Favorite: Ohio State. With Kansas out of the picture, the Buckeyes are the new team to beat in the Midwest Region. Although it hasn’t played its best yet, Ohio State has the pieces to get to Indianapolis. The Buckeyes overcame poor shooting nights from Evan Turner and David Lighty to beat UC Santa Barbara in the first round by 17, then held Georgia Tech’s lottery pick post duo of Gani Lawal and Derrick Favors to 21 points and eight rebounds in a nine-point second round win. Turner leads the way for this team; the National Player of the Year has shown he can carry the Buckeyes for multiple games. Jon Diebler is a lights-out three-point shooter. He is averaging 21.5 points and has gone 11-for-22 from behind the arc in the NCAA Tournament. William Buford can create his own shot, while David Lighty is one of the most versatile defenders in the country. Dallas Lauderdale doesn’t provide much offensively, but he has totaled 16 rebounds and 11 blocks in two games. The Buckeyes don’t have much depth, which could haunt them eventually. Against Tennessee, Ohio State needs to handle the Vols’ ball pressure and be sure to defend against dribble penetration.
Cinderella: Northern Iowa. The story of the Tournament so far – aside from parity – was the Panthers’ upset of top-seeded Kansas in the second round on Saturday. Ali Farokhmanesh has been the hero for UNI, hitting the game-winning 27-footer against UNLV in the first round and then the clinching three against Kansas on Saturday. UNI has not shot the ball tremendously well, but it continues to make clutch baskets and make big stops on the defensive end. Keeping games in the half-court has been key, as well. Farokhmanesh has hit nine three-pointers and is averaging 16.5 points, while Kwadzo Ahelegbe needs to find his shot – he is just 4-for-17 thus far. Up front, 7-0 center Jordan Eglseder has been supremely effective, averaging 11.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in 18.0 minutes. Adam Koch is a versatile inside-outside forward who needs to be more aggressive. The Panthers have received steady point guard play from Johnny Moran, as well as great production from their bench. Back-ups are scoring 17.5 points per game for UNI. With Michigan State’s Kalin Lucas out, the Panthers should be able to win the tempo battle, but will need to be sure to keep the Spartans off the glass.
Most intriguing personnel match-up: Ohio State’s Evan Turner vs. Tennessee’s J.P. Prince. Two of the most versatile perimeter players in the country, both Turner and Prince are the keys to their respective teams. Turner is the best player in the country, and his ability to score, rebound and distribute is unbelievable. He bounced back from a rough first round, and is now averaging 16.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 7.0 assists in the Big Dance. Prince has plenty of talent, but he has been inconsistent throughout his college career. The 6-7 lefty is excellent in transition and can get to the basket effectively. Prince is playing well lately, scoring in double-figures in seven of his last eight games, including both NCAA Tournament contests. He has the size and length to slow down Turner’s penetration ability. If Turner is able to take care of the ball – he had nine turnovers against Georgia Tech – and get into the lane, Tennessee is in trouble.
First-weekend knockout that will be here next year: San Diego State. A lot of this hinges on early-entries, considering Georgetown (Greg Monroe), Kansas (Cole Aldrich, Xavier Henry) and Georgia Tech (Derrick Favors, Gani Lawal) will be big-time contenders next season if everyone returns. As it stands, the Aztecs look like a team poised to win a couple of games in March next season. SDSU will return all five starters from a team that won 10 of its last 12 games and nearly knocked off Tennessee in the first round. Kawhi Leonard and Malcolm Thomas are an excellent forward tandem, while Billy White is another athletic frontcourt player. D.J. Gay was impressive as a freshman point guard. UNLV also returns most of its key players, and will get Kentucky transfer Derrick Jasper back from injury.
All-First Weekend Team:
- Guard- Ali Farokhmanesh, Northern Iowa: 16.5 points, multiple clutch shots
- Guard- Jon Diebler, Ohio State: 21.5 points, 50% 3pt
- Guard- Evan Turner, Ohio State: 16.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 7.0 assists
- Guard- Greivis Vasquez, Maryland: 21.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 7.0 assists
- Forward- Marcus Morris, Kansas: 21.0 points, 7.0 rebounds
- Sixth Man- D.J. Cooper, Ohio: 19.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 2.5 steals