- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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DAYTON, Ohio -- All season, Iowa State has been confounding opposing defenses with endless floor spacing and perimeter shooting. All season, Ohio State has breaking the wills of opposing perimeter players with endless defensive harassment.
Unstoppable force, meet immovable object. Rear end, meet couch.
On Sunday, when Thad Matta's No. 2-seeded Buckeyes square off with Fred Hoiberg's No. 10-seeded Cyclones, Ohio State will try to decode one of the nation's best offenses, Iowa State will try to maintain its trademark up-tempo scoring against Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott, and the rest of us will get to watch arguably the best strength-on-strength matchup of the NCAA tournament to date.
Iowa State finished its season with the most efficient offense in the Big 12, a style predicated on the versatility of a group of lightning-quick guards and 6-foot-7 freshman forward Georges Niang, who is as at home on the perimeter as he is on the low block. The Cyclones have their coach's blessing to shoot early and often, particularly from deep, and 43.7 percent of their field goal attempts this season have come from 3-point range (the eighth-highest mark in the country), where they averaged 37.2 percent.
The Cyclones ended the 2012-13 season as the eighth-best offense in the country, per KenPom.com's efficiency rankings; they averaged 1.17 points per possession, the same number they put up in Friday's demolition of No. 7 seed Notre Dame.
Put less numerically: Iowa State spreads the floor and hoists a whole mess of 3s, and when the Cyclones (23-11) have it going, they are not only one of the most effective offensive teams in the country but also one of the most ecstatic viewing experiences in the sport.
And Ohio State hasn't seen anyone quite like them.
"Michigan does [play that style] a little bit; they'll move their bigs around in a pick-and-roll," Matta said. "But I can't recall anybody [that plays] that far out."
As fun as Iowa State has been, and as excited as fans have been to see the most popular player in program history lead them back to relevance with an entertaining style, the Cyclones have to be cringing in advance of a meeting with the Buckeyes. For most of the season, but especially the past month, Matta's team has been ruthless in its destruction of opposing offenses.
The Buckeyes haven't lost since Feb. 17. In that span, they manhandled Minnesota, Michigan State, Illinois and Indiana -- the last of which came on the road, on senior night, against the best offensive team in the country -- before beating Michigan State and Wisconsin en route to the Big Ten tournament title.
In that span, the Buckeyes have allowed just 0.88 points per possession. Only one team -- Michigan State -- managed to score more than a point per possession.
To put that less numerically: Ohio State has been flat stomping people.
"That's a scary team," Hoiberg said Friday night.
Craft rightfully tends to draw most of the national attention, and thus the credit, for Ohio State's defense, and much has been made of the secondary scoring from Craft and winger Sam Thompson during Ohio State's undefeated month. But the Buckeyes (27-7) have also been spurred on by the emergence of sophomore guard Scott as a savvy perimeter defender -- probably the Buckeyes' best all-around defender at Indiana -- and the length and athleticism of Thompson and Lenzelle Smith.
All of which makes them almost ideally suited to match up with the Cyclones, to match up man-to-man out to 25 feet and prevent the kind of penetration that downed a sluggish Notre Dame.
If Ohio State can play the Cyclones to a draw on the defensive end -- probably a conservative expectation, given what the Buckeyes did to Indiana -- then Deshaun Thomas, one of the nation's best pure scorers, should be able to handle matters on the offensive end. The Buckeyes avoid turnovers and score the ball at a top-15 rate nationally; Iowa State's defense doesn't rank in the top 100.
That's why Ohio State is the No. 2 seed and Iowa State the No. 10: The Buckeyes excel on both ends, whereas Iowa State can be one-dimensional.
But boy is that dimension fun to watch, and perhaps never more so than when it meets with the nation's hottest, most perimeter-inclined defense Sunday.
"It's going to be, I think, a fun matchup," Hoiberg said, in typically understated fashion. "And hopefully we're competitive."
News and Notes from Dayton
Matta was asked Saturday whether it was fair to judge conferences on their record in the NCAA tournament (as of Saturday, the Big Ten is 8-1). "We're all representing one thing and one thing only, and that's our university now," Matta said. "I want the Big Ten to do as well as it possibly can, but I say that from the standpoint of I know the other coaches from the Big Ten; they're worried about one thing and one thing only, and that's advancing. … Maybe in the end, when we have our spring meetings, we can all high-five each other because we had a great year, but I think for the most part it's CYOA -- or whatever that is."
The biggest concern for Temple entering Sunday's matchup with No. 1 seed Indiana is star guard Khalif Wyatt's left thumb injury, which he suffered in the second half of Friday's victory over NC State. Wyatt left the game at the time to have it taped up by a trainer, and it was noticeably tender in the second half, but the senior still finished the game and made the lion's share of key plays as the Wolfpack stormed back in the second half. Wyatt said the thumb was "a little sore" Saturday, but X-rays searching for serious damage came back negative. "It will be fine by [Sunday]," Wyatt said. The good news: Wyatt, whose 19.8 points per game put him atop the Atlantic 10 -- and among the nation's top 20 scorers -- in the regular season, did most of that work with his right hand.
Wyatt's clearance means he'll be the biggest defensive assignment of the day for Indiana, a role that is typically fulfilled by Hoosiers star Victor Oladipo. Oladipo wouldn't confirm whether he was going to check Wyatt exclusively Sunday -- "It's up to the coaching staff," he said -- but it's safe to assume the hyperathletic national player of the year candidate will spend much of his afternoon trying to prevent Wyatt from taking over the game. "He knows he's really good," Indiana coach Tom Crean said of Wyatt. "I don't know the young man, but he knows he's really good. You can tell there's no stage too big for him."
Wyatt may be able to overcome Oladipo and the Hoosiers defense for his usual scoring output, but a far bigger question looms for the Owls on the defensive end: How does a team that allowed 1.03 points per trip, eighth best in A-10 play, plan to stop the most efficient offense in the country? "How we run our offense will dictate how we play our defense," Owls coach Fran Dunphy said. "If we shoot good shots, then we'll be in pretty good floor balance, because one of the concerns about Indiana is they push the basketball on makes and misses, have a great transition game, and they find each other very, very well."
On Saturday, Dunphy admitted that he and Wyatt "didn't hit it off all that great when he was a freshman," that Wyatt was "a pain in the butt sometimes, and he'll be the first to tell you." But the two have long since come together. "He's grown, and that's what happens," Dunphy said. "When you sign on for these guys, it's not perfection. You sign on for the good and for the bad. … But I'm glad it all worked out, and he's going to be graduating from Temple University in May. I couldn't be more proud of him, how he's turned out as a man."
One reporter asked Hoiberg which college hoops program he would most like his suddenly resurgent Cyclones to "mirror." Hoiberg's response: "Kentucky. Nah, I'm just kidding. I don't know."