Sweet 16 Previews: Friday Night

Tonight’s the last night in college hoops where you have to keep the remote control at the ready, with more than one game at a time. It’s Sweet 16 action in the Midwest and South brackets, with the games in St. Louis and Atlanta. TheSportsNotebook looks at all four regional semis on Friday night…

SOUTH: Baylor-Xavier (7:15 PM ET, CBS)
If there’s been two teams more frustrating to their fan bases over the long season, I’m not sure who they might be. Both the Bears and Musketeers often seem on the verge of excellence, before coming up short in a key moment. One of them will die that way tonight. Xavier may be the 10-seed in this bracket, but don’t forget this is a team a lot of people saw as having darkhorse Final Four potential at the start of the season. When you have the superior backcourt and the single best player on the floor in Tu Holloway, you have to be given a serious chance to win. Baylor counters with raw muscle on the interior, led by Perry Jones III, who scores, rebounds and blocks shots. Quincy Acy hits the glass hard himself, and Quincy Miller can pick up the scoring slack if too much attention gets paid to the others.

With each team’s core strengths running opposite, let’s look at the mirror image. Xavier brings a talented, but inconsistent center in Kenny Frease. He was on his game against Lehigh last weekend, with 25 points and 12 rebounds, a performance that saved his team’s season. On Baylor’s side, two-guard Brady Heslip lit up Colorado by connecting nine times from behind the arc. And point guard Pierre Jackson is capable of running the floor. While I would not expect Heslip to repeat his performance, Jackson can keep the flow of play moving and the Baylor big men involved in the offense. It’s asking a lot for Frease to match up with the raw quantity Baylor’s going to throw at him. If Frease is uninvolved, Baylor will win big. If he is involved, Baylor will win a nail-biter.

MIDWEST: Ohio-North Carolina (7:47 PM ET, TBS)
All the buzz in this game is about whether North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall will play, and this is the rare issue where I actually think the media is understating how important this is. Before Marshall was inserted into the lineup in January 2011, the Tar Heels were a borderline NCAA team, another group of underachieving big men. Then when Marshall came in, suddenly the big guys were involved in the offense, and Carolina immediately transformed into a team that was too muscular to handle. Their size on the frontcourt is certainly the calling card and what separates them from other national contenders, but if you don’t have the one guy that can make it all go, everything bogs down.

Having said all that, UNC got a huge break in playing Ohio tonight. The only way I can see the Bobcats winning is if they light it up behind the arc. The team’s best three-point shooter is Nick Kellogg, son of CBS analyst Clark Kellogg. That’s a lot to ask of one kid, and at least for tonight, the size advantage alone will be enough for Carolina. As of Friday morning, the report on Marshall is that the cast is off his broken wrist (since Wednesday), but he hasn’t handled a basketball yet. Roy Williams’ “inclination” is not to play Marshall, but we all know that coaches are about as straightforward as politicians in situations like this. My guess is that Marshall tries to play, but I don’t see how he can be anywhere near the player he had been. I like North Carolina to survive tonight, but I’m backing off my pick on them to win the NCAA title unless I see clear evidence this evening that he can be effective.

SOUTH: Indiana-Kentucky (9:45 PM ET, CBS)
It’s a matchup steeped in college basketball lore, as these proud rivals hook up. This is the second time they’ve met in the modern NCAA Tournament (post-1976). The first came in the 1983 Mideast Regional, the most exciting regional ever, when Kentucky took advantage of an Indiana team hit with an injury to its best player, Ted Kitchel, and won a close game. And while it doesn’t meet the 1976 baseline, the programs also met in 1975, when the best team Bob Knight ever coached was handed its only loss of the season in a 92-90 thriller. That afternoon Indiana was without its best player in Scott May.  Indiana’s healthy tonight—yeah, I know Jordan Hulls is out, but to put him in a context with Kitchel and May would be insulting to say the least—but how much does it matter?

I’m trying to think of a reasonable way Indiana can win this game—“reasonable” meaning something other than a totally random 75 percent shooting from the floor hot streak, or a complete meltdown by Kentucky—and it’s hard to come up with one. Can IU’s Cody Zeller have a big game underneath? Not likely, with Anthony Davis patrolling the paint? Can they win the battle in the backcourt? Even with Hulls in the lineup, none of IU’s guards could crack Kentucky’s top three. How about coaching? Sure, Tom Crean does a great job with the Hoosiers, but it’s not as though John Calipari is a moron on the other sideline. But there is one reason we can come up with—Indiana already has beaten Kentucky, a 73-72 thriller in Bloomington back in December, won on a buzzer-beating trey by Christian Watford. So the scenario is this—Crean somehow finds a way to keep this game ugly and competitive for about thirty minutes. At that point the psychological edge shifts to the underdog—and don’t think fans of the Baylor-Xavier winner won’t be screaming for the posteriors off for both the drama of the upset and the chance to avoid the best team in the country on Sunday. If it’s close down the stretch, Indiana knows it can beat Kentucky. The Wildcats’ freshman nerves may kick in. And while Calipari’s track record as a coach speaks for itself, he’s had some issues in these end-game NCAA situations.

The scenario is reasonable enough, although it’s a pretty narrow window. Crean has upset a top-ranked Kentucky team before—back in 2003 his Marquette team blew out the Wildcats in a regional final. But it’s a little easier to make that happen when Dwayne Wade is in your backcourt. Talent prevails tonight and it’s Kentucky going away.

MIDWEST: N.C. State-Kansas (10:17 PM ET, TBS)
The last game of the night looks like the best. Kansas may be the two-seed, while N.C. State is in the 11-spot. The Jayhawks may get a partisan crowd behind them in nearby St. Louis. But you can make a strong case that the Wolfpack have five of the seven best players on the floor. The Pack are athletic at each spot and all five starters average in double figures. The most important players tonight will be C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell, the best rebounders, who have to try and keep Kansas’ Thomas Robinson at bay.

Which brings us to the rub in this whole 5/7 equation. Kansas may only have two of the top players in tonight’s game, but they’re the best two. Robinson does it all in the post and is the kind of inside man who can singlehandledly spare his team an upset loss. Tyshawn Taylor can control the action from the backcourt. If it’s close down the stretch—and presumably it would have to be if we’re going to talk about an upset—do you have confidence that Mark Gottfried can outmaneuver Bill Self? The Kansas coach has his critics, but I’m not one of them. In a good game, Kansas pulls it out. But with the injury to UNC’s Marshall, N. C. State is a good enough team that I’m ready to say that this is the game for the Final Four.