Men’s NCAA Tournament East Region Sweet Sixteen Breakdown
This is the week where action shifts to the major cities in the NCAA tournament. Don’t get us wrong… cities like Omaha, Pittsburgh and Louisville are considered major when it comes to basketball, but if your team makes it to Boston it means you’re an East Region squad that comprises one-fourth of the sweet 16. Included in this mix is a team that many people gave no chance of making it this far… and it happens to be a top seed.
Here is a look at the two semifinal games coming up this week:
No. 1 Syracuse vs. No. 4 Wisconsin (7:15 p.m. Thursday at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts)
No Fab Melo? No problem. Actually, it wasn’t THAT simple. The minute Syracuse announced Melo would miss the tournament due to eligibility issues, almost everyone wrote the eulogy for Jim Boeheim’s 2011-12 squad. After all, there was no way the Orange would win two games in the tournament. Maybe one, but not two… right? All Syracuse did was start out the tournament with a close call against UNC-Asheville. After that 72-65 win, the Orange regained some footing and played more like the No. 1 seed in a 75-59 defeat of Kansas State, the team many thought would knock Syracuse out of the tournament.
The Orange, whose losses in season have come against Notre Dame and Cincinnati, are led by Kris Joseph’s 13.8 points per game and Dion Waiters at 12.6. C.J. Fair and his 5.5 rebounds per game have helped to soften the blow on the boards left by the sudden end to Melo’s season. Against UNC-Asheville, reserve James Southerland helped in the post-Melo adjustment by scoring 15 points and grabbing eight rebounds off the bench. Waiters and Joseph (12) and Scoop Jardine (11) were also in double figures. Against Kansas State, Waiters’ 18 points led the way while Jardine contributed 16 points and eight assists and Southerland sank another 15 points. All told, Syracuse averages 74.6 points per game (39th in the nation) and dishes off 15.8 assists (15th).
Wisconsin (26-9) did the reverse in reaching the sweet 16, following a first-round blowout with a very close second game. The Badgers blew out Big Sky representative Montana 73-49 and then put an end to Vanderbilt’s season, although the Southeastern Conference standout didn’t make things easy before Wisconsin won 60-57. The Badgers were led against Montana by senior Jordan Taylor, who had 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists, and Ryan Evans had 18 points. In that game, Wisconsin let it rain 3-pointers (10-for-19, 52.6 percent). Wisconsin had a much more difficult time against Vanderbilt, as its 3-point shooting fell to 30.3 percent (10-for-33), and the Commodores held Evans to 11 points and five rebounds. Wisconsin’s best offensive stat is its rebounding (33.8 per game), but that only ranks 210th in the country. It is Wisconsin’s scoring defense which has kept the Badgers in play, but even that has slipped as of late.
Syracuse appears to have regained its footing, surviving the post-Melo fallout with little if any difficulty. Unless Wisconsin really limits the power of players like Jardine, Waiters and Joseph all at once, Syracuse should reach the Elite Eight, although I predict a close game.
No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 6 Cincinnati (9:45 p.m. Thursday at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts)
The teams are separated by less than 100 miles on one highway (Interstate 71), but the reality is the triangle of Dayton, Columbus and Cincinnati may be one of the best basketball-mad sections in the country. Between Ohio State, Cincinnati and Xavier still staying afloat in the Sweet 16 – and don’t forget Ohio, the Mid-American Conference darlings – the Buckeye state still has plenty of basketball to watch before the calendar turns to spring and teams like the Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians take over.
Ohio State (29-7) started off the tournament in convincing fashion, gaining a 78-59 second-round win over Loyola (Maryland) behind Deshaun Thomas’ 31 points and 12 rebounds. William Buford added 17 points, and Jared Sullinger made up for his lack of dominant scoring with a double-double of 12 points and 11 rebounds. Ohio State shot 26-for-58 (44.8 percent) in this game. The Buckeyes followed up with a much closer performance in a 73-66 win over Gonzaga, as Sullinger scored 18 points and Aaron Craft added 17 points and 10 assists. Thomas also added 18 points in the victory as Ohio State was 25-for-53 (47.2 percent) from the field and 9-for-24 (37.5 percent). Ohio State’s shooting was on track in both games, which isn’t surprising since the Buckeyes’ 48.6 percentage is 12th in the nation. The Buckeyes also have the 35th-best scoring offense (75.1) and sport a 10-6 record against teams in the NCAA tournament. That includes losses to Wisconsin, Indiana, Kansas and Michigan State (twice).
Cincinnati (26-10) has come a long, long way from the team that was in a funk following the infamous Xavier brawl in December. Not only did the Bearcats win seven in a row after that game, they cruised to a solid Big East season and were one of the few teams to knock off Syracuse in pre-tournament play. Cincinnati started the tournament with a 62-56 win over a determined Texas squad, behind 15 points and 10 rebounds from Yancy Gates and 13 points from JaQuon Parker. The Bearcats then followed up by eliminating Florida State, a team many thought had Final Four aspirations thanks to its Atlantic Coast Conference successes against Duke and North Carolina. All Cincinnati did was win 62-56 behind Sean Kilpatrick’s 18 points. Cincinnati’s 36.2 rebounds per game are 87th in the country, but the Bearcats are out of the top 100 otherwise.
This is the first time since December 2006 these teams have faced each other and only the second time since Cincinnati’s back-to-back national titles in 1961 and 1962 that these teams have faced each other. It is also Cincinnati’s first regional semifinal appearance since 2001. The 1-2 punch of Sullinger and Thomas will be tough to overcome, but Cincinnati may be a team to do it. As it is now, expect Ohio State to move on, although it will be a squeaker and it could even go to overtime.