When compared to Thursday's slate the four matchups on Friday may leave a little to be desired for the casual fan, with a double-digit seed playing in three of the four games. The lone exception is Kentucky/Indiana, who staged a classic back in December. Here are some thoughts on the four games to be played in Atlanta and St. Louis.
South Region (Atlanta)
(3) Baylor vs. (10) Xavier (7:15 PM, CBS)
When looking solely at the match-ups in the paint the battle between the Bears and Musketeer could look a lot like Baylor's 2010 Sweet 16 game against Saint Mary's. Scott Drew's team had the edge in terms of both depth and size as the overwhelmed Omar Samhan and company to advance to the Elite 8. Baylor enjoys an advantage inside against Xavier as well, with the biggest question being which Kenny Frease shows up: the one who struggled mightily against St. Bonaventure in the A-10 tournament title, or the one who played well in wins over Notre Dame and Lehigh last weekend?
With the Musketeers having two of the best guards remaining in the field in Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons, they're going to need Frease, Andre Walker and even Travis Taylor to hold their own in the paint. The word "warrior" fits Baylor's Quincy Acy perfectly, and in Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller the Bears have two likely lottery picks whenever they decide to head to the next level. Cory Jefferson and Anthony Jones also factor into the rotation, and if they can rebound at a solid rate (Baylor rebounds 38% of their misses) it could be a rough evening for the Xavier bigs.
Clearly Xavier's chances of winning lie on the shoulders of Holloway and Lyons, and if those two can control the flow of the game it's more than possible that they win. Both shoot 43% from the field with Lyons being the better three-point shooter, and they'll need to post solid assist-to-turnover ratios as well. Dezmine Wells, who sprained his ankle in the win over Lehigh, will also factor into the Musketeer attack. Baylor's guards have improved as the season has progressed, which should make for a fun match-up on the perimeter.
Brady Heslip, nicknamed the "Downtown Canadian", shot the ball extremely well in Albuquerque last week and it will be interesting to see if he can continue to do so with the sight lines of the Georgia Dome. Pierre Jackson is their best playmaker and A.J. Walton has increased his impact down the stretch. As a team Baylor has a slightly better A/T ratio (1.08 to Xavier's 1.04) but they turn the ball over on a higher percentage of their possessions (20.5% to 18.6%). If Frease and company can hold their own inside Xavier has a shot, making that the biggest key to tomorrow's game.
(1) Kentucky vs. (4) Indiana (9:45 PM, CBS)
Lost count of how many times ESPNU has shown the replay of their December 10th meeting in Bloomington this week? Can't blame you if you have, but with that being the Wildcats' lone regular season defeat (losing to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament final) there's good reason why many would look back to that game for keys on how to beat Kentucky. But to be fair John Calipari's team is a different group now than they were back in December, with the play of Terrence Jones and Marquis Teague being two reasons why.
Teague, who played well in the regular season meeting between the two, has improved in regards to knowing when to establish his own offense and when to get Kentucky's other weapons involved. The Indianapolis native has a better A/T ratio (1.7) than any of Indiana's guards, and unless the Hoosiers give the responsibility of defending Teague to Victor Oladipo it remains to be seen who can slow him down. Jones' issue is similar to that of Baylor's Perry Jones III. When he's engaged and fully invested in the action, he's very difficult to slow down. And when paired with Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, that trio can wreak havoc when clicking on all cylinders.
Indiana was able to get Davis in foul trouble, limiting his impact on the game. Davis can clearly move his feet on the perimeter but it wouldn't be a surprise if the Hoosiers looked to run some early pick and roll action with Cody Zeller to not just take Davis away from the rim but to also see if they can pick up an early foul (or two) on the phenom. Zeller will be a key figure for the Hoosiers but so will Christian Watford, whose ability to play on the perimeter should match up well with Kidd-Gilchrist. The key for Watford will be to hit the glass; playing outside is fine but not at the expense of those "tough" plays in the paint.
Kentucky's the better team on the glass and they're the more efficient of the two both offensively and defensively as well. But IU won the first meeting by being the more efficient team in spite of 18 turnovers, a result of their ability to hold their own on the glass (30-30) and shooting 60% from three. Clearly if those things happen again Indiana will be in good position to win, but that's asking an awful lot of the Hoosiers. Jordan Hulls and Will Sheehey will be key figures on the perimeter, with Indiana needing to win the backcourt battle if they're to advance.
