LOS ANGELES -- In a news conference that preceded Thursday's matchup with Ohio State in the Sweet 16 at the Staples Center, Arizona seemed concerned but calm when responding to queries about a Buckeyes squad that’s lost just one game since Valentine’s Day.
Mark Lyons told reporters that his matchup with Aaron Craft is significant, but not as important as his team’s on-court unity on game day. Solomon Hill believes he’s the proper neutralizer for a player with Deshaun Thomas' versatility.
LaQuinton Ross? That’s a different matter.
“I think LaQuinton Ross is a different guy that we have to have guys keyed in on,” Hill said Wednesday of the Buckeyes' forward. “I think he's the big spark off the bench. He's a starter on any other team, and our young guys have to be prepared for him to really put it on the floor and shoot the outside shot.”
Ross is one member of an Ohio State supporting cast that’s fueled the Buckeyes’ run to the Sweet 16. The sophomore scored 17 points (shooting 6-for-10) in Sunday’s victory over Iowa State. And he’s not the only meaningful contributor without the surname Craft or Thomas.
Shannon Scott is averaging 1.8 steals per game. Sam Thompson scored 20 points in OSU’s victory over Iona in the second round. Lenzelle Smith Jr. (9.4 points per game) is the team’s No. 3 scorer behind Thomas and Craft. Buckeyes coach Thad Matta might need the length of both Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel when his team encounters an Arizona frontcourt that features four players who are 6-foot-8 or taller.
The Buckeyes didn’t start this impressive rally -- one that includes a Big Ten tournament title -- with two players. And they won’t reach Atlanta with two players, either.
“They’ve been the difference,” Matta said. “The thing that I’ve enjoyed watching come to fruition is just those guys accepting their roles, but then taking great pride in doing their job.”
Ross said the team came together after the Buckeyes suffered a demoralizing 71-49 loss at Wisconsin on Feb. 17. The players gathered to discuss their differences following the defeat. They recognized that they were a fractured unit. Ross said every player, stars and reserves, accepted blame.
“[Wisconsin] was able to pick us apart because we weren’t together,” Ross said.
Since that time, however, the Buckeyes haven’t lost -- rolling off 10 consecutive wins. Why? Because they’re jelling with one of the NCAA tournament field’s best eight-man rotations. Ohio State’s players seem certain of the responsibilities they’re expected to handle each night. This is certainly not a two-man show.
“It’s really important for us to step up and be X factors,” Scott said. “We can’t be out there watching.”
WHOM TO WATCH
Ohio State’s Craft: The point guard's defensive wizardry has been on full display in the tournament. Iona’s Lamont Jones committed four turnovers with Craft on him. Iowa State’s Korie Lucious recorded five turnovers against Craft’s pressure.
“Aaron Craft is exceptional at what he does,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
Arizona’s Lyons: The Xavier transfer scored a combined 50 points in his team’s two NCAA tournament victories over Belmont and Harvard. He’s also shooting 85.3 percent at the free throw line. But his leadership is a critical intangible for this program. His team feeds off him, whether he’s playing well or struggling.
WHAT TO WATCH
The paint: Arizona’s frontcourt athleticism could be a problem for the Buckeyes. But Thomas, Ravenel and Williams said they’ll play the physical Big Ten style that’s fueled their current winning streak. Ravenel said his team can also take advantage of Arizona’s youth; Grant Jerrett, Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley are all freshmen.
“Intimidation is one of the things that can win games in basketball,” Ravenel said.