College Basketball Nation: LaQuinton Ross

Conference play means adjustments

January, 24, 2014
Jan 24
12:06
AM ET

It seems like every team had to make some sort of adjustment in conference play.

No. 17 Ohio State and Illinois were in need of major overhauls after both entered Thursday’s meeting on four-game losing streaks.

No. 1 Arizona and No. 6 Florida had the luxury of needing only a few tweaks.

And then there were teams such as No. 15 Cincinnati and Colorado, which have had to adjust to the loss of injured players.

None breathed a sigh of relief quite like the Buckeyes did, though. Ohio State topped the Fighting Illini 62-55 and can, at least temporarily, change its season’s narrative. Its 15-0 start flipped to "What’s wrong in Columbus?" very quickly as losses piled up and offensive weaknesses were exposed.

There was nothing more symbolic of the Buckeyes' struggle through four games as one sequence early in the second half Thursday.

Amir Williams had a clear path to the rim and a sure dunk that he bounced off the back of the rim. Ohio State controlled the ball and Williams again found himself making his way to the basket when he got his shot altered and the Illini headed the other way.

The Buckeyes didn’t let their losing streak, nor their 29 percent shooting in the first half, create unnecessary pressure. Buckeyes coach Thad Matta figured out ways to get his two leading scorers open shots. Some of them came off Illinois’ 15 turnovers, but many others came in half-court sets.

[+] EnlargeLaQuinton Ross, Rayvonte Rice
AP Photo/Paul VernonLaQuinton Ross and Ohio State were able to find some offensive cohesion in the second half against Illinois, breaking a four-game losing streak.
Leading scorer LaQuinton Ross, who had only four points in the first half, pumped out 14 for the Buckeyes in the second. Lenzelle Smith Jr., who entered the game shooting 16 percent from 3-point range in Big Ten play, went 4-of-8 from behind the arc and scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half.

Smith hit a huge 3-pointer with 1:25 left that gave Ohio State a 58-50 lead, and the Illini never got within one basket the rest of the way.

Just as the Buckeyes got a temporary reprieve from their struggles, it seems like trouble for Illinois is about to hit unfair levels. The Illini still have three games remaining in a five-game stretch that features four ranked opponents.

They left Columbus with many questions on how they can adjust, especially after leading scorer Rayvonte Rice, who averaged 17.4 points per game, was held scoreless on 0-for-8 shooting against Ohio State.

Arizona isn’t searching for much of anything after winning its 19th straight game. Wildcats coach Sean Miller is keeping his rotation tight, using only eight players against the Buffaloes. But eight was obviously enough for Arizona, which never trailed, as Nick Johnson led the Wildcats with 18 points.

The way Arizona is playing, it’s hard to imagine a healthy Spencer Dinwiddie would have made much of a difference.

Dinwiddie was Colorado’s leading scorer before suffering a season-ending knee injury on Jan. 12 in a loss at Washington. Wing Tre'Shaun Fletcher was hurt in the same game, but he's expected to return. Since then, the Buffaloes have been trying to find a viable third scoring threat to help replace Dinwiddie's 14.7 points per game.

It’s unfair to expect too much from freshman Jaron Hopkins, who replaced Dinwiddie in the lineup. He finished with two points on 1-of-5 shooting.

Both Josh Scott and Askia Booker have been consistent double-figure scorers, and they contributed 13 and 11 points, respectively, against the Wildcats. But it was sophomore forward Xavier Johnson who had the kind of breakout performance that could signal readiness for a bigger role.

Johnson scored a game-high 21 points -- just one shy of his career high -- included 4-of-5 shooting from 3-point range. It was the only game this season in which he logged more than 10 field goal attempts.

No. 15 Cincinnati has had its share of attrition this season with freshman center Jamaree Strickland being declared ineligible, guard Jeremiah Davis III transferring to Ball State and forward Jermaine Lawrence suffering from turf toe that has kept him sidelined the past three games.

But the Bearcats continue to move forward and lead the American Athletic Conference after their 69-51 win over UCF. Sean Kilpatrick led the way with 19 points, but it is their defense -- one that held UCF to just 26 percent from 3-point range -- that keys their victories.

Arguably no ranked team has had to make as many adjustments as Florida this season, with injuries and suspensions forcing coach Billy Donovan to juggle his lineups. The Gators have proven to be a resilient group, as Alabama can attest.

On a night when the Gators shot only 37 percent, they still made 10 3-pointers. Michael Frazier II made five of his attempts beyond the arc for a game-high 18 points as Florida beat the Crimson Tide 68-62 for their third SEC road win.

Shots not falling for Ohio State

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
1:36
AM ET

MINNEAPOLIS -- After No. 11 Ohio State lost 63-53 to an unranked Minnesota team on the road and suffered its first three-game losing streak since 2009, Thad Matta did what all confused men do.

He stroked his chin.

He shook his head.

He rubbed his temples.

He drifted.

He paused mid-sentence.

"It just … I don’t know," he told reporters Thursday night.

Ohio State’s offense has challenges, challenges that have even perplexed a seasoned coach such as Matta. Those challenges arose the day Deshaun Thomas turned pro.

Thomas was a polarizing figure throughout his collegiate career. Even when the San Antonio Spurs drafted him last summer in the second round, there were still questions about the tweener’s ability to compete at the next level.

He faced the same scrutiny as the No. 2 scorer in the Big Ten last season (19.7 PPG) behind Wooden Award winner Trey Burke. Thomas could be sporadic and frustrating, and his defensive inconsistency drew criticism during his tenure in Columbus, Ohio.

[+] EnlargeMatta
AP Photo/Jim MoneOhio State's lack of consistency on offense has veteran coach Thad Matta flustered.
But he scored -- inside and outside. If Ohio State needed a bucket, Thomas found a way. He was a perplexing matchup for most players at this level. The 6-foot-7 combo forward could exploit smaller wings in the post. He’d also force big men to guard him outside the paint, where they were uncomfortable, due to his range.

On Tuesday, Ohio State -- lacking that elite scoring threat, although LaQuinton Ross was impressive in spurts during his 22-point effort -- needed someone to churn its lumpy offense.

Its defense, usually strong under Matta, was an early anchor. The Buckeyes forced eight turnovers in the first eight minutes of the game. At one point, Minnesota had a 1-to-9 assist-to-turnover ratio. Still, Ohio State only held an 11-10 lead after starting the game by missing 11 of its first 14 shots.

"The shots we felt we were going to get, we got," Matta said. "They, for whatever reason, weren’t going down."

All season, the elephant in the room has been Ohio State’s mediocre offense.

If Ohio State can’t score more consistently and efficiently, how can it win the Big Ten? How can it make a run at the crown? How will it advance in March?

Last season’s squad finished 11th in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. This season’s team is 70th in the same category.

Ohio State’s effort against the Golden Gophers should be a scary exhibit for the program’s supporters.

Ohio State’s fall from the third-ranked team in America to a 2-3 Big Ten team began modestly. The Buckeyes ran through their first 15 games, a slate that included wins over Marquette and Notre Dame. In hindsight those wins weren't special but probably the greatest accomplishments on their flimsy résumé.

But then Michigan State dominated them until the final minutes, when a furious rally pushed the game into overtime before the Buckeyes lost. Iowa was just too big and deep when they beat the Buckeyes in Columbus on Sunday.

