Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Examining the Chances of Each Sweet 16 team in 200 words or less

By Charlie Scaturro

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images North America

What are the chances your bracket still has a shot? If you were banking on Duke, Missouri, or Florida State to make deep runs, chances are you’re done. Even if you still have three of your Final Four in tact, the fact that everyone and their mother picked Kentucky to win the championship means that you could already be out of the running because someone else has the exact same picks as you, the only difference being they somehow had Ohio winning two games, and you ignored them like 98 percent of people who filled out a bracket.

Regardless of where your bracket stands right now, the one thing we know for sure is that there are only 16 teams left that still have a shot at winning the National Championship, but all things aren’t created equal. By virtue of each team’s talent, their projected road through the rest of the tournament, and other variables like injuries/suspensions/who’s peaking at the right time, some teams simply have a better chance of cutting down the nets than others. Here’s a look at the chances of each remaining team to continue their run through the tournament in 200 words or less:

North Carolina: If we’re making the best of a bad situation, at least UNC shouldn’t be pushed too hard by Ohio in the Sweet 16 while they try to figure out how to move on without Kendall Marshall. Of course, there’s always the possibility that Marshall pulls a Willis Reed and makes a miraculous comeback (it is his right wrist after all), but I don’t think anyone (including Marshall) has any idea if that’s even possible at this point. If Marshall can’t play, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Carolina fall to Kansas or whichever team comes out of the East region, and their chances of a title are severely impaired, if not non-existent. On the other hand, if he somehow manages to rebound from his injury and return to form, the Tar Heels road to the Championship game could be tougher. Sure, Kansas won’t be an easy out and a potential meeting with either Syracuse or Ohio State in the Final Four wouldn’t be a cakewalk, but at least they don’t have to face Kentucky or Michigan State until the Championship game.

For a while it looked like Iowa State was going to make Kentucky sweat out their second round matchup, but when they shoot 50 percent from three and Darius Miller goes off for 19 points, even Royce White can’t pose a serious threat to Kentucky. A revenge game against Indiana will have the Wildcats plenty motivated in the Sweet 16, and the fact that the Hoosiers won’t be playing in front of their home crowd should make things easier on Kentucky. They were the overwhelming favorite to win it all a week ago and not much has changed. In fact, with Syracuse losing Fab Melo and considering Kendall Marshall’s broken wrist, it’s more likely that Kentucky’s chances to cut down the nets in New Orleans have actually gotten better. I’ll say this though; Kentucky will need Michael Kidd Gilchrist playing at a higher level than he has been recently if they’re going to get past Michigan State in a potential Final Four meeting. (Also, the fact that Bob Knight refuses to actually say Kentucky is equal parts awesome and ridiculous)

I don’t know much about the actual city of Cincinnati, except that everyone there is now the biggest Luke Loucks fan in the world after his two crucial turnovers in the final minute helped the Bearcats escape with a hard fought 62-56 win over Florida State. Cincinnati is showing everyone that their run in the Big East Tournament was no fluke, and their four guard lineup plus Yancy Gates has proven to be a recipe for success in recent weeks. They might not be the most talented team left in the tournament, but they’ve got a bunch of gritty, tough athletes and a pretty damn good coach in Mick Cronin. Ohio State presents a steep challenge, but Yancy Gates should be able to trade body blows with Sullinger, and if the Bearcats can grind out another win, they’ve already proven that they can beat Syracuse, should the Orange be able to get by Wisconsin. Think of them as a dark horse to reach the Final Four at this point.

Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images North America
Syracuse: Their frightening near-loss to UNC Asheville in the first round probably had a lot of Syracuse fans out on a ledge somewhere, but the Orange pulled it together and dispatched of K-State to get into the Sweet 16. On the surface, Syracuse’s 75-59 win on Saturday would seem to indicate that the Orange have things running smoother after a first round scare, but when you consider that Kansas State won the rebounding battle without Jamar Samuels, and they were able to keep things relatively close into the second half even though they shot just 4 of 17 from three, it starts looking like maybe their most recent win doesn’t tell us all that much about ‘Cuse. Even without Fab Melo this team is still very talented, but Wisconsin has the shooters to expose Syracuse’s zone, and Ohio State has the size underneath the basket to take advantage of this teams struggles on the glass. I’m not saying Syracuse can’t make it to the Final Four, but they will be facing two teams that could give them plenty of trouble.

