How Far Can Arizona Go?Posted by AMurawa on March 28th, 2013
Three weeks ago, coming off an 0-2 road trip to Los Angeles, Arizona was just about ready to be left for dead. It’s not that a pair of conference road losses – one to a team in the middle of a 6-2 streak, the other to the eventual conference champion – were egregious, it’s that they were playing uninspired ball and none of the pieces were showing great cohesion. Mark Lyons was 6-of-24 that weekend with three assists while getting outplayed by Jio Fontan and Larry Drew II; Nick Johnson was in the midst of his regularly scheduled mid-season downturn; and Sean Miller could seemingly never get more than one of his freshman bigs – Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett – to play well at any given time.
Flash forward to the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Against a pair of physically overmatched opponents, Lyons was among the best players in the nation, going for 25 points per game in a highly efficient manner. Johnson is now in the midst of a string of unbelievably good defensive performances (dating back to the season finale against Arizona State) and looks to have regained his confidence in his jumper. The freshman bigs have suddenly shown strides to the point where it looks like at least two out of the three can be counted on in any given game. In other words, Miller’s got this team coalescing at precisely the right time. But still, like we said, those two tournament wins were against seriously overmatched teams. Just how far can this Wildcats team go now that the strength of the opponents are about to undergo a serious uptick?
With the winner of La Salle and Wichita State awaiting in the Elite Eight, if Arizona can get by Ohio State on Thursday night, they’ll be a favorite to advance to the Final Four. But getting past the #2 Buckeyes is easier said than done. Led by junior point guard and elite defender Aaron Craft, Ohio State is a ferocious defensive team. They’ve got athletes across the perimeter and a trio of shot-blocking threats to protect the rim along the back line. Led by one of the nation’s best scorers in DeShaun Thomas, they’ve also turned into a very good offensive team. In other words, they’ll be a very tough match-up for the ‘Cats.
The individual battle everyone is going to look at first and foremost is Lyons vs. Craft, and it will be a great one with All-American level players going at each other. When Arizona has the ball it will pit one of the best penetrating scorers at the point against arguably the nation’s best on-ball defender, while on the other end of the court, both players are merely very good. You certainly can’t expect Lyons to produce offensively like he did against Belmont and Harvard, but it will be important that he not force up many bad shots in this game; Thursday would certainly be a good time for Lyons to discover his inner-John Stockton and look to get his teammates going early.
One of those teammates who could turn into a major factor offensively is senior forward Solomon Hill. A versatile inside/outside threat, Hill could find himself being guarded by Thomas at times. While Hill will certainly have his hands full with the Buckeyes’ leading scorer at the other end of the court, he could aid his defensive game plan by making Thomas – an improving but still average (at best) defender – work without the ball. The Wildcats will also have a significant height advantage in the middle, but Ohio State’s primary interior defenders – Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel – are strong and rugged rebounders. Tarczewski, Ashley and Jerrett (who is expected to play after bruising an elbow against Harvard) need to not just hold their own against the Buckeyes, but they need to be able to score inside and out.
An X-factor for the Wildcats may be senior wing Kevin Parrom. While there aren’t necessarily many plays run specifically for him, Parrom brings one of the nation’s best offensive efficiency ratings to the table. He knocks down better than 40% from three, scores well in the mid-range game and is a versatile player who rebounds well, plays great defense and comes up with scrappy, winning plays. Given that he’ll often be tasked with stopping one of the Buckeyes’ tertiary offensive options, like LaQuinton Ross, for instance, he’ll have a chance to make a great impact.
It’s hard to predict exactly what will go down between the ‘Cats and the Bucks, because both teams are so evenly matched. Provided Lyons doesn’t get too crazy, there is a very real possibility that all of the above match-ups could come down to near-draws. In which case, maybe a friendly home-court-like environment, which Arizona and its band of supporters should have at the Staples Center. If Arizona can squeak past the Buckeyes, they’ll have a physical advantage over either of their possible opponents in the next round. And if and when they get to the Final Four, you can throw out all the bets. In 1997, Arizona limped home to a fifth-place finish in a strong Pac-10 conference behind a rotation that featured two freshmen, three sophomores and three juniors. Once they got to the NCAA Tournament, after getting through the first weekend without playing a single-digit seed, they knocked off a #1 seed in the Sweet Sixteen, then snuck past a #10-seed (Providence) to earn a Final Four berth. Once there, they knocked off two more #1-seeds on the way to the program’s only national championship. While this year’s team wouldn’t have to face any more than two #1-seeds, the overall path is pretty similar with Arizona making it to the Final Four by beating just one single-digit seed. That ’97 team grew with fits and starts after an underachieving regular season, but came together just in time to take advantage of a handful of breaks in the draw and some well-timed terrific performances to earn a title. If this year’s vintage of the Wildcats can continue to improve and take care of the Buckeyes Thursday night, they’ll be well down the path to a title that their 1997 ancestors forged for them.