Wildcats basketball preview: containing Deshaun Thomas, raining from three
Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas hits a jumper against Michigan State's Adreian Payne (5) during the first half of their Big Ten Tournament semifinal at United Center in Chicago, Illinois, on Saturday, March 16, 2013. (Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch/MCT)
How sweet it’s been for the 6th-seeded Arizona men’s basketball team through March Madness, with two easy victories in Salt Lake City last weekend. The fun times are about to end, though, as the Wildcats face No. 2-seed Ohio State on Thursday at 4:47 p.m. in the Staples Center in Los Angeles for a chance to advance to the West regional finals.
“[We’re] dealing with one of the elite teams in this country,” head coach Sean Miller said. “For us, we have to be at that level to beat them. We’ve done it … we know the level we have to play at to do it. I think we’re capable, but anything less than that I don’t believe will be good enough.”
Arizona (27-7, 12-6 Pac-12) has the neutral court advantage over OSU (28-7, 13-5 Big 10), playing just a seven-hour drive away in California. But this Sweet Sixteen matchup will come down to much more than the colors filling the seats (though red is a safe bet).
Containing Deshaun Thomas
The outcome of the contest for most prolific offensive player on the court won’t be a question Thursday — it’s Ohio State’s junior Deshaun Thomas.
The 6-foot-7 small forward led the Big 10 in scoring (19.7 ppg), earning that spot with several different techniques. Thomas can drain the ball from three (35.0 percent) and take it down to the post and even has a knack for getting to the free throw line — where he makes it 84.0 percent of the time.
Miller compared Thomas to another versatile scorer, UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad.
But there’s one difference: Thomas can play power forward too.
“He’s so different and unique as a player,” Miller said. “It’s hard to describe how he plays. On one hand, he’s such an incredible 3-point shooter, and on the other, he’s not small.
“He’s big and physical and can score around the basket. Every team has their hands full with him. That’s why Ohio State is who they are.”
Thomas’ dimensions are similar to those of small forward Solomon Hill, but Miller said it will take a full team effort to defend the First Team All-Big 10 forward. Fortunately for the Wildcats, they have more than Hill to throw at Thomas.
Freshman forwards Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett will both get time guarding Thomas, with the hope that Ashley’s athleticism and Jerrett’s size can slow him down. But as Hill pointed out, a player with Thomas’ talent can’t be stopped, only contained.
“You’re not going to just shut out great players in the tournament,” Hill said. “I think the key would be to just not let him get comfortable and [not] let him get going.”
Thomas has scored in double-digits every game this season and only scored fewer than 16 points four times (Arizona’s top scorer, Mark Lyons, averages 15.4 per game).
“It really has to be a concerted effort as a team guarding [Thomas] because he sets so many ball screens, he’s such a great offensive player, he’s such an incredible 3-point shooter,” Miller said. “We have to rotate to him and do a great job as a team … The thing that’s different about him is he’s too big and physical for guards to deal with.”
Raining from three
Much has been made of Arizona’s poor three-point defense all year, but the Wildcats’ own perimeter prowess has been lost in the shuffle.
Arizona hit 18-of-32 (56.3 percent) against Belmont and Harvard and is ranked 47th in the nation in 3-point efficiency (37.2 percent). This even comes after some shooting swoons during Pac-12 play.
“We hit a slump for about three weeks where we had certain players at the same time not making shots,” Miller said. “That’s part of why we finished second in the Pac-12.”
The Wildcats shot 34.5 percent during their 18 conference games, placing them near the middle of the Pac-12. In comparison, during Arizona’s perfect non-conference run, it made 39.1 percent, a clip that would put it at No. 14, behind South Dakota State, in the rankings today.
This could become significant against the Buckeyes since 3-point shooting has been a big factor in three of Ohio State’s seven losses (Duke, Kansas and Michigan). In fact, teams have shot more than 9 percent better in wins (39.5) against OSU than in defeats (30.5).
With Lyons finally coming out of his slump (14-for-56 in the nine games prior to the NCAA Tournament) and junior Jordin Mayes heating up (he’s hit seven of his last 12), the Wildcats could create some separation from the vaunted Buckeyes’ defense if their deep shots continue to fall.
“I think we got good shots, a lot of drive and kicks, open shots, people making one more pass,” guard Nick Johnson said about Arizona’s shooting in the NCAA Tournament. “I think everybody on our team knew that if we didn’t win, we were going home, our season was over. [We] just tried to focus in and knock down our shots.”
Beating the best?
Neither Arizona nor Ohio State has done a good job this year of beating elite competition. While they rarely lose to bad teams — only one of their 14 combined losses, Arizona’s 89-78 defeat at USC, came against a non-tournament team — they’ve also struggled winning.
The Buckeyes began the season 1-7 against ranked opponents. Considering the Wildcats are just one of 11 teams to be ranked the entire season, that should inspire some hope in the Arizona faithful.
Of course, the trend is starting to be curbed for Ohio State. During its 10-game win streak, OSU beat Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan State twice, giving it a 5-7 mark to finish the season. The Buckeyes are finally playing like the elite team they were built up to be.
Arizona is a different story.
Since the Wildcats only played three games against ranked teams this season, going 2-1, it’s more accurate to use their record against tournament teams as a barometer.
Arizona started 4-0, beating Florida, Miami, San Diego State and Colorado. But since, it has gone 1-6 to finish the season, including three losses to UCLA.
If the Wildcats want another big win, they’ll need to return to their early season form to topple this giant.
“They’re a classic Big 10 powerhouse,” Johnson said. “They got a lot of veterans on their team. I think we have to step it up another notch.”