Nick Fasulo

NCAA Basketball Tournament - Gonzaga v Ohio State

Ohio State – Cincinnati all about match-up of big men

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BOSTON – Returning for a second season, Jared Sullinger’s sophomore campaign has been anything but a breeze.

Along with Harrison Barnes, the Buckeyes forward was the biggest “brand name” entering the season, with a recognizable face you don’t often get in college basketball.

Unfortunately, though, he hasn’t dominated the way many harsh critics expected him to.

In fact, deciding to stick around Columbus may have exposed Sullinger’s game and shown NBA scouts his flaws, which is why his bout with Yancy Gates could be the most intriguing game-within-the-game here in the East Regionals.

“It’s going to be an interesting challenge playing against such a good player,” said Gates during Wednesday’s news conference with the media.

The kind words were reciprocated no more than 30-minutes later by the Buckeyes big man.

“It’s going to be a physical match‑up,” said Sullinger. “I believe [Gates] can shoot the basketball, so I’m going to have to guard him a little bit on the perimeter, as well, and he can post‑up.”

Despite similar (and solid) numbers between his freshman and sophomore seasons, the wow factor hasn’t quite been there from Sullinger in enough games. Even worse, many people pointing to sluggish performances against formidable Big Ten bigs, including Illinois’ Meyers Leonard, and Michigan State’s Derrick Nix/Adreian Payne, drive home the notion that Sullinger is not nearly the great back-to-the-basketball guy many have made him out to be.

As our own Rob Dauster points out, the reason for Sullinger not dominating every game like he’s unfairly supposed to lies in the Buckeyes perimeter, which are less dangerous this season and allowed perimeter defenders to sag off their man and double the post.

In terms of the Buckeyes – Bearcats Sweet 16 match-up tomorrow night, Sullinger and Gates will essentially be attached at the hip when both are in the game.  They will guard each other, look to solidify themselves early, and hope to force the other into foul trouble.

The tale of the tape shows two large men, both 6-9, weighing in the 260s, and eliciting the “he looks a lot bigger in person” comments from just about everyone.

It will be fun to watch, and could be the match-up that decides who advances to the Elite Eight.

For Sullinger, it’s about “Who’s Next?” as he continues to try to prove doubters wrong by stuffing the stat sheet against a physical and sizable big man.

For Gates, it’s about turning heads by excelling against a tough match-up in the biggest game of his career.

“I think it’ll just be another challenge, trying to get to New Orleans,” said Gates. “One that I’m up for.”

If Gates can hold his own against Sullinger, if not get the best of him, the Bearcats might be partying like it’s 1962.

Follow Nick Fasulo on Twitter @billyedelinSBN

On surface, nothing changed for Xavier, Cincinnati

NCAA Basketball Tournament - Xavier v Notre Dame
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Just moments after Cincinnati’s Yancy Gates landed a nose-crushing right hook on Xavier’s Kenny Frease, everyone had an opinion on how it would shift both programs.

Some thought the squeaky clean reputation of the Musketeers had been muddied, while others were sure that the Bearcats would take a step or two back in their progression under head coach Mick Cronin.

In the weeks ahead, the obvious angle was that everything had changed for both programs.

Xavier flat out stunk, losing  five of their next six games and finishing 10-6 in Atlantic 10 play. By February, it was easy to write this team off and label their season as a major disappointment.

Cincinnati suffered more severe suspensions, but kept winning. Mick Cronin took an incredible amount of heat for tough love followed by lenient suspensions, and questions abounded as to the best way to handle Gates, allegedly their most important player but someone who the Bearcats proved they could win without.

But with all that, if you fell into a coma on December 9th – when Xavier was undefeated and the Bearcats were 5-2 but clearly talented to be a tournament team – and woke up this past Monday morning to scan an updated bracket, you’d have absolutely no clue how tumultuous things were for both programs throughout the regular season.

But here they are, both through to the second weekend of the tournament. A place that, in retrospect, would have shocked nobody way back when the season started. The fact that their still standing feels perfectly normal.

