I hit on this Thursday in the Wisconsin-Syracuse post, but let's get lazy and just borrow our editor-in-chief's Mount Rushmore concept and apply it here. The Mount Rushmore of college towns looks like this:
Chapel Hill, N.C.
That's the list. You could argue that places like Charlottesville, Va., or Ann Arbor, Mich., have an outside argument, but I think those four are the consensus picks. Obviously, that answers our question. Chapel Hill tops wherever Ohio University is, which turns out to be Athens, Ohio.
UNC 1, Ohio 0
Factor 2: Coaches
Again, the deck is a bit stacked here. You know about Roy Williams, right? Two titles? Missed the NCAA tourney exactly once in 23 eligible years of coaching? 674 career wins? Good ole boy who served as the inspiration for the funniest fake Twitter account ever?
You and me, we're going to be learning about Ohio University together today. Step one is identifying John Groce, the coach. This is only his fourth year as a Division I coach, but it's not the first time he's won an NCAA tournament game. That came in 2009, with a wild 97-83 win over Georgetown. Last weekend, his Bobcats did more damage to the major conferences, beating co-Big Ten champs Michigan and Big East hot-ticket item South Florida. But though Groce is still relatively unknown, he comes from good stock, having served as Thad Matta's assistant at Butler, Xavier, and Ohio State from 2000-08. Before that, he served under Herb Sendek at NC State, meaning he's got loose connections all over the Sweet 16. He did Matta a solid by taking down Michigan, and now he has a chance to avenge Sendek's firing "resignation" with a win against Carolina.
A Bobcat versus a "Tar Heel." Dark green versus baby blue.
UNC 2, Ohio 1
Factor 4: Players
Hey, did you guys hear that Kendall Marshall, UNC's point guard, hurt his wrist against Creighton and may not be able to play tonight?
Yes, yes you have. It's a story that's quickly become annoying, and not because of the extensive coverage. Marshall is a great player (and a great dude, too), and it matters whether he's in the starting lineup. It matters a lot, actually, which I'll get into in a second. The annoying part is Williams, and the cagey way he's dealt with the injury. His PR strategy thus far has been to throw his hands up in the air in that down-home manner and gets testy with reporters as he claims to know nothing about Marshall's status. Obviously, this is a load of crap. The truth, I think (and I'll be so bold as to say it here and risk looking like an idiot), is that Marshall has no chance of playing Friday or Sunday. The guy had surgery Monday! He's got a pin in his wrist! Roy's hinted as much, but he's using that classic Belichick strategy of withholding information in order to screw with the opponent. Which is fine, but at least with Belichick you know what you're getting. Roy's trying to have his cake and eat it too by playing coy while simultaneously posing as an honest simpleton being badgered by the savage media. You're not fooling us, Roy.
Moving past Marshall, Carolina is one of the two most talented teams in the country along with Kentucky. They've got ACC Player of the Year Tyler Zeller, Defensive Player of the Year John Henson, and Egomaniac (and pretty decent player) of the Year Harrison Barnes, all of whom should be lottery picks in the near future. Reggie Bullock, the fifth starter, is a very skilled perimeter defender and a streaky shooter who has shown signs of being deadly. These guys are really good. But with the loss of Dexter Strickland earlier this season, they were left without anyone who could penetrate at will. Sure, Barnes has three or four drives in him per game, and Marshall is sneaky quick. But neither one is a true lightning striker, the kind of guy who can create his own shot off the dribble. Marshall's incredible vision and passing ability were the arteries and veins of the offense, through which the blood flowed. Without him, Carolina is at serious risk of having three amazing players stuck on little islands with no way of connecting in consistent fashion. Hell, we saw that with Kendall Marshall sometimes this season, and it's the main reason why Carolina was something just shy of the juggernaut we all expected. Without him? It could be trouble.
And what about Ohio? D.J. Cooper is the man of the moment. The 5-foot-11 junior point guard scored 21 points against Michigan, 19 points against South Florida, and 23 points against Akron in a narrow MAC championship victory. In those three games, he's 20-for-39 from the field, 9-for-21 from 3, and has 18 assists to just nine turnovers. He's the man who makes it go, and if you want to see a highlight reel from high school set to some Latin jazz, check it out.
Beyond Cooper, 6-foot-3 junior Walter Offutt is the only other player in double figures at 12 points per game. Ivo Baltic and Reggie Kelly, both 6-foot-8, patrol the interior for the Bobcats, each scoring nine points per game and pulling down five boards.
With or without Marshall, the edge clearly belongs to UNC in the talent department.
2. UNC is the ninth-best offensive rebounding team in Division I, grabbing almost 40 percent of its missed shots.
The one thing Ohio does supremely well is force turnovers, and that's a great, great sign against a UNC team that will be missing Marshall. If they can pressure reserve guard Stilman White (or Justin Watts and Harrison Barnes, if they assume rotating point guard duties), maybe, maybe, maybe they can rattle the Heels and create some offense.
But look at those two factors above one more time. Nobody can get into the lane against Carolina, because Zeller and Henson will send the ball back from whence it came. That means Cooper and Offutt will have to score from the perimeter against the likes of Barnes and Bullock, two excellent defenders. And on offense, Marshall's absence will surely hurt, but Ohio is already really bad at keeping teams off the offensive glass (244th in the country), and that's the worst kind of news against Carolina. Expect second chances galore. And unless Ohio gets really hot, Carolina shouldn't have much trouble running the break.
The more I type, the more I realize we're squarely in blowout territory.
UNC 5, Ohio 1
Factor 7: Momentum/Mojo
The Bobcats have some home-state mojo in their favor. (Coming into the Sweet 16, no team from Ohio had lost in the tournament.) Also, they've won six straight, and the Michigan game in particular was very impressive. This is a tough team riding a wave of confidence.
Two tough games in the ACC tournament — a highly questionable win against NC State in the semis and a loss to FSU in the finals — robbed Carolina of the momentum they'd gathered with a revenge win against Duke in the final game of the regular season. The Heels looked like their old selves in wins over Vermont and Creighton, and things could get interesting fast. But probably not until the Elite Eight.
UNC 5, Ohio 2
Factor 8: What I Actually Think Will Happen
No suspense here. Zeller and Henson dominate the paint, Barnes and Bullock lock down Ohio's scorers, and Carolina runs away with it.