Plenty of intriguing themes figured to gather with the teams dancing in St. Louis: the Ohio Bobcats want to become the latest mid-major long shot to reach the Final Four; North Carolina State is making the most of its first NCAA appearance in six years; Kansas survived Purdue's upset bid to advance to its fifth Sweet 16 in the same span; and of course, there's the inevitable "Roy Williams left Kansas" angle. All of that was pushed to the background, however, with 10:56 left in top-seeded North Carolina's win Sunday over Creighton.
That's when Kendall Marshall, the Tar Heels' superb point guard, crashed to the floor, breaking a bone in his right wrist. National title hopes might have crashed with him. "When you go to the Sweet 16," Williams said, "it's supposed to be a lot more fun than this."
For fun -- or rather, relieved jubilation -- we had Kansas' escape. The Jayhawks were one more Robbie Hummel three-pointer away from another early exit (and a Purdue victory would have given St. Louis three double-digit seeds, which would have been kind of fun, too). Instead, they escaped because of the very late heroics of junior guard Elijah Johnson, who's been essentially a sidekick this season to leaders Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor. Even as they've compiled another stellar record, Bill Self's latest bunch has been maddeningly inconsistent. But at least we know what to expect from them, and their potential.
At full strength, talent-laden North Carolina would have been the favorite, along with Kentucky, to win the national championship. But Marshall, a sophomore, set an ACC record with 351 assists; he has been the catalyst for the nation's most potent offense, and there's no obvious option to replace his impact. "I'm not hurt that I can't play," Marshall said. "I'm hurt that I can't help my team." His team is really hurt that he can't help them, too.
North Carolina State's unlikely trip to the Sweet 16 is a nice story, but frankly, the Wolfpack is underseeded at No. 11. The 13th-seeded Ohio Bobcats, meanwhile, hadn't been to the Sweet 16 since 1964 -- when they reached the Elite Eight. But back then, the NCAA tournament started with, uh, 25 teams, and no one called it the Elite Eight. But after beating Michigan and South Florida, the guys from the MAC believe they could produce the latest mid-major breakthrough. "I do think that guys have a chip on their shoulder," Ohio coach John Groce said. "And I think our guys look forward to playing on the big stage against quality competition." Up next, against top-seeded North Carolina, the stage gets bigger. The quality of competition gets better.
First, Marshall wants everyone to know this: It's not his shooting hand. "If it was my left hand, I'd tell you right now I'm not playing Friday," he said. But with a broken scaphoid bone that will require surgery, according to several reports, it seems highly unlikely he'll play (or that he'll be very effective if he does). To measure his impact, just check the box score against Creighton: 18 points, 11 assists, 4 rebounds. Creighton coach Greg McDermott called him "the straw that stirs the drink," and if Marshall is out, it's uncertain who stirs next, or how the drink will taste. The Tar Heels had already lost Dexter Strickland for the season. Their options are reserves Stilman White, a freshman, or Justin Watts, a senior. They've combined for 24 assists.
Thomas Robinson -- a candidate for National Player of the Year -- is the Jayhawks' best player. But the NCAA tournament is most often defined by dynamic guards; Taylor, a senior point guard, averages 16.9 points and 4.7 assists. Occasionally questionable decisions -- witness his dunk against Purdue when he could have run out the clock -- are offset by explosive ability.
The Wolfpack sweated out Selection Sunday (though it probably shouldn't have had to), but they've proven why they belonged in the field by beating two higher seeds (San Diego State and Georgetown). A third upset seems unlikely -- N.C. State didn't beat a ranked team during the regular season -- but Purdue should have beaten Kansas, which has been maddeningly inconsistent. In both wins, sophomore guard Lorenzo Brown was a difference-maker, and the Wolfpack has several big bodies who can bang with Robinson.
There's always plenty of pressure on North Carolina, but after Marshall's injury, the Tar Heels have a ready-made excuse. That leaves Kansas. Bill Self has won a national championship and won an astounding eight straight Big 12 titles. And yet, feeding the monster requires more. This team isn't as talented as some of its predecessors -- after Robinson and Taylor, it's a solid, but not special group -- but it's in position to return to the Final Four, which means the fans expect at least as much.
That's how many national championships the remaining Midwest region teams have combined to win. North Carolina has five, Kansas has three and N.C. State has two. Those programs have combined for 34 Final Four appearances (North Carolina 18, Kansas 13, N.C. State three).
This would have been North Carolina -- the Tar Heels may have more talent than any team in the tournament other than Kentucky. But Marshall's broken wrist alters the equation. Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor are enough to send Kansas to the Final Four for the second time under Bill Self.