by Neil Morris
Nevertheless, the ACC beat writers for Indyweek Sports—which is what we’re calling ourselves nowadays; click and follow our new Google+ page for further proof—have been faithfully churning out copy. Adam Sobsey was our eye and ears for last weekend’s happenings in Greensboro, while Mike Potter has been tracking the NCAA Women’s Tournament from Chapel Hill and Raleigh.
Next weekend, North Carolina and N.C. State will fly to St. Louis for the Midwest Regional Finals, both teams one win away from the most epic showdown in the history of the schools’ basketball rivalry. After I offer some thoughts on N.C. State’s seemingly improbable run to the Sweet 16, Rob Harrington looks at the strategic fallout for North Carolina in the wake of Kendall Marshall’s injury. Finally, Mike Potter updates the recent (mis)fortunes of ACC teams in women’s postseason tournament play.
For N.C. State, unfamiliarity breeds contentment
For the Wolfpack, the certitude with which coaches, players and supporters now speak about the team’s NCAA Tourney hopes “all along” is belied by the wide-eyed frenzy greeting each successive step across the bracket, including, in fact, their inclusion on the bracket in the first place.
Two observations occur to me while watching N.C. State’s wins last weekend. First, the Wolfpack are feasting on teams that are unfamiliar with the respective strengths of their players. Inside the familiarity of ACC competition, opponents know that Lorenzo Brown looks to effective dribble drives, Scott Wood only needs six inches of daylight to fire his deadeye jumpers, Richard Howell is a deceptively skilled rebounder, C.J. Williams is a deceptively skilled midrange shooter and Calvin Leslie is one of the quickest, most agile face-up forwards in college basketball. Even with the benefit of game film to preview, teams that haven’t already faced the Pack once or twice this season have to figure these things out on the fly … too late to avoid elimination in the case of Georgetown and San Diego State.
Second, one of the Pack’s most glaring weaknesses throughout the regular season has become an advantage. A tournament setting is no place to start worrying about managing minutes and consolidating rotations. Deep teams such as Florida State and Virginia—which had 10 players each averaging double-digit minutes per game—are out of the tournament. The teams that ousted them—Cincinnati and Florida—feature only eight and nine players, respectively, averaging more than 10 minutes per game throughout the season.
While foul trouble is the Damoclean sword constantly dangling over the Pack’s collective head., N.C. State’s concise, predetermined seven-man rotation affords an environment where every players knows who is playing and what their particular roles are. Ironically, this is also one of the strengths of Kansas, the Wolfpack’s Friday night opponent. The Jayhawks have only eight players averaging double-digits minutes and, more significantly, their five starters each average over 30 minutes per games.—Neil Morris
North Carolina and life without Kendall Marshall?
Kendall Marshall's injury poses deep and expansive questions beyond the obvious. First, Carolina will play an opponent on Friday—Ohio, the weakest team still alive in the tournament, according to KenPom.com—that the Heels likely knew little about before this week.
The Bobcats defeated two of the slowest-paced teams in the field when they dispatched Michigan and South Florida. Carolina will present not only a formidable talent upgrade but also a formidable uptempo offense, beyond anything the Bobcats have faced thus far. Ohio itself plays at an above-average pace, so for the second-straight game Carolina will face a squad that won't attempt to take the air out of the ball to limit possessions.
But without Marshall, how much can Carolina really run? Roy Williams says he intends to push the ball after turnovers and missed shots, adding that only Marshall possesses the ability to quarterback transition offense after an opponent's made basket. If he can't play, UNC's standard desire to maximize the number of possessions will be suppressed.
Stilman White and Justin Watts are Marshall’s most likely replacements. White is a true point guard, but the freshman is limited athletically, doesn't shoot particularly well and suffers from defensive limitations. Watts, on the other hand, is a forward who lacks playmaking ability, but he is strong, athletic and experienced. The downside to both options is that neither player throws much scoring punch, amplifying the pressure on wings Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock to initiate offense.
Additionally, look for Williams to employ greater structure. Carolina prefers a freelance offense predicated on spontaneous player movement, but without a proper floor general the Heels likely will call more set plays with Romney-esque mechanization than what anyone is accustomed. Barnes and Bullock must work harder to receive the ball in open spots, and Tyler Zeller and John Henson also must become more aggressive screening for each other in the post.
