With a healthy dose of trepidation, let’s assume that Tennessee escapes Michigan in the opening round of the West regional Friday afternoon in Charlotte, N.C. And, yes, I know it’s odd linking Charlotte to the West regional.
But we’re going to give the Volunteers the benefit of the doubt that they have too much athletic ability, depth and coaching to lose to the Wolverines, even if UM guards Darius Morris (15.2 ppg, 6.1 assists) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (13.9 ppg) can score with almost any backcourt in the country.
It will be Sunday that the real challenge will begin for the Big Orange, assuming they advance. That’s when they’ll have to find a way to corral Duke senior guard Nolan Smith, who just might be the single most dynamic offensive player in the 68-team field not named Jimmer Fredette.
Certain to be a first-team All-American, possibly the national player of the year, Smith is the kind of do-everything guard the Vols have had trouble with all season. Only he’s better.
Averaging 21.3 points, 5.2 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game, he’s what Scotty Hopson wishes he could become. A shooting guard last year, Smith obviously has maintained his ability to score but improved the rest of his game.
A single performance to highlight a season’s worth of excellence: Since freshman Kendall Marshall has become North Carolina’s starting point guard in early February, the Tar Heels have lost twice, both times to Duke.
Otherwise, Marshall has averaged over nine assists and often drawn comparisons to Magic Johnson with his stunning ability to pass. In Sunday’s ACC title game, Smith drove Marshall to the UNC bench in less than three minutes, then finished with 20 points and 10 assists to lead the defending national champs to a conference tourney championship.
In a large class of game-changers in this NCAA tournament, Smith may stand alone.
Yet there are at least four more who could shoot enough daggers through your bracket to turn it to March Sadness, beginning with Ohio State senior wing Jon Diebler.
His scoring average (12.5 ppg) looks rather pedestrian, but Diebler not only hits 50 percent of his 3-pointers, he’s been on fire down the stretch, including hitting an obnoxious 10 of 12 triples against Penn State on March 1. The good news for Buckeyes opponents is that 3-pointers are pretty much all he does, as witness he totaled exactly 30 points that evening.
Against Wisconsin a few days later, Diebler hit seven of eight triples and finished with 27 points. If you leave this guy open, your team will be open to leave for spring break immediately after the game.
Though he doesn’t quite hit 50 percent from Treysville (40 percent, actually), Vanderbilt’s John Jenkins may actually be more dangerous than Diebler because he can score both inside and out, as witness his 19.2 points a game, best in the SEC this season.
During one torrid stretch in mid-February he hit six of 10 3-pointers against Kentucky (32 points), five of 10 3s at Georgia (21 points) and five of 11 treys at Auburn (22 points). He then threw 29 points at Mississippi State in the SEC tourney.
Other than second-seeded Notre Dame, Jenkins makes the Commodores the second most dangerous offensive team in the Southwest Region, regardless of No. 1 seed Kansas.
Not that Southeast No. 1 Pitt isn’t probably already breaking down tape of Wisconsin point guard Jordan Taylor, whom the Panthers could run into in the Sweet 16 if the Badgers escape trendy dark horse Belmont in the opening round.
All Taylor’s done this season is average 18.1 points, 4.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds as a junior.
Moreover, he’s been at his best when it mattered most, torching Michigan State for 30, scoring 27 in the Badgers’ upset of then-undefeated Ohio State and pouring in 39 at Indiana.
Said IU coach Tom Crean after Taylor hit seven of eight 3s: “Maybe he’s made those in practice, but I’ve never seen those made in a game.”
Finally, there’s Xavier guard Tu Holloway, who will guide the Muskateers against Marquette on Friday in the East regional, with an eye toward Syracuse in the round of 32.
The name comes from the fact that he’s actually Terrell Holloway Jr., hence Terrell Two, or Tu.
But the junior’s been too much for everyone on the Xavier schedule, averaging 20.2 points, 5.3 assists and 5.1 rebounds to earn Atlantic 10 player of the year honors.
These aren’t the only five to fear in the NCAA tournament, of course. Not with Purdue center JaJuan Johnson out there. And Florida’s Kenny Boynton, Notre Dame’s Ben Hansbrough (yes, that’s former North Carolina star Tyler’s little brother) and Connecticut’s amazing Kemba Walker, who may have won more games than anyone.
But for the Vols, it all will start with Duke’s Smith. Get by him and they won’t have to worry about UConn’s Walker until a regional final.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...
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