Dick Jerardi: Strong matchups, no matter the time zone

Cincinnati's Yancy Gates has a little fun during practice for Sweet 16 game against Ohio State.
Cincinnati's Yancy Gates has a little fun during practice for Sweet 16 game against Ohio State. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: March 22, 2012

REMEMBER when almost all of the best teams were not in the Eastern time zone, when the game revolved around Pauley Pavilion, when Utah and UCLA and Arizona mattered?

Ohio has more teams (four) in the Sweet 16 than all states west of the Mississippi (two, Baylor and Kansas). Basketball is beloved in the heartland so why wouldn't seven from three basketball-loving states that share borders - Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky - still be playing? The bracket still has two from North Carolina, one each from Florida, New York and Michigan so it's a dozen ET teams

Add in two teams from Wisconsin (Marquette and Wisconsin), and the Big East and Big Ten have half the Sweet 16 after starting with 15 of 68. Big Ten teams are 9-2 while Big East teams are 9-5.

Starting with four games Thursday night and four more Friday night, this gives us some delightful matchups, teams with dramatically contrasting styles and one decades-old feud that caused one school to stop playing another for nearly 50 years.

The feud

Ohio State could not lose in 1960-61 and certainly not to Cincinnati, whose greatest player, Oscar Robertson, had run out of eligibility the year before. The mighty Buckeyes had won the 1960 championship, beating California by 20 points while shooting 16-for-19 in the first half. The great Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek and a sub named Bob Knight did not lose a game the next season heading into the title game in Kansas City.

The teams had to wait forever as Saint Joseph's beat Utah, 127-120, in the third-place game that needed four overtimes. Lucas had 27 in the title game, but Havlicek had just four. Cincinnati won in OT, 70-65.

The next year, it was the same two teams for the title, not far away from either school at Louisville's Freedom Hall. It was estimated that 100,000 tickets could have been sold in an arena that held almost 18,000. The Ohio State fans assumed the Cincy win was a fluke. The Cincinnati fans wanted to prove it was real.

The Bearcats barely got there, beating a UCLA team coached by a relative unknown named John Wooden in the semis, 72-70. Ohio State cruised into the championship game. Cincinnati crushed OSU, 71-59. The Buckeyes had lost six times in three seasons, twice to Cincinnati, a team and school nobody in Columbus took seriously.

They were so happy with this at Ohio State that it refused to play Cincinnati for decades. OSU finally relented and played in the 2006 Wooden Tradition in Indianapolis, Greg Oden's hometown. OSU, which lost to Florida in that season's title game, won easily. The schools have not played since - until Thursday night in Boston.

Ohio State is expected to win. Nobody is really taking Cincinnati seriously. So . . .

Most fascinating game

Syracuse-Wisconsin, the early game in Boston.

Player for player, Wisconsin is overmatched. But it is Wisconsin, a team in the best sense of the term.

How do the Badgers win? They limit possessions (just 59 per game). They don't turn it over. They tire you out by running the shot clock down just about every time. Then, when you least expect it, they run it down the court a few times and hit deflating threes. They are like a running football team. If they play from in front, you have serious physical and, especially, mental issues.

What the Badgers don't see in the Big Ten is much, if any, zone. What they definitely do not see is a zone with this kind of size. So, you do wonder if Wisconsin will be able to score enough. But it won't take that many points to win as there simply won't be that many possessions.

The hidden value of the 'Cuse 2-3 zone is that the two players up top are already in position to run the wings when a shot goes up or a turnover is committed. It is why Syracuse is the best defense-to-offense team in America. Check out how the wings always seem to be out quickly. It is because of where they are starting, almost in formation.

And fastbreak points are like gold against Wisconsin. That is how you discourage the Badgers, one of the hardest teams in the country to discourage.

Best coaching matchup

Louisville had one of its best teams in 2009 and was a heavy favorite to beat Michigan State in a regional final. The Cardinals looked confused all game. The Spartans won easily. You can bet Rick Pitino has not forgotten.

This is a Sweet 16 coaching clinic, with Pitino and Tom Izzo, two lock Hall of Famers, each with one national championship and multiple Final Four runs.

Best game

Got to be Florida-Marquette in Thursday's late game in Phoenix. Both teams are high-powered and relentless. This will be fun.

How good is Kentucky?

UK is clearly the best team. Indiana did beat the Wildcats in December in Bloomington on a Christian Watford buzzer-beater. I will be shocked if this is close.

IU actually trailed VCU, 57-48, with 12 1/2 minutes left. VCU then finished 2-for-15, including 0-for-8 on threes, and had five turnovers. It was a semi-miracle IU even had a chance. IU was very tough when it had to be. Get behind like that against UK and there will be no coming back.

The Marshall factor

Nobody really knows what North Carolina will look like if point guard Kendall Marshall (broken right wrist) can't go. Nobody means more to his team than Marshall.

Ohio is a bit scary because it has 334 steals and, without its leader and ballhandler, UNC could be vulnerable to a team that attacks the ball. Still, that Carolina front line is quite scary, especially if somebody can get them the ball.

Forget depth

The early-round media timeouts were between 3 1/2 and 4 minutes. Nobody gets tired. They just get bored.

Numbers to ponder * 

Kentucky's efficiency differential between offense and defense is silly good. The Wildcats have the most efficient offense (1.22 points per possession) and a scary defense that is allowing teams just .88 points per possession. Factor that over 70 possessions or so and you see why UK is killing everybody.

* Ohio State allows just .84 points per possession, best in the country. And Cincinnati has trouble scoring.

* Michigan State has shot 65-for-114 (57 percent) in two games. Indiana has shot 56-for-100 (56 percent) overall and 13-for-26 (50 percent) from the arc. Kentucky is shooting 61-for-106 (55.5 percent).

* Florida, Michigan State, Baylor and Ohio State are outrebounding NCAA opponents by double digits.

* UK and UNC have combined for 29 blocks so far. Wisconsin and Baylor have combined for 39 threes.

* Ohio State's DeShaun Thomas (24.5) and Xavier's Tu Holloway (23.0 points) are the leading scorers in the tournament.

* Michigan State's Draymond Green has the most combined points, assists and rebounds (76) in two games since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

The predictions

After my early-bracket performance, I am outsourcing predictions to my favorite hoops website - kenpom.com. Using all of its advance tempo-free metrics and crunching numbers a bit more sophisticated than points scored and points allowed, the site has scores for all eight games. Some might surprise you.

Such as:

Wisconsin 59, Syracuse 58; and Kentucky 76, Indiana 70. The first is a flat-out upset. The second is much closer than most would expect.

The others:

Ohio State 70, Cincinnati 60

Baylor 73, Xavier 67

North Carolina 79, Ohio 68

Kansas 76, N.C. State 67

Michigan State 65, Louisville 59

Florida 76, Marquette 75


Contact Dick Jerardi at jerardd@phillynews.com

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