March has always been known as a time when anything can happen. In each game, one team wins and inches closer to the National Title. The other team loses, heading home to prepare for the next season.
Arizona’s Mark Lyons put together back-to-back stellar performances in two blowouts. Ohio State’s Aaron Craft had an ice cold dagger from behind the arc to keep the Buckeyes alive. Sean Miller and Thad Matta, head coaches for Arizona and Ohio State respectively, are best friends that had great guard play put them in a position that pits them against each other in the Sweet Sixteen.
"Thad Matta is probably my best friend in coaching, he's a guy that means a lot to me, I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for him,” said Miller. “We've worked together both as assistant coaches, and I was fortunate to be brought up as an assistant coach at Xavier when he was the head coach. I learned a lot from him and had a great time together, and because of that we know Ohio State very well."
The Wildcats will arrive in Los Angeles having beaten Belmont and Harvard in the second and third rounds of the tournament. Belmont was a trendy pick to upset the Wildcats, who came into the NCAA Tournament having won just two of their last five games. Harvard was an upset-minded 14-seed who beat New Mexico in the second round. Arizona controlled both games from the opening tip, never looking back as it rolled into the Sweet Sixteen.
“You can't read it," Miller said. "I can make the case that in our margin of victory we have a lot of confidence right now, which is a really good thing moving into L.A., that we've played well, and that if you say we haven't been tested its more about the margin of victory than the fact of the competition. Belmont is just an incredible team. We could've played New Mexico who is one of the nation's best teams, but the reason we didn't play them was because the team they played was good enough to beat them two nights earlier.
“Harvard was our next opponent and I thought we played the way we needed to play against both of those teams. Sometimes when you get in some hard fought games, there's only so much energy in the tank.”
The Buckeyes had a little more excitement in their portion of the bracket. After dispatching Iona and former Wildcat Lamont “Momo” Jones in the second round, Ohio State was faced with a pesky Iowa State team. The game came down to the wire. With the score tied at 75, Craft dribbled around the half-court line for 26 of the final 29 seconds, before making a contested three-pointer to win the game. The point guard finished with eighteen points, six assists, and two steals.
"Part of what makes him such a special basketball player is who he is as a person,” Miller said. “He's a 4.0 student, an incredible leader and as good of a competitor as you'll find. He puts a lot of emphasis and plays hard on defense, but he's also talented there. There are a lot of guys who play hard, but they're limited. He has exceptional quickness and quick hands and he is strong. His anticipates really well.
“On offense, he runs the show. It's not about scoring points for him it's about being a point guard, and he is an extension of the coach. All of the things that you can say to give him incredible respect, that's where I'm at."
Craft is joined in the backcourt by Lenzelle Smith, Jr. The junior guard has been a key for the Buckeyes this year. Smith struggled against Iowa State due to foul trouble, as he made just two three pointers, accounting for his six points on the night. It was an off night for the shooting guard, but he could be more effective against Arizona.
Ohio State’s biggest weapon against Arizona will be Deshaun Thomas. The 6-foot-7 junior is by far the best offensive threat for the Buckeyes. He scored 22 points against the Cyclones in the third round game, hitting eight of his fourteen shots on the day. Thomas also led the team with five rebounds and tied two others with two steals. Containing him will be one of the most difficult thing for the Wildcats to do.
"The one difference is that he's so different and unique as a player,” Miller said of Thomas. “It's hard to describe him as a player. On one hand he's a great three-point shooter, and on the other he's big and he's physical and he can score around the basket. He's hard for everyone in the country and he's a reason why Ohio State is who they are and we are no different. We will have to prepare well and it will be a team effort against him."
The Buckeyes will also start Sam Thompson next to Thomas. Thompson is a 6-foot-7 sophomore who is still coming into his own as a player. He was held relatively quiet against Iowa State, scoring just seven points in 31 minutes of action. Thompson grabbed just three rebounds, but had two assists and two steals as well.
Amir Williams should be the final man in the starting rotation against Arizona. The center is 6-foot-11, but is not as big a contributor as his size may suggest. Playing only nine minutes in the third round game, Williams snatched just two boards, despite his frame. His matchup with Kaleb Tarczewski will be interesting as the Wildcat can be more beneficial to keep on the floor for Arizona.
Matta will call on three players to come off the bench, Evan Ravenel, LaQuinton Ross, and Shannon Scott. Ross could be the most dangerous of the three. Playing 21 minutes, he made six of ten shots, including three treys. Ross also added two rebounds and an assist.
Scott will play the most minutes off the bench, replacing Smith. Against Iowa State, Scott scored six points, hitting two shots and two free throws. He brought down three rebounds and passed for three assists. Scott is a significant step down from Smith, but can be a suitable replacement for pieces of the game.
Ravenel is the final Buckeye that will see time off the bench. In thirteen minutes against the Cyclones, the forward was held to just one point, making a single free throw. Ravenel wasn’t very effective in the game, pulling down just two rebounds on the night, though he also had a block.
Arizona has been playing its best basketball of the season in the last five games. The Wildcats are 4-1 in those games, but the Buckeyes are currently nursing a ten-game winning streak that included winning the Big Ten championship. Both teams will come into the game giving it their best shot, but only one team can advance to the Elite Eight.