Commentary

Hoops? Don't pass on The Rock, baby!

Final Four bid at stake when Ohio State, UNC, Kentucky and Marquette visit Newark

Updated: March 24, 2011, 2:12 PM ET
By Kieran Darcy | ESPNNewYork.com

The local New York metro-area teams all made early exits from this year's NCAA tournament. But that doesn't mean the fun is over.

The Prudential Center -- aka The Rock -- in Newark, N.J., will host the Big Dance's East Regional for the first time, starting on Friday night.

Here's a preview of what we're about to watch:

THE FAVORITE

Ohio State (34-2, 16-2): The Buckeyes are the top overall seed in the tournament and have to be considered the odds-on favorite to advance to the Final Four out of Jersey. Their only two losses came in a three-game stretch in mid-February at Wisconsin (71-67) and at Purdue (76-63). They have had no trouble in their first two games of this tourney, walloping Texas-San Antonio 75-46 and George Mason 98-66.

Key Players: Four Buckeyes average in double-figures in scoring, led by 6-foot-9, 280-pound freshman Jared Sullinger, who averages a double-double (17.1 points per game, 10.0 rebounds per game) and is shooting 54.3 percent from the field. Senior sharpshooter Jon Diebler (12.6 ppg) has drained 110 of 220 3-point attempts this season; that 50 percent pace is tops in Division I among players with at least 100 attempts.

Key Stats: Ohio State as a team also leads the nation in 3-point shooting (42.4 percent). Two other key contributors are also effective from long range: 6-foot-5 junior William Buford (14.6 ppg, 44.4 3-pt percentage) and 6-foot-5 senior David Lighty (12.1 ppg, 43.5 3-point percentage). Also, the Buckeyes rank No. 2 in overall field-goal percentage (49.9 percent) and No. 3 in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.58-to-1). No glaring weaknesses show up on the stat sheet -- this team will be tough to beat.

THE CONTENDER

North Carolina (28-7, 14-2): These young Tar Heels got better as the season went along. After two disappointing losses in November (to Minnesota and Vanderbilt in Puerto Rico) and a mid-January hiccup at Georgia Tech, Roy Williams' club came on strong -- its only two losses after the Tech game on Jan. 16 came against Duke, once at Cameron Indoor and then in the ACC tournament championship game (the Heels also beat Duke in Chapel Hill to clinch the ACC regular-season title). UNC held off a pesky LIU squad in the first round of this tournament (102-87), then survived against Washington (86-83).

[+] EnlargeHarrison Barnes
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeThe play of Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall has been key to Carolina's resurgence.

Key Players: North Carolina has three players who average in double-figures in scoring, led by 6-foot-8 freshman Harrison Barnes (15.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and 7-foot junior Tyler Zeller (15.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 54.4 FG percentage). John Henson, a 6-foot-10 sophomore, averages a double-double (11.9 ppg, 10.1 rpg). And in the backcourt, 6-3 freshman Kendall Marshall is dishing out 6.1 assists per game -- ninth-best in the country. The team played markedly better after Marshall replaced Larry Drew II in the starting lineup; Drew quit the team in early February.

Key Stats: Looking at the size of that starting front line, it should come as no surprise that the Tar Heels led the nation in rebounds in the regular season, averaging 42.5 per game. And they are No. 14 in blocked shots (5.5 per game). They are not a great outside shooting team, however -- No. 267 in the country in 3-point makes per game (5.2) and No. 210 in 3-point percentage (33.2). Also, North Carolina is not a very good free-throw shooting team (67.0 percent, No. 235).

THE SLEEPER

Kentucky (27-8, 10-6): Another young Kentucky team lost just two nonconference games -- to UConn in Maui and at North Carolina in early December. But the Wildcats were inconsistent in SEC play, losing six times between Jan. 8 and Feb. 23. Then they won their last six before the Big Dance, including a 16-point win over Florida in the SEC championship game. They barely beat Princeton in their NCAA opener (59-57), before holding off West Virgina (71-63) to get to the Sweet 16.

Key Players: John Calipari's top three scorers are all freshmen -- 6-3 Brandon Knight (17.4 ppg, 4.2 apg), 6-8 Terrence Jones (16.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg), and 6-4 Doron Lamb (12.6 ppg, 49.7 FG percentage). Knight hit the game-winner against Princeton, and scored 30 against West Virginia. Lamb is a Queens, N.Y., native. Also, 6-7 junior Darius Miller averages 11.2 points per game, and 6-10 senior Josh Harrellson averages a team-high 8.8 rebounds. Calipari's rotation really only goes six deep, so watch out for foul trouble, and maybe fatigue down the stretch.

Key Stats: On offense, the Wildcats shoot the ball well from the field (46.2 percent, No. 47 in country), and especially from 3-point range (39.6 percent, No. 12). On defense, Kentucky holds opponents to 39.3 percent shooting from the floor (No. 11), and blocks 6.3 shots per game (No. 3). These 'Cats don't force a ton of turnovers (5.3 steals per game, No. 278), but they also don't give the ball away too often (10.6 turnovers per game, No. 12).

THE LONGSHOT

Marquette (22-14, 9-9): The Golden Eagles, the No. 11 seed in this region, are one of just two Big East teams remaining in the field, after a record 11 received invites on Selection Sunday. Marquette lost four nonconference games in November and December -- all against teams that ended up in the NCAA tournament, and all by close margins (to Duke by five, to Gonzaga by three, versus Wisconsin by five, and at Vanderbilt by one). Then the Golden Eagles went .500 in conference play, leading most pundits to believe they needed to win at least one game in the Big East tourney to lock up an NCAA bid. They beat both Providence and West Virginia in New York, before getting blown out by Louisville. In their first two games in the Big Dance, they upset Xavier by 11 and Syracuse by four.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Butler
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesSenior Jimmy Butler is Marquette's second-leading scorer.

Key Players: Buzz Williams' crew is led by the high-scoring duo of 6-foot-2 junior Darius Johnson-Odom (16.0 ppg, 2.4 apg) and 6-7 senior Jimmy Butler (15.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg). The other two leading contributors are 6-6 junior Jae Crowder (11.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and 6-3 senior Dwight Buycks (9.1 ppg, 3.5 apg). Interesting note: All four of them were junior college players before coming to Marquette. Johnson-Odom has been the team's leading scorer in each of its NCAA tourney games, and hit the big 3-pointer with 27 seconds left that lifted the Golden Eagles over the Orange.

Key Stats: On the bright side, Marquette is No. 22 in the country in assists per game (15.7), No. 23 in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.3-to-1), and shoots the ball very well from the field (46.8 percent, No. 33). On the other hand, the Golden Eagles don't make many treys (5.3 per game, No. 261). And they're not a very good defensive team, allowing opponents to shoot 43.9 percent from the field (No. 213) and 35.9 percent from downtown (No. 249).

PREDICTION

North Carolina's size overwhelms Marquette, while Ohio State wins a nailbiter over the Wildcats. And in what would be a classic regional final, Sullinger gets bottled up by the Carolina bigs, but the trio of Diebler, Buford and Lighty make enough 3-pointers to shoot the Buckeyes into the Final Four in Houston.

Kieran Darcy is an ESPNNewYork.com staff writer. He joined ESPN in August 2000 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where he played four years of JV basketball.
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