A number-one seed for an NCAA-record 14th time, the North Carolina Tar Heels seek a spot in the Elite Eight, as they take on the surprising Ohio University Bobcats in Midwest Regional semifinal action at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.
Despite their top billing in the region this year, the Tar Heels' tournament run has not come without its share of adversity. The team had to open tournament play without All-ACC First-Team forward John Henson and then just when the team got Henson back in the lineup, all-conference point guard Kendall Marshall suffered a broken wrist, leaving his status up in the air for the remainder of this event. Still, with wins over Vermont (77-58) and Creighton (87-73), UNC has moved to 107-40 all-time in NCAA Tournament play, tied with Kentucky for the most wins in tournament history. With the win over the Bluejays this past weekend, North Carolina advanced to its 31st Sweet 16 and is seeking its sixth national title overall (1957, 1982, 1993, 2005 and 2009) and third under Roy Williams.
The Bobcats are making their 13th NCAA Tournament appearance after capturing their sixth Mid-American Conference crown since 1983. Ohio's tournament resume isn't quite as distinguished with a 7-13 all-time record in the event. The team is making its first trip to the Sweet 16 since the NCAA Tournament field expanded. John Groce's Bobcats have managed to navigate through the tournament field thus far as a 13-seed. Ohio's upsets of four-seed Michigan (65-60) and 12th-seed South Florida (62-56) mark the first consecutive NCAA Tournament wins for the program since 1964.
This marks the third meeting in a brief series history. The Tar Heels won the first meeting in 1985 (99-57)in Chapel Hill, but the Bobcats shocked North Carolina at the Smith Center in 2002 (86-78) to tie things up. The winner of this game will move into the Midwest Regional final against either Kansas or NC State.
Known for its strong defensive play this year, Ohio beat South Florida at its own game this past weekend, limiting the Bulls to a mere 56 points in a six- point victory. The backcourt combination of Walter Offutt and D.J. Cooper was unstoppable, as the two guards combined for 40 points. Offutt led the charge, hitting 7-of-9 from the floor, including a perfect 4-of-4 from three-point range to finish with a game-high 21 points. Cooper poured in 19 points, while doling out seven assists in the win.
The Bobcats have been served well by "Hanging with Mr. Cooper" this season. The 5-11 junior is a two-time All-MAC First-Team selection and comes into this game pacing the team in scoring (14.9 ppg), assists (5.7 apg), steals (83) and three-pointers (74). His 2.31 steals per game ranks 16th nationally. Offutt provides perimeter support for the Bobcats at 12.0 ppg and also has a penchant for strong defensive play (56 steals on the season). Limited depth at the offensive end comes in the form of Reggie Keely (9.1 ppg), Ivo Baltic (8.9 ppg) and Nick Kellogg (8.8 ppg). Ohio, which limits foes to a mere 62.2 ppg this year, averages a modest 70.3 and will need to find offense from a number of sources to keep up with North Carolina.
The Tar Heels were able to post a rather easy win over Creighton last weekend, but the victory came at a cost, as Marshall broke a bone in his right wrist in the second half. The sophomore sensation had a screw implanted in his wrist this week and actually had a cast removed on Wednesday. It is not known at this time whether Marshall will play or not, but the Heels might be best served to gameplan the rest of the way without him. Against the Bluejays, it was Marshall who led the way with a double-double of 18 points and 11 assists. Harrison Barnes poured in 17 points, Henson recorded a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds, while Reggie Bullock and Tyler Zeller chimed in with 13 and 11 points, respectively.
Although losing a player like Marshall (8.1 ppg, 9.8 apg) would cripple most teams, North Carolina is one of the few that may be able to assuage the loss. The team is chock-full of talent, especially in the frontcourt, with Barnes (17.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Zeller (16.4 ppg, 9.4 rpg) and Henson (13.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg). Barnes is the slasher with the ability to score from anywhere on the floor and joined Henson as an All-ACC First-Team selection. Zeller did as well, but upped that by being tabbed the ACC Player of the Year. The real question will be how does an offense that averages a gaudy 82.0 ppg (second nationally) perform if its key cog is missing from the lineup.