Arizona Preview: Matta Matched Up with Familiar ‘Frenemy’
By Patrick Murphy
Thursday’s Sweet Sixteen matchup between No. 2-seed Ohio State and 6-seed Arizona will be the second time head coach Thad Matta and his opposite number for the Wildcats, Sean Miller, have met in the NCAA Tournament since Miller was an assistant under Matta at Xavier.
Photo by Jim Davidson
The last game was one to remember. OSU's Ron Lewis hit a dagger three against Miller’s Xavier team with two seconds left to force overtime. From there, Mike Conley Jr. took over in the extra period in the second round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament.
The two close friends now meet in Los Angeles, both looking to lead their programs to the Elite Eight.
“Special friend, somebody that I'm very, very excited that he's here,” Matta said of Miller.
“I don't like the fact that we're playing, but I'm happy as can be for him.”
Like it or not, that is the draw for these two teams, whose coaches are quite familiar with each other, along with the plan of attack heading into Thursday night’s matchup (7:47 p.m. ET, TBS) at the Staples Center.
“It is kind of ironic as we talk about our teams to each other,” said the Buckeyes’ head man.
“So he's got a pretty good feel for us as I do for his team,”
Photo by Jim Davidson
If the two teams know what to expect from their opposition, it should all come down to execution. Both of these groups have been executing at a high level, and that is what makes this battle exciting for fans and the players.
Arizona has cruised through the first two rounds of the tournament, winning by 17 and 23 points respectively. Ohio State, despite some close games, has now won 10 in a row and will look to extend that streak.
The Wildcats are team led by senior guard Mark Lyons, who is averaging 25 points over the first two games of the Big Dance. While the former Xavier guard will handle the ball some, he is also comfortable working off the ball, and has had an alley-oop dunk in each of the games so far.
It is likely that Aaron Craft – and maybe Shannon Scott – will be asked to do the job defensively on Lyons. Neither of these Buckeyes shies away from tough defensive assignments, so they will be ready.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“Anything I can do to make (the opponent) think about other things and their game plan or anything like that,” Craft said about annoying his matchup.
“They can think as bad as they want about me, as long as they're not thinking about what they should be doing.”
Lyons is not the only player on the Arizona squad that can hurt Ohio State. Against Belmont in the first round, the Wildcats had four starters score in double figures, while the fifth had nine points. While the Buckeyes are a considerable step up from the Bruins, it does show the weapons this team has when they are clicking.
A player who could make an impact against OSU is Solomon Hill. The 6-8 forward said he will be matched up with OSU junior Deshaun Thomas and will try to slow down Ohio State’s leading-scorer.
“He's a great player. He's a great offensive player,” Thomas said about Hill.
“He can make shots. He's a mismatch nightmare out there too at 6-7, long, and can play the post, can shoot the three. He's a great player. It's going to be a great match‑up, and I'm looking forward to seeing it.”
Craft and Thomas will need help from their teammates to get their 11th-straight win and a second-straight appearance in the Elite Eight.
“It's important for those guys to come in and make big shots and score the ball really well,” Thomas said of his teammates.
“Tou guys asked the question who was that other scorer, but now guys are stepping up and making big plays, LaQuinton Ross, Shannon Scott, and also Lenzelle (Smith) and Sam (Thompson). So it's good for our program and our team.”
Craft echoed Thomas’ sentiments.
“It's been great to have multiple guys kind of come into their roles, and it's not always been scoring, it's not always been the most flashy of things,” the junior guard said.
“But it's been great, everyone really kind of taking to heart what they need to do for this team to be successful.”
Ross and Thomas have already shown their scoring ability in the tournament and we have seen what Lenzelle Smith can do if he gets hot. Scott has really locked in defensively throughout the second half of the season, and the others have been effective on that side of the ball as well.
Arizona is a physical team that can play in the paint or knock down open shots. Lyons will attack the basket, but cannot be given space as he can hit the jumper as well.
As expected with someone who worked closely under Matta, Miller and his Wildcats hang their hat on the defense. Their physicality translates to that side of the ball, which will make it tough for the scarlet and gray to score easy baskets.
While Arizona has been a good team this season – they beat both Florida and Miami early on – they have not gone up against a team like Ohio State, who may be the best defensive team in the country right now.
Look for the Buckeyes to continue that tough defense and get out in transition. Steals and deflections will be essential for that, and that starts with Craft and Scott. Ohio State will have to push the tempo when they get the chance to try and create easy baskets.
The Wildcats will be a tough test, but do not be surprised if Thad Matta get another tournament win over his friend and apprentice and take this team a step closer to the Final Four.