Against the Gophers, Ohio State’s offense was disastrous in a game that Big Ten contenders win.

The Buckeyes had chances to pull away in the first half, but they couldn’t find the rim. They committed a turnover (13 total) on five consecutive possessions during a stretch in the second half.

Lenzelle Smith Jr. (3-for-9) missed a dunk. Amir Williams hit the bottom of the backboard on another attempt. Aaron Craft was left alone on the perimeter to miss 3-pointers. Ross went 3-for-8 after halftime.

That wasn't the only problem. Ohio State is usually an elite defensive squad. Its 18 forced turnovers were proof of that, although Minnesota’s 51 percent shooting percentage proved costly.

The Buckeyes were exposed inside by Elliott Eliason (12 points, 13 rebounds, 2 blocks) in Richard Pitino’s most impressive victory in his first season as head coach.

But Ohio State’s 7-for-22 shooting in the second half ultimately cost it.

The Buckeyes can score, as their 76.0 points per game average suggests, but it’s their inconsistency and limits that create problems. Plus, they’re mishandling the ball (84th in offensive turnover rate, per Ken Pomeroy).

The Buckeyes will continue to struggle against the Big Ten's elite if their offense sputters. And, as Thursday showed, they won’t beat the gritty second-tier teams in the league without some offensive punch.

Ohio State needs quality wins, but they need a go-to guy to help get those wins.

"I think my two years here, this team has always had a security blanket," Ross said. "Last year, it was [Thomas]. The year before that, it was [Jared Sullinger].

It’s clearly different this season.

But they need someone to be consistently assertive and effective -- be it Smith, Ross, or Craft.

On Thursday night in Minneapolis, they all tried to pull Ohio State out of that offensive pit -- and failed.

"We gotta look at reality," Matta said. "As a team, this is where we are. We’ll figure that out on the way home tonight. … People don’t like reality very often."

After Thursday, the reality is that the Buckeyes won’t be Big Ten contenders unless they figure out their offensive flaws. And they need to do that soon.
Thad Matta assembles top-10 squads most years. The only thing missing from his pristine tenure at Ohio State, which faces Notre Dame on Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York, is a national title.

In 2013-14, like most seasons, that goal seems attainable. The Buckeyes haven’t played a great nonconference schedule, so they’re still a difficult group to accurately judge right now. We’ll know soon enough, though, as they’ll play Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich., on Jan. 7.

The Buckeyes are statistical juggernauts right now. That can’t be ignored, even though their résumé lacks a win against a team that’s currently ranked in the top 25.

The Buckeyes held Marquette to 35 points and have held seven opponents to 60 or less. They’re ranked first in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings.

Louisville was ranked third when it won the national title last season. Kentucky was eighth during its title run in 2012.

The rules have changed, but Ohio State’s ability to constrict offensive flow has not. Aaron Craft, LaQuinton Ross, Shannon Scott and Lenzelle Smith Jr. put a lot of pressure on perimeter players. The Buckeyes are ninth in defensive turnover percentage, per Pomeroy. Former McDonald’s All-American Amir Williams (2.4 BPG) is third in the Big Ten in block percentage.

That’s a dangerous defensive group.

Most of the concerns and questions about Ohio State center on its offense. With Deshaun Thomas gone, scoring by committee is Ohio State’s approach this season, which isn't a bad thing.

Too many teams earn exaggerated praise for scoring in bunches. That doesn’t necessarily suggest that they’re good, though.

Plus, the Buckeyes are a solid offensive team (31st in adjusted offensive efficiency). They’re just anchored by their defense.

Ohio State doesn’t have to win a shootout over the weekend to prove folks wrong, but a victory over the Fighting Irish might be more valuable if Mike Brey’s squad continues to shake its early rust and excel in the ACC.

The Buckeyes don’t need a guy who can score 25 per night to be viewed as a great team. Their defensive approach proves that they are.

They’ve scored 80 or more three times this season, but those tallies came against subpar competition.

Level of competition won't be an issue in the Big Ten. If the Buckeyes continue their defensive prowess, they could end the season at the top of the Big Ten and with a slot in Arlington.

Big Ten, ACC deadlocked once again

December, 5, 2013
12/05/13
1:16
AM ET

The 15th annual Big Ten-ACC Challenge ended with no resolution to conference supremacy. For the second straight season the clash ended in a 6-6 tie, leaving the ACC with a 10-3-2 advantage.

We know which teams really won the night though: North Carolina, for sure, with its upset over No. 1 Michigan State. No. 8 Wisconsin, which like the Tar Heels won on the road, beating Virginia. And No. 5 Ohio State, which is on a steady ascent up the polls.

On the surface the Buckeyes' win doesn't look that big, as they had unranked Maryland at home. But the way they controlled the game from start to finish and gave the Terrapins a harsh introduction to the league they'll join next year.

Defensively, Ohio State dissected everything the Terps wanted to do. Maryland shot just 39 percent from the field and gave up 25 points off 14 turnovers. That included the final sequence of the first half, when Aaron Craft dove to the floor for a steal and passed ahead to Sam Thompson for a buzzer-beating basket.

[+] EnlargeSam Thompson
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesSam Thompson's highlight-reel dunks capped off a dominating night for No. 5 Ohio State.
The Buckeyes basically beat the Terps like a ranked team should at home. They never let the lead dip below 10 the entire second half and once up 25 turned the game into one long highlight reel for Thompson.

Columbus discovered the alley-oop Wednesday night as Thompson slammed down lobs on four different occasions.

And those shooting woes that threatened to drag down OSU seem to be a thing of the past too. The Buckeyes shot 52 percent from the field, powered by LaQuinton Ross' 7-of-13 performance. Ross finished with a game-high 20 points.

Ohio State honored former coach Gary Williams prior to the game. Williams coached the Buckeyes from 1986-89 before leaving Columbus for College Park, where he would win the 2002 national title at Maryland. Williams then had to sit through the Terps being handled by the Buckeyes.

Chris Collins also returned to familiar territory, as the Northwestern coach returned to ACC country for the first time since taking the Wildcats job in the offseason. Collins, who played for Duke and also spent 13 years as an assistant coach under Mike Krzyzewski, knows Northwestern's opponent Wednesday, NC State, well. But his intimate knowledge didn’t help the Wildcats muster a win.

Collins’ welcome-back package included a technical foul and 22 points from T.J. Warren, as the Wolfpack cruised to a 69-48 win.

Purdue matched NC State for the biggest margin of victory in the challenge with its 88-67 victory over Boston College. The Boilermakers, led by a season-high 18 points from Terone Johnson, have quietly won five straight in the challenge.

Nebraska salvaged the night for the Big Ten by beating Miami 60-49 in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers held the Canes to a frigid 24 percent shooting performance in the first half en route to a season-low 13 points at the break.

Michigan State didn’t hit new lows against the Tar Heels, it simply didn’t hit back at all.

Most expected Northwestern, Boston College and Miami to have a hard time winning on the road. No one expected the Spartans to lack the fight generally accepted as the norm from Tom Izzo’s team. Even though they bounced back from a 12-point deficit in the first half to tie the game at intermission, they never seemed to bring the fight to the Tar Heels.

