I don't need to tell you that Ohio State battles Arizona tonight for a spot in the Elite Eight with the victor taking on the winner of Wichita State vs. La Salle for a berth in the Final Four.
Interestingly, while Ohio State sits as a 3.5-point favorite, much has been made about Arizona's athleticism and size in the paint. While there's no question the Wildcats enjoy a size advantage across the baseline, the game could ultimately be decided, once again, in the backcourt.
Excluding a four-minute stretch against Iowa State, Aaron Craft has been an absolute beast in the Dance. Likewise, Arizona's point guard, Mark Lyons, has blown up in back-to-back wins over Belmont and Harvard.
So, size advantage or not, it's highly likely that the winner of the Craft vs. Lyons matchup will determine which squad marches on.
All Lyons did in two lopsided, dream-killer wins over No. 11 Belmont and No. 14 Harvard was score 50 points while making 20 of 32 shots. He hit six of 13 three-point tries and committed only four turnovers in 67 minutes.
Those numbers are certainly impressive but regardless of the tournament-play atmosphere, the lack of elite competition shouldn't be ignored. The fact is, Lyons has been as enigmatic as they come, blowing up at times and imploding at others.
With Lyons at the controls, Arizona managed to go a combined 0-5 against UCLA, Cal and Oregon while still posting an overall 27-7 record. Chris Dufresne astutely summarized the up and down play of Lyons:
Here is some supporting evidence: Entering the NCAA tournament, Lyons had taken a team-high 363 shots but owned the worst shooting percentage (41.6%) among Wildcats starters. He had a terrible assist-to-turnover ratio (95 to 88) but averaged a team-leading 15 points in part because he could draw fouls and make free throws (112 out of 131).
Lyons was a clutch performer and dazzling at times: He made the game-winning layup to beat Florida and two free throws to put down San Diego State. He scored 25 points against Stanford and scored 24 in two other games.
Lyons also had four turnovers and no assists in 23 minutes against Texas Tech, missed all seven shots against Southern Mississippi and shot three for 14 against Utah. In consecutive February losses at USC and UCLA, Lyons shot six for 24 with six turnovers.
Basically, the kid can be dangerous – both ways – and with Craft tasked with taking Lyons out of his element, and potentially the Arizona offense, too, I like Ohio State's chances in OH-LA.
WHO'S THE BIGGEST ROSS THAT YOU'VE SEEN THUS FAR? After spending most of his sophomore regular season frustrating coaches and fans, LaQuinton Ross has turned it on in the postseason. The sophomore shot a solid 10/18 from the floor in the B1G Tournament and after grabbing eight boards in Ohio State's blowout of Iona to kick off the Dance, he played his best game as a Buckeye, recording 17 points on 6/10 shooting in the three-point win over Iowa State.
Ross scored 10 straight points in the 2nd half as Ohio State built a cushion that they ultimately needed to outlast the Cyclones, and he was actually on the floor in the waning seconds of a tight game – something Thad has been reluctant to do as Ross continues to learn the finer points of being an elite college basketball player.
As noted by Andy Glockner, it was Ross who set the ball screen for Craft in the closing seconds, forcing the Cyclones to make a decision:
More importantly, Ross was not only on the floor for the Buckeyes’ decisive final possession, he was the screener in the high pick-and-roll with Aaron Craft that forced an Iowa State switch. Craft then had a mismatch with Georges Niang that he exploited with a game-winning jump shot, and Iowa State’s defensive reaction on that play likely was in part because Ross is such a legitimate threat on the pop.
Heading into tonight's game against Arizona, I've been a little concerned that Thad may be forced to alter the rotation he's employed over the 10-game winning streak – one that has featured a bit of small-ball which includes Ross on the court with Deshaun Thomas – to cope with the size of the Wildcats. Glockner, however, wonders if it won't be Arizona that is forced to react:
Ross’ emergence could be a significant factor to watch against Sweet 16 opponent Arizona, especially when freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski isn’t on the floor. Ross’ length and skill set could be a nice counter to lanky, athletic Wildcats forwards Brandon Ashley and Angelo Chol. Then again, maybe it would be the right idea when Tarczewski is out on the floor, as well. After all, then he would be charged with checking either Ross or Thomas, a very difficult task for a freshman big … or anyone else, really.
It remains to be seen just how Miller and Matta attempt to create, and/or counter, the matchups on the floor but the thought of Ross pulling an Arizona big away from the hoop on offense sounds like something that could also go a long way in determining which team will survive and advance.
