Kevin Zimmerman covers Arizona basketball for AZ Desert Swarm, SB Nation's University of Arizona team blog, while Luke Zimmermann is an Ohio State basketball writer for Land-Grant Holy Land, SB Nation's blog for all things Buckeyes. They are not related.
Kevin: So after the Wildcats rolled past two mid-majors, they'll finally face a basketball power. While Arizona has been described by some as an All-Airport Team (i.e. they look like an NBA squad walking through the airport), Ohio State got what I would think is a pretty good win against a scary Iowa State squad in the Round of 32. I'd say Arizona is playing its best basketball of the season, though it's hard to gauge against the competition. Where do you think Ohio State is currently? Are you confident about the Bucks going into this one, the opponent aside?
Luke: Ohio State has won 10 straight games, eight against competition in the toughest league in the sport. Iowa State certainly proved more than capable giant killers, but Ohio State faces easily their stiffest competition of the young NCAA Tournament in the Arizona Wildcats.
Confident? I think Vegas' confidence in the Bucks' chance (four-point favorites to open) and the consensus of experts pegging Ohio State as having "the easiest road to the Final Four" of any of the remaining top two seeds has to have many representing the scarlet and gray liking their chances. From a more honest realistic vantage though, I think in spite of the incredible run this team's been on for the better part of the last month, it's still awfully hard to go all-in on the Buckeyes' chances without having at least some trepidation.
When you start to factor in the opponent, that's when I personally begin to get nervous. I've seen what the 'Cats have done in their two Tournament games (as well as some of their body of work in the Pac-12 Tournament). What's the general sentiment among U of A faithful right now? How do they feel they stack up against the Buckeyes?
Kevin: Right now, I'm getting the feeling everyone is feeling pretty confident but with a tinge of apprehension. Arizona has been unpredictable in focus and effort both within games and in streaks throughout this season. The Wildcats have shown up in a big way against two teams that appeared to be physically inferior, so Ohio State will surely be a different opponent simply from that perspective.
But much of that apprehension comes because of UA's lack of point guard play. Mark Lyons, who transferred from Xavier for this season, is a senior who still hasn't figured out how to be a point guard, not even a "pure" point guard, but a guy who won't hurt his own team. Lyons is apt to take poor shots, and he doesn't quite get the offense flowing as a point guard should. But so far this tournament, he's taken mostly good shots and limited the turnovers. He's abused smaller, slower guards to get to the cup, but how he'll handle the Buckeyes' defense (I can't see Aaron Craft guarding anyone else) will be something for Wildcat fans to worry about. If he's turning it over, I understand Ohio State will be more than willing to get into transition to score off miscues.
Do you think Lyons will be the target of Craft's sticky defense in this one? Also, with Nick Johnson being Arizona's own perimeter defender, who else could Sean Miller potential stick him on outside of Craft (i.e. who is a another perimeter player that Arizona fans should be worried about?)
Luke: I think basically everyone with an outlet to publish such opinions thinks Craft will draw the Lyons assignment. I won't be totally surprised if we see some Shannon Scott on him, too, to spell Craft or to diversify the variety of defensive looks the Buckeyes throw his way. Ohio State's done a great job of keeping opposing star scorers uncomfortable for much of their winning streak, so seeing a variety of warm bodies on him could very well factor into Thad Matta's game plan.
And to be honest, if Johnson's being slotted on Craft, I suspect Arizona's leaving somebody more viable open. For all Craft's praise and adoration for hitting the game-winner against Iowa State, he'd also missed a key one-and-one and taken a junk shot on the sequence prior to that one. By no means is Craft a weapon you (or any Arizona fan) should fear, and to be totally honest, Ohio State hasn't really had a consistent (emphasis here) long-range threat short of Deshaun Thomas. Sam Thompson, who you probably know from his infinity GIFs/SportsCenter highlight dunks, also came on strong as a three-point shooter down the stretch, but isn't someone I expect to seize the moment. Lenzelle Smith Jr. will occasionally pop one successfully too, but is even streakier yet.