MSU’s punchless night could be summed up in one second-half exchange. Branden Dawson seemingly had a clear path to the rim and was poised to give Sparty its first lead of the game, breaking a 38-38 tie. But J.P. Tokoto rotated in time to block the shot and start a fast break that ended with Marcus Paige completing a three-point play.

Carolina never trailed afterward and Michigan State literally hobbled through the rest of the game.

Senior forward Adreian Payne kept cramping up, at one point during the middle of a play, he literally stood on one leg while grabbing his other foot behind him to stretch. Gary Harris, who sat out Michigan State's win over Mount St. Mary’s with an ankle injury, seemed to lack some of his explosiveness. Keith Appling suffered an apparent hip injury late in the first half and shot 5-of-15 from the field.

Virginia joined Michigan State as a big loser from Wednesday night. The Cavs have made quite the acquaintance with the NCAA bubble and missed possibly their last chance for a statement win before conference play begins.

Both of the Cavaliers' losses have come at home to ranked teams, and the common thread is that they haven’t mustered much offense either time.

UVA, which lost to VCU 59-56 on a last-second shot, scored its lowest point total in 20 years against Wisconsin. The Cavs managed only 18 points in the second half, and their total of 38 was the lowest output since losing to UConn 77-36 in 1993.

So while the challenge ended in a tie, the winners and losers Wednesday were clearly defined.

The state of the Big Ten

November, 5, 2013
11/05/13
10:00
AM ET
 

In recent years, the Big Ten has boasted an assembly of athletes who have boosted the league to the top of college basketball’s conference rankings.

Players who could’ve turned pro returned and granted the league a lineup of experienced players who carried their respective squads for multiple seasons. Evan Turner, Trey Burke, Cody Zeller, Draymond Green, Deshaun Thomas, Jared Sullinger, JaJuan Johnson, Tim Hardaway Jr. and others had opportunities to sign NBA contracts a year or two earlier than they did. Instead, they stayed and strengthened their teams and subsequently, the entire conference.

Prior to changes at Minnesota and Northwestern this past offseason, only four of the 12 Big Ten schools (Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Penn State) had changed head coaches in the previous five seasons. That continuity has fueled immense success for a league that has earned 20 total bids in the last three NCAA tournaments.

There are, however, more questions now.

Other than Michigan State, the Big Ten’s membership enters the season possessing promise but also dealing with a rare uncertainty. Michigan and Ohio State return elite talent, but you can’t ignore what both lost from last season. Indiana could blossom behind some youngsters, but how many teams improve after a pair of top-five picks turn pro? A fleet of seniors have left Madison. Iowa is still a “maybe” to many.

Illinois and Purdue? They’ll either surprise or spend the year at the bottom of the league.

Even with four teams cracking the Associated Press’ Top 25 preseason poll, the Big Ten is somewhat of a mystery as this weekend’s tipoff to the 2013-14 season approaches. Still, there’s plenty of hope for many squads in this league.

There’s just a lot we don’t know (yet) about the Big Ten.

The Contenders

[+] EnlargeTom Izzo
AP Photo/Andy ManisTom Izzo has a Michigan State team with enough talent to return to the Final Four.
Michigan State: Tom Izzo has another capable crew in East Lansing this season. Adreian Payne and Keith Appling anchor the Big Ten favorite and national title contender. Gary Harris is a future lottery pick who could campaign for All-American honors. Whenever Izzo has this much talent and experience, his teams usually reach the Final Four.

Michigan: The answer is no. No, the Wolverines won’t replace Wooden Award winner Burke no matter how productive Derrick Walton Jr. is in his freshman season. But John Beilein’s pillars -- Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary -- and his stellar recruits should give Michigan a serious shot at the Big Ten crown.

Ohio State: Somehow, Aaron Craft is still eligible and available to squash the dreams of perimeter players throughout the country. Without Deshaun Thomas, the Buckeyes will probably spread the ball around more than they did last season. But LaQuinton Ross -- assuming we see the same player who lit up the Big Dance a few months ago -- might be the star Thad Matta needs to make a postseason run and snatch another Big Ten crown.

The (Possible) Contenders

Indiana: If exhibitions are to be believed, then Yogi Ferrell has become a more dangerous threat from the field since registering a 45.4 effective field goal percentage last season. That matters, but not as much as the maturation of the rest of the roster does (will). How much production will Noah Vonleh and a bunch of inexperienced youngsters give Tom Crean? We’ll find out soon.

Wisconsin: Say it with me three times: “I will not doubt Wisconsin, I will not doubt Wisconsin, I will not doubt Wisconsin.” Once again, however, there are a few reasons to doubt the Badgers, simply because they’re entering the season without a trio of seniors (Mike Bruesewitz, Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren) who made a major difference last season, and they’re depending on a point guard who's returning from a serious knee injury (Josh Gasser). Sam Dekker and Co. will probably maintain Bo Ryan’s streak of 20-win seasons (10 in a row) and top-four finishes in the Big Ten.

Iowa: The rebuilding phase is over, folks. The Hawkeyes return every meaningful player from a team that won 25 games and finished 9-9 in conference play during the 2012-13 season. It’s time for Iowa to finally make some noise in the Big Ten race and get back to the NCAA tourney. Fran McCaffery has the pieces to achieve both.

The Questionable

Purdue: The last thing Matt Painter needed was a bout of early drama involving young star A.J. Hammons. But that’s exactly what he’s facing after Hammons was recently suspended for three games after violating team rules. If Hammons gets his act together -- it’s always if with him -- the Boilermakers could sneak into the at-large mix.

Illinois: Same for John Groce’s squad. Groce adds eight new faces to the program. This is a much different team compared to the one that reached the NCAA tournament last year. But if Groce can help transfer Rayvonte Rice become the star he was at Drake two seasons ago, Illinois might make a case for another berth.

The Bottom

Minnesota: Richard Pitino has his father’s last name and hair, but nothing resembling the players Rick Pitino used to win the national title with Louisville in April.

Northwestern: Chris Collins is already making strides in recruiting, but he doesn’t have the beef inside to compete in the Big Ten yet.

Nebraska: The Cornhuskers have a new arena, but Tim Miles’ squad has the same problems.

Penn State: Tim Frazier will have to carry a very heavy load. Again.
The dust has finally settled in college basketball.

The transfers have transferred. New coaches are in place now. Most freshmen are on campus. So we can take a serious look at the 2013-14 season and the most valuable players in the game as we prepare for another season with this week's Count 'Em Down series in the Nation blog.

Here’s my list of the top 10 most indispensable players in America. Not necessarily the best players. Simply the ones who are most important to the success of their team.

[+] EnlargeMitch McGary
AP Photo/Morry GashAfter a monster NCAA tournament, Mitch McGary returns to the Wolverines.
10. Mitch McGary (Michigan) -- Even without Trey Burke, Michigan has the tools to win the Big Ten and demand an extended stay in the NCAA tournament. Glenn Robinson III, in a more flexible offensive role in 2013-14, could be one of the best wings in America next season. Nik Stauskas is back, too. Plus, John Beilein’s nationally ranked recruiting class features four-star point guard Derrick Walton, who might be a worthy successor to Burke, last season's Wooden Award winner. But McGary has to carry a lot next season. He was vital in Michigan’s run to the national title game in April. In a league that just lost Cody Zeller, Derrick Nix, Jared Berggren and Trevor Mbakwe, life in the Big Ten should be easier for McGary now. And if he’s effective, he’ll clear space for Michigan’s skilled wings and make the Wolverines a more dominant program.

