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March 28, 2013

Arizona, Ohio St. set for Sweet 16 clash

Of the four regions in the NCAA tournament, one could argue that the West does not have as much appeal as the three others after a wacky opening week.

The top seed, Gonzaga, is out, as are New Mexico, Kansas State and Wisconsin - Nos. 3, 4 and 5, respectively.

Meanwhile, the top four seeds remain intact in the East. Both the South and Midwest have each of the top three seeds alive, and Florida Gulf Coast, the No. 15 seed in the South, has captivated the nation with its historical run.

Remaining out West are: No. 2 Ohio State, No. 6 Arizona, No. 9 Wichita State and No. 13 La Salle. The Buckeyes (28-7) and Wildcats (27-7) will tip off at 4:47 p.m. Thursday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and the winner will advance to the Elite Eight.

The team left standing also will have the overwhelming odds stacked in its favor for Saturday's West Regional final against either Wichita State or La Salle. Although boring to some, Wildcats head coach Sean Miller is not complaining about the perceived easy route to the Final Four in Atlanta.

"If it's the worst regional, good, great. I'm glad I'm here," Miller said. "I mean, the thing about the tournament is nobody looks back and says, 'Boy, what an easy road or hard road.' You either advanced or you didn't."

The players are not getting too caught up in the talk of which regional is "sexier," either.

"I feel like my teammates are handsome, you know. But that's (beside) the point," UA guard Mark Lyons joked.

Among the storylines in place is the relationship between one-time colleagues Miller and OSU head coach Thad Matta, who will meet for the second time in the NCAA tournament. While at Xavier in 2007, Miller lost in overtime to Matta's Buckeyes in the second round, 78-71, after Ron Lewis' 3-pointer with two seconds to play in regulation.

Miller took over at Xavier after Matta left for OSU in 2004, and the two also were assistants under Herb Sendek on the Miami (Ohio) staff in the mid-1990s.

The coaches grew close over the years and were once roommates. Matta remembers a "sloppy, sloppy" friend.

"The thing about Sean that I've learned over time is whenever we'd go somewhere, he'd forget his wallet," Matta said.

If there is one thing Miller is sure of, it's that Matta is not a fan of traveling too far away from home. More than 2,200 miles away from Columbus, the Buckeyes - 7-0 at neutral sites this season - are expected to walk into a sizeable Wildcats homecourt advantage.

"But I guess if there's one small advantage we have, we have [Matta] in a place that he's not real familiar with, a long way from home," Miller said.

But the game ultimately will be decided by the players on the court, and no matchup is drawing more interest than the Lyons-Aaron Craft duel at point guard.

The two are fairly different. Craft is a pass-first point guard with pesky defense and a calm influence on the Buckeyes. Lyons is more erratic, a combo guard learning to run a team on the fly, and a chucker who can catch fire just as quickly as he can go cold.

After shooting in the low 40s during the regular season, Lyons has made 62.5 percent of his shots and totaled 50 points through two games in the tournament.

"[Lyons] can score in a variety of ways and get a shot off, which is always very tough," Craft said.

But the two also are proven winners. Craft led the Big Ten Conference champions to a fourth consecutive Sweet 16 after drawing a questionable charge call and scoring the final seven points - including a 3-pointer with 0.5 seconds remaining - in a 78-75 win over Iowa State. The Buckeyes are seeking back-to-back trips to the Final Four.

Lyons, meanwhile, will be the first player in tournament history to play on two different Sweet 16 teams in back-to-back seasons. A graduate transfer from Xavier, where he was originally recruited by Miller's staff, the 6-1 guard appeared in three previous Sweet 16s with the Musketeers but has advanced no farther.

And another win is all Lyons wants - regardless of the attention he and his counterpart are receiving.

"Honestly, I'm just trying to win games," Lyons said. "Everybody is caught up in this one‑on‑one matchup, and I'm not looking at it like that. If my team wins, all of us look good, and that's all that really matters."

Not to be forgotten is the one preseason All-American in the contest, Buckeyes forward Deshaun Thomas. The 6-7, 215-pound junior is averaging nearly 20 points per game with an inside-outside ability to finish at the rim and score from beyond the arc.

Guarding him will be the Wildcats' own versatile forward, Solomon Hill - who opened the year as the starting small forward before sliding over to power forward when Kevin Parrom was inserted into the starting lineup late in the season.

While Thomas has been tabbed a mismatch for Arizona, he sees a similar problem in Hill, who is shooting slightly below 39 percent from long range.

"He's a great player. He's a great offensive player," Thomas said. "He can make shots. He's a mismatch nightmare out there too at 6-7, long, and can play the post, can shoot the 3. He's a great player. It's going to be a great matchup, and I'm looking forward to seeing it."

While "sexiness" is subjective, one thing is for certain: One coach will have his team a step closer to Atlanta after the final buzzer and handshakes are exchanged.

"I don't like the fact that we're playing, but I'm happy as can be for him," Matta said.

Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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