It’s Kentucky vs. West Virginia and Notre Dame vs. Wichita State in the Midwest Regional semis tonight. Xavier vs. Arizona and UNC vs. Wisconsin from the West Regional will complete the night.
Kentucky will be tested by the Mountaineers tough defense, but should have enough to make it to Saturday’s final. The Irish are slight underdogs against a very talented Shocker team. But neither team plays stellar defense so Notre Dame has a good shot at pulling off a mild upset. The Musketeers benefitted when Georgia State knocked off 3rd seeded Baylor in the first round and Xavier then faced the Panthers in the second round, defeating them handily. But 2nd seed Arizona has talent to spare and the Wildcats should be able to handle Xavier’s pressing defense.
That leaves the game of the night; North Carolina against Wisconsin. For North Carolina, the health of their standout forward Kennedy Meeks weighs heavily on their chances. Meeks injured his knee in the Tarheels win over Arkansas, and his availability for the game against the Badgers is questionable:
“We don’t know anything about Kennedy,” Roy Williams said on Wednesday during the pregame news conferences at the Staples Center. “This morning he did some contact on a limited basis for the first time. You saw him out there, if you chose to go out there, he didn’t do much, but our whole team didn’t go because we had already practiced. But the big thing now is we’ll have to wait to see if there’s any more swelling or any pain tonight for what little he did this morning, and probably it won’t be — well, if there is swelling or pain tonight, we won’t play him. If there’s not, then we’ll probably make the decision during warm-ups tomorrow.”
If Meeks can’t go, it’s possible Coach Williams may go small, moving Tokoto to the wing and playing 3 forwards. Or, Williams could put in 6’10” Joel James who has the bulk to match up with the Badger’s bigs.
The key man in Williams offense is Marcus Paige, a diminutive guard who can get out on the break and make Wisconsin’s life miserable. If UNC has its running shoes on, Wisconsin will be hard pressed to stay with them.
But it is likely to be a game won or lost in the frontcourt.
Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker vs. North Carolina’s Brice Johnson, J.P. Tokoto and Joel James.
UW’s talented trio contributed a combined 62 points and 22 rebounds in the second round against Coastal Carolina, but the numbers dipped to 47 and 12 in the third round against Oregon. North Carolina surely will pay extra attention to Kaminsky, meaning Hayes and Dekker should get favorable matchups. Hayes might prove to be too strong and/or quick for whomever guards him. Dekker must remain active on both ends of the floor. When he moves without the ball and defends hard good things happen. He must make sure his feet are set when he has an open three-pointer. The 6-foot-9 Johnson is tenacious on the interior. He averages 12.9 points and a team-high 7.9 rebounds per game. He has 88 offensive rebounds, the No. 2 mark on the team, and is shooting 56.0%, second best among the starters. He has not attempted a three-pointer this season and has fouled out five times. Tokoto, a graduate of Menomonee Falls High School, is an outstanding defender who scores better in transition than in half-court sets. He also is No. 2 on the team in assists (4.3). His athletic ability is remarkable but his jumper is wildly inconsistent. With Kennedy Meeks iffy because of a sprained left knee suffered last weekend, it will be interesting to see if James, a 6-10, 280-pound junior who is averaging 2.5 points and 1.9 rebounds per game, can produce. If he gets the call, he has to give the Tar Heels quality minutes. Edge: UW.
Kaminsky is a load because he can score from anywhere on the court. From the free throw line extended to the blocks, his deft touch can get you points in a hurry.
But Kaminsky is prone to getting into foul trouble, and you can bet that Paige is going to test him early by going right at him, especially on the break. If Kaminsky can stay on the court, he could be the difference maker in the game.
The Badger’s other bigs will also be tough to handle for the athletic, but undersized UNC forwards. Hayes is a good rebounder (6.5 a game) with a knack for snaring offensive boards, while Dekker can shoot the 3 ball well for a big man.
UNC’s Brice Johnson is only 6’9″, but weighs nearly 230 pounds. He may guard Kaminsky one on one to start the game, trying to play him physical to wear the Big Ten Player of the Year down. James is a beast at 280 lbs but is better suited to playing a low post game. The perimeter shooting of Wisconsin’s bigs could give him problems.
The Tar Heels aren’t whining about possibly losing Meeks. It will be next man up for UNC in what should be the most entertaining game of the night.