heels can hold on, with an eye towards giving him an extra 36 hours or so to heal for a possible matchup against Kansas. The Ohio Bobcats, who squeezed by South Florida Sunday, have certainly earned our respect by getting through a tough MAC tournament and then winning two games this weekend. But they've done it against plodding, perimeter-oriented teams in Michigan and South Florida. Ohio has no counter to Tyler Zeller and John Henson (who returned from his own wrist injury Sunday) down low, and Carolina, if they're playing well, should really have no real issue with them. But not having Marshall certainly would increase the odds of the Heels not hitting on all cylinders.

UNC-Ohio is the matchup in the top half of the Midwest bracket. In the bottom half, #2 Kansas faces #11 North Carolina State.

Kansas very nearly lost to Purdue. Robbie Hummel, whose promising career in black-and-gold was twice derailed by ACL tears, has 22 points in the first half, and with as little as a minute left on the clock, the Boilers led by one and had the ball. Coming out of a timeout, though, I thought Purdue coach Matt Painter made a tactical error. With Kansas having switched back to a man-to-man defense after the triangle-and-two to slow down Hummel didn't work, Painter ordered Lewis Jackson to dribble out most of the shotclock before initiating the offense. Jackson, however, is not a gifted playmaker, and after Tyshawn Taylor stymied his drive to the right, Jackson began dribbled back left, across the foul lane. Hummel came into the play, perhaps for a screen or a handoff, but it was too late for that, and Hummel's presence only brought another defender into the equation. Jackson lost the ball, and Elijah Johnson picked it up and streaked in for the go-ahead dunk. Purdue got Hummel a good look at a long three on the ensuing possession, but it came up just short. Taylor took an outlet pass in for a dunk with 2.5 seconds left, and Ryne Smith managed to hit the backboard and the rim on a running 40-footer, but it missed, and Kansas survived.

They survived despite a tough afternoon for Thomas Robinson, a national Player of the Year candidate. The Boilers used Sandi Marcius and Travis Carroll on Robinson, but gave him plenty of help; it wasn't unusual for Robinson to find himself with two and three Purdue players surrounding him, daring the other Jayhawks to beat them.

Given the effectiveness of this strategy, I wouldn't be surprised to see North Carolina Stat mimic it in the Sweet 16. In C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell, the Wolf Pack have better interior players than Purdue does. But Leslie and Howell are vital pieces to State's offense, whereas Marcius and Carroll are not key cogs to Purdue's attack. This gives Mark Gottfried even more reason to instruct his smaller players to help out on Robinson; it'll keep Leslie and Howell (who has a history of foul problems) on the court.

And Gottfried should be plenty of aware of the importance of keeping your bigs out of foul trouble. The Wolf Pack beat Georgetown on Sunday almost solely because the Hoyas' center and offensive catalyst, Henry Sims, picked up two quick fouls in the first half and his fourth midway through the second. Sims never found his rhythm, scoring only in the game's final moments, and with Sims off the flooor, Georgetown's unique offense stalled.

In the West region, #1 Michigan State snuck by #9 St. Louis 65-61, almost exclusively due to the versatile talents of Draymond Green. The 6'7" Green, a power forward, posted a line of 16 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists against the Billikens -- on the heels of a 24/12/10 line in the first round against LIU-Brooklyn.

Nowhere was Green's importance, not to mention his versatility, more important than down the stretch. Leading by two with under three minutes remaining, Green pushed the lead to four by draining a long jumper from the left wing. After SLU came up empty on the other end, Green -- who handled a great deal of the ballhandling responsibilities, drove left past his defender at the top of the key. As the defense came over to help, Green saw Keith Appling spotting up in the right corner. While driving at full speed, Green made a perfect pass, sliding sideways to avoid committing a charge. Appling's jumper bounced around the rim and in, giving the Spartans a seven-point lead and reducing St. Louis to playing the foul game the rest of the way. And for good measure, with MSU leading by seven with a minute left, Green went up among three -- count 'em, three -- Billikens to rebound a Kwamain Mitchell miss. (He then missed the front end of the one-and-one, but c'mon, what do you want from the guy?)

