The editors at Athlon Sports debate some of the hot topics surrounding the NCAA Tournament.
What No. 1 seed has the toughest remaining path to the Final Four?
Nathan Rush: Syracuse has not been the same since Fab Melo was suspended. The Orange were lucky to avoid becoming the first No. 1 seed to fall to a No. 16 in their nail-biter against UNC-Asheville. Coach Jim Boeheim’s team had the talent to advance to the Sweet 16, but beating a tough Wisconsin club and either Ohio State or Cincinnati will be too tall a task without the 7-foot Brazilian big man Melo on the floor.
Mitch Light: Tough call. I don’t think it’s North Carolina, even with Kendall Marshall’s injury. I will go with Michigan State. The Spartans will be tested by Louisville in the Sweet 16, but I’ll take Tom Izzo over Rick Pitino in the showdown of coaching legends. Then, Marquette — assuming it beats Florida — awaits. The Golden Eagles are very talented and are playing with a ton of confidence. The most intriguing matchup will be Jae Crowder vs. Draymond Green, two of the most versatile big men in the nation. Marquette was my Final Four pick out of the West before the Tournament began, and I’m sticking with Buzz Williams’ club.
Patrick Snow: I think it’s close between Michigan State and Syracuse, but the Spartans look to have a slightly more difficult road to New Orleans. First up for MSU is Louisville, a red-hot team with a coach who has taken three different schools to the Final Four. The Cardinals have been a very streaky team, and the Big East Tournament champions currently seem to be on a UConn-like tear from last season. If Tom Izzo’s bunch beats Louisville, it would face the winner of Marquette and Florida. The Golden Eagles have lost only three games since Jan. 11, and they have a pair of high-scoring seniors in Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder. Meanwhile, the Gators destroyed their competition in the first two tourney games and have five players who average in double-figures. I still expect the Spartans to make the Final Four, but the Phoenix regional will be difficult.
Braden Gall: Easily the Syracuse Orange. Wisconsin lives and dies by the 3-point shot, and we all know the easiest way to beat a zone is to knock down shots from the outside. They are physical, experienced and won’t back down from the challenge. Jim Boehiem is also staring at a matchup with either Cincinnati or Ohio State in the Elite 8. The Buckeyes offer both the interior strength to take advantage of the Melo-less defense and the outside shooting and perimeter defense to slow the outstanding trio of Syracuse guards. Even the defensively minded Bearcats have played the Orange tough this season, losing a close one at home during the regular season and knocking off the Orange in the Big East tourney. North Carolina will likely have to face Kansas, and Michigan State is staring at a brutal match-up with Marquette, but no team faces a potential two-game combo like Syracuse could endure — all without the Big East Defensive Player of the Year.
Mark Ross: Just as soon as North Carolina gets John Henson back against Creighton, Kendall Marshall fractures a bone in his right wrist in the win against the Bluejays. He hasn’t been ruled out of Friday’s game against Ohio, but even if Marshall does play, you have to assume he will be limited at the very least, perhaps even to the point of playing basically one-handed. As talented as the Tar Heels are, Marshall, who ranks second in the nation in assists, is clearly the engine that makes this offense run. Marshall has also been more assertive when it comes to scoring, as he has scored 11 or more points in each of the last six games. But Roy Williams doesn’t need Marshall to score — he needs him to run the offense, because the only options behind Marshall with any experience running the point are Stilman White and Justin Watts, who combined to average less than 12 minutes per game. Marshall, not surprisingly, leads the team at 33 minutes per game. Should Carolina get by Ohio, with or without Marshall, then an even tougher task looms against the winner of the Kansas-NC State tilt. Bottom line: The one time of the year you need to be at full strength is March and Carolina is anything but at this point.