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Harrison Barnes and preseason No. 1 North Carolina aims to end the year on top.
2012 NCAA Tournament
Top Two – North Carolina (1), Kansas (2)
The North Carolina Tar Heels (29–5, 14–2 ACC) were the preseason No. 1 team in the country in nearly every poll, including Athlon Sports’ preseason top 25. And although UNC is still stacked — with all-world sophomore wingman Harrison Barnes (17.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg), 7-foot senior center Tyler Zeller (16.4 ppg, 9.2 rpg), shot-blocking junior forward John Henson (13.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 2.9 bpg) and pass-first point guard Kendall Marshall (7.5 ppg, 9.7 apg) — there are more questions circling the Tar Heels in March than there were in November, when Carolina opened the year with a win over Michigan State on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier. The Tar Heels’ toughness and end-game finishing ability are issues of concern in Chapel Hill. Coach Roy Williams has won two national titles (2005, 2009) at North Carolina and been to a combined seven Final Fours (at UNC and Kansas). The question is whether or not this year’s team can win it all in New Orleans — the city in which Dean Smith won his two national championships, in 1982 and 1993.
The Kansas Jayhawks (27–6, 16–2 Big 12) are led by a national player of the year candidate in 6’10” junior Thomas Robinson (17.9 ppg, 11.8 rpg) and a senior point guard in Tyshawn Taylor (17.3 ppg, 4.8 apg). But KU is far from a two-man team; junior combo guard Elijah Johnson (9.6 ppg, 3.8 apg), 7-foot junior Jeff Withey (9.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.3 bpg) and junior slasher Travis Releford (8.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg) give coach Bill Self the type of veteran experience and leadership most powerhouse programs have not seen in decades. The Jayhawks have no bad losses on their resume — with all six defeats coming against NCAA Tournament teams (Kentucky, Duke, Davidson, Iowa State, Missouri, Baylor) — and will be a tough out once the ball is tipped on this year’s Tourney. Still, doubters will continue to point to Self’s back-to-back first round exits in 2005 and 2006, when Kansas was a No. 3 and No. 4 seed, respectively.
Player to Watch – Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan (4)
The heir to the UTEP two-step fortune, Hardaway Jr. (14.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg) does not have the same killer crossover as his old man but he does have the same killer instinct in big games. The 6’6” sophomore from Miami has become the centerpiece of the Wolverines’ attack. Michigan had a 4–5 record in games the remarkably consistent Hardaway scored 10 or fewer points; the Maize-and-Blue’s other four losses were against Duke, Indiana and Ohio State twice — big time competition Hardaway averaged 16.5 points per game against.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – Temple (5)
A veteran backcourt trio consisting of senior Philly native Ramone Moore (17.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.5 apg), junior combo guard Khalif Wyatt (17.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.4 apg) and senior Argentine point guard Juan Fernandez (11.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.9 apg) — all of whom are 6’4” matchup nightmares — lead an Owls club that has a high basketball IQ collectively. As a team, Temple shoots 47.2 percent from the field, 71.8 percent from the free throw line and 40.2 percent from 3-point range, all while averaging 23 assists-plus-steals compared to 13 turnovers per game.
Upset Pick – Belmont (14) over Georgetown (3)
Coach Rick Byrd has over 500 wins at Belmont, but has yet to notch his first victory in the NCAA Tournament — despite coming painfully close against Duke (71–70) in 2008. This could be the year that changes. Bruins are making their fifth trip to the NCAA Tournament in seven seasons with a team that has six players who average between 8.5 and 14.1 points per game. Junior point guard Kerron Johnson (14.1 ppg, 5.2 apg) runs the show and will need to be a difference maker against Georgetown — the school that beat Belmont 80–55 in 2007.