The real question in my mind is will Arizona concede Thomas to get his (as Michigan State did in their win over the Bucks) and merely focus on shutting everyone else down, or if Sean Miller's M.O. will be to make anyone other than Thomas stop them? A running lazy narrative all season around this Ohio State team was "who will be scorer No. 2?".That ultimately sort of worked out in the Buckeyes' favor -- it got them comfortable expecting the unexpected and having whoever was feeling it that night assume the role. Accordingly, it's difficult to project who other than Thomas will be on their game offensively.
Let's say for this exercise's purposes that Lyons is ineffective. Is Solomon Hill or perhaps Johnson able enough to take over a game? Or what if the Buckeyes' outstanding team defensive curtails all three. Is there a Plan D for the 'Cats? Who's a surprise breakout type Ohio State fans should be on the lookout for?
Kevin: Honestly, Arizona has a lot of guys who can score 15 points but none who are as explosive as Lyons. Solomon Hill is a versatile, do-it-all type who can hit spot-up jumpers very well and will attempt to take over the game, but he really takes what he can get. Nick Johnson has the ability but hasn't shown that he's willing to take over a game, and he's another one to take what the defense gives him. Simply put, the Wildcats would be happy to use their motion offense to work inside-out. During the Tournament, they've really made it a point to go into their young big men and force teams to help on defense. That's really been the reason why the three-point shooting has opened up for the Wildcats in the postseason.
So to answer your question, sort of, I don't think there's really one player who will shine, but rather a collective effort, as vague as that may sound. Backup point guard Jordin Mayes can put in some points, as can bench forwards Grant Jerrett and Brandon Ashley. I am going in with the assumption that Ohio State plays good enough defense to hold Hill and Johnson between 10-15 points, and that said, the Buckeyes have to make sure nobody else gets going outside of those two and Lyons.
Arizona has the size, versatility, shooting, etc. to beat anyone in the country, but outside of Lyons, the 'Cats don't have anyone who can take over the game. And I think that's why the Lyons-Craft match-up will really make the Wildcats prove they can win without an NBA-type scorer.
Going back to the big men, how do you see Ohio State controlling in the paint? The Wildcats are young, for sure, but they have enough big bodies with the raw talent to collectively make it tough for most teams inside -- especially with their interior defense, which really made Belmont and Harvard unable to score inside whether it be their big men or guards.
Luke: So, um, about that ... Ohio State is incredibly weak in the interior. Senior Evan Ravenel will have explosive games out of the blue, but he's mostly a four-and-four kind of guy. Usual starter Amir Williams is a former McDonald's All-American, which after having watched them on the court for two years feels like some kind of fever dream. If Arizona is able to catch them on one of their many off nights and their big men can actually produce offensively, Ohio State could very much be in trouble.
If they just have guys who mostly just get rebounds and play defense, that's not an issue. Ohio State is more of an intermediate range/transition scoring team anyways. Deshaun Thomas is an outside in 4 and Thompson, Smith, Craft, Scott, and whoever else make a living on driving past people, transition baskets and jumpers themselves. Ohio State isn't going to run and gun and outscore anyone. If Arizona turns it into a track meet, the Buckeyes more likely than not won't be able to keep pace. If 'Zona wants to make it into a defense first, first team to 55 wins sort of contest, that's the Buckeyes bread and butter and what the likes of Wisconsin all season long prepared them for. In between is where it gets trickier to peg.
On that note, how do you see this one playing out? What's your prediction for Thursday night?
Kevin: I see this as being a close game -- two well-coached teams, no extreme advantage for either team and not any one facet of the game being dominated. I think from Arizona's end, pushing the pace isn't the M.O. The Wildcats are fine with having a half-court game and defending, and patience will be paramount for them so long as the defense is clicking.
And when I think about it, I think there's more support behind Lyons, Hill and Johnson than Craft and Thomas giving Arizona a slight advantage. Call it a homer pick, but it could simply be that I know more about the capabilities of the Wildcats than the role players for Ohio State. So if I'm forced into a prediction, I'd pick Arizona by three. At the same time, I still wonder how Arizona will play if Lyons is shut down by Craft.
Whatever the outcome, I fully expect the winner of this game to get to the Final Four, because I think this year in college hoops has shown us that the big-name programs still rule the Tournament. Overall, this should be an awesome, well-played game.