9. Davante Gardner (Marquette) -- Buzz Williams’ squad could win the first championship in the new Big East. Junior Cadougan, Trent Lockett and Vander Blue are all gone, but multiple veterans return and a strong recruiting class will be in the mix, too. It’s all there for the Golden Eagles. So much of this team’s fate, however, will depend on Davante Gardner. He’s a unique player. Few men his size can move the way he does. But Williams doesn’t need the sluggish big man of last season, who would score 15 points one night and five the next. Williams needs the guy who tore up two of the top frontcourts in the country when he scored 14 points (5-for-7) in a win over Miami in the Sweet 16 and 14 points (6-for-9) in a loss to Syracuse in the Elite Eight. If that guy shows up, Marquette could be one of the most complete teams in the Big East and beyond. With the other version of Gardner, Marquette might be in trouble in the season’s late stages.

8. Russ Smith (Louisville) -- Rick Pitino received great news when Smith announced his return. He flirted with the NBA but ultimately decided to rejoin his teammates and make a run at another national title. The Cardinals will enter the season as strong contenders to defend their crown. Luke Hancock, Chane Behanan, Wayne Blackshear and Montrezl Harrell all return for the defending champs. But I can’t see Louisville on the podium again unless Smith competes at an All-American level in 2013-14. “Russdiculous” has been criticized for his mishaps (2.7 turnovers per game). But the Cardinals wouldn’t be the champs without him. The most explosive guard in the country (18.7 PPG, 2.1 SPG) is a two-way catalyst for a team that’s capable of winning its second consecutive championship. Louisville needs him.

7. Alex Kirk (New Mexico) -- Craig Neal’s presence suggests that life without Steve Alford might not be so tough for the Lobos. The former associate head coach offers the program a sense of continuity that is important for any team that suddenly loses a head coach … 10 days after he agrees to a multiyear extension. Neal will have star guard Kendall Williams, but first-round draft pick Tony Snell is gone. A multitude of newcomers and young faces will attempt to fill the void, but their contributions will be less significant than Kirk’s output. The 7-footer is a force when he wants to be. The underrated center scored 22 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in his team’s opening-round loss to Harvard in the NCAA tourney. Team’s attack him early to get him into foul trouble because they know he’s essential for the Lobos. But he’s a matchup problem for most opponents. And he balances the floor and helps New Mexico’s wings roam. The big man could be the key to a Mountain West title run and/or a lengthier stay in the NCAA tournament for the Lobos.

[+] EnlargeWichita State Shockers forward Cleanthony Early
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY SportsWichita State's Cleanthony Early gained national attention with his performance in the Final Four.
6. Cleanthony Early (Wichita State) -- There’s a lot of justified hoopla surrounding another team in Kansas. But Wichita State did reach the Final Four a few months ago. It should not be forgotten. And the Shockers were a play or two away from ruining Louisville’s championship run. But the 2013-14 version of the Shockers will not be the same team that rallied to Atlanta. Carl Hall and Malcolm Armstead are gone, but Tekele Cotton, Ron Baker and multiple contributors from that team return. So this team still has a high ceiling entering next season, but only if Early fulfills his potential. Although his team lost a 72-68 war against Louisville in Atlanta, his performance (24 points, 10 rebounds, 2-for-4 from the 3-point line) put the country on alert. The 6-8 combo forward can hurt opponents many ways -- and if he does what he’s capable of doing in 2013-14, the Shockers could make another postseason run. If he’s the inconsistent player who never quite found a rhythm during last year’s regular season, the Shockers might go home early.

5. LaQuinton Ross (Ohio State) -- I initially had a different Ohio State player in this slot. Aaron Craft makes a lot of sense for many reasons. He’s the point guard on an Ohio State team that will demand his leadership. But my editor made me think twice. Right team, wrong player. Who will score for the Buckeyes next season if Ross doesn’t? The minimal draft buzz surrounding Deshaun Thomas made it easy to forget how good and important he was for the Buckeyes throughout his career. There’s a huge hole in the middle of the OSU attack that Ross could (must) fill. His explosion in the Big Dance (17 points against Iowa State in the third round, 17 points against Arizona in the Sweet 16, 19 points against Wichita State in the Elite Eight) proved as much. Thad Matta needs him to build off that effort and consistently provide that output for Ohio State in the future.

4. Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State) -- This one is simple, right? The best point guard in college basketball has to make this list. Yes, the Pokes suffered a messy opening-round exit against Oregon in the NCAA tournament. Without Smart, however, they would not have earned a 5-seed. And if Smart had decided to turn pro this summer, we wouldn’t be talking about Oklahoma State as the possible favorite to win the Big 12 championship. The stellar leader was the only college player who earned an invite to this week’s Team USA basketball minicamp. The core of last season’s Oklahoma State squad returns for 2013-14. And if Smart equals last season (15.4 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 4.2 APG, 3.0 SPG) or – gulp – tops it, then the Cowboys could play their way to Arlington next April.

3. Jahii Carson (Arizona State) -- Arizona State has quietly entered the preseason Top 25 conversation despite a 2012-13 campaign that concluded with four consecutive Pac-12 losses and a second-round exit in the NIT. But Jordan Bachynski is a legit center. And former Penn State standout Jermaine Marshall (15.3 PPG last season) will help the Sun Devils replace Evan Gordon, who transferred to Indiana. But Carson, an all-Pac 12 first-teamer last season, is the difference-maker for a program that will chase its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2009. The speedy point guard averaged 18.5 PPG, 5.1 APG and 1.2 SPG last season. Those numbers might result in a preseason All-American nod for the sophomore. But he also averaged 3.5 turnovers per game on an Arizona State squad that was 91st in turnover percentage (18.5) last season per KenPom.com. Herb Sendek can’t afford those mistakes from a player who is vital to a team that has a chance to crash the Top 25 and make noise in the Pac-12 in 2013-14.

2. Doug McDermott (Creighton) -- McDermott is a perennial member of the All-Indispensable Team. I mean, what would Creighton be without him? Give coach Greg McDermott credit for putting the pieces around McDermott that have fueled his impressive run of success. Still, McDermott didn’t just elevate a program. He carried it to a new conference. The Bluejays were enticing to the new Big East because McDermott has made Creighton more nationally relevant over the last three years. Four of the team’s top five scorers from last season, including Grant Gibbs, return. With McDermott leading, Creighton could snatch the inaugural crown in the new Big East.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Wiggins
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesPrep star Andrew Wiggins makes Kansas a title contender even though the Jayhawks lost some key members of last season's team.
1. Andrew Wiggins (Kansas) -- Let me explain, OK? I know Kansas would be fine without the No. 1 recruit in America. Even if Wiggins had taken his talents to Lexington or Tallahassee, the Jayhawks would have still been relevant in the Big 12. They have Perry Ellis, Memphis transfer Tarik Black and a solid recruiting class. Plus, Bill Self has won nine consecutive conference titles. But the only reason we’re talking about Kansas as a potential national title contender, despite losing two pros (Jeff Withey, Ben McLemore) and three other starters (Travis Releford, Elijah Johnson and Kevin Young), is because Wiggins is in Lawrence. No high school recruit has ever arrived with this much hype. He might not live up to it. If he does, however, it’ll be easy to see why he’s so indispensable.
In the weeks leading up to the June 27 NBA draft, we’ll be taking a look at the 20 schools that have produced the best pros in the modern draft era (since 1989, when the draft went from seven to two rounds). Click here to read Eamonn Brennan’s explanation of the series, which will be featured in the Nation blog each morning as we count down the programs from 20 to 1.

