Previewing tonight’s West regional final, Ohio State (29-7) vs. Wichita State (29-8)
DETAILS: No. 2 seed Ohio State vs. No. 9 seed Wichita State, 7:05 p.m. ET, Staples Center in Los Angeles. CBS has the broadcast. The winner advances to play either Duke or Louisville in next Saturday’s Final Four in Atlanta.
THE STAGE: Ohio State is on the brink of its second straight Final Four thanks to last-second heroics in its last two games, first from Aaron Craft and on Thursday from LaQuinton Ross. Winners of 11 straight, the Buckeyes are playing their best basketball and getting contributions from across the board. It’s been the same for Wichita State, which isn’t your typical Cinderella and doesn’t want to be treated as such. The Shockers have 110 wins in the last four seasons and though they haven’t been this deep in the NCAA tournament, they won’t be overwhelmed physically or by the environment.
ABOUT THE SHOCKERS: Experience and balance have been keys for a team that’s here after dominating Pitt and La Salle and rallying past Gonzaga. The Shockers outrebound opponents by an average of 8 per game and though they aren’t a great 3-point shooting team, they hit 14-of-28 in ousting Gonzaga. Cleanthony Early, Carl Hall and Malcolm Armstead are double-figure scorers; Armstead is averaging 16 points per game in the NCAA tournament after averaging 9.8 during the regular season.
Wichita State has held its tournament opponents to 36 percent shooting and 61 points per game while recording 7 steals per game. Like the Buckeyes, the Shockers use their defense to set up scoring opportunities.
STREAKING: The Buckeyes have four players averaging double-figure scoring in the postseason: Deshaun Thomas, Sam Thompson, Ross and Craft. The two-point guard lineup of Craft and Shannon Scott is sparking the defense and creating better shots at the other end, and the Buckeyes have changed games once Scott comes in. The emergence of Ross has led to a true small-ball lineup which puts Ohio State’s best five players on the floor at the same time, and unless that lineup gets crushed on the glass look for Thad Matta to stick with it in extended stretches.
ON A ROLL: Other guys have grabbed the headlines, but Thomas has been as good as ever for Ohio State. Last March’s run might have been his breakout, and this time around he’s hitting key jump shots, crashing the glass and consistently producing. He’s averaging 22 points per game in this tournament and looms as Wichita State’s biggest matchup problem with his ability to score inside and out.
FROM DEEP: The Buckeyes are shooting 47 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range during the tournament, and Ross has made 12 of his last 20 3-point tries. Early and Ron Baker made 4 3-pointers apiece for Wichita State in the upset of Gonzaga, and the Shockers have been great defending the 3-point line in the tournament, too, with opponents making just 28 percent. Now, Ohio State is not Pitt — and the Buckeyes sudden shooting surge might be the biggest reason they’re here. The 3-point line is so important at this time of the season, and if the Shockers can’t slow down Ross, Thomas and whichever Buckeyes like to fire from behind it, they’ll find trouble.
BOTTOM LINE: Ohio State is one game away from its second straight Final Four and has had to beat a No. 15 seed, a No. 10 seed and a No. 6 seed to get here to play a No. 9. But, just like Iowa State wasn’t your typical No. 10 and Arizona wasn’t your typical No. 6, Wichita State has athletes and shooters and is clearly in a groove. Ohio State has shown grit in delivering in big moments to get here and clearly has the edge in big-stage experience, just don’t expect an easy one by any standard.