Thursday's NCAA Tournament games from Winston-Salem lacked excitement, but they provided food for thought heading into Saturday's contests.
Boston College's 78-71 win over Texas Tech featured no more defense from both teams than required by law, but did showcase how patience can make the flex offense an unstoppable force. Michigan State won its 61-49 slugfest with Marquette by playing the best defensive game of any on Day 1. North Carolina gave the fans that packed the Lawrence Joel Coliseum more than they asked for -- brief moments of suspense in the second half -- on the way to an 86-65 victory over Eastern Kentucky. And Georgetown, the 2-seed in the East, proved what was already known -- that Belmont, a 15-seed with a 6-foot-10, 210-pound center, simply had no shot against their its front line, winning 80-55.
Nothing spectacular, but each game showed enough to make Saturday, when two spots in the Sweet 16 will be at stake, compelling. The Dance revolves around matchups, and Jared Dudley likes how his team matches up against the Hoyas.
"They'd like to slow it up, and so would we," Dudley said. "When we've struggled this year, it's when teams have been a lot more athletic than us and overpressured us."
Dudley has reason to feel confident. BC's flex worked as well Thursday as it has all season, opening the lane from tip till horn. BC hadn't scored that many points since Jan. 31 against Hartford, and it made nearly 53 percent of its shots.
"We waited for screens, we made strong cuts, and we got the ball where we wanted in our offense," senior guard Sean Marshall said. "When we do that, we are pretty good at executing our offense."
Seventh-seeded BC's head coach Al Skinner, though, isn't quite as optimistic as Dudley.
"There's not a lot about the matchup I like," he said. "There's not a lot of weaknesses on [Georgetown]."
Perhaps not, but there's room for BC to exploit its strengths. Where Georgetown's strength is inside, the Eagles are led by the perimeter trio of Rice, Marshall and Dudley. The advantages outside, especially those created by Rice's quickness, put them in a good position.
Rice's plan for following up on his 26 points against Tech is simple.
"Get penetration to the basket, and get one of their bigs in foul trouble," he said.
That's easier said than done, but John Oates, BC's starting post man, could make that a lot easier. His ability to shoot the 3 -- he shot 3-of-4 from beyond the arc Thursday -- could pull Roy Hibbert away from the basket and open things up for Rice.
Still, Georgetown knows it will have its hands full with Dudley.
"We just have to contain him," forward Jeff Green said. "We just have to have good team chemistry on the defensive end and try to contain him, because he is going to get his, but we can't let him get too much."
The ACC Player of the Year has a gritty, all-around game that's tough to stop. Against Texas Tech, he scored on post-ups, layups, jumpers in the lane and 3-pointers on the way to 19 points. Thompson says what Dudley brings is tough to coach against.
"As much as any player that I've watched, he has the ability to impose his will on the game, just by the sheer strength of his personality," Thompson says. "His toughness, his confidence, is contagious with that group."
It's understandable that Georgetown would focus on the intangible of effort after beating Belmont. The Hoyas left Thursday's game with nothing to truly build on. They started slow an obviously inferior team, one that wouldn't provide the material from which they could build on, but made the predictable recovery. They physically dominated Belmont so much Hibbert only had to jump on one of his offensive rebounds. Their performance was somewhat blah, but little could be expected from that matchup than a trip through the motions.
"Were we anxious to get involved in the tournament, to get started? Yes," Thompson said after the game. "But we've been here before, and as we have done all year methodically, keep playing, methodically keep plugging along."
Top-seeded North Carolina's game against Eastern Kentucky, however, was anything but methodical.
Carolina started the first half with the focus it will need if it hopes to win the championship, racing to a 39-12 lead. What followed was a stretch of sloppy play that was too long to be called a mental lapse. Lapses are momentary. The Tar Heels took a narcoleptic nap for 12:34 of game action, not even awakening after having the chance to break EKU's momentum at halftime. A bit confused by the Colonels' 1-3-1 matchup zone, Carolina turned the ball over eight times before the half, mostly on sloppy passes. By the time they reached the locker room, the lead had gone from 27 to 12, and was down to four with 15:56 left in the game. After establishing its dominance before the first media timeout of the first half, Carolina stumbled into the first of the second half needing the energy of a decidedly pro-Tar Heels crowd, one that came to watch a virtual exhibition, not a game.
"Give Eastern Kentucky credit because they kicked us for about 12 to 14 minutes there," UNC coach Roy Williams said after the game. "We were turning the ball over and we could not stop them defensively and it was a bad run."
Maybe that's all, but this is just the most recent example in the last two weeks of Carolina watching a lead fritter away because of lackadaisical play. A 13-point second half lead over Duke at the Dean Dome dwindled to two in eight second-half minutes. An 18-point lead against Boston College at the ACC Tournament was quickly cut to nine in the second half while Lawson rested on the bench. But those games ended up as blowouts, just like Thursday's game.
"We can lose our focus in a heartbeat. We can lose our intensity in a heartbeat," Williams said. "But we can get it back just as fast as we lost it."
Michigan State may not be the type of team that allows the Heels to make up for lost time. The Spartans put on a defensive clinic against Marquette, reducing the Golden Eagles to a collection of staggering statistics -- five two-point field goals in the game, none of which came in the first half, no points in the paint until a Lazar Hayward layup with 8:18 left in the game, and an abysmal field goal percentage of under 32 percent. The game was uncommonly physical. Even the playful punch Michigan State coach Tom Izzo hit leading scorer Drew Neitzel with had a pop to it.
The clearest difference between Marquette and Carolina is that UNC's post pairing of Hansbrough and Wright is in a different class than Hayward and frontcourt mate Ousmane Barro. But the way the Spartans set up their perimeter defense at the three-point line and stopped the ball from Dominic James and Co. even getting the ball inside, it wouldn't have mattered if Marquette had Tim Duncan and Wilt Chamberlain posting up.
"We really shrunk the gaps and forced them to take outside shots, even their best outside shooters," Neitzel said. "We forced their touches on the perimeter."
That's the Spartans' plan every game, and Neitzel thinks it will be effective Saturday.
"North Carolina is similar to Marquette. Great ball handlers, great athleticism on the perimeter," he said.
What Neitzel omitted was that while Marquette likes to run, Carolina lives to run. That explains why Marquette is ranked 133rd in the country in possessions per 40 minutes, while Carolina is 10th, the highest ranking of any team left in the tournament.
"The only difference [between Marquette and North Carolina]," Izzo said, "is that North Carolina plays like it's in the Star Trek Era."
That's not good for a team whose lack of depth in the backcourt has prevented his team from running nearly as much as it would like. Against Marquette, they barely ran at all, scoring only two fast break points.
What's worse, though, were the ways Lawson and Wright said teams have been able to slow them down -- soft full-court zones and only sending two men to the offensive glass. Neither is vintage Izzo, and even a soft zone can be hard on the Spartans' legs.
Izzo, however, is more concerned with something about Carolina he doesn't think gets mentioned enough.
"I watched enough film to know the speed is there against anybody," he said. "But I was more impressed by their physicality."
Without the ability to run, the toughness matchup is one Michigan State can't afford to lose. But if the Spartans play like they did Thursday, and the Tar Heels do the same, they may find a way to win.
Bomani Jones is a columnist for Page 2. Tell him how you feel at firstname.lastname@example.org.