Preparing for their fourth Sweet 16 appearance in five seasons, the Musketeers have essentially become the de facto two-seed of the South Region, a seed that was theirs to lose pre-brawl.

Think about it.

It’s the same team as December; same players, and same talent level. They’re a little banged up but hopefully will play with a normal rotation against Baylor, and should be treated as the top 10-type team that they were to start the season.

It’s cliché to say it, but whatever turmoil they went through in-house during the winter is completely in the past. Irrelevant, really.

For Cincinnati let’s not forget that they were named a pre-season top 25 team by some publications, returning their top four scorers from a season ago where they won their first NCAA Tournament game since 2005.

While December 10th, 2011 didn’t seem to have much of an effect in the standings for the Bearcats, who knows what sort of residual undetectable impact it had.

If anything, losing by 23 to your hated rival could serve as proper motivation to right the ship.

Both teams will be underdogs in their respective Sweet 16 match-ups, but both have validated themselves as worthy of serving as two of the only Division I programs still standing.  You shouldn’t be shocked that we’re still talking about both clubs.

We thought so much changed, but really everything is in line with what we originally anticipated heading into the second weekend of the tournament.

Xavier and Cincinnati are legit. We don’t need to fight over that.

Follow Nick Fasulo on Twitter @billyedelinSBN

Rating the regional sites and their ‘fun factor’

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With the Sweet 16 set, the most pressing question(s) shouldn’t be about match-ups and who will win (although that Kendall Marshall wrist injury is a pretty intriguing story line).

No, with 16 unique fan bases descending on four cities in this beautiful country, the most important discussion should be the amount of excitement one can have if attending any of these games.

Even if you have no rooting interest but live in Atlanta, Boston, Phoenix or St. Louis, you may want to get a quick education on what to expect if you plan on immersing yourself in the frenzy before, during, and after the games.

A brief overview on what to expect at each location is below…

South Region (Atlanta)

I pretty much decided to write this article based solely on the mayhem that is likely to ensue down in Atlanta.  The South Region is going to be ridiculous, and if you live in the area but have no affiliation to any of the four schools involved, I still highly recommend hovering in and around the Georgia Dome. Grab some of your friends, find a suitable watering hole, and just observe.

If there aren’t fist fights, there will at least be some fantastic banter between IU and UK fans. The Wildcats are the favorites; the Hoosiers beat them in December and want/need/gotta have this for affirmation of the reclamation of their program’s mystique.

Fan interest level (on a scale of 1-5): 7

Big Blue Nation, one of the few state schools in the country that pours all their emotions into basketball and not football, can already smell their team’s eighth National Championship. But the Hoosiers are also all-in on basketball, and this weekend could steer this program back to where they want to be.

Xavier, a small, basketball-first school, is also completely invested in hoops. While they’re a second weekend mainstay that  has yet to reach the Final Four, they’re thrilled to still be playing based on how this team seemed to fall apart post-Crosstown Brawl.

Projected nuttiness outside the dome: 5

It’s going to be crazy, and based on location, all four fan bases will travel in droves. Wildcat and Musketeer fans will be co-mingling down I-75 en-route to Atlanta, with Hoosier fans likely joining them depending on where they’re packing up the mini-van

It’s a straight shot six-hour drive from Cincinnati (I made the trip to the Atlanta regionals in 2004), so there’s really no excuse not for any of these Mid-west fans not to road trip it down to the games.

East Region (Boston)

A great sports city that almost takes pride in being a terrible and apathetic college sports city, Boston at least boasts plenty of transplants from around the country, meaning there’s pockets of Badgers, Bearcats, Buckeyes and (especially) Orange fans in the area.

Tickets are already sold out, and because these schools all hail from a BCS-conference, the fan and alumni base is big enough to ensure a respectable turnout of fans taking up space at the row of bars outside the TD Garden on both Thursday and Saturday. In fact, the city expects this NCAA regional to generate triple the dollars than what hosting the regional did back in 2009, as that time around the four participating schools were much smaller.

Fans Interest Level: 4

And that’s only because I question Ohio State fans interest in this portion of the tournament. Think about it:  they’re football first, and have been a Final Four contender for the past few seasons. How jazzed are they, really, about the regionals?

