The court at Newark’s Prudential Center will be bathed in blue for the first game of the East regional semifinal between Marquette and North Carolina on Friday night.
The contest between the 11th-seeded Golden Eagles and second-seeded Tar Heels pits blue collars and blue bloods, with gritty Marquette taking the former role. While North Carolina boasts a roster of former high school blue-chippers (there’s that color again), three-fifths of the Golden Eagles' starting lineup and two of their main bench contributors came from the junior college ranks — as did their coach, Buzz Williams.
“To endure the culture we have here, you have to have something to you as a
human,” Williams told reporters this week. “Does that mean you’re more hungry because you’ve maybe not had some of the things that some other kids have had? There’s probably some truth to that.”
The question now is, how far can true grit take Williams’ team? That’s a big one, considering the sterling front line the Tar Heels will throw against his group. Seven-foot junior center Tyler Zeller, who scored 55 combined points against LIU and Washington, could severely overmatch Jae Crowder; a former junior college star, Crowder gives up six inches and a whole lot of polish to Zeller. And as physical as 6-foot-7 Marquette swingman Jimmy Butler can be, his Tar Heel counterpart, Harrison Barnes, has been twice as productive during the tournament.
The only area where the teams are evenly matched is at point guard, where UNC’s Kendall Marshall will have to contend with Darius Johnson-Odom to reach his 12-assist tournament average.
Marquette’s half-court offense should slow down the running Tar Heels. And then there’s that blue-collar attitude of Williams and his junior college kids.
“A lot of junior college kids had to fight their way into programs,” Johnson-Odom said this week. “You don‘t really see that much success with a lot of junior college kids. And Buzz, he installs that success in you.”
It’s just a matter of whether that’s enough to overcome a program whose blue-chip recruiting has produced two national titles under Roy Williams.
Friday's NCAA tournament Sweet 16 matchups
San Antonio, Texas
(1) Kansas (34-2) vs. (12) Richmond (29-7)
Friday, 7:15 pm TBS
Don’t even think about an historic upset. Kansas has way too many bodies to throw at Richmond, even if the spunky Spiders do control sharp-shooting Marcus Morris and board sweeper Markieff Morris up front and distributor Tyshawn Taylor in the back. Even if Dan
Geriot and Justin Harper neutralize the frontal attack, Kansas can still call on sixth-man Thomas Robinson, a sure starter for most other teams, perimeter shooter Tyrel Reed, defender Brady Morningstar and playmaker Josh Selby.
(11) VCU (26-11) vs. (10) Florida State (23-10)
Friday, 9:55 pm TBS
You like defense? You’ll love this matchup between VCU’s full-court pressure and the Seminoles’ smothering half-court schemes. While the Rams create turnovers, Florida State forces teams into bad shots. The difference may come down to rebounding, where FSU’s Bernard James has to match up with VCU’s Jamie Skeen, averaging 17.6 points over the past eight games. Bradford Burgess and Joey Rodriguez give the Rams a backcourt edge.
(11) Marquette (22-14) vs. (2) North Carolina (28-7)
Friday, 7 p.m. CBS
See main article above
(1) Ohio State (34-2) vs. (4) Kentucky (27-8)
Friday, 9:30 p.m. CBS
If the Wildcats had issues controlling the inside in a two-point win over second-round opponent Princeton, imagine what the inside-outside combo of Jared Sullinger and David Lighty can do here. DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller are going to have to play tough D at the 3-point arc for the young, sometimes careless, Wildcats to slow the Buckeyes' perimeter game. Lighty and William Buford led an Ohio State onslaught from 3 last time out, draining 16 treys.