The NCAA Tournament, 2012 Edition, comes to St. Louis this week. Our very own heartland wonderland has been chosen by the powers that be to host one of the four regionals, meaning we get not one, not two, but three games of national import played right here in the beautiful environs of the Edward Jones Dome.
OK, so I'm playing a little fast and loose with the word "beautiful." Sue me. You've got to say something about the place, and I'm making a concerted effort in my life to be a more positive person. So the Edward Jones Dome is beautiful.
Being a host city for two Sweet Sixteen games and one Elite Eight is, I have to admit, pretty special.
You know what would have been even more special? If the closest thing to a team of significant local interest weren't the Kansas Jayhawks. All the other schools St. Louisans might be inclined to care much about — outside of alumni of a specific school, that is — have already seen their big dances come to early ends. Saint Louis University lost in respectable fashion to a No. 1 seed in Michigan State. Mizzou flamed out in ignominy.
But, hey, those losses won't put a damper on the enthusiasm for the games that will be played here, not by a long shot. Last time the Final Four rolled through St. Louis, back in 2005, the city came alive in a way you don't often see; I expect nothing less this time around. And really, why not? The revenue estimates for this event are into the eight figures. That's an awful lot of scratch being dumped into the local economy.
Both games coming to St. Louis this Friday feature classic David and Goliath matchups. My own bracket is epically screwed already (I had both Missouri and Vanderbilt in the Final Four; needless to say I am not winning any national prizes), so I can comfortably root for the Davids in both games.
The early(ish) game features North Carolina, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest, taking on Ohio University, seeded thirteenth and coming off a stirring victory over the Michigan Wolverines, followed by a a takedown of another potential Cinderella, twelfth-seeded South Florida. The late game will see No. 11 seed North Carolina State, fresh off a surprising win of their own against Georgetown, taking on those Jayhawks I mentioned earlier.
Ohio vs. North Carolina: What to Watch
The Tarheels (31-5) may be the top seed in the Midwest region, but UNC finds itself almost assuredly the more vulnerable of the two powerhouse teams playing here Friday. The reason has nothing to do with talent or coaching, both of which the Tarheels have in spades. The reason is the one great equalizer in any sporting endeavor: injury.
North Carolina beat Creighton University on Sunday, and did so pretty handily 87-73, but the victory didn't come without a price. Point guard Kendall Marshall, the floor general for the Tarheel offense and an incredibly productive player, averaging almost ten assists per game this season, suffered a fractured wrist in the win. Luckily for UNC the injury is to Marshall's non-shooting wrist, which will be a somewhat less debilitating injury, but Marshall is a ball handler by trade. What impact his wrist will have on his ability to create off the dribble is really anyone's guess.
Even beyond Marshall, though, North Carolina is a remarkably talented team. Premium athletes, not to mention premium players, occupy most of the roster spots for Roy Williams' squad. They rank second in the nation in overall scoring and first in rebounding. The 'Heels average just over 45 (!) rebounds per game. In other words, they don't get beaten on the glass very often.
North Carolina is led by a pair of huge, talented (and hugely talented) forwards, sophomore Harrison Barnes and junior John Henson. Barnes leads the Tarheels in scoring, with 17.4 points per game and pulls down better than five rebounds a night. Henson is the hammer, scoring a respectable 13.8 per game, but dominates on the boards with ten rebounds and almost three blocks per contest. Barnes comes in at 6'8"; Henson is even bigger at 6'11". Those two down low give the Tarheels an almost unbeatable combo in the paint.
Ohio (29-7) has a talented pair of forwards themselves, but their biggest strength lies in the play of their guards. The Bobcats feature a trio of talented players in D.J. Cooper, Walter Offutt and Nick Kellogg. Cooper, in particular, is a dynamic presence on the floor, averaging 14.7 points and 5.7 assists per game. He has the potential to be a true game-changer any time Ohio takes the floor. Offutt adds another 11.7 points per game, though he isn't nearly the ball-handler Cooper is. Kellogg has a pure shooting stroke to rival almost anyone in the nation when he's on; of the three, Kellogg is the most likely to go on a three-point rampage in a big game somewhere along the way.