I'll admit to not having paid enough attention to Michigan State over the past couple of years to truly appreciate just how unique and talented Green is. But I'm now fully on board with this guy -- there's no one more valuable to his team than Green is to Sparty.

MSU will have Louisville in the Sweet 16, and in the bottom half of that bracket, Florida beat the other Spartans -- Norfolk State -- for the right to take on Marquette. Norfolk led 6-4 three minutes in, after which the Gators scored 25 consecutive points in a roughly seven-minute stretch. The Spartans, who shot better than 54 percent from the field and made 10-of-19 threes in their shocking first-round upset over Missouri, shot just 27.3 percent for the game and made only four of 24 attempts from behind the arc. The Jekyll and Hyde two-game run in the Tournament was a nice microcosm of Norfolk State's season, which saw them beat Drexel and TCU in the Paradise Jam before losing by a bucket to Marquette in the championship, but also saw them hit less than a third of their shots and commit 34 turnovers -- yeah, you read that right -- in a home loss to Division II Elizabeth City State the following week.

I didn't watch more than a few trips up and down the court, so I can't tell you anything more about what Florida did right than what's in the box score.

In the South, Xavier fought off the other #15 seed in the second round, Lehigh, 70-58. Everything was going right for the Moutain Hawks in the first half; they led 29-16 when C.J. McCollum picked up his second foul, a lead which was extended to 15 points a few minutes later. But over the final 3:31, Xavier outscored Lehigh 15-4, accentuated by a pair of three-pointers by Tu Holloway and one from Mark Lyons. The Musketeers then surged ahead at the start of the second half, leaning heavily on Kenny Frease in the early-going.

Frease had a career-high 25 points, but it should have been more, and the fact that it wasn't is what makes me nervous about Xavier. Holloway and Lyons are great offensive talents who have proven their shotmaking abilities, but Frease was getting whatever he wanted inside and yet the senior guards routinely jacked up difficult jumpers in the second half rather than feed the big fella inside. Lehigh had plenty of opportunities to make a game of it, but simply couldn't get a shot to fall, having several long jumpers rim out. McCollum, the hero of the Duke game and a really good offensive talent, never got going, making just five of 22 shots. And Mackey McKnight, who took advantage of X's focus on McCollum to the tune of 14 points in the first half, managed just one made field goal and six points in the second.

Finally, #6 Cincinnati capped the evening with a narrow victory over #3 Florida State in the East region. The game was predictably hard-fought, slow, defense-oriented, and low-scoring for most of the way, but picked up in the final minutes. Tied at 43 with under four minutes to play, Cincy's Sean Kilpatrick hit three-pointers on back-to-back possessions. FSU's Luke Loucks answered both, however, the first with a three-pointer of his own, the second with a laser feed zipped inside for a Bernard James dunk. Loucks then hit a pair of free throws after an empty Bearcat possession to give FSU a one-point lead, and it looked like he might be the hero.

Unfortunately, as the final moments unfolded, Loucks went from hero to goat. Yancy Gates tied the score by hitting one of two from the line, and Cincy applied some light full-court pressure -- not meant to get a steal, but just to bother the Seminoles coming up court. Loucks threw a lazy, thoughtless pass across the backcourt that was picked off by Dion Dixon, who coasted in for the go-ahead slam.

The turnover rattled the Seminoles. Despite being down just a bucket with 90 seconds left, FSU rushed upcourt and Michael Snaer took an ill-advised three-pointer. After a Cashmere Wright jumper put Cincy up four, Loucks dribbled wildly into the frontcourt and into a double team, right in front of his own bench. No one called timeout and Loucks, angling for a foul call, stumbled. The only whistle that came was on Loucks for traveling, and although the Bearcats gave it right back with a bone-headed turnover of their own on the inbounds pass, FSU was in panic mode at that point. Okaro White missed a three, and from there Cincy won the free throw game. Dixon made it interesting by traveling on a spot inbounds pass up four points with 15 seconds left, and our last chance for an overtime game in the first two rounds looked like it might be headed that way. Alas, Snaer and Ian Miller both missed threes on the final possession, and Cincy came away with a rather surprising win.

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