The college basketball world was a very different place on January 5th. In Tuscon, the 3rd ranked Wildcats had just polished off a close win against Utah, giving them a gaudy 14-0 record, sending expectations for the season through the roof. Across the country, the Buckeyes had just gotten completely run out of the gym at Illinois, confirming the worst fears of Buckeye fans, and famously leading some to speculate whether this preseason top-10 squad would even make the NCAA Tournament.
Since then, the Buckeyes picked up wins against Michigan, Indiana, Michigan State and Wisconsin, then caught fire to win the Big Ten Tournament, while Arizona hit a few speedbumps in Pac-12 play, including three losses to UCLA, to finish with a 6 seed. Is this team the same squad that beat Florida, Miami and San Diego State early this year, or the one that lost to USC, Cal and Colorado? The Wildcats have certainly looked strong so far, rolling over Belmont and Harvard, but there is a big jump from the Ivy League to the Big Ten.
If Arizona going to advance farther into the tourney, it'll have to start with their dynamic senior guard and leader, Mark Lyons. The 6-1 former Xavier Musketeer leads the team at 14.8 ppg, and is averaging 25 points per game in the NCAAs. Lyons has hit double figures in 14 of his last 15 games, has three point range, but can also drive to the basket and get to the line, where he is an excellent free throw shooter. One thing Lyons doesn't do exceptionally well is take care of the basketball, averaging nearly as many assists per game as turnovers. Aaron Craft will certainly need to be locked into this matchup.
Lyons is joined in the backcourt by 6-3 sophomore Nick Johnson, who brings 11.6 points per game to the table, but is also the team's leading facilitator (3.3 assists) and a competent rebounder (3.5). Johnson takes a little better care of the ball than Lyons, and adds a long range threat (39% from downtown) to the offense. Johnson is also a solid defender, averaging nearly 2 steals a game, and will try to wreck havoc of his own in Ohio State's backcourt. Johnson's offense has been quiet during the tourney, perhaps since Lyons had been able to score so much, but he's been efficient and hasn't made mistakes.
The Wildcats are particularly dangerous on the wings, led by 6-7 senior Solomon Hill. Hill brings 13.3 ppg, 5.4 boards, solid playmaking ability, and experience for days. While he lacks elite level athleticism, he could be a matchup problem for the Buckeyes should he get inside. Hill can also shoot from downtown (4 attempts per game, 38.9% shooter), get to the line, and muscle for boards. Hill has had moments of offensive inefficiency, and can be baited into foul trouble or turnovers. Hill might shoot 4-14, or he could get a few highlight plays and make Amir Williams burst into tears at the 7 minute mark. Or both.
Hill is joined by fellow swingman 6-6 Kevin Parrom, who is more of a "three and D" type than a primary scorer, 7 foot freshman Kalb Tarczewski, and 6-8 freshman Brandon Ashley. Tarczewski struggles with fouls and football but can be a rebounding monster , while Ashley adds a little more scoring potential to the frontcourt. The Wildcats have bodies to throw who are more than capable of grabbing boards and creating second chance opportunities. A rebounding effort like the Buckeyes had against Iowa State could prove fatal.
There aren't many teams in the tourney that have looked better over their first two games than Arizona, but there are also aren't many teams that have had easier matchups (and I say this as somebody who hyped Belmont winning a game for like, three weeks). The Wildcats are probably going to get to the free throw line, and they'll shoot threes fairly well, but they also haven't seen a team that can defend nearly a well as the Buckeyes, especially like the ball-hawking backcourt duo of Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott (whom Miller called "like having two shutdown cornerbacks"). Like in most games this season, Ohio State's ability to be successful will depend on their ability to prevent their bigger opponents from getting the ball in advantageous situations, thanks to forcing turnovers and dogged individual defense.
The Buckeye's shooting ability is as good as it's been over the entire year. The Bucks shot 9-18 from three against Iowa State, and 7-15 against Iona. Efficiency from downtown, even at a fairly high volume, has been a huge weapon for the Buckeyes, and that will only open things up for Deshaun Thomas and Sam Thompson underneath.
Arizona isn't an exceptional defensive team (although they're going to be better than Iowa State) as well.
Holy War. With the Buckeyes playing their best basketball (except you Amir Williams; go ahead and sit down), and with a potential Final Four trip looming, you know Ohio State is going to come out ready to play. I'd look for Lyons to cool down a little, and for Ohio State to eventually tough out a very close game, 68-62.