Wisconsin: It took some cold shooting from John Jenkins and Jeffrey Taylor combined with a pretty egregious no-call of a clear foul on Festus Ezeli under the basket in the final seconds for the Badgers to advance, but hey, it’s Wisconsin basketball; no one ever said it was gonna be pretty. As with all teams that rely heavily on the three, Wisconsin will live and die by their outside shooting against Syracuse in the Sweet 16, and although it certainly gives them the ability to get hot and exploit the Orange’s zone, they could also find themselves in a huge hole if those shots aren’t falling. The Badgers didn’t exactly attack Vanderbilt on offense when the Commodores switched to a zone late in the second second half, but you have to assume that Bo Ryan will have this team better prepared for Syracuse. As the old cliché goes, Wisconsin has that “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” feel to them when it comes to the tournament in that they’re always lurking around Sweet 16/Elite 8 territory, but never seem to be able to crack the Final Four. Potential meetings with Syracuse and Ohio State could have them coming up just short again.

Ohio: In a tournament that’s seen plenty of chalk, Ohio has spiced things up and given everyone a Cinderella to root for in the Sweet 16. Unfortunately, running into North Carolina (even without Kendall Marshall) seems like the place where their run comes to an end. Hopefully Clark Kellogg won’t be calling this game or getting an update about the status of the game while he’s calling another game.

N.C. State: We’ve heard for a long time about how much potential the Wolfpack have, and this team finally looks ready to live up to it. After having little trouble taking care of San Diego State, N.C. State effectively silenced Henry Sims and Jason Clark and managed to hold on to a 66-63 victory over Georgetown that has them slated to take on Kansas in the Sweet 16. Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor are as imposing a duo as you will find in college basketball, but the Wolfpack have the athletes to hang with Kansas, and if they can find a way to duplicate the defensive game plan that Purdue used to frustrate Robinson, anything seems possible. A potential Elite Eight meeting with UNC would give N.C. State a chance to avenge three earlier losses this season, and the fact that the Wolfpack have narrowed UNC’s margin of victory in each of those games, combined with Kendall Marshall’s uncertain status, makes a surprise Final Four seem at least possible. At the very least, N.C. State has the feel of a team that no one wants to play right now, and they certainly have the talent to hang with just about anyone.

Ohio State: The misfortune of teams around them suddenly has the Buckeyes looking like a serious threat to potentially emerge from the right side of the bracket. Their two biggest competitors, Syracuse and North Carolina, are both dealing with the absence of very important players, and Ohio State avoided a Florida State team that I thought matched up very well with them. The Bearcats shouldn’t be taken lightly, and neither should Wisconsin/Syracuse, but we’re starting to see Deshaun Thomas emerge from Jared Sullinger’s shadow to become one of the more versatile scorers in college basketball. With Thomas presenting matchup problems and Aaron Craft continually harassing the opposing point guard (Kevin Pangos can tell you something about that), Ohio State suddenly doesn’t need Sullinger or William Buford to go for 20-plus every game. The Buckeyes now have a number of different ways they can beat you, and it kind of seems like the stars are aligning for this team to make a run to the championship game.

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America
Kansas: The Jayhawks survived Robbie Hummel’s “I refuse to miss a shot” swansong and escaped a disappointing early exit from the tournament. N.C. State should absolutely be taken seriously as a team that could stop the Jayhawks dead in their tracks, but Kansas will have arguably the two best players on the floor in that game and they will also have the “experience” advantage, for whatever that’s worth. After watching the way Purdue decided to guard Thomas Robinson and seeing how effective their constant doubling was, it seems clear that opposing teams will dare players like Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford, and Conner Teahan to beat them and live with the consequences if they do. If Johnson, Releford, Teahan, and Jeff Withey can give enough support to Robinson and Taylor in their next two games, I don’t see why this team can’t reach the Final Four, especially considering how potentially devastating Kendall Marshall’s injury could be to UNC.

Florida: I owe Florida an apology, because they’ve been arguably the most impressive team through the first two rounds of the tournament. Regardless of who you end up playing, winning your first two tournament games by a combined 60 points is no small feat, and the Gators have looked focused and intent on making another deep run. Their next opponent, Marquette, is much better than either Virginia or Norfolk State, but not only do the Gators have the firepower to hang with Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder, they also have Patric Young under the basket. It’s no secret that Marquette’s weakness is their post play, and Young’s NBA-caliber physique has the potential to give the Golden Eagles all kinds of problems in the paint. The seeding says that Marquette is the much better team, but I don’t see very much of a difference between the talent levels of these two squads, and if Florida ends up losing this game I think it will be because Marquette out-hustles and out-works the Gators. It’s entirely possible that Florida comes away with a win and advances to the Elite Eight, but unless they’re unconscious from three I just can’t see this team beating Michigan State.

Marquette: I mean no disrespect to the rest of the guys on Marquette’s roster, but this team will go as far as Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder take them. This obviously isn’t an ideal situation, and some combination of Devante Gardner/Todd Mayo/Vander Blue/Junior Cadougan will also have to do their part, but this team will succeed or fail based on the play of their stars. As I mentioned in Florida’s write up, Marquette has to be worried about how their thin stable of post players is going to hold up in the coming rounds, and while this team has survived inside because of their unrelenting effort and toughness, at some point that might not be enough. Of course, Johnson-Odom and Crowder are good enough to carry Marquette to victory over almost anyone in the country on the right day, but assuming they can handle Patric Young, a Michigan State team that boasts Derrick Nix, Draymond Green, and Adreian Payne will seriously test the Golden Eagles in the paint.