What Ohio doesn't have, unfortunately for them, is exactly what the Tarheels do have in such quantity. The Bobcats lack rebounders. Both of their starting forwards, Ivo Baltic and Reggie Keely, average slightly better than five per game, which isn't bad, but certainly doesn't stand up to what UNC can do in the paint.
I like Ohio. I really do. But even without Kendall Marshall, North Carolina has such an enormous advantage down low I can't see the Bobcats winning this game. UNC is just too good on the boards, and unless the Bobcats just absolutely shoot the lights out, I think the Tarheels move on to the Final Four.
Still, if you're looking for a David to take down a Goliath, the one facing the giant with a wounded wrist isn't a bad place to start.
NC State vs. KU: What to Watch
The Kansas Jayhawks (29-6) came into the 2011 season feeling a little...overlooked. Sure, they had talent, but Kansas teams always have talent. What they didn't have was the usual amount of hype that follows around the Jayhawk program. Well, consider their stealth-contender status revoked.
The Jayhawks feature one of the best big men, and one of the best players period, in the nation in Thomas Robinson, the 6'10" forward who averaged almost 18 points and twelve rebounds per game this season and was a strong possibility for the NCAA Player of the Year award (won by Kentucky's Anthony Davis). Robinson already won POY in the Big XII, and deservedly so. Robinson is a true game-changer, capable of playing from virtually anywhere inside the arc.
What makes Kansas so deadly isn't just the presence of Robinson under the basket; it's the fact that he's paired with Jeff Withey, one of the few true seven-footers in the nation, and an outstanding player in his own right. Withey doesn't have the same kind of dominant numbers as Robinson, but he clears space underneath the net and then occupies it, forcing the opposition into poor positions and taking away a huge number of rebound chances.
Add in Tyshawn Taylor, the Jayhawks' talented senior guard who averaged 17.1 points and close to five assists a game, and you have a formidable formula for success. The Kansas formula starts inside, where they have the horses to physically dominate a game, but they have the capacity to beat you in nearly any phase of the game.
Against such a balanced attack, NC State (24-12) has to be considered heavy underdogs. That's not to say, however, the Wolfpack doesn't have the talent to hang with the Jayhawks.
In fact, NC State comes equipped with one of the better matchups for Thomas Robinson to be found in college basketball: sophomore forward C.J. Leslie, a 6'8" basketball machine who is still growing into his full potential. Leslie averaged 14.6 points per game this season, and added 7.5 rebounds as well. He doesn't have the same kind of dominating physicality of someone like Robinson, but Leslie does have a well-rounded game and the athleticism to guard Kansas' young superstar.
The Wolfpack doesn't stop with Leslie. They have two other very good players in Richard Howell, a 6'8" forward who led the team in rebounding with slightly better than nine per game, and DeShawn Painter, who plays center at 6'9" and adds another four rebounds per outing.
NC State doesn't score quite as well as the Jayhawks, but they actually rank better nationally in both assists per game and rebounding. And if the Wolfpack is going to pull off the upset, rebounding will likely be a huge factor. Maybe even the biggest. Kansas is a much better team overall than NC State, at least on paper, but there's a matchup problem working here in the Wolfpack's favor. They are one of only a handful of teams in the nation capable of playing on level footing with Kansas down low, and that removes a huge portion of the advantage the Jayhawks have on most of their opponents.
You want predictions?
Fine, I'll give you some picks. I'll warn you now, though, they aren't worth the paper you're currently reading them on.
North Carolina overcomes the loss of their point guard, taking advantage of their inside game to overpower Ohio. Final score: 73-60 Tarheels.
Meanwhile, in the late game, NC State surprises the Jayhawks early, and Kansas is unable to adjust until it's too late. The Wolfpack moves on. Final score: 76-72 Wolfpack.
In the North Carolina Classic (as it will come to be known in the years hence), the Wolfpack will play too big and too strong for UNC to beat up down low, and the diminished ball-handling abilities of Kendall Marshall prove to be the difference as the 'Heels struggle to move the ball effectively. North Carolina State moves on to New Orleans and a Final Four showdown with, um, someone else. Hey, I'm only interested in the St. Louis games. You want to know about the regional in Phoenix, you're just going to have to get another paper.