Q&A with Ohio State beat writer Ari Wasserman
The 6th-seeded Arizona men’s basketball team (27-7, 12-6 Pac-12) takes on No. 2-seed Ohio State (28-7, 13-5 Big 10) on Thursday at 4:47 p.m. in Los Angeles for a chance to advance to the Elite Eight. After two comfortable wins for the Wildcats, Arizona faces possibly its toughest matchup all season with the Buckeyes. Advanced statistician Ken Pomeroy has Ohio State as the seventh best defensive team in the nation, according to adjusted defense, and 21st in scoring defense (58.8 percent).
The Arizona Daily Wildcat caught up with its former reporter and assistant sports editor Ari Wasserman who now works as the Ohio State basketball beat writer for the Buckeye Sports Bulletin, as well as a contributor for Scout.com and Fox Sports.
Daily Wildcat: How does Arizona beat Ohio State?
Wasserman: [The Buckeyes’] defense is always going to be top notch. The reason why Ohio State is in the position it’s at right now is because the way it defends has been pretty constant. Any time you can count on that every single night, you’re going to be in a good situation.
The way that you stop Ohio State is by slowing the game down, trying to get good possessions, get good shots and try to capitalize and be the most efficient on offense. And at the same time, try to make somebody other than Deshaun Thomas beat you on the offense end. Taking him away and making other people take jump shots — because Ohio State struggled a lot on offense this year.
You don’t want to let them turn you over, and you don’t want them to get in transitions and make easy buckets. You want them to work for every bucket they get.
The last time Ohio State lost was 71-49 at Wisconsin on Feb. 17. What has it been doing well to go on this 10-game win streak?
You have two pieces on their team that are pretty invaluable in their success in [forward] Deshaun Thomas and [guard] Aaron Craft. Both of them obviously have been playing pretty well. Every time Ohio State takes the floor, they at least have an argument for having the best defender and the best offensive weapon on the floor. Any time you can have that, you’ll have a chance to win the game.
I think since that loss [to Wisconsin] they’ve kind of come together as a team, and everyone has been playing well. I don’t see how that isn’t going to continue as long as Aaron Craft is playing the defense he’s been playing and Deshaun Thomas is contributing on offense.
Right now, Ohio State is a pretty dangerous team.
Break down the Ohio State offense, especially the role the Buckeyes’ leading scorer Deshaun Thomas plays in it.
For most of the year, most of Ohio State’s offense was Deshaun Thomas and everybody else. And that’s not the case anymore. He’s been a power forward but can play big, he can go small, he can play any role Ohio State needs him to and he’s the guy the offense goes through. Ohio State obviously is getting contributions for LaQuinton Ross off the bench and Sam Thompson and a lot of different guys. But right now Deshaun Thomas is still, and always has been, their No. 1 scoring option.
He led the Big 10 in scoring with 19.7 points per game, and he’s just an apt scorer from all over the floor. He can knock down a three and hit you in the face down low. It will be a challenge for Arizona to match up with him.
How can the Wildcats stop Thomas?
The way Deshaun Thomas can be rattled is if he’s not feeling it early, he starts to force things a little bit and really tries to be the focal point of the offense. He’s a guy who really likes to score. The best way to defend Thomas is to be physical with him — kind of take him out of his game a little bit, if you can. Make sure he mentally isn’t in his game and try to rattle him. The bottom line is, if you’ve seen Deshaun Thomas all season, he’s a player that might get off to a slow start, but he’s getting 18 [points] no matter what. The last thing you need for him to do is to get to 27 or 31 [points]. That’s when it starts to get out of hand.
Deshaun Thomas is definitely somebody you want to take out of the game, but you’re going to want to try and contain him and force other players to beat you. That’s the way that you beat Ohio State.
Head coach Sean Miller described OSU guard Aaron Craft as having Tim Tebow-like qualities. Describe what you’ve seen from Craft this season?
You know, I think Craft is a really interesting player. I think a lot of people look at him and just see this small kid who isn’t going to be able to defend anybody. And I think for two years, people fell into the trap of just looking at him and saying, “Hey, this guy isn’t someone we’d expect to play great defense.”
But I’ll tell you something: Sitting courtside in this NCAA Tournament and watching this kid for the last three years of his career, he can play defense as well as anybody in this country. And it’s a different type of defense. It’s a really in-your-face type of defense that really rattles people. He really gets into people’s bodies, uses his lower body to disrupt people in a physical manner and, rightfully speaking, he really fouls quite a bit and doesn’t get called. That’s just the intense way he plays defense. It’s not necessarily blatant fouls, but he plays very physically and gets away from things.
When you put the whole package together — between the way he defends, how he’s had an impact on Ohio State’s team in general — I think, overall, he’s a leader, he’s a great defender and, of course, he’s a great influence on everybody here.
Ohio State only has one senior [forward Evan Ravenel] in its rotation. Will that lack of experience hurt the Buckeyes down the stretch?
That was one of the things that kind of worried Thad [Matta] about Iowa State, because they had a bit more experience.
At this point when you talk about senior leadership, I think Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft, while both juniors, have been around the circle. They’ve been to the Final Four, they’ve won Big 10 championships, they’ve won Big 10 tournament championships. I don’t think leadership is necessarily going to be an issue for this team.
What is your prediction for this game?
I think Arizona is definitely going to be helped by the fact that they have a home environment. But at the same time, if it comes down to Aaron Craft versus Mark Lyons, I haven’t seen Craft lose a 1-on-1 battle all year, not to mention all the weapons Ohio State has. I think Arizona is more than well-equipped to win the game, but I think that Ohio State is just a little better than them right now. The way Ohio State plays defense and the way Arizona has struggled on offense at times, I do think that Ohio State is going to win this game by roughly five to 10 points.