Favorite: Ohio State
No team in the country has played better than the Buckeyes over the last month and a half of the season. Since getting drubbed by 22 points at Wisconsin on February 17th, Ohio State has won 10 straight games, which includes wins over Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan State twice, Minnesota and Illinois. The change has come with a move to playing a smaller lineup. Instead of using Evan Ravenel or Amir Williams, Thad Matta has started playing Deshaun Thomas, Sam Thompson and LaQuinton Ross along the front line, sometimes all three of them together. It creates matchup problems for opponents, which is part of the reason that Ross has emerged as an x-factor for the Buckeyes down the stretch of the season.
But they could also win: Wichita State
Honestly, I think the Shockers have the second-best chance of sneaking their way through the West. Gregg Marshall’s club has proven to be versatile and deep. They have a roster full of JuCo transfers and overlooked recruits, a group of guys playing with a chip on their shoulder. Perhaps what’s more impressive is the variety of ways in which the Shockers have proven that they can win games. They beat Pitt by 18 points in the opener by out-uglying the Panthers, and followed that up by hitting 14 threes — seven in the last 12 minutes — to knock off Gonzaga in the round of 32.
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Most Important Player: Mark Lyons, Arizona
In this Sweet 16 matchup, Lyons is going to have his work cut out for him, as he’ll be forced to lock horns with Aaron Craft, also known as the nation’s most aggravating on-ball defender. Lyons is incredibly important to what Arizona wants to do as a team, and he’s one of the only guys capable of creating his own shot on the roster. But here’s the key: if Arizona is going to win, they are going to have to take advantage of their size on the interior. Does Lyons avoid the temptation of trying to earn the glory of a trip to the Final Four himself, or can he get the ball into his big men inside.
Story line to watch: Regardless of what happens on Thursday, there is going to be either a No. 9 seed or a No. 13 seed playing for the right to go to the Final Four on Saturday evening. As it is, La Salle is already the nation’s least talked about great story, as the Explorers are just the fifth No. 13 seed to ever make it to the Sweet 16. And they played in the play-in game. It would be nice to see Aaron Craft make it to a second straight Final Four, and it will be interesting to see if Mark Lyons, who many crushed when he decided to enroll at Arizona, can fully silence the doubters with a Final Four run. But perhaps more than anything, could we be watching Marshall’s final days as Wichita State head coach?
1. Ohio State
2. Wichita State
4. La Salle
And the winner is?: Ohio State
I just think the Buckeyes are playing too well at this point. They also happen to have quite favorable matchups regardless of who they would draw in the Elite 8. They’re the only team in this region with experience playing this deep into the postseason. I think it pays off for them.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.