That being said, I know that the Orange (it’s supposed to be Syracuse’s year) and Bearcat (first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2001) fans are being completely unproductive this work week.

Projected nuttiness outside the Garden: 3

Syracuse is a four-hour drive from Boston, and their alumni are planted all over the East Coast.

Cincinnati fans don’t want to miss such a great opportunity to check out a new city with their team having a realistic shot of playing for a trip to the Final Four.

Ohio State is like a small country, so it’s a numbers game with them. You know they’ll fill their allotted tickets plus a few more.

Badger fans love to party so we welcome their drinking acumen into the Hub, assuming they show up.

For everyone that rolls into town: there’s about three dozen bars in a two block radius of the arena, so no shortage of options to drink up before game time.

West Region (Phoenix)

I know it’s impossible, but it would be great if we could suddenly relocate this section of the bracket to a more travel-friendly venue when there are no participating teams within two time zones of the place.

Consider: the campuses of Michigan State, Marquette, Florida and Louisville,  are all located located more than 1700 miles from the arena they must travel to compete for a trip to the Final Four.

Sort of impractical in these lean economic times, no? 

Fans Interest Level  (on a scale of 1-5):  4

What’s great about this region is its got three “basketball first” schools, and Florida, which just really enjoys winning things.

With both games up in the air – I have a sneaking suspicion about Louisville – nothing is certain. All four schools have been to the Final Four in the past 10 years, but only Michigan State has been since 2007. There’s a lot of pride at stake here.

Projected nuttiness outside the arena: 2

I’m sure each school well sell their tickets, but expect a dead arena for both Sweet 16 games, especially Michigan State – Louisville, which tips at 4:47 local time.

Downtown Phoenix is also infamous for being a ghost town, so if you are headed west for the games, I’d be interested to know how visitors spend their off-day free time (golfing in Scottsdale?) and pregaming before you enter US Airways Arena.

Midwest Region (St. Louis)

The region that was most flipped upside down in the first weekend, the Midwest could either be really great for the casual fan, or just really great for NC State and Ohio.

Let’s be honest, Cinderella stories are great, but they’re usually supposed to end right about now and make way for the big boys. But based on what transpired both on and off the court late Sunday night, the Midwest is anyone’s guess, and fans from any school should be willing to fork over some cash to attend, especially because of the proximity.

Fans Interest Level  (on a scale of 1-5):  5

And for a wide range of reasons.

Like they would for any second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, both Kansas and North Carolina fans have canceled all other social plans for the weekend to clear out space for one, maybe two big games this weekend, while Ohio and NC State are both ecstatic to be here, but have confident fan bases that are not satisfied.

Projected nuttiness outside the dome: 5

Two reasons: St. Louis is an underrated city to get wild in, and Ohio currently holds the title as the biggest party school in the country.

If the little guy is the one making the biggest scene during pregame “warm-ups”, then you know this is a recipe for an awesome weekend.

Why would Jayhawk, Tar Heel and Wolfpack fans want to get shown up?

Bobcat undergrads are sure to flood the Lou, as the eight hour drive from Athens to St. Louis is the perfect distance for a memorable road trip.

With Atlanta potentially being overrun with Kentucky fans, and Boston unlikely to have hoards of fans from all four participating teams, this region  would be my pick to attend if the cost of travel, accommodations and tickets to all three games were not an issue.

Follow Nick Fasulo on Twitter @billyedelinSBN

Tournament’s first weekend shows you cannot script March

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As fun as an unpredictable NCAA Tournament can be for fans watching from home, it can make media people sweat – or at least draw criticism via social media – when a string of upsets make them look bad.

In the first weekend of the tournament there were a number of shocking results. Results that, when you  look back at the trends of both the winning and losing teams, you just shake your head and wonder why a career performance or off shooting night had to occur when money, maybe even a sliver of your reputation, were on the line.

Norfolk State and Lehigh? I’m not even going to try and quantify why those games played out the way they did, chalk both of those up to a bit of a bad-matchup for Missouri, a slightly soft Duke team, and an incredible effort from both.

