QMI Agency basketball writer Richard Zussman sizes up Sunday’s Elite Eight games:
KENTUCKY vs. BAYLOR
No matter how good Kentucky’s season has been to date, it will be a bust if the Wildcats lose Sunday to Baylor. The ‘Cats are not just expected to beat Baylor Sunday but are expected to cruise to the national championship in New Orleans. This season has been a constant UK clinic, dropping only two games while looking unstoppable so far in the tournament. UK put on another clinic Friday night in a 102-90 win over Indiana.
The Baylor Bears stand in the way of the coronation. The knock on Baylor is they don’t step up against the toughest competition. During the regular season the Bears finished 1-5 against teams that had a 5 seed or better in this year’s tournament. It was almost déjà vu against tough competition Friday. Baylor jumped out to a huge first half lead over Xavier and then rested on their laurels to survive with a 75-70 win.
Although the Wildcats have been to three straight Elite Eights, this team still lacks experience. The roster has been refreshed each season John Calipari has been at the helm as the talent pool migrates to the NBA after a short stop in Lexington. The ‘Cats will likely start three freshmen Sunday against the Bears.
These aren’t your average first years though. It starts with the nation’s best player, Anthony Davis, in the middle. He is going to be a tough matchup for Baylor big man Quincy Acy. Acy wasn’t bothered in Round 4 with Xavier big man Kenny Freese, leading the team with 20 points and 15 rebounds. But make not mistake: Freese is no Anthony Davis.
The other big challenge for the Bears is who to match up with. UK has so many weapons and six different players have scored more than 24 points in a game this season.
There has been lots of complaining about Perry Jones III not being aggressive enough. His critics say he has the ability to score on every possession but refuses to take over games. Jones will need to match firepower with firepower to pull off the upset Sunday. Friday was an off night for Canadian sharp shooter Brady Heslip. The Burlington native was 3 for 7 shooting with 11 points.
KANSAS vs. NORTH CAROLINA
Mulligans don’t come around very often.
But on Sunday both Kansas and North Carolina will get a second chance at winning a national championship. The perennial favourites struggled Friday in their regional semifinal games, but in the end they both came through to set up a rematch of the 2008 national semifinal.
North Carolina State was on the verge of taking down second-seeded Kansas but came up short, 60-57. Ohio put a scare into the top-ranked Tar Heels on the same Saint Louis court. Minus point guard Kendall Marshall, UNC struggled to hold on to the basketball and escaped with a 73-65 win in overtime.
UNC will likely be without Marshall, who practised with the team on Saturday, again. The point guard has been on the shelf since breaking his wrist earlier in the tournament. Stilman White will likely assume the point guard duties again. He struggled scoring against Ohio, but didn’t turn the ball over once in 32 minutes on the floor.
It is amazing to think Kansas survived against Ohio with only two shots outside of five feet from the basket. But crazier things have happened in March. Thomas Robinson struggled making easy baskets but ended up with 18 points and 15 rebounds. Robinson will need to be all that and more for the Jayhawks against UNC. Centre Jeff Withey can be a real game changer on defence if he can get close to duplicating his 10-block performance from Friday.
Then there is the constant story line of Roy Williams against his former team. The UNC head coach led the Jayhawks to the 2003 national championship game and then headed to Tobacco Road. Williams is 0-1 for UNC against Kansas, losing 84-66 in the 2008 Final Four semifinal in San Antonio.
It is hard to label one team as the favourite. UNC has the best frontcourt in the country. Tyler Zeller is a ferocious rebounder and snagged 22 on Friday night. Withey will be assigned the task of keeping him off the boards. Harrison Barnes seemed happy Friday to settle for shooting the three pointer, don’t expect coach Williams to let him get away with the shooting bonanza again.
It is hard to shrug off a 2-14 shooting night, but that is what Tyshawn Taylor will have to do. The Jayhawks’ second best threat of offence will need to be a whole lot better if the Jayhawks are to get the best of their old coach again.