TWO OUT OF THREE AIN'T BAD. I can't say I'm much of a Seth Davis fan. I mean, I'm pretty much over his morning tweets in which he channels his inner Shaka in an effort to "wake up the space", and I was particularly annoyed when he begged followers on Twitter to send a GIF of him picking FGCU to upset a decidedly meh San Diego State team this past Sunday. Still, the dude lives and breathes college hoops, which is more than we can say for Chuck Barkley, who lives and breathes gambling losses and shock-jock proclamations.
What I will give him credit for, however, is coming correct on the whole Aaron Craft charge call drama when the rest of the pundits were sheepishly following Barkley's lead:
Here's what was not said enough in the wake of Iowa State's loss: That play occurred with 1:41 still on the clock. It was plenty of time for the Cyclones to recover. Instead, they blew not one, but two opportunities to win. They committed a bad turnover on offense, and they failed to collect a defensive rebound after a missed Craft jumper. That enabled the Buckeyes to get the ball back, whereupon Craft nailed his game-winning three-pointer.
Exactly. As I said afterward, if the game had just that one bad call, instead of crushing the referees for blowing it, we should be celebrating the crew as the first ever to miss just one call in a college basketball game. If anything, they're heroes, not villains.
Finally, Davis likes the Buckeyes to take down the Wildcats but he's not as bullish on what would be Saturday's clash:
Ohio State 70, Arizona 63: Aaron Craft grabbed all the headlines, and deservedly so, but Ohio State would not be in the Sweet 16 if LaQuinton Ross hadn't played his best game in a Buckeyes uniform. The 6-7 sophomore forward from Jackson, Miss., came off the bench to score 17 points on 6-for-10 shooting (3-for-5 from three-point range) to help Ohio State escape Iowa State. All season long, we have been calling for a third offensive option to Deshaun Thomas, and between Craft's driving and Ross' outside shooting, the Buckeyes may finally have an answer. I also think that Craft will get the better of his matchup with Mark Lyons, if only because Craft always gets the better of his opposing point guard.
Wichita State 69, Ohio State 65: Logic says the Buckeyes should win, but logic doesn't always apply in the NCAA tournament. The Shockers are one of the few teams in the country that can match Ohio State's defensive tenacity. Tekele Cotton is just as capable of being a defensive pest as Craft is. And I think Wichita State has really gotten a nice lift out of 6-3 freshman guard Ron Baker, who missed 21 games because of a stress fracture in his foot but scored 16 points in the win over Gonzaga.
Put me down for a clean sweep.
MOVIN' AND A SHAKA'N. The hoops coaching carousel always ramps us as teams are eliminated from the dance and this year is proving no different.
Once again, and a giant hat tip to him, Shaka Smart is forgoing a chance to take over a more well-known school to stay at VCU. This time, Smart is shunning UCLA and Minnesota to stay in Richmond.
Last night, Smart agreed to a contract extension to remain at Virginia Commonwealth that now runs through 2023. He'll make about $1.3 million per year, which is really only a couple hundred G's above what he was already making. Instead of cashing in for himself, Smart negotiated for things such as chartered flights, upgrades to video systems and the weight room, in addition to higher salaries for his assistants. Outside of Matta and Izzo, I'm thinking Smart might be my favorite coach in the land.
In news that potentially hits much closer to home, many outlets are reporting Chris Colllins has verbally agreed to take the head coaching slot at Northwestern. This could potentially be a fantastic hire for the Wildcats but with his Duke connections, there's already noise that current Ohio State video coordinator and former Dookie Greg Paulus will leave the Buckeyes to take an assistant coaching gig alongside Collins in Evanston.
IT'S SPRING AGAIN. While most Buckeyes are focused on the hardwood, the footballers will be back at it this afternoon with practice #7 as they work toward the spring game slated for April 13 in Paul Brown Stadium. Kyle brought the goods from Tuesday's practice and I continue to be amazed that The Ohio State University is seemingly without one more linebacker to complement Ryan Damn Shazier. Back in the day, when OSU employed the standard 4-3, there was no question that the Buckeyes would trot out at least two highly legit linebackers and here we are, despite boasting a crop of supposed blue-chippers, wondering who the heck is going to step up and deliver.
The Curtis Grant saga is one of the most frustrating scenarios that I can remember. Dude was a signing day coup and has all the physical tools, yet when practically handed the job, he hasn't shown the required mojo to keep it. At this point, it seems the best bet is that he becomes a Sabino-esque player in that, after many moons in the program, he finally begins to grasp the mental aspects of the game in which he understands not only his assignment, but the assignments of those around him. If I recall correctly, Sabino's upperclassman-year redshirt was mostly about giving him more time to grasp the schemes than it was to create eligibility separation from his peers, though the story might have been spun differently. It worked out for him but the time is now for Grant. If he can't seize the job this year, will he ever develop the required chops?
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