Louisville: This team has ridden Peyton Siva’s resurgent play through the last couple of weeks and it’s worked out very well for Louisville as they get ready for the unpleasant task of having to face Michigan State. I fully expect this game to be a close, relatively low scoring affair, but at the end of the day I just think the Spartans will tough out another victory like they always seem to do at this time of year. There’s no doubt that the Cardinals are capable of beating Michigan State, but they’re going to need Gorgui Dieng playing his best, some of their outside shooters to get hot, and they’ll have to hope that Draymond Green doesn’t have one of his monster “do everything” performances. If Louisville can survive their wrestling match with the Spartans, making the Final Four is realistic, but getting the best of Tom Izzo is no easy feat (even though it would destroy any hope I have left of my brackets actually looking respectable, part of me wants Louisville to win just so we can all see what Russ Smith will do next).

Michigan State: St. Louis gave the Spartans all they could handle this past Sunday, but even as the Billikens trailed by as little as 2 points with under five minutes to play, I was never worried that Michigan State would lose. Draymond Green took over this game for certain stretches, and it was clear that he simply wouldn’t allow this team to relinquish the lead at any point during the second half. St. Louis’ game plan of allowing Keith Appling to shoot jumpers seemed to rattle the young point guard at first, but he got it together and finished as Michigan State’s leading scorer with 19 points. If the Spartans are going to another Final Four, they won’t be doing it in impressive fashion, as I’m sure their game with Louisville and their meeting with the winner of Marquette/Florida will both be close games, but this team knows how to grind out wins, and their advantage inside and on the glass should give them an edge against anyone that remains in the West region.

Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images North America
Xavier: Tu Holloway is doing his best to erase the memories of his miserable performance against Marquette in last year’s tournament, and thus far he’s averaging 23 points per game and Xavier finds itself in the Sweet 16. Things aren’t going to be easy against Baylor, but anyone who knows both of these teams will tell you that the Musketeers absolutely have a shot at knocking off the Bears. Their third leading scorer, Dezmine Wells, is currently dealing with a toe injury that has his status for Friday’s game uncertain, and Kenny Frease might have some trouble dealing with Baylor’s athleticism, but when you have a guy like Holloway leading your team, it makes up for a lot. However, Holloway can’t do it all by himself and he’s going to need a lot more support than the 8 and 7 point performances that Mark Lyons has turned in during the tournament thus far. Baylor is good, but they’re far from unbeatable, and Xavier is a dangerous team capable of knocking them off. As for doing the same to Kentucky in the next round, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.

Baylor: The Bears are lucky they’ve played South Dakota State and Colorado thus far, because Perry Jones has been nearly invisible. The future NBA lottery pick has combined for just 9 points in Baylor’s first two tournament games, and if he doesn’t assert himself on the offensive side of the floor against Xavier, it’s likely that this team won’t be going any further. Baylor has been able to survive the first two rounds with Jones slumping in large part because of what Brady Heslip and Pierre Jackson have brought to the table. The rather unassuming guard duo has combined to score 77 of Baylor’s 148 points in the tournament, and they’ve hit big shots when this team has needed it. There’s no reason to think that Jackson won’t continue to make a big impact for Baylor, but Heslip isn’t capable of creating his own shot and should see plenty of attention for the rest of the tournament. This team is obviously capable of beating Xavier, I could go so far as to say that they “should” beat Xavier, and while they have a roster on paper that can challenge Kentucky, they will need everyone playing up to their potential to do so.

Indiana: The question on everyone’s mind is: can they do it again? Indiana handed Kentucky their only loss of the season to date, and they certainly have the necessary pieces to do something similar in the Sweet 16. Of course, the Hoosiers were playing at home and they needed to shoot 9 of 15 from three (including a Christian Watford buzzer beater) to edge the Wildcats by a single point, but that’s better than any other team has done this season. Not having Verdell Jones III hurts, but with Cody Zeller, Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford, and Victor Oladipo, Indiana can trade punches with Kentucky. The play of Watford is especially crucial in this game, because he’s got the size and ability to hit outside shots that can keep the Hoosiers in this game. The 6’9’’ junior scored 20 the first time these teams met, and he’ll probably have to do something similar if Indiana is going to come away with another win. If Indiana can somehow manage to dethrone Kentucky, I don’t see why they couldn’t defeat Xavier/Baylor and earn a trip to the Final Four, but the Hoosiers will obviously have their hands full with the Wildcats first.

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