No.15 LIU vs. No.2 North Carolina – East Region
Friday, March 18
On LIU: The Blackbirds have enjoyed a renaissance of sorts as they return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997. They have an extremely potent offense that features four double-digit scorers. Julian Boyd, Jamal Olasewere, David Hicks and Kyle Johnson are all averaging between 10.8 and 12.9 points per game. Junior point guard C.J. Garner is averaging 9.1 points per contest. Collectively, the team has been excellent on the boards and is third in the country (41.8). The Blackbirds, who are riding a nation’s-best 13-game winning streak, also have ample depth, with three quality underclassmen –Jason Brickman, Michael Culpo, Kenny Onyechi– off the bench. The question surrounding LIU (27-5) is size. The Blackbirds have just one player on their roster over 6-7, seldom-used Milos Nikolic.
On North Carolina: The Tar Heels (26-7) have one thing LIU doesn’t, size. Tyler Zeller (14.5 ppg, 7.2 reb), a 7-foot, 250-pound bruiser, could be a problem for the Blackbirds. So could 6-10 sophomore John Henson (11.5. ppg, 9.8 reb). Freshman sensation Harrison Barnes, who had 40 points and eight rebounds in North Carolina’s ACC tournament semifinal win over Clemson, will also be a load to deal with. UNC’s backcourt combo of Kendall Marshall and Dexter Strickland could be the deciding factor. Neither one is a great scorer, but both can pass the ball.
Assessment: LIU will need to play at a fast pace. If Jim Ferry’s crew gets caught up in a half battle with the Tar Heels, it could be lights out quickly. Spreading the floor and taking advantage of their quality wing players will be important for LIU. Can the Blackbirds pull off the upset? They’ll need a supreme effort on both sides of the ball to answer that question.
No.6 St. John’s vs. No.11 Gonzaga – Southeast Region
Thursday, March 17
On St. Johns: The big news was senior wing D.J. Kennedy being lost for the season with a torn ACL. It’s not the end of the world for the Red Storm (21-11), who have eight other seniors ready to step in and take charge. Dwight Hardy (18 ppg) is a legitimate star and NBA prospect. He is joined by Justin Brownlee (12.2 ppg, 5.3 reb) and Paris Horne (7.8). The key to the Red Storm’s run might be the play of Sean Evans. Evans rode the bench the first half of the season. But he’s been strong for the last six weeks. He had games of 13 points and nine rebounds against Rutgers and 11 points and 12 rebounds against Syracuse in the Big East tournament. Steve Lavin needs that Evans to emerge for St. John’s to survive.
Kennedy’s loss will be hurt on defense a lot more. Kennedy’s ability to defense multiple positions and hit the boards could be missed. Fortunately, the Storm has another quality forward in the paint in senior Justin Burrell. Burrell played strong in Thursday’s loss to Syracuse with nine points and five rebounds. He had 15 points and eight rebounds in a win against Pittsburgh and 10 points and 12 rebounds in a win at Marquette.
On Gonzaga: The Bulldogs (24-9) biggest advantage is that they can shoot. Steven Gray (13.8), Robert Sacre (12.5) and Elias Harris (12.1) are all efficient offensive players who can score 20 on any given night. The Bulldogs shot .479 from the field and .366 from three-point range. But they are not particularly strong in the paint, although Sacre (7-feet, 260) is a load to deal with.
Assessment: This won’t be an easy game for the Red Storm due to Gonzaga’s perimeter prowess and Sacre. If St. John’s rotates in its zone properly, however, they could pick up some long rebounds for some easy baskets.
No.14 St. Peter’s vs. No.3 Purdue – Southwest
Friday, March 18
On St. Peter’s: The Peacocks (20-13) have depth and experience, two things that have always been a help to the mid-majors. Senior guard Wesley Jenkins (12.8 ppg) is the ringleader who shoots 41 percent from three-point range. Nick Leon (10.6 ppg, .367 3pt) is another long-range bomber St. Peter’s will be able to count on. Like most mid-majors, will the Peacocks have the size to battle Purdue? Ryan Bacon is the team’s best rebounder, but he’s only 6-7 and built like a rail at 200 pounds. Darius Conley has been a solid contributor off the bench. He’ll have to throw around his 6-7, 235-pound frame if St. Peter’s is going to have a chance.
On Purdue: It’s all about JaJuan Johnson (20.5 ppg, 8.5 reb) and E’Twaun Moore (18.2 ppg, 5.1 reb) for Purdue (25-7). Both players have warranted All-American consideration. Lewis Jackson, Ryne Smith and Kelsey Barlow are solid backcourt trio who each knows how to get the ball inside and out to the wing.
Assessment: St. Peter’s will need to gang up on Johnson and Moore if it is going to have a chance. Spreading the ball and creating open looks on the perimeter is the only way St. Peter’s will be able to stay in this one.