Top Five NBA Draftees Since 1989

1. Michael Redd (2000)
2. Mike Conley (2007)
3. Jim Jackson (1992)
4. Evan Turner (2010)
5. Jared Sullinger (2012)

Sixth man: Daequan Cook (2007)

The rest: Jon Diebler, Byron Mullens, Kosta Koufos, Greg Oden, Ken Johnson, Scoonie Penn, Lawrence Funderburke

Why they're ranked where they are: Because this is a solid, albeit not particularly inspiring, list of former NBA draftees? Let's start with that.

If you're young enough to have just started watching professional basketball in the past few years, and have only seen an aging, slightly paunchy Redd chucking 3s for the Phoenix Suns, you might not be aware of just how good of a pro he was for almost all of the aughts. Or maybe you just aren't aware the Milwaukee Bucks exist. (Sorry, Myron.) But they do, and Redd is easily their best player of the past decade-plus. From 2003-04 to 2008-09, he averaged 21.7, 23.0, 25.4, 26.7, 22.7, and 21.2 points per game, respectively; he was one of the purest perimeter scorers in the NBA, an NBA All-Star in 2004 and a member of the U.S. Men's Olympic "Redeem Team" in 2008. Basketball-Reference's Elo Fan Ratings list Redd as the No. 207th-ranked player of all time, ahead of Allan Houston and behind Steve Francis. That sounds about right, and it's not too shabby for a guy drafted 43rd in 2000. Redd was a good pro.

[+] EnlargeMichael Redd
Jonathan Daniel/AllsportMichael Redd filled it up during his three seasons at Ohio State, then averaged 19.6 points in a 12-year NBA career.
Conley currently is a good pro -- an intelligent do-everything-well point guard lynchpin for a very good Memphis Grizzlies team, which was just eliminated by the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals this week. Conley struggled early in the NBA but has improved dramatically since, making the much-derided $45 million contract extension he signed in 2010 look more like a steal than a boondoggle.

Meanwhile, don't sleep on Jackson, either. The former Buckeyes guard played for 12 mostly bad teams in his 14-year career, so it's easy to forget how productive he was. But a 14-year career is impressive in and of itself, even before you see Jackson's 14.3 points/4.7 rebounds/3.2 assists per-game splits.

Those three guys are good enough to get Ohio State on this list and good enough to bump the Buckeyes above No. 20 Syracuse. But the rest of the list -- with the possible exception of Turner, who is clearly talented but reportedly not the easiest person to play with -- makes it hard to go beyond that.

Why they could be ranked higher: Conley, Redd and Jackson are really a solid group of pros whose careers all began at disparate times; that speaks to at least some consistency with the production of NBA talent even before Thad Matta made the Buckeyes a national title contention stalwart. Redd's heights were high; his averages of 25.4 and 26.7 points in consecutive seasons is no joke, nor is membership on a hyper-talented national team that won a symbolically redemptive gold medal in Beijing. Conley might still be underrated in general; many of the things he gives the Grizzlies (control, smarts, great perimeter defense) don't show up in box scores. Jackson, as we've already laid out, is definitely underrated as a pro.

Really, the thought that OSU could potentially go higher comes down to exactly that: potential. Turner could yet morph into a very good NBA player. Sullinger is just getting started but proved he can rebound in the league as a rookie. Mullens averaged double figures in Charlotte this season. Even Oden, whose NBA career has been such a massive disappointment, is still just 25 years old. If he can get to a team on which he can get healthy this summer (and ifs don't get bigger than this, I realize), there's no reason he couldn't change course on what has thus far been a tragic career arc.

Also, if you're the type of person to award extra points for awesome names, Lawrence Funderburke is a big-time asset.

Why they could be ranked lower: Because, with the exception of Conley, almost all of the players on this list have produced what they've produced on bad teams. Sure, Mullens made a nice little jump this season, but he was playing for the worst franchise in the sport. Oden is less a basketball player than a cautionary tale about the fallibility of irregular human biology. Sullinger has a ton to prove. Turner is trending upward, but he still shot 41.9 percent in his first featured season in Philadelphia.

Cook played a solid bench sharpshooter role for the Oklahoma City Thunder in their emergence in recent years (though he was weirdly buried by mad basketball genius Tom Thibodeau for the Chicago Bulls this season), and he gets some credit for maximizing that all-important one NBA skill. But when Cook is your sixth man, you're not going to be near the top of this list.

What’s ahead? We've already discussed the varying futures on the table for Turner, Sullinger, Mullens, as well as the unlikely-but-still-possible resurrection of Oden, so let's focus on the prospects. Deshaun Thomas is Ohio State's one draft entrant this season, and he isn't particularly highly regarded by NBA scouts. Thomas is seen as a tweener who isn't athletic enough or a good enough shooter to play guard and not big enough to score over taller defenders in the post. I'm more bullish; when you're a born scorer like DT, you find a way to get those buckets.

Looking ahead, the clearest NBA prospect on the Buckeyes' 2013-14 roster is LaQuinton Ross, an immensely gifted 6-foot-8 wing with an NBA body, who can handle and hit 3s, among other skills. Ross blossomed in the NCAA tournament in March, and he'll be expected to take on a larger scoring load next season. Whether he maximizes it is yet to be seen. Likewise, Sam Thompson doesn't get much NBA love, but he's a great defender with good size, and that should hold up if he gets a shot at the league.

Final thoughts: Ohio State always has been, and probably always will be, a football school. Matta has changed that reputation more than any other coach in OSU history; he's spent the better part of the past decade recruiting top talent and fashioning it into tough, defensive-minded teams that challenge for national titles. Redd and Jackson prove that NBA talent at OSU isn't limited to the Matta era.

If Matta keeps moving at his current pace, Ohio State could climb much higher in this list in a decade's time. Right now? It's worthy of inclusion … but only just.
LaQuinton RossRobert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsOhio State's LaQuinton Ross had several big moments in the NCAA tournament, including a winning shot against Arizona.
Editor's note: This month, ESPN Insider's college basketball and recruiting experts are teaming up to examine how 15 of the nation's best recruiting classes will fit in with their teams in the 2013-14 season. The day's featured program: Ohio State Insider, which Andy Katz delves more into here. Check out the Nation blog each morning for a corresponding post on the key returnee for each of the 15 teams.

I let my enthusiasm for LaQuinton Ross' obvious natural gifts spill out onto Twitter on March 6, as Ohio State was thrillingly engaged in what would end up being its best win of the season:



Revisiting that tweet reminded me just how silly it seemed at the time, including to many Ohio State fans. Ross? A top-five pick in a loaded draft? Come on, Brennan!