There were, however, some interesting statistical anomalies that are worth noting from the weekend. Stuff that, frankly, you wouldn’t even write into a dramatic screenplay.

Basically, the following information can be used as excuses for that busted bracket you just threw into the trash.

UNC Asheville

What if I told you that before the Bulldogs tipped off against Syracuse, that their leading scorer Matt Dickey would shoot a not-so-robust 1-13 from the floor?

Blow-out, right?

Well, even though UNC – Asheville did have five players average in double figures this season, Dickey was essentially a no-show even though his team nearly pulled off the most improbable upset in NCAA Tournament history.

The fifth highest scoring team in the country this season, UNC – Asheville scored well below their 80.5 a game average against the Orange, but stuck around to give Jim Boeheim a real scare.

This might have been one of the greatest moral victories in the history of the tournament.


One of the worst free throw shooting teams in the country, Mick Cronin’s club shot an impressive 19-23 from the charity stripe in their third-round game against Florida State, upsetting third-seeded Seminoles and providing the only shake-up in the East Region.

It was by far their best performance from the line all season; a slap in the face to anyone bracketologist who refused to advance this team to the second weekend of the tournament based on their foul shooting all season.

Had UC not shot well from the line? There would probably instead be only three teams from Ohio headed to the Sweet 16. Instead there are four, and we’re going to hear all about that this week.


The Buffaloes best non-conference victory this season was against Georgia…by two points. They were the worst ranked BCS-conference team on, and were a program that had not won an NCAA Tournament game since 1997.

So how they heck did they beat UNLV?

Well, to be fair, the Rebels were just ice cold for most of that game. As a team that attempted nearly 800 three-pointers this season – and made 36 percent of them – going 9-36 will hurt you.

“Our shooters felt comfortable. Everybody felt comfortable. We just didn’t make shots and they did,” guard Anthony Marshall told the media after the game.

Conversely, the Buffs turned the ball over  a season-high 23 times, but had their own season high 7-12 from beyond the arc.

Sometimes that’s not a result of great defense, just good luck.

North Carolina State

They were the last at-large team unveiled during Selection Sunday, and many people (including me) didn’t believe they belonged.

Now, here they are  in the Sweet 16 in year one of the Mark Gottfried regime.

Let’s be honest: the Wolfpack didn’t really beat anybody in the regular season. The only reason they’re here isn’t because they didn’t really lose to anybody, but now they’ve beaten two teams seeded ahead of them.

Against the Aztecs, NC State had their best shooting performance against anyone of significance this season, going 31-53 from the floor against a team that regularly held opponents under 40 percent.

Yesterday against the Hoyas, the Wolfpack, well, they shut down Henry Sims, among other thing. The senior fouled out in just 21 minutes of play, with a season low four points and three rebounds.

Who would have thought that could happen from an average defensive team?


Wichita State gave us their worst offensive game of the season. OK so that stinks for them, but was it due to stifling defense from the Rams?

Probably, but the Rams weren’t very efficient on offense themselves.

Coming into the tournament, the Shockers were 14-1 when holding their opponents under one-point-per-possession, and the Rams were an average offensive team. In Thursday’s game, both teams score under one PPP.

A minor detail, sure, but for a higher seed to do what they needed to do defensively and not get it done is rare.

Hats off to the Rams, who came up just short against Indiana in their next game.


Although I thought the Badgers were ripe for an upset against Montana, Bo Ryan continued this program’s tournament success, grabbing a win (they’re also in the Sweet 16) for the 10th time in 11 years.

The win shouldn’t surprise you too much, but how Bucky advanced past the Grizzlies may. A nine-point favorite, Wisconsin’s 24-point victory was the largest margin against the spread in the second round of this tournament, due primarily because it was their best all-around shooting performance in about a month (that Ron Wilson flurry in the Big Ten Tournament notwithstanding).

With the Big Sky’s Defensive Player of the Year Will Cherry in foul trouble early, the court was wide open for Jordan Taylor, as he led the Badgers to their best first half offensive performance since Christmas.

For Cherry, it was arguably his worst game of the season, as he was limited defensively and finished with just nine points on 3-14 shooting.

