On paper, Ohio State seemingly has the easiest road to the Final Four. All that stands in the path of the No. 2 seed Buckeyes are No. 6 Arizona and the winner of No. 9 Wichita State and No. 13 La Salle.
Of course, the Wildcats will have something to say about that.
Arizona is a tricky team to predict. The talent is obviously there, and the fact that the Wildcats started the season 20-2—with statement wins over Florida, Miami and San Diego State—can't be ignored. Nor can the fact that the team limped to a 5-5 finish and lost to UCLA three times this season.
They meet an Ohio State team that is red hot at the moment, on the heels of 10 straight wins, including two victories over Michigan State and wins over Indiana and Wisconsin. Ohio State is led by do-it-all point guard Aaron Craft and stud forward Deshaun Thomas (19.5 points, 6.5 rebounds per game).
So who will win this Big Ten versus Pac-12 showdown? Let's break it down.
Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
When: Thursday, March 28 at 7:47 p.m. ET
Live Stream: March Madness On Demand
Betting Line: Ohio State (-3.5), according to Bovada
Ohio State Injuries (via USA Today)
None to report
Arizona Injuries (via USA Today)
F Grant Jerrett, Elbow, Probable
What's at Stake?
Oh, just a trip to the Elite Eight to face the winner of upstarts Wichita State and La Salle. No big deal.
Given how the West Region has shaken out, Ohio State will surely be disappointed with anything less than a trip to the Final Four, while Arizona has to already be pleased with its tournament but has a golden opportunity to far exceed expectations.
Ohio State Player to Watch: Aaron Craft
Aaron Craft does it all for Ohio State.
He is the team's leader and its heart and soul. He is a lock-down defender often tasked with defending the opponent's best guard, an assignment he'll surely draw against Arizona's Mark Lyons.
He leads Ohio State in assists (4.6 per game) and is second in scoring (9.9 points per game).
And he isn't afraid to step up and take the big shot, as he did by sinking the game-winning three against Iowa State in Ohio's State's 78-75 Round of 32 victory.
Craft isn't the most talented player in the Sweet 16, but he may be the most important. If he steps up and has a big game against Arizona, it's hard to see the Buckeyes losing.
Arizona Player to Watch: Mark Lyons
Mark Lyons has been Arizona's leading scorer all season long, but he's turned his game up to another level in the NCAA tournament, where he's averaging 25 points per game.
The scrappy point guard can absolutely light up an opponent if he gets hot, as he did to Belmont and Harvard. He might not be the all-around performer that Craft is, but he's also far more dangerous on the offensive side of the ball.
For Ohio State, it's pretty simple—contain Lyons and Arizona's offense likely sputters. But if he puts up 20 plus, look out.
Key Matchup: Battle on the Block
To be fair, the real key matchup in this game is between Craft and Lyons. Whichever player gets the better of that duel likely will lead their team to victory.
But since we've already covered that above, the other key matchup will be how these teams fare against one another in the paint and on the boards.
I think the team that wins the rebounding battle will likely win this game.
Both units are very efficient (according to KenPom.com, Ohio State is 12th in offensive efficiency and seventh in defensive efficiency, while Arizona is 16th in offensive efficiency and 32nd in defensive efficiency) so neither team will beat themselves with poor possessions or make life easy on the defensive end.
That means every little thing matters. Who will win the turnover battle? Who will get more points in the paint? And most importantly, who will win the rebounding battle?
That's the key to me, as neither team can afford to give the other second-chance buckets or allow easy points in transition. Solomon Hill, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski need to crash the boards hard for Arizona, while Deshaun Thomas, Sam Thompson, Evan Ravenel and Amir Williams must do the same for the Buckeyes.
Which team wins?
The Buckeyes are balanced, extremely efficient on both ends of the floor, battle-tested in the Big Ten, a superior defensive team and have the perfect antidote to Lyons in Craft.
Still, Arizona's talent can't be underestimated, nor can the fact that this game is being played in Pac-12 country.
But I think the Buckeyes will grind out the win here. This should be one of the best games of the Sweet 16, with Craft coming up big again late. Ohio State wins, 68-66.
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