Darius Johnson-Odom of Marquette drives to the basket against Dion Waiters of Syracuse during the NCAA tournament.
I spent much of last weekend driving up and down the east coast, which with the tournament in full swing gave me lots of time to flip around AM radio. As a result I got to hear a lot of the local broadcasts for various teams – Xavier, Syracuse, Georgia, and VCU, if I recall. (I also caught a fair amount of sports talk radio out of Kentucky, which was horrifying, frankly.) Every team's broadcasting team has probably a higher opinion of their guys than the world at large, but Georgia's acted like they were the favorite to win the entire thing, and Syracuse's like they already had won, and this was some post-championship goodwill tour. Which, I'll admit made their despondence at the end of the lost to Marquette rather entertaining to listen to. What can I say? I enjoy reveling in Big East misery as much as anyone.
One thing the Orange broadcast team kept emphasizing as their team fell apart, however, was just how tired Syracuse was. Marquette doesn't pay at a significantly faster pace than Syracuse does, so they weren't running them out of the gym. They were beating them up inside, and doing so without fouling – Syracuse only went to the free throw line seven times. That's the typical way the Golden Eagles play. They're very controlled, and don't foul, even at the expense of their defense, which often trailed most of the Big East. When their offense is on, however, they can beat anyone.
Said offense goes primarily through two players, Darius Johnson-Odom and Jimmy Butler. Johnson-Odom was primarily a three-point specialist on one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country last season. This year both he and his team have moved away from that and toward drives inside. Johnson-Odom is still a danger from the outside, but now he's just as likely to head to the bucket, and equally as effective. Butler is a 6'7" swingman who will hit the occasional three, but gets most of his points inside as well. The real key to this game will be the third member of this offense, Jae Crowder. Crowder, a junior transfer from Howard, has the lowest turnover rate in the nation, is the team's biggest rebounder... and is only 6'6". He plays bigger, but the majority of UNC's starting lineup is taller than that, and it's going to be tough for Crowder to get much with John Henson and his reach on the court. We'll probably see more of Chris Otule and little-used Davante Gardner than most opponents of the Golden Eagles. Both are prone to foul trouble.
Marquette's defense, as I said, is beatable, although the Golden Eagles do have a lot of players to harass you with on the wing. Point guards Junior Cadougan and Dwight Buycks, along with Vander Blue will all see time defending Kendall Marshall. But inside, they just don't have the size to handle the Carolina's post players. They'll play some zone, and collapse on them, but if any of UNC's perimeter players get hot – and Marquette's three-point defense leaves something to be desired – the Golden Eagles will have to play defense straight-up, and that should go poorly. If the Tar Heels can keep the turnovers to the minimum and control the boards, they should have a relatively easy road to the regional final on Sunday. If they revert to earlier, poorer, form they could end up a victim of the Big East yet.