Arizona’s path to the Final Four is going to have to go through Ohio State.
The Buckeyes, seeded No. 2 in the West, barely sidestepped the kind of upset that has weakened the West region, beating Iowa State 78-75 on Aaron Craft’s 3-point shot with a half-second left.
That sets up a Sweet 16 game in Los Angeles against the sixth-seeded Wildcats (4:47 p.m. Tucson time, TBS). These teams are the highest remaining seeds in the West, with No. 9 Wichita State going against No. 13 La Salle.
The Buckeyes (28-7) are as hot as anyone in the country. They have won 10 games in a row, including a victory over Indiana and two wins over Michigan State. Ohio State beat the Spartans and Wisconsin to win the Big Ten tournament. The Buckeyes are the only team in the country to play in the Sweet 16 in each of the past four seasons.
We’ll have a four-day build-up to the game (time TBA on Sunday night). For now, here are three quick, and obvious, storylines you’ll be reading much more about.
1. Thad Matta and Sean Miller
Hey, did you know the head coaches are friends? Get ready to explore their relationship all over again.
They shared an office as assistant coaches at Miami of Ohio in the 1994-95 season — under head coach Herb Sendek.
Several years later, when Matta was hired as the head coach at Xavier, he brought in Miller to be the first associate head coach in school history. Miller’s family lived with the Mattas for a while.
“When I first came to Xavier, my family had no place to go,” Miller was quoted as saying in the Dayton Daily News in 2007. “My wife was pregnant with our third son, and we lived with Thad for about a month. To say that I’m a fan of his and a friend is an understatement.”
Miller worked as an assistant at Xavier for three years before sliding into the head coach’s chair when Matta left for Ohio State in 2004.
The friends have met, epically, in the NCAA Tournament before.
Ninth-seeded Xavier led the top-ranked Buckeyes by 11 points with less than seven minutes left in a second-round game, but Ohio State’s Ron Lewis sent the game into overtime with a 3-pointer with two seconds left. These Buckeyes, led by Greg Oden and Michael Conley Jr., won 78-71 in overtime.
2. The matchups
We’ll have to wait and see how Miller doles out the defensive assignments, but the point guard matchup — especially if they go head-to-head — will be juicy.
Craft is a nifty distributor, averaging 4.7 assists, but is not known for his 3-point shooting, the game-winner against the Cyclones notwithstanding. Lyons makes the Wildcats go, but in a different way — with his scoring (50 points in two NCAA Tournament games) more than his passing.
Craft is a superb defender, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2012.
It won’t take much flattery of Craft from the UA coaches to fire up Lyons.
“When they somebody is really good, I like to go out there and just prove them wrong,” Lyons said. “It’s worked most of the time. They know what they’re doing.
“They tell me, ‘Oh, this guy is a pro, he’s this, he’s that.’ And they know for a fact that I’m going to accept the challenge. I’m not going to back down from any challenge, regardless of who it is.”
Speaking of matchups, how about Solomon Hill vs. 6-7 forward Deshaun Thomas, an All-American who averages 19.7 points per game. Lots more on this, too, during the week.
3. McKale Center West
Arizona is quite familiar with the Staples Center, having played there for the Pac-12 tournament before it moved to Las Vegas this season.
UA fans, as they did two years ago when the West regional was held in Anaheim and the Wildcats toppled No. 1 Duke, should take over the arena and provide a home-court edge.
“It’s a great feeling to be going back to L.A.,” said junior guard Jordin Mayes. “Our fan base is going to be right there with us. We expect it to be like it was in McKale Center.”
— Greg Byrne (@Greg_Byrne) March 24, 2013