I'll admit it: At the time, it was a bit silly, and not just because Ross didn't even play well at Indiana that night. To that point, Ross, though blessed with a combination of lanky size and perimeter skills, had been a maddeningly inconsistent entity. If you review his overall sophomore season, there is some to like, but still plenty to be cautious about. The 99.6 offensive rating. The 22.7 percent turnover rate. The less-than-stellar work on the boards. The tendency to drift for long stretches.

Then March happened.

Even on a team with Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas, no player was as crucial to Ohio State's Elite Eight run as Ross, specifically in difficult wins over Iowa State and Arizona. Against Iowa State, Ross finished 6-of-10 from the field, and 3-of-5 from 3, with most of those shots coming in key moments down the stretch. The Arizona game in Los Angeles was no different, as Ross hit two massive 3s late in the game and finished with 17 points on eight field goals and an offensive rating of 161. Even in OSU's loss to the Shockers, Ross scored 19 points, including 9-of-10 from the free throw line.

There were a handful of moments in each of Ohio State's four tournament games in which Ross was clearly the best and most talented player on the floor. They didn't always last for 40 minutes, but they were there.

The question is whether Ross is ready to replicate that March performance for the length of a college basketball season. This is a massive challenge. Ross won't be asked to do more in the same context as last season. He'll be asked to be the featured scorer on an offense that will desperately need someone to approximate the reliable excellence of NBA-bound forward Deshaun Thomas. Thomas really was excellent: He finished the season with a 114.4 offensive rating while shooting 32.2 percent of Ohio State's available shots while on the floor. The Buckeyes were first and foremost a defensive team, at various times the best in the country (particularly from mid-February on), anchored by players who are not of the go-to offensive breed. But Thomas was not only good in his own right, he demanded so much attention from opposing defenses that he helped turn a team of average scorers into the 12th most efficient in the country, by KenPom.com's adjusted efficiency lights.

In OSU coach Thad Matta's ideal world, Ross would slot right into Thomas' role. The skill sets -- both are essentially face-up wing forwards who can shoot on the perimeter and finish around the rim -- are almost identical. Just make Ross the new Thomas. Easy, right?

[+] EnlargeLaQuinton Ross
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsOhio State is looking for LaQuinton Ross to take his game to an elite level this upcoming season.
In reality, it will be impossible to replace Thomas with just one player. Ross will have to contribute much on the offensive end, but 6-foot-7 junior Sam Thompson -- whose own 112.5 offensive rating is emblematic of Thompson's intelligent and efficient play, as well as his ability to streak toward the rim and finish while there -- will have a large role to play. Junior guard Shannon Scott will have to develop into more of a threat. He will have to be a more confident shooter (he shot just 33 3s, and made just 11, in 2012-13) to help keep defenses honest. And junior center Amir Williams, who also showed long-awaited signs of strength throughout the season, might still become a go-to threat on the low block.

That leaves Craft. There are many great things the Ohio State point guard has brought to the table in his three seasons. He might be the best perimeter defender in the country. His coaches and teammates trust him implicitly. But it seems likely Craft has topped out as an offensive player. He is solid, but he is not going to be the go-to scorer on a national title-type team.

But Craft will be guarding people, as will Thompson and Scott and Lenzelle Smith, which is why we can fairly expect Ohio State to be a defensive monster in the same vein as 2012-13.

Whether the Thomas-less Buckeyes will score at a sufficient rate is the key question of their season. No one looks as likely to answer it as Ross. He appears destined to become a pure scorer. He's too gifted, and playing at a program that has traditionally strip-mined every last bit of talent out of its players, to not get there.

Then again, that's what Ohio State fans have been saying since a raw Ross committed to the Buckeyes two years ago. We've seen glimpses. Are we to assume that Ross' assured March is the turning point, the early warning signs of a star putting it all together? Or was it just a tantalizing but ultimately outlying small sample size?

We'll find out in a few months. Ross might not be a lottery pick, or a top-five pick. Maybe the potential is so bright it is blinding me the point of confusion. But Ross could be all of those things. If he is, I bet we'll find out in 2013-14.

 
LOS ANGELES -- Quick reaction to Wichita State’s 70-66 victory over Ohio State in the Elite Eight at Staples Center on Saturday night:

Overview: Ohio State entered the game riding an 11-game winning streak. The second-seeded Buckeyes hadn’t lost since mid-February. But they were tense early. And Wichita State exploited their struggles.

Midway through the first half, the ninth-seeded Shockers launched a 12-2 run that ended with Demetric Williams' 3-pointer with 6:28 remaining in the half. Wichita State, the underdog, expanded its lead the rest of the way. The Missouri Valley Conference standout entered halftime with a 35-22 advantage.

The Buckeyes shot 2-for-10 from the 3-point line in the first half after entering the game shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc. Deshaun Thomas shot 4-for-13 in the first half and missed all five 3-point attempts before the break.

With 12:28 to go, Wichita State led 51-31. That’s no typo. But the Buckeyes kept fighting. With 8:22 on the game clock, they had cut the deficit to 13 points (56-43).

It didn’t help that Cleanthony Early suffered an ankle injury midway through the second half. But Early returned a few minutes later, and the Shockers continued to battle.

Fred Van Vleet's three-point play with 7:03 to go gave the Shockers a 60-46 lead.

The Buckeyes had opportunities to cut Wichita State’s lead to single digits with the clock ticking down past the six-minute mark, but they couldn't do so until Thomas scored on a putback after a Carl Hall turnover. Wichita State 60, Ohio State 52.

Ron Baker hit a pair of free throws that allowed Wichita State to regain a double-digit lead with just less than four minutes to play; a LaQuinton Ross 3-pointer on OSU’s next possession cut the Shockers’ lead to seven. Ross forced a turnover that eventually led to a pair of free throws with 3:13 to play. He made both, and the Buckeyes were down just five.

A Van Vleet offensive foul call gave the Buckeyes another possession. Shannon Scott hit two free throws with 2:45 to play. Wichita State 62, Ohio State 59.

A huge Tekele Cotton 3-pointer extended the lead; Thomas answered with a lay-in.

With 2:07 to go, the same Wichita State that had a 20-point lead early in the second half was up just 65-61.

Van Vleet’s bucket with 59 seconds to go, a drive and a drop, was huge. Ohio State missed on the other end, and Baker went to the free throw line with 51.3 seconds to play and the Shockers nursing a 67-61 lead. He made both.

Wichita State 69, Ohio State 61.

The Buckeyes failed to convert on a series of chances until Aaron Craft's 3-pointer gave Ohio State one final slice of hope. Wichita State led 70-66 with 6.8 seconds to play. Cotton took the next inbounds and drew a foul but missed the free throw. Craft put up a 3-pointer on the other end that didn’t fall.

Game over. Wow.

Turning point: When the Buckeyes (29-8) finally started making shots in the second half. They were 8-for-33 in the first half. Couldn’t get much worse. Midway through the second half -- as Thomas began to take smarter shots -- Ohio State began to play like the team that won the Big Ten tournament title in Chicago two weeks ago. But Wichita State was just too strong in the end.

Star of the game: Malcolm Armstead, a transfer from Oregon, finished the game with 14 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals.

Stat of the game: Ohio State went 5-for-25 from the 3-point line. The Buckeyes had shot 50 percent from beyond the arc in three previous tourney games.

