Arizona-Ohio State: 5 things to watch

Arizona coach Sean Miller (left) congratulates Ohio State's Thad Matta after losing in the 2013 Sweet 16 in Los Angeles.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

PORTLAND — Two years ago this week, Ohio State knocked off Arizona 73-70 in a down-to-the-wire battle in the Sweet 16 in Los Angeles. They meet again Saturday in the West Region.

At stake this time around is another Sweet 16 berth, also in Los Angeles, and the matchup — between the second-seeded Wildcats and 10th-seeded Buckeyes — doesn’t lack for intriguing storylines.

Let’s take a look:

Arizona coach Sean Miller and Ohio State coach Thad Matta go way back — 20 years — when each was an assistant coach at Miami (Ohio). Matta is 2-0 against Miller, both coming in the NCAA tournament, including once when Miller was at Xavier.

"A friendship of great meaning," Miller called the relationship.

"Thad and I obviously are very close. It’s hard to play someone that you care for. This is the third time we have played. I think every time that it happens, it’s less of a burden. It feels more natural (now)."

With this being the second matchup in three years, Matta said, it says a lot about the coaching each has done. It isn’t easy to get to this point every year.

"If we were fortunate enough to win, it’s one of those things that you kind of feel bad going down shaking the hand," Matta said. "But, you know, it sort of is what it is."

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Matta used a 2-3 zone in a win over Virginia Commonwealth on Thursday night, and it’s likely he will bring it out against Arizona, too. Zones have been Arizona’s kryptonite all season.

"We have to be patient," Miller said. "Like everything with Ohio State in terms of their defense, they’re very deceptive in how they turn their opponent over. It always seems like it’s a key steal or a key turnover that ignites them or turns the game."

Arizona’s Gabe York, Elliott Pitts, Brandon Ashley, Stanley Johnson and the rest will have to hit shots. Johnson has gotten hot from the perimeter lately, hitting 11 of 21 3-point shots in the postseason after making only 29.2 percent (14 of 48) during the entire conference season.

"I just keep swinging at strikes," Johnson said, repeating his analogy of taking good shots. "I’m just trying to hit them out of the park."

Arizona defensive ace Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a 6-foot-7 wing capable of guarding four positions, will have to be up to the task again Saturday. He will defend Ohio State freshman sensation D’Angelo Russell, a 6-5 guard who is averaging 19.3 points and 5.6 rebounds a game. It’s likely Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell will have to help, either in one-on-one situations or after defensive switches.

"He scores in bunches," McConnell said. "You can’t let him get hot. He makes their team go. We’re going to have to do a good job on him for us to have a chance to win."

Russell also averages nearly five assists per game.

"One of the things that’s so impressive about him is how he passes," Miller said.

"It’s hard to believe that he has so many games with five or more assists. When you put two on him, he’s big, he’s tall. He uses that size to see the court. He makes the simple play, makes his teammates better.

"He’s the ultimate great player in that he not only does it statistically himself, but in so many cases he makes his other teammates better than they are because he gives the ball up. He’s unselfish. He’s really a special player."

Arizona still has a few players who were on the team that lost to Ohio State in 2013. York remembers it being a game of runs before OSU’s LaQuinton Ross hit a last-second shot to win it. McConnell, a senior, wasn’t at the game because of was ineligible while sitting out after his transfer from Duquesne. York did not play.

But center Kaleb Tarczewski and Ashley played off the bench, although each finished with only four points that day. Ohio State forward Sam Thompson had 11 points and eight rebounds vs. the Wildcats.

"It’s going to be a great matchup," Thompson said Friday.

Not many teams have a bigger starting lineup than Arizona, and bigger teams have given OSU a difficult time all season. Arizona has a plus-9.0 rebouding margin per game.

"When a team has the size and athleticism that Arizona has, it’s that much more important that we really do what we set out to do in scouting, and execute well," said Ohio State’s Thompson.

He added that the Buckeyes have gone small because of necessity, much like it did in beating VCU on Thursday.  Starting center Amir Williams is 6-11, but he averages just under 20 minutes per game.

"The principles are the same, but the small lineup, we still have to pay that much more attention to rebounding, boxing out, beating our gaps because we don’t have a guy like Amir or Trey (McDonald) back protecting the rim for us," Thompson said.

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