Heels, 'Cats Favored

Two powerhouse programs - North Carolina and Kentucky - have pretty big obstacles in Wisconsin and Michigan State.

Some would have you believe that any team that travels the road to a national championship is going to hit at least one major speed bump.

If that's the case, then the University of North Carolina Tar Heels' fans were probably heaving a collective sigh of relief after their team hung on to beat Villanova early Saturday morning in the Carrier Dome by the slimmest of margins.

But if they think the gut-crunching time is over for their guys in the Syracuse regional, well, they had better be prepared for an Easter Sunday game with the University of Wisconsin Badgers that isn't going to remind them of anything the Tar Heels had to deal with while rolling past Oakland and Iowa State in Charlotte last weekend.

And in the Austin regional, look for another "that's one of those games that should have been played in the Final Four''-type contests when Kentucky and Michigan State hook up Sunday evening for the fourth and final (naturally!) slot in St. Louis next weekend.

Roy Williams' North Carolina team is loaded with future NBA personnel and, unless you've boycotted watching college hoops this season until this week, you're well aware that no team is any more explosive and productive in an accelerated offensive pace.

That being said, if the Tar Heels – the choice of many long before the season started to cut down nets in the Edward Jones Dome late evening on April 4 – are going to have their airfare to St. Louis confirmed, they're going to have to be every bit as good as Wisconsin, offensively and defensively, over 47 feet of the court.

Barring turnovers, Wisconsin isn't going to allow the Raymond Felton-powered UNC fast break to get into gear too often Sunday.

And the Badgers, who have a marvelous pair of post players in Mike Wilkinson and Zach Morley, will test UNC's halfcourt defense as severely as anyone – Duke and Wake Forest included – has challenged it this season.

But even if a large percentage of the Tar Heels' offense is more of the grind-it-out variety instead of the sizzling, open-court, highlight-reel stuff, UNC has too many offensive weapons, on the perimeter and inside the lane, for the Badgers to keep in check enough over 40 minutes to win the game.

Michigan State beat Duke Friday night with an exceptional game inside by Paul Davis, timely outside shooting (especially by Alan Anderson), dogged defense on J.J. Redick and vastly superior quality depth.

Kentucky can challenge Davis with taller opposition in the post (Shelden Williams is only about 6-8), and plenty of top-flight depth, both in the post and on the perimeter – as the Wildcats so aptly put on display against Utah Friday night.

And, unlike the Blue Devils, for whom three players (Williams, Redick and Daniel Ewing) provided the bulk of the offensive firepower, Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith has a multitude of players who are scoring threats – inside and out.

Look for the Wildcats to win a game whose outcome still will be in doubt in the final two or three minutes of action.

Recently elected to the USBWA Hall of Fame, Frank Burlison is Scout.com's National Basketball Expert and also covers college basketball for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram. He can be reached at frank.burlison@presstelegram.com. Read more of Burlison's pieces at FrankHoops.com

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