Earlier this week we began our breakdowns of the four Big Ten teams left in the NCAA tournament, more than any other conference in the country mind you. Luckily we get two matchups featured conference teams on each day of the tournament's 2nd week.
We spoke earlier about the Indiana vs. Syracuse game and now it's time for the night's first Sweet 16 matchup featuring a conference team and it comes in the strangest bracket of the 2013 tournament – the West regional – where only one of the top 5 seeds advanced to the Sweet 16, the 2nd seeded Ohio State Buckeyes. OSU will be going for their 11th win in a row since mid-February in this one.
This game has quite a few interesting layers as it's mentor vs. pupil when (2) OSU takes on (6) Arizona on Thursday night at 7:47pm ET on TBS. It also happens to be Arizona's attempt to get back to the "elite" of the college basketball world and a victory here could do that for them. It also means an interesting style matchup between two coaches who think a lot alike on how to play the game. So, where do we see this one coming down? Let's explore, shall we?
About Ohio State:
Record: 26-7 (B1G Tournament Champions)
Path in NCAA Tournament: 2nd round W (95-70 over Iona); 3rd round W (78-75 over Iowa State)
History w/ Arizona: 1-0 (12/29/71 last meeting)
Path in NCAA Tournament: 2nd round W (81-64 over Belmont); 3rd round W (74-51 over Harvard)
The whole mentor vs. pupil angle has been predictably played up big time heading into this matchup and as much fun as that can be to write about for some, that's not what we are interested in here. It's all about the players on the court. After all, coaches can't lace 'em up and hit shots or make decisions with the ball in their hands.
Yes, there is something to be said about the knowledge of what each other is like as a coach, but it goes both ways so to me it's a complete non-issue. What is an issue? How about the matchup between Mark Lyons of Arizona, who averages 25 points per game, and Aaron Craft, who is one of the best perimeter defenders in the country. Ohio State will need a way to hold Lyons below that season average if they are to win and expect Craft to be up to the challenge. He's proven it with that last second shot to clinch the win over Iowa State.
Arizona has hit 55% or better from the field in both of their trouncing's of opponents in the tournament so far, but they haven't run up against a team that plays defense the way OSU does. If they aren't hitting shots then this is the Buckeyes game for the taking, but if OSU's defensive efforts can't slow them down then consider the Wildcats a team of destiny in this West regional.
On the flip side there has to be some worry from the Wildcats perspective on how they stop DeShaun Thomas. He's a matchup nightmare for 'zona because he's big enough to pound you inside, but equally dangerous with his face to the basket hitting long range jumpers. Oh and if you try and guard him one on one he'll take you off the dribble too. The task of stopping Thomas will likely go to rangy and athletic big man Solomon Hill, who averages 13.3 points per game and just 5.4 rebounds per game. If he wants to stop Thomas from taking over the game he's got to at least stay even with him on the boards as well – no easy task.
When the final horn sounds on this game, look for the victor to be the one that won these two battles or at least kept it even between the two. If the latter is the case expect OSU to be in trouble, if the former is the case this one has Buckeyes written all over it.
Prediction: Ohio State 74, Arizona 66 – I see this game being super close, but Ohio State is one of the, if not THE hottest team in the country. Something woke up inside this team after it took a massive beating at the Kohl Center against Wisconsin in mid-February. Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith, Jr. and the always dependable DeShaun Thomas have been on top of their game as of late and as long as they stay there as a trio this team is hard to beat. While Arizona does pose a good challenge to the Buckeyes their firepower and defensive effort isn't nearly the same. Give me OSU in one of the more entertaining matchups this weekend.