Who: 2 Ohio State Buckeyes (28-7) vs. 6 Arizona Wildcats (27-7)
When: Thursday, 4:47 p.m. PT, TBS
Where: West Region Semi-Finals, Los Angeles, CA
Uhhhh...it's the Sweet Sixteen? These two programs have been to 7 of these over the last five years? Beyond the obvious, many are calling this game the last remaining hurdle to make it to Atlanta. The other regional semi-final features two less-than-intimidating squads but that holds no bearing on whether or not you should watch this one. What's more, there are crazy amounts of storylines: Student (Miller) vs. Teacher (Matta); The Mark Lyons Saga; Aaron Craft's ONIONS; Deshaun Thomas' talent; Arizona's size...this thing is chock full of intrigue.
Who are the stars?
Mark Lyons, PG, Arizona
Mark Lyons has arguably been the best player in this tournament. The LA Times recently said, "If he's on his game, [he] could get Arizona the NCAA title." Well that's about as high regard as it gets so I'm not sure I need to go much further. Alas, I shall. Lyons has long been discussed as the limiting factor to this team and so it comes as no surprise that his success has led to tremendous Wildcat success. Which, of course, frightens us into wondering: What if he doesn't play well? The good news is he's shooting 63% for the tournament and has scored 50 points. And Arizona dances on.
Nick Johnson, G, Arizona
The core of each of these teams' success has been defense. Nick Johnson is Arizona's best defensive player and has been setting the tone on that end of the floor for the Wildcats ever since they were swept, miserably, out of Los Angeles a few weeks ago. The springy guard could very well draw the assignment of beheading the Buckeyes, which is to say disrupting their crafty PG...
Aaron Craft, PG, Ohio State
Widely considered one of the truest point guards in the nation, Craft is a defensive stalwart and pain. He's on the floor for loose balls that he's likely created and he's taking charges that shift the momentum of games. As of late, however, he's also been the offensive Robin to Deshaun Thomas' Batman, upping his scoring average by nearly 3ppg over the Buckeyes current 10-game winning streak. His defense will be crucial as he'll guard the turnover prone Lyons. If he can disrupt Lyons, things bode well for the Bucks.
Deshaun Thomas, F, Ohio State
Thomas is the Buckeyes' only double-digit scorer. He's one of the best scorers in the country and he's likely going to get his no matter what. Containing, not stopping, is the key. He's scored in double figures in every game (except last year's Final Four) since 2/11/12. Make no bones about it, Thomas is a scorer and Arizona will have to throw a number of different looks at him. Expect to see a lot of Solomon Hill on this assignment.
Can Arizona take care of the basketball?
This has plagued the Wildcats all season long and is arguably the one flaw to their otherwise spotless tournament performance. Across their convincing wins over Belmont and Harvard, Arizona has committed a combined 27 turnovers. This issue allowed Belmont to stay in the game late into the first half and would undoubtedly allow the Buckeyes to pull away. The Wildcats proclivity for turnovers plays right into the hands of Ohio State, too. Craft collects steals like it's his job (I suppose it is) and the Buckeyes are already going to force a slower game. Yielding free possessions will not behoove Arizona, particularly in this game.
Who else is going to score for the Buckeyes?
No one is going to question Ohio State's ability to defend. They have a dynamic roster chock full of wing athletes capable of physically defending a wealth of positions. They're lead by Craft the 2012 B1G dPOY (2013 went to Victor Oladipo). But after Deshaun Thomas, the Buckeyes have some offensive deficiencies. They have just the one double-digit scorer and don't particularly get to the line well. They do, however, take care of the basketball tremendously well (11th best TO%), which benefits them as they're going to play at a slower pace than Arizona. After Thomas, Craft has carried a good chunk of the load but so too have LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith, Jr.
You're a Pac-12 fan, why do you want Arizona to win?
For how long have you heard about how bad the Pac-12 is? It's been a few years now, hasn't it? On this night, one of the Pac's best gets a center stage shot at what was widely considered the best conference in the country's (tournament) champion. What's more is that Arizona could go ahead and win this thing with old fashioned western glory: by scoring points! How tired are we of slow down B1G ball? Arizona is going to outscore these guys to win, and if they don't? They still have a shot cause games in the 50s and 60s are winnable.
As the numbers were, Arizona is a bigger and better version of Iowa State who, if you've been paying attention, took Ohio State to the brink. Arizona shoots the three ball well (37%) and rebounds very well. They outsize the Buckeyes significantly. If the Wildcats can take care of the ball, rebound it, and hit from distance - essentially play to their strengths with just a hair fewer turnovers - one has to like their chances. Myself included. While pundits and computers alike are penciling Thad Matta's crew into their second straight Final Four, I see the Wildcats squeaking this one out and playing Saturday for a ticket to Atlanta.
Arizona 64, Ohio State 59