UNC vs. Marquette Predictions: Does the Golden Eagles NCAA Run End Here?
If you were looking at just the seedings, this game would seem like a David and Goliath situation. North Carolina comes in boasting the No. 2 seed in the region and it has won 21 of its last 24 and 11 of its last 12.
Marquette is a measly 11th seed, but its body of work shows that it's a team that is easily capable of knocking off the Tar Heels. The Golden Eagles have beaten plenty of big-named teams this year, including Connecticut and West Virginia this past month and Syracuse and Xavier already this tournament.
Marquette has shown that it can play the giant-killer role, but North Carolina has played like a super giant lately. Here's what each team needs to have if it is going to advance to the Elite Eight.
North Carolina's Best Player: Harrison Barnes
This is an easy call. If you don't know that Barnes is on fire, you would have to live under a rock.
Since he hit the last shot to put the Tar Heels past Miami on January 26th, Barnes has been averaging almost 20 points per game for North Carolina. This includes his 40-point performance against Clemson in the ACC tournament and his consecutive 20-plus-point games in the tournament so far.
Although his season stats aren't particularly great, Barnes has turned it on lately. He's become North Carolina's most reliable shooter from beyond the arc, especially in crunch-time situations.
Surely, the Golden Eagles will be game-planning for the fabulous freshman. The true question will be whether all of that game-planning will stop Barnes from lighting up the scoreboard.
Marquette's Best Player: Darius Johnson-Odom
Darius Johnson-Odom has been consistent for the whole season, but even more so in the recent games for the Golden Eagles. He hasn't scored fewer than 11 points since the beginning of February and he's only had a single-digit game three times all season.
Johnson-Odom is one of the better shooters in the Big East, which is exactly what he'll need to beat the Tar Heels. If he can get hot and hit shots from outside, the Tar Heels will have to extend their defense, which could allow the Golden Eagles to drive inside and avoid the strong and compact North Carolina defensive presence.
Johnson-Odom's ability to hit long-range shots could also be a deciding factor in the final score. North Carolina has had some trouble with good shooting teams this season (Duke, Texas, Vandy and Illinois, for example). Given the fact that Johnson-Odom leads a potent Marquette offense, this could be a dangerous aspect of the game.
North Carolina's Biggest Advantage: Roy Williams
The Tar Heels have a very distinct advantage on the bench. Don't get me wrong, Buzz Williams is a great coach. He's no Roy, though.
Williams has proven himself as one of the best coaches in the game. He's been deep in the tournament and won championships (recently as well). He's coached tons of great teams and players. He knows exactly what to do down the stretch, but more importantly, his players know what to do down the stretch.
Buzz Williams is a great coach and will undoubtedly be lured towards a number of open coaching positions. However, he needs a couple more decades of experience before he is on the level of Roy Williams.
Marquette's Biggest Advantage: Experience
Marquette has dealt with plenty. They are a very well-led team and they are very experienced. The Golden Eagles are under the leadership of seniors Jimmy Butler and Dwight Buycks, plus the added experience of juniors Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder.
Marquette is also a Big East team. That means they've been butting heads with the best of the best all season. Harrison Barnes? They faced Kemba Walker twice (and got the best of him once). John Henson? They just beat Rick Jackson of Syracuse.
Buzz Williams' team is scrappy and formidable. Just because Carolina is Carolina, it doesn't mean anything to Marquette.
North Carolina's Biggest Disadvantage: Lack of Shooters
North Carolina has two shooters than can consistently hit long-range shots. Generally, when Harrison Barnes and Leslie McDonald struggle, the Tar Heels struggle.
UNC had a very difficult time in the earlier part of the season, when Harrison Barnes shot a very low percentage from the field. Strickland and Marshall can shoot if they're open, but they aren't nearly the threat that the other two are.
If Marquette can keep the ball away from the rim, it may increase its chances at pulling off the win.
Marquette's Biggest Disadvantage: Lack of Depth
Marquette isn't really a shallow team. The Golden Eagles have seven solid players that are very capable of playing in the tournament. Comparatively, though, they just don't stack up.
North Carolina teams are notoriously deep. Roy Williams has a tendency to switch things around and keep players fresh, continuously cycling players in and out of the game. The Tar Heels go seven deep with McDonald's All-Americans (eight if Reggie Bullock were healthy). They go nine deep without including the walk-ons, who could probably get a roster spot in small D-I schools.
Marquette hustles and plays hard enough to keep up with most superior talent, but whether it will be able to keep up with the fast-paced Carolina offense and its endless supply of players is another question entirely.
North Carolina's X-Factor: Dexter Strickland
Dexter Strickland is the fifth wheel in terms of exposure for UNC. He was a highly touted recruit, but has been lost in the talk about the fabulous freshman and big men. However, he is very important to this team.
Strickland hadn't played well coming into the NCAA tournament. He didn't score a field goal the entire ACC tournament, despite the fact that the Tar Heels went all the way to the championship. Their offense obviously didn't do very well for 90 percent of the ACC tournament. I know correlation isn't causation, but Strickland's better play in the tournament has made the Tar Heels better.
He did a very good job of playing against Isaiah Thomas on Sunday. Strickland's performance will be a big part of the Tar Heels' game against Marquette. It may not show up in the box scores, but his leadership as a backup point guard is crucial to Carolina winning this game.
Marquette's X-Factor: Bench Play
It's been great for the Golden Eagles all tournament, but it needs to continue. Jae Crowder and Junior Cadougan had great games against Syracuse.
Both of them have the talent to start, but they haven't recently. However, their roles are obviously working for them. Crowder will probably start in the next game, but the Golden Eagles also have Vander Blue on the bench. The freshman hasn't really played much this season due to the guard-heavy team, but he has the tools to bust out at any time.
The starters are important, but the Marquette bench provides a lot of offense for them as well. It will be an essential component if they are going to win this game.
At this point in the tournament, seeds really don't mean anything. All of the teams left have proved that they can play with anyone in the country and beat some of the better teams facing them.
I think this game will end up being very close. Although North Carolina is a much higher seed and the favorite to win this game, Marquette will surely play hard and give the Tar Heels a run for their money. UNC has been winning games, but not impressively. Even its 102-point performance against LIU in the second round was only a 15-point win.
Harrison Barnes will surely take this opportunity to shine. He's been one of the best players in the country with the ball in the last 10 seconds, so I think if the game comes down to the last shot, I'd have to give the edge to North Carolina.
However, the Tar Heels had trouble with good defensive teams and hustling teams, so if Marquette comes out with intensity and plays a gritty, hard-nosed game, it will at least be in position to win this at the end. Jimmy Butler will surely play a large part, as he'll probably be matched with Barnes. If he can stop Barnes from exploding, that should help as well.
Winner: North Carolina, 72-69