The NCAA Tournament reclaims center stage on the sporting universe tonight with a quad of fantastic and intriguing games. Granted, more television eyes are likely to be attracted tomorrow with blue blood household names like Duke, Louisville, Michigan State, Kansas, Michigan, Florida and national darling Florida Gulf Coast all taking the court, but tonight features at least one game as equally compelling and a few others with the potential to be classics.
For this first column, let’s focus on the two early games and see if we can find a winning edge.
Marquette Warriors vs. Miami Hurricanes -5.5
I have read a few articles about how lucky Marquette is to have survived this far (which is true after escapes against Davidson and Butler) and even an article on Yahoo re-seeding the sixteen remaining teams and seeding Marquette 16th, behind La Salle, Wichita State and Florida Gulf Coast. That’s ridiculous. This is a team that won a share of the regular season Big East title, and that conference includes Louisville, Syracuse and Georgetown.
I agree that Marquette was a teeny bit over-seeded as a #3, but it is still a quality basketball team. And at the end of the day, all Buzz Williams’ teams do is WIN close games. Marquette has only lost three games by more than six points the ENTIRE SEASON. They don’t get blown out often, in fact, the games are usually thrillers for forty or more minutes.
So can they keep it close tonight? Vegas doesn’t seem too confident they can. The line is at 5.5 after opening at 5 or 4.5 and public money heading Miami’s way. The Hurricanes are a better team and have some big bodies to bang with Marquette and their grinding Big East style, but the biggest of those bodies is not playing tonight, Reggie Johnson. Yes, the Canes have played plenty without Johnson earlier this season and fared well, but it is a HUGE loss (no pun intended). It puts a lot of pressure on Kenny Kadji to have a big game and avoid foul trouble.
I still like Miami to advance, but I think this will be a lot like the Illinois game; very tight with one or two big plays late deciding the outcome. I’ll bet on Shane Larkin to make one or two more plays than Vander Blue and for the Canes to dance onward… but I’ll take Marquette with the points.
Free Pick: Marquette Warriors +5.5
Arizona Wildcats vs. Ohio State Buckeyes -3
This game has the closest Vegas line of any of the eight regional semfinals, and for good reason. Arizona, much like the AZ team of several years ago with Derrick Williams, has peaked upon entering the NCAA Tournament and looked like the dominant team their collection of talent suggests they should be. Arizona is big with Caleb Tarczewski and Soloman Hill, athletic in Nick Johnson and Keith Parrom and led by an explosive, experienced senior point guard in Xavier transfer Mark Lyons. On paper, they have more talent and a better lineup than the Buckeyes.
But they don’t have Aaron Craft. He might be the best on-ball defender in the country and I expect him to be in Lyons’ kitchen all night long. Mark Lyons scored a season-high 27 points in the second round, but don’t look for him to light it up tonight, even if he tries… and therein lies the trouble for Arizona. Will Lyons remain steady and calm despite a few turnovers and some physical clutching and grabbing by Craft and the Buckeyes?
This is a really good matchup between two teams with radically different styles. Ironically, it also featurs the last two coaches at Xavier and a coaching rematch of a classic overtime tourney game between Ohio State and Xavier five years ago. The point in that fun fact is that these two coaches have squared off before and are familiar with each other, so the style contrast might not be as big a factor as it could otherwise be.
Instead, this game is going to come down to which team can disrupt the other more and better prevent them from getting comfortable. Aside from Louisville, I can’t think of a team in the country that does that better than the Buckeyes. Give me OSU behind big games from Thomas and Lenzelle Smith Jr. to come up big and will the Buckeyes to a regional final date they will be heavily favored to win. This game become even MORE enormous when you consider the winner awaits the winner of Wichita State and La Salle for a trip to Atlanta…
Free Pick: Ohio State Buckeyes -3