Without Marshall, Carolina is a team begging to be zoned with the defense collapsing inside, forcing UNC to score from the perimeter (ironic, since until lately, Marshall’s perceived weakness was his perimeter shooting). Against stout opposition, the Heels also are more likely to face pressure defense designed to force turnovers. UNC lacks a good ball-handler at shooting guard—remember, Marshall and the fallen Dexter Strickland were the club's best two dribblers—and thus can't rely on one of the wings to serve as a consistent safety valve.
But what if Marshall does play? Williams said during his radio show yesterday that the prospects appear unlikely, but he wouldn't commit to holding him out. Even if Marshall were to play 15-20 minutes at compromised effectiveness, his presence would alleviate pressure on the team to incorporate vast changes during a short time span.
And what of Ohio? The Bobcats must prepare for UNC as though Marshall will play, and yet they'd also like to attack UNC where it's vulnerable in case he doesn't. Do they game-plan to attack Carolina's ball-handlers or drop back into a zone to suffocate the interior scoring, or do they simply focus on the Heels as they know them and are able to scout more extensively on tape? No one knows how UNC will function without Marshall in the lineup, including Ohio.
The story begging to emerge the redemption of Harrison Barnes—to the extent he needs it in the first place. Touted as a preseason favorite for national player of the year, Barnes has enjoyed a good, but not great sophomore season and ceded ground to Zeller as the club's alpha performer. Without Marshall to feed the big men, the heroic Barnes who soared during last year's tournament would prove especially valuable at this fragile moment.—Rob Harrington
There no place like (close to) home
Tuesday is going to be a very big night for ACC Women’s Basketball. The sub-regional fates have already been determined for half of the conference’s four NCAA Tournament participants, all of them seeded teams.
Maryland, the No. 2 seed in the Raleigh Regional, escaped No. 7 seed Louisville 72-68 on Monday night at Comcast Center in College Park, Md. Behind Laurin Mincy’s 24 points along with 15 points and 14 rebounds from Tianna Hawkins, coach Brenda Frese’s 30-4 ACC champion Terps are next headed to the newly-renamed PNC Arena for a date with defending national champion Texas A&M on Sunday.
The Terps may have gotten some help from their home crowd, but the opposite was true for Miami, the No. 3 seed in the Kingston Regional. Coach Katie Meier’s Hurricanes were sent home after a 65-54 defeat at No. 11 seed Gonzaga despite 20 points and 13 rebounds from possible No. 1 draft pick Shenise Johnson.
Miami, playing in front of a near sellout of 5,824 Gonzaga fans at the McCarthey Center in Spokane, Wash., played without key senior guard Riquna Williams, who was left home because of unspecified conduct “detrimental to the team.” Talk about bad timing.
Speaking of bad timing, in the Fresno Region No. 2 seed Duke (25-5) suffered yet another injury when freshman center and leading scorer/rebounder Elizabeth Williams sustained a stress fracture in her right leg. Nevertheless, Williams says she intends to play through the pain.
Duke’s first-round opponent, No. 15 seed Southern Conference champion Samford, turned out to be easy pickings. But the Blue Devils’ next assignment against No. 7 seed Vanderbilt is on the Commodores’ home court—tip-off is 9:30 p.m.
Notice the odd pattern in the NCAA Women’s Tournament, where most of the time the early rounds are on a participant’s home court even if it’s the lower seed? UNC’s exclusion from the field may have turned out to be great news for Georgia Tech (25-8), the No. 4 seed in the Des Moines Region, which will take on Georgetown tonight at Carmichael Arena in what promises to be a very high-level game.
Meanwhile, N.C. State (19-16) had its heart broken in the WNIT last Saturday when it ran into the best team in Appalachian State history, resulting in a 66-62 Wolfpack loss at Reynolds Coliseum. The next challenge for the Mountaineers (27-6) will be a third-round contest Thursday night at Virginia (23-10), which the NCAA selection committee admitted was one of the last four teams not selected for its 64-team bracket. The Cavaliers are in their first season under Duke alumna Joanne Boyle and can further their complaint of being snubbed if they just keep on winning home games.
Wake Forest (20-14) was sent on the road twice by the WNIT and saw its season end in an 84-76 overtime loss at James Madison last Sunday. The lesson: in the WNIT, it pays to bid on those home games.—Mike Potter