Up next: Wichita State (30-8) will face the winner of Sunday's meeting between Louisville and Duke next Saturday in Atlanta.

Saturday's Elite Eight: Stat-based analysis

March, 29, 2013
3/29/13
8:23
PM ET
As you get ready for the Elite Eight to begin, here's a stat-based look at what's working well for each of the teams playing in Saturday’s Regional Finals.

West Region Final: No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 9 Wichita State

A Key To Ohio State's Success

Deshaun Thomas is going to get his -- the Buckeyes' leading scorer has accounted for 28 percent of their points this season. However, in Ohio State's last two games (both three-point wins) Thomas had help carrying the scoring load.

In the first 34 games of the season, LaQuinton Ross was averaging less than 8 points per game. But in the last two, Ross has had 17 points in each game -- including the game-winning three against Arizona. Ross has made five of seven 3-pointers, and the Buckeyes -- who shot less than 35 percent behind the arc during the season -- are shooting 50 percent on threes (23-46) during the tournament. Wichita State has held its three tournament opponents to under 28 percent on three-pointers.

A Key To Wichita State's Success

In the Sweet 16, Wichita State outscored La Salle 40-26 in the paint. The Shockers took 43 shots in the paint, the most such attempts for a team in this year’s tournament. The Shockers’ 43 shots in the paint were 11 more than they had in their previous two games combined. The Shockers are shooting 57.3 percent inside the paint and must continue to shoot well on the interior for two reasons:

1. It’s an area they can take advantage of against Ohio State. The Buckeyes are allowing opponents to shoot 58.7 percent in the paint, the highest among Sweet 16 teams.

2. Outside the paint, the Shockers are shooting just 34.1 percent, which ranks 13th among Sweet 16 teams.

East Region Final: No. 3 Marquette vs. No. 4 Syracuse

A Key To Syracuse's Success

In eight games this season, the Orange have held opponents to shooting 20 percent or less behind the 3-point line -- and three of those games have come in the NCAA tournament. Montana, Cal and Indiana were a combined 11 for 67 behind the arc. When those three teams stepped inside the arc, they combined to shoot 42.2 percent.

Before Thursday's loss, the Hoosiers were making more than half of their two-point field goal attempts, but against Syracuse they shot just 39.3 percent (13-33) inside the arc. However, one reason Marquette beat Syracuse earlier this season (aside from outscoring the Orange 29-5 at the free throw line) was that the Golden Eagles shot 57.7 percent on two-point field goals (15-26). In all other games this season, Syracuse's opponents shot less than 43 percent on two-point field goals.

A Key To Marquette's Success

If late in the game the score is close, Buzz Williams' team has shown that it will continue to play with poise. Combined in the final five minutes against Davidson and Butler, Marquette shot 9-of-15 from the floor and outscored those two 29-19.

Marquette has made just 12 3-pointers in the tournament, but four of them came in final five minutes against Davidson and Butler.

WSU-OSU: Deshaun Thomas evolves

March, 29, 2013
3/29/13
8:00
PM ET
Deshaun ThomasGreg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsDeshaun Thomas leads his Ohio State Buckeyes team in scoring by almost 10 points per game.
LOS ANGELES -- There have been many surprises throughout the NCAA tournament. Deshaun Thomas' knack for finding the rim has not been one of them. Few collegiate athletes rival his ability to score.

The 6-foot-7 NBA prospect is dangerous on the perimeter (35.5 percent from beyond the arc). He’ll hit floaters. He’ll drive, draw contact and still finish. He’ll come off screens and punish any foe who gives him space. He’ll make a move off the dribble and collect, too.

In the first half of Ohio State’s Sweet 16 victory over Arizona, Thomas started on the left side of the floor. Three Wildcats slid toward him. The pressure didn’t stop the junior from rushing to the lid, spinning and releasing the ball softly off his fingertips. The off-balance maneuver was natural for a veteran who has been an offensive star since his youth in Fort Wayne, Ind.

“It was always natural growing up,” he said in the pregame news conference Friday in Los Angeles. “Me in third grade, playing [YMCA] ball, always scoring, playing against [older] people ... scoring against them. Always had a knack for the ball. Got in high school, had the green light, played every position, took every shot, took every bad shot. So I had a knack of scoring the ball all my life.”

Thomas’ pro potential has been debated for years. He’s big and skilled. But he has never been known as a lockdown defender. The limits that might worry some NBA execs have rarely interrupted his progress at the collegiate level.

Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall recognizes Thomas’ effect and views the Shockers’ ability to neutralize him as one of their greatest tasks when the two teams meet Saturday at Staples Center in the Elite Eight.

“He is a -- and this is a compliment -- he is a bad shot-taker and a bad shot-maker,” Marshall said. “That is hard to do. But that's how talented he is. He can take bad shots and make them. What we've got to do is make him take bad shots and hopefully miss a great majority of them.”

Thomas is averaging 19.7 points per game. Per Ken Pomeroy, he has led the Big Ten by taking shots on 32.1 percent of his possessions.

He’s excelled with the “green light” he’s enjoyed throughout his career, but Thomas has quietly enhanced his game with nonscoring attributes, too.

Aaron Craft's and LaQuinton Ross' emergence as late-game threats for the Buckeyes in recent weeks is tied to Thomas’ willingness to play decoy and not make demands in those situations.

He watched when Craft connected a last-second 3-pointer against Iowa State that sent the Buckeyes to the Sweet 16. It was proof of his growth.

“I think the thing that I get the most excited about is when he gets pumped up about getting a charge or being in the right position on defense or making the extra pass, stuff that he really wasn't doing when he first got here,” Craft said. “It really shows his hard work. He's listening. He wants to learn. He's not doing it perfect, but he's trying his best, and that's all we can ask.”

Thomas will be the most pivotal athlete on the floor Saturday. If the ball is in his hands, he’ll be a problem.

“He has a way to find angles,” coach Thad Matta said. “We went through that stretch in the Big Ten tournament where he was taking some bad ones. You look at his shooting percentage then to his shooting percentage now in the NCAA tournament, and it's incredible. I think that's a tribute to him recognizing that ‘I don't have to get it off and try to shoot myself out of it.’ Just let it flow, and good things will happen.”

WHO TO WATCH

Craft has recorded 18 assists, nine steals and seven turnovers in three NCAA tournament games. The junior has disrupted the offensive rhythms of Iona, Iowa State and Arizona thus far. Malcolm Armstead (10.8 PPG, 4.0 APG, 1.9 SPG) is the next point guard who has to deal with Craft’s nonstop pressure. But he has been a consistent leader for the Shockers, so we'll see.

WHAT TO WATCH

When Wichita State outplayed La Salle on Thursday, Shockers standout Carl Hall was the catalyst. He ran the floor and pushed the pace. While his team will certainly need his offensive production, his defensive role Saturday might be more important. He’ll be responsible for guarding Thomas. He knows that’s not an easy assignment. “He’s a skilled post player,” Hall said. “He can shoot it, he can drive it. I’ll definitely have my hands full at trying to make things difficult for him. I’ll be up for the challenge, though.”

STAT TO WATCH

During Ohio State’s 11-game winning streak, Thomas has taken 17 or more shots three times. In fact, he took 17 or more shots in five of the six games that preceded that run. The Buckeyes were 3-3 in those contests.

