Ohio State Basketball: Keys to Victory in Sweet 16 Matchup with Arizona
The Ohio State Buckeyes survived one of the 2013 NCAA tournament's signature games this afternoon, fighting back to beat the Iowa State Cyclones 78-75 in Dayton.
Though their opponents shot well, and though there was some officiating controversy down the stretch, Aaron Craft's late-game heroics—including the deciding three-point basket with 0.5 seconds remaining—were enough to lift Ohio State into the Sweet 16.
Awaiting them in Los Angeles are the Arizona Wildcats. The Wildcats have been in this position before, making an unlikely Elite Eight run just two years prior. So if Ohio State wants to avoid an untimely exit, they'd do well not to take Arizona lightly.
Here are three keys that will help them reach the Elite Eight:
Slow Down Mark Lyons
The Xavier transfer has excelled in his first season with Arizona, using a unique blend of skill and leadership to spearhead the Wildcats' previously disjointed attack. He's both the engine that makes them go and the body with which they travel. And if you can get him out of his rhythm, you can make Arizona look very, very bad.
But that is much easier said than done. Lyons is painfully aware that this is his final NCAA tournament, and he's playing with a scrappy chip on his shoulder. He's averaged 25 points per game in the Wildcats' opening weekend, shooting 20-for-32 (62.5 percent) from the field, including 6-for-13 (46.2 percent) from deep.
Fortunately, as everyone from Columbus to Tucson is well-apprised, Ohio State is well-equipped to shut down opposing point guards. For all the vitriol Aaron Craft gets—at least from the uniformed—those in the know readily refer to him as the best defender in college basketball. And while he isn't capable of altering interior shots like a Jeff Withey, his methodic ability to shut down bigger, stronger guards makes it hard to disagree.
Craft vs. Lyons is a nightmare matchup for Arizona fans but a dream matchup for unbiased fans. It also might be the most important individual matchup we've seen all tournament.
Sustain Production From Role Players
The book on Ohio State has been relatively consistent all season long: Someone besides DeShaun Thomas needs to score. Aaron Craft has been capable in spurts, and he certainly isn't afraid to take the big shot, but for the most part, Ohio State's wing players have proven too capricious to trust.
But that all changed against Iowa State in the round of 32. Even in a contest where the Buckeyes' fifth-ranked defense (h/t Ken Pomeroy) was a shell of its usual self, Ohio State found scoring from enough unlikely sources to survive and advance.
LaQuinton Ross, the team's fifth-leading scorer, was the main revelation, coming off the bench to pour in 17 points—his second highest total of the season, and most since scoring 22 in a meaningless December 1st game against Northern Kentucky.
And while that was all well and good, it won't mean anything until Ross proves he can sustain it. The former five-star recruit has been largely disappointing in his college years, but as he made so explicitly clear on Sunday, he was once so highly regarded for a reason.
The same can be said for Ohio State's third- and fourth-leading scorers, Lenzelle Smith and Sam Thompson. That duo, in the shadow of Ross' huge afternoon, combined for just 13 points on 4-for-11 shooting against Iowa State.
Survive Potential Early Run
Much will be written this week about Arizona's perceived (or, depending on how you look at it, legitimate) lack of quality competition. They played in the much-maligned Pac-12 all season—now standing as its second-to-last team—and lucked into games against 11 and 14 seeds this weekend.
That journalistic narrative, almost without fail, has the same effect on a team. It doesn't dismay them, and it doesn't deflate them, but rather instills them with a sense of "nobody believes in us" energy that propels them on the field, court, track or any other playing surface on which one might engage in competition.
So don't be surprised if Arizona storms out of the gates with a massive adrenaline rush. They wouldn't be real athletes if they didn't. Ohio State's job isn't necessarily to match or counteract that energy, but rather to just contain it.
They can't get discouraged if the Wildcats throw the game's first haymaker, and they can't try to close a potential deficit in one swoop. They need to keep their wits about them, run their sets, and trust everything that got them a No. 2 seed to begin with.
If they do that, as something tells me they will, the cream will likely rise to the top.
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