Midwest Region (St. Louis)
(1) North Carolina vs. (13) Ohio (7:47 PM, TBS)
North Carolina hasn't enjoyed the greatest of luck with wrists this month, first having John Henson injure his left wrist during the ACC tournament and then having Kendall Marshall break his right wrist against Creighton on Sunday. Marshall's injury is the one to watch approaching Friday night's battle with Ohio, with it being unlikely that the sophomore plays despite getting the cast removed. Whether or not Marshall plays however, UNC is going to have a heck of a time figuring out how to slow down Bobcat point guard D.J. Cooper.
Cooper leads the Bobcats in scoring and assists while also grabbing 3.8 rebounds per game, and with an A/T ratio of 2.0 he's a more than sound decision-maker as well. Be it Justin Watts or Stilman White's who's at the point at any given time, UNC has to figure out a way to slow down Cooper. Do that and they slow down John Groce's offense as a whole. Nick Kellogg and Walter Offutt are both solid shooters with the latter also being Ohio's second-leading scorer, yet as a team they shoot just 43% from the field and essentially break even on assists (13.1 per game) and turnovers (13.0).
UNC has been far better in that area thanks in large part to Marshall, but it remains to he seen how well they do if he can't go. Ohio's forced 17 turnovers per game this season, and if they can approach that number on Friday night the Bobcats would have a shot. But can Ivo Baltic and company play well enough inside against Henson and Tyler Zeller? That's the biggest question mark for Ohio, who doesn't have a player taller than 6-8 in their rotation. Reggie Keely will be another banger in the paint for Ohio but UNC is the far superior rebounding team, and with Harrison Barnes on the wing there will be some difficult match-ups for Ohio to address.
North Carolina averages 1.13 points/possession on the season, but two of their losses (Duke at home at Florida State in the ACC title game) have come when they've exceeded that number. The reason against Florida State was defense, as the Seminoles scored 1.21 points/possession. Duke was able to pull off a miraculous comeback in the final three minutes, so there may not be as much to read into there. But Ohio doesn't have the size that Florida State has, making it tough to see them being able to go blow for blow with Henson and Zeller. That doesn't mean that the Bobcats can't win; just means that completing the task will be very difficult.
(2) Kansas vs. (11) NC State (10:17 PM, TBS)
The nightcap in St. Louis will be a very interesting battle as the Wolfpack have interior depth to throw at Kansas. Purdue was able to be physical with the All-American, rotating players on Robinson to take advantage of the five fouls afforded to each. But Mark Gottfied, while he may have the bodies to do so, can't afford to have a Richard Howell, C.J. Leslie or C.J. Williams to end up in early foul trouble. That's been a problem for NC State when they've struggled this season, and it's a battle that the Pack have been able to avoid for the most part through two games in the Big Dance.
The key for Kansas inside will be the play of their rotation guys not named Robinson, with Jeff Withey clearly being the most important. Withey, who has improved a great deal since last season, has scored in double figures just three times in the last nine games with all three being 11-point outings. Of greater importance will be his work on the glass, where after grabbing nine (and blocking five shots) against Detroit he was only able to corral two in 15 minutes of action on Sunday. Justin Wesley and Kevin Young also stand to see some action with Young grabbing seven boards against Purdue.
Leslie's a slender four who can run the floor with the best of them, and of his current stretch of 15 straight games in double figures he's shot below 42% from the field just twice with one being a 41.7% outing against Boston College. The Jayhawks and Wolfpack are rather similar when it comes to hitting the offensive glass (State has a OR% of 35.6% while Kansas is at 35.0%) but Kansas has done a better job of keeping their opponent from doing so. That could make a difference down the stretch, especially if NC State is dealing with foul trouble in the paint.
The battle at the point between Lorenzo Brown and Tyshawn Taylor should be fun to watch, with Young playing very well and Taylor looking to rebound from a subpar outing against Purdue. But at this point it's known what Taylor will bring to the table, making the production of Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford all the more important.
Johnson was outstanding on Sunday; without him this is a preview of Purdue/NC State as opposed to Kansas. If he can bring a similar performance (18 points, four rebounds) to the table Kansas will be tough to beat. Defensively they need to keep an eye on Scott Wood, one of the ACC's best shooters, and if NC State can get some open looks without relying on the three too much they're more than capable of springing the upset.