Top things to know from Thursday

March, 29, 2013
3/29/13
1:33
AM ET
Marquette has one of its best days
Marquette will make its second Elite Eight appearance since winning the national championship in 1977, and its first since 2003, after beating Miami handily.

Marquette shot 54 percent, its highest field-goal percentage in an NCAA tournament game since shooting 56.4 percent against Kentucky in the 2003 Elite Eight.

Miami shot 34.9 percent, its lowest in an NCAA tournament game since shooting 33.8 percent against Missouri in 2002.

Marquette scored 1.23 points per possession against Miami, the most the Hurricanes have allowed this season. The Canes were 2-5 this season when allowing more than 1.1 points per possession. Their four worst defensive performances in terms of efficiency came against NCAA tournament teams.

Marquette scored 40 points in the paint Thursday, its most paint points in any game in the past four NCAA tournament appearances and most in its past 12 games overall. The Golden Eagles entered Thursday's game averaging 32.1 paint points per game.

Marquette outscored Miami by 16 points in the paint, tied for the Hurricanes' second-worst paint differential this season. Miami was outscored by a season-high 26 paint points in its loss to Florida Gulf Coast on Nov. 13.

An unlikely big-shot-maker
Ohio State advanced to the Elite Eight for the second consecutive season with its second consecutive last-second win. The game-winning 3-pointer by Ohio State's LaQuinton Ross was the first game-tying or go-ahead shot Ross has attempted in the final minute of any game in his career.

Ross joined Marquette's Vander Blue, La Salle's Tyrone Garland, and Buckeyes teammate Aaron Craft as the only players in the past two tournaments to make a potential game-tying or go-ahead field goal in the final 10 seconds of a game. Players have made the last three such shot attempts after making one of the previous 26 dating back to the 2011 tournament.

Also of note: Ohio State's defense stepped up late in possessions in its victory against Arizona on Thursday, limiting the Wildcats to 8-for-29 (27.6 percent) on shots that came after two or more passes, including 4-for-17 (23.5 percent) in the second half. Arizona was more efficient on offense when passing once or fewer, shooting 15-for-23 (65.2 percent) from the field.

Syracuse defense dominates
A No. 1 seed went down as Syracuse handled Indiana with relative ease, holding the Hoosiers to their season low in points, field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage.

The Hoosiers fell to 0-7 against Big East teams in the NCAA tournament since beating Syracuse to win the national title in 1987.

Indiana’s 50 points were its second-fewest in an NCAA tournament game in the shot-clock era and its fewest points scored as a No. 1-seeded team.

Indiana shot 28.6 percent and had 16 turnovers against Syracuse's zone. The Hoosiers had nine of their 42 field-goal attempts against the zone blocked. They entered the game shooting 52.8 percent against zone defenses this season, fourth-best in the nation.

Michael Carter-Williams scored 24 points, 39 percent of Syracuse’s total. That’s the sixth-highest percentage of points any player has scored in a win over a No. 1 seed. Carter-Williams had more steals (4) than any of the five players ahead of him.

Easy for Wichita State
Wichita State improved to 4-1 all-time in the Round of 16 with its win over La Salle. It will make its first Elite Eight appearance since 1981.

The victory snapped an eight-game losing streak for the Missouri Valley Conference in Sweet 16 games, with the last win being that Wichita State victory in 1981.

La Salle shot 35.7 percent from the field, its lowest percentage by far in its four NCAA tournament games. The Explorers could not shoot well enough (7-for-28 outside the paint) to offset their being outrebounded by 18 and being outscored in the paint by 14.

Carl Hall dominated the paint in this game, going 7-for-9 on shots there, accounting for 14 of the Shockers' 40 points in the paint.

Ross comes through for Buckeyes

March, 29, 2013
3/29/13
1:31
AM ET
LOS ANGELES -- On Thursday night, LaQuinton Ross finally felt like a hero.

The sophomore hit the biggest shot in the biggest game of his life. His 3-pointer with 2.1 seconds to play -- a few feet behind the line -- sealed Ohio State's 73-70 victory over Arizona at Staples Center and sent the Buckeyes to the Elite Eight.

He was mobbed by his frenzied teammates immediately following that critical bucket. He was serenaded by the Buckeyes fans who traveled to the West Coast for the game.

"I'd like to credit my coaches for the play," Ross said after the win. "It was similar to the play we ran last game. … It so happened they messed up on the switch right there, and I was able to knock down the shot."

It was a fitting conclusion. Ross scored 17 points in his team's Sunday win over Iowa State in the round of 32. He'd gained so much confidence in recent weeks that he challenged former NBA all-star and broadcaster Reggie Miller to a 3-point contest on Wednesday.

"I think I'm going to try to make him come out of retirement and shoot a little bit," he said.

To read the rest of Myron Medcalf's story, click here.

LOS ANGELES -- Quick reaction to No. 2 Ohio State’s 73-70 victory over No. 6 Arizona in the Sweet 16 at Staples Center on Thursday.

Overview: The crowd at Staples Center seemed to favor Arizona from the tipoff. The Wildcats' fans erupted when their squad hit the floor, and the team fed off that energy.

The Wildcats were more active and energetic than the Buckeyes in the first half. Mark Lyons was an offensive catalyst, scoring 10 points in the first half.

An Ohio State team that is usually poised suddenly looked uncomfortable. The Buckeyes, 11th in turnover rate per Ken Pomeroy entering the game, committed five turnovers in the first half.

Aaron Craft committed two fouls that limited his time. And Sean Miller went with a long, athletic lineup (Grant Jerrett, Brandon Ashley and Solomon Hill on the floor at the same time) that perplexed the Buckeyes. Kevin Parrom’s free throws gave Arizona a 33-22 lead with 6 minutes, 24 seconds remaining in the first half.

Turning point: Once Craft re-entered the game in the final minutes of the first half, however, the Buckeyes began to roll. They finished the half on a 12-4 run. They were down by four points at halftime, but they clearly had the momentum.

Then, the Buckeyes started the second half on a 10-0 run. The Wildcats didn’t record their first points in the second half until the 14:40 mark, and by then, the Buckeyes had a 44-40 lead.

Ohio State maintained its edge throughout the second half. But the Wildcats kept pushing.

Arizona was down 67-61 with 3:16 to go, but the Wildcats' comeback was stifled by Lyons’ struggles after the break. He started the second half just 1-for-4 from the field.

LaQuinton Ross’ drive in the final two minutes gave Ohio State a six-point edge. But the Wildcats were down just three points with 53 seconds to go after Lyons’ late layup.

And then, Craft missed a layup. And Lyons went to the basket, scored and drew a foul. He hit the free throw. Tied game at 70-all with seconds on the game clock. But Ross hit a huge 3-pointer with 2.1 seconds to play to ice the win.

Wow. What a game.

Stars of the game: Deshaun Thomas led the Buckeyes with 20 points, but he scored 16 in the first half. Ross scored 17 points and hit the game-winning 3-pointer.

Stat of the game: Ohio State went 7-for-13 from the 3-point line.

Next: Ohio State will face Wichita State in the Elite Eight on Saturday.
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.”

[+] EnlargeLaQuinton Ross
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsLaQuinton Ross, a key player off Ohio State's bench, has definitely caught Arizona's eyes.
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.

SPONSORED HEADLINES