Had he given us at least an average game, it could have made a big difference here.

Some will say that the Josh Pastner Era is off to a bad start

Memphis v Georgetown

In-fighting, crying and a missed opportunity.

That’s the Memphis Tigers 2012 NCAA Tournament appearance summed up in a concise lede.

Chris Crawford was peeved at Will Barton for his shot selection, Barton ended up crying in the post-game press-conference  and, as a result, a team that had won their last seven games and boasted top 10 talent were bounced by a more disciplined Saint Louis squad.

With the loss, Tiger fans are flocking to their favorite medium to express their disdain – not just disappointment – for Pastner, who was heralded as a young coaching prodigy when he replaced John Calipari.

Watch last night’s game and it’s clear Rick Majerus outcoached Pastner. Playing at the pace they wanted, the Billikens overcame an eight point second-half deficit, got Tarik Black in foul trouble, and took advantage of a Tigers team that shot just 39 percent from the floor with an alarming 19 percent assist rate.

The grace period for the Tigers head coach is now over, and a reality check is in order.

There’s no doubt that Pastner can recruit: three McDonalds All-Americans (which does not include Barton) during his tenure, but there’s a lot of question of whether or not he can coach. Pastner is 75-29  overall in his first three seasons with zero NCAA Tournament wins or victories over a top 25 team.

John Calipari went 71-31 in his first three seasons in Memphis but 104-10 in final three years. Many fans were hoping for a near seamless transition between the two coaches, not something that stunk of rebuilding work.

But at the same time, Pastner apologists exist, and between them and impatient fans who can’t quite believe how much their basketball team has fallen in the past three years,  there’s surely to be plenty of back-and-forth banter between fans this off-season with no hope of finding common ground.

The bottom line is that Calipari made Memphis a brand name. He’s the one whose success turned them into an elite program and earned the school an invite to the Big East.

When they join,  the Tigers will no longer have a cupcake regular season schedule. They’re going to have to bring it night-in and night-out, relying on far more than just talent. Some sort of execution of a sound game plan will be imperative for success.

I’m not saying Josh Pastner can’t do it, but I am saying that his coaching seat will probably feel a bit warm entering next season.

Follow Nick Fasulo on Twitter @billyedelinSBN

Murray State one win away from grabbing well-deserved respect

Murray State University's Poole and Canaan celebrate during their game against Colorado State University in Louisville
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Murray State is underappreciated.

We’ve been following them all season, they past both the eye test and look good statistically. They’re a real basketball team.

As the last team to lose in the regular season, the Racers moved in to college basketball fans’ line-of-sight with wins over Dayton and Memphis, and they solidified themselves as the game’s best mid-major when they defeated St. Mary’s during BracketBusters weekend.

This team almost entered the tournament undefeated, but are probably asking themselves what a 31-1 team has to do to get some respect around here.

Unreported injuries, sicknesses, off-nights due to minds being elsewhere for whatever reason; playing near perfect basketball for four months is incredibly difficult. I don’t care what league you play in, what the perceived disparity of talent you’re dealing with, being able to consistently compete at a high level in a team sport involves being successful both on and off the court.

As a six-seed, the Racers get Marquette this afternoon in their third-round match-up.

A trendy pick to reach the Final Four, the Golden Eagles are no slouch as the Racers opponent, but an interesting take from Jae Crowder probably means Buzz Williams was up late last night game-planning against a hungry and dangerous mid-major after a number of unforeseen upsets occurred last night.

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Some of the Golden Eagles players were asked Friday if Murray State reminded them of any previous opponents, and Crowder picked Norfolk State, which Marquette beat twice early in the season. “They like to get up and down a little bit,” Crowder said of Murray State in his comparison with Norfolk State. “They have good guard play as well.”

Fascinating. no?

For a team like Marquette, who operates a bit like Missouri, to compare Murray State to Norfolk State could mean there’s ominous clouds forming over Louisville, only this game might not be an upset, it may just be the Racers are talented and poised enough for a deep tournament run.

The Racers have earned my respect, but deserve a lot more.

A win today would give affirmation to the program’s best season in school history.