NCAA Tournament Preview: North Carolina vs. Ohio

Mar 22, 2012; St. Louis, MO, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels guard Stilman White (11) goes for a lay up during practice the day before the semifinals of the midwest region of the 2012 NCAA men's basketball tournament at the Edward Jones Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-US PRESSWIRE

With Kendall Marshall almost certain not to play this evening, previewing the UNC-Ohio game becomes a bit of a challenge. The Tar Heels haven't taken the floor to start a game without Marshall since Larry Drew's last start in the 20-point loss to Georgia Tech in 2010. And while a lot of numbers have been crunched this week to speculate on the Tar Heels without Marshall, there's not much you can learn. His absences since Dexter Strickland's injury, while sparse, have typically been in the waning minutes of blowouts, or brief respites around timeouts. He gets all the playing time because the Tar Heels are significantly better with him on the floor. That's all you can really say.

The Ohio Bobcats — UNC's second opponent with the same feline mascot in as many weeks — are a known quantity, however, so let's focus on them. They are, by any measure, the worst team remaining in the tournament. But they beat two better teams to get to this point, fourth-seeded Michigan and twelfth-seeded South Florida. This is in part the result of an offense peaking at just the right time. The Bobcats have been playing very deliberate, scoring all but two of their points against Michigan in a half-court set. They play really small and shoot a lot of threes, with over 38% of their shots coming from behind the arc. Their leading scorer and most prolific shooter is their point guard, D.J. Cooper, who stands 5'11". He's not very efficient, but he's also 15th in the nation in assist rate despite jacking shots up at that rate. I salivate at the thought of a Cooper-Marshall head-to-head match, but it's not to be.

I wonder if Reggie Bullock will end up defending Cooper, because Ohio's other guard is also coming into his own this tournament. Walter Offutt, who began his career at Ohio State (where he watched from the bench as the 2010 Heels beat his team) before a brief sojourn at Wright State, is at 6'3" a streaky but hot shooter, more willing to penetrate the lane than his fellow guards. He had 21 points against Michigan in the opening round of the tournament. If that isn't enough to spread the defense, Ohio starts a third small guard, Nick Kellogg, 6'3" son of CBS analyst Clark Kellogg. Kellogg the younger is more dependent on the three than his teammates, but shoots an impressive 42% from behind the arc. He has one of the best true shooting percentages in the country. At least one of these shooters will be facing the long arms of Harrison Barnes, however, which should go some way in disrupting the Bobcat offense.

Inside, of course, Ohio has nothing to match Tyler Zeller and John Henson. The tournament games have seen them start Ivo Baltic and Jon Smith, while Reggie Keely, who typically gets more minutes than Smith, coming off the bench. All three are 6'7" or 6'8". Keely gets the most shot opportunities out of this bunch, with Smith barely shooting at all. Ohio's rebounding skills are pretty poor, especially on the defensive end, and an offensive board often results in a kick out for another three, like you see against Duke. Presumably like the Blue Devils, Ohio will really try to spread the floor, but UNC's quickness and reach should make even that difficult.

Ohio's defense is it's strong point, but it can be divided into two parts. Their rebounding and fouling numbers are horrible; Zeller in particular should feast on this defense. Their shooting defense and steal generation are great however. They have fifteen steals in two tournament games to date, and have held their opponents to outright dismal shooting from three. If there's a team I don't want to face with a novice point guard, and quick-trigger guards, it's Ohio. (The game is also in a dome, which throws off a lot of shooters.) But the Bobcats also like to defend from a half-court set. It's not a coincidence that their two upsets in the tournament came against teams who are 323rd and 349th in tempo. If Carolina doesn't give them time to get into a half-court set, that steal ability goes away. And if there's one thing I've noticed in the brief times Stillman White is on the floor, it's that the team pushes the tempo just as hard or harder as with Marshall. You don't see the fabulous, how did that get there passes of the All-American, but White, or Barnes or Bullock will still try to beat the defense down the floor. Ohio hasn't really imposed their pace on their opponents this season; if UNC runs, UNC wins.

Which brings us back around to Carolina's point guard. I'd expect White to start, but we should see a lot of Justin Watts, especially on defense. Watts' skill as a defender and especially a rebounder are often overlooked, and while Ohio doesn't send their guards to crash too many boards, a quick grab from Watts can get the break going. I'd expect the Bobcats, like a lot of opponents unfamiliar with the Heels, to not challenge for offensive rebounds and focus on getting back on D. Even so, UNC can push things faster still, and they should get the win despite being so short-handed when it comes to ball-handlers. How well they defeat Ohio will show us a lot about how this team will handle an Elite Eight opponent. I have no idea how that might go, but it shouldn't prevent a win over the Bobcats.

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