NCAA Regional Final Previews: Sunday

We fill out the Final Four card for New Orleans with two more games today. The finals of the South and Midwest Regionals are underway and it’s heavyweights in action—two #1 seeds, a #2 seed and a #3 seed. TheSportsNotebook previews both games, each televised on CBS…

SOUTH REGION (Atlanta, 2:20 PM ET): Kentucky-Baylor
Baylor is one of the two teams in the country where Kentucky has to genuinely be concerned about the talent level with—the other would be North Carolina, although with their current injury situation that we’ll discuss in a moment, Baylor’s probably left as the only one. Perry Jones III, Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller are more than a match for Kentucky’s shotblocking freshman Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones. In the backcourt, Baylor’s Pierre Jackson can match up with Kentucky’s Marquis Teague on the point. And the Bears are playing well right now, with a win over Kansas in the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament seemingly just what the doctor ordered to get this #3 seed playing to its potential. That’s the good news for Baylor. The bad news is that just because there’s not the same kind of talent disparity here that exists in Kentucky’s other games doesn’t mean UK isn’t better. Doron Lamb and Darius Miller give a backcourt dimension that it will be tough for Brady Heslip to match. Furthermore, while Kentucky’s freshmen are a source of concern, the reality is that throughout the season it’s been the more experienced Bears who have been inconsistent, and as studio analyst Kenny Smith pointed out, can start succumbing to one-and-one basketball rather than cohesive team play. Baylor’s path to win means first staying focused on the team game and then getting maybe 15 points or so from Heslip to ease the pressure on other parts of the floor. Is that realistic? Absolutely. Would I predict it? No.

MIDWEST REGION (St. Louis, 5:05 PM ET) North Carolina-Kansas
The broken wrist of North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall has overshadowed all other news in this regional, and after the  way North Carolina fell apart offensively in their survival win over Ohio on Friday, it may not overshadow news in most of the Western world. Marshall practiced yesterday, the first time he’s handled a basketball since the injury last weekend. Based on that we have to assume he’ll suit up, and I have to think he’s going to at least try to play. When he’s healthy, North Carolina is the better team here. As good as Kansas’ Thomas Robinson is in the paint—and in fact, Robinson is the best player on the floor today—UNC brings too much with Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes. With Marshall out, the Tar Heels have demonstrated—not just on Friday, but last season prior to the lineup change at point guard—that all that talent is for naught, as no one can run a cohesive offense. So there’s the extremes—an effective Marshall means a Carolina win, one who can’t run the offense means Kansas wins.

But what about the middle ground, perhaps the likeliest scenario, which is that Marshall plays, can do enough things to run an offense, but is limited? I have to lean Kansas in this situation. Tyshawn Taylor, the Jayhawks own guard was terrible Friday night, but if he comes out and plays better, he can exploit Marshall if his counterpart can only dribble one way, or worse, if he can’t shoot and hit a 10-12 foot jumper, meaning Kansas can pack it in defensively without consequence. I look for Kansas to win, but not with a lot of conviction—the Jayhawks are lucky to survive and looking to re-enact their 1993 Final Four team. That year they were the #2 seed, while top-seeded Indiana was devastated by the loss of forward Alan Henderson (in this case just prior to the NCAA). Kansas cashed in the bracket break. The regional they won that year took place in St. Louis and their coach was Roy Williams. A lot’s in place for some déjà vu later this afternoon.