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Sweet 16 Preview: West Region Preview

Daniel Kennedy

Kennedy covers the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for RotoWire. A veteran reporter, Kennedy has covered sports for various newspapers in the Southeast.

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Los Angeles
Tip-off: Thursday

The West Region features a unique pair of matchups this weekend after upsets laid waste to almost all of the top seeds. No. 1 Gonzaga was ousted Saturday by No. 9 Wichita State, a group playing inspired basketball for coach Gregg Marshall. The Shockers will actually be favored to win Thursday against the 13th-seeded La Salle Explorers, another surprise team that has rattled off three wins in the tournament.

In less than a week, the Explorers managed to go from First Four to Sweet 16 by defeating Boise State, Kansas State and Mississippi in consecutive games. No. 2 Ohio State remains as the highest-seeded team in the West, as the Buckeyes escaped a close call of their own with Aaron Craft's game-winning 3-pointer that lifted them to victory over Iowa State.
After Harvard upset No. 3 New Mexico, the Crimson fell to No. 6 Arizona, and the Wildcats will now square off against Ohio State. If the region's theme of close games continues with this weekend's action, it would seem to favor the Explorers and Wildcats, which played a bevy of contests won by a narrow margin during the season.

No. 13 La Salle vs. No. 9 Wichita State

Key Matchup:
La Salle's Ramon Galloway VS. Wichita State's Ron Baker. Galloway, a senior guard who leads the Explorers in scoring with 17.4 points per game this season, has ramped up his performance in the postseason. His most impressive performance of the Tournament came in his last game against Mississippi, when he drilled six 3-pointers en route to 24 points against the Rebels. Baker, on the other hand, is a freshman who possesses the size to pose problems for Galloway on both ends of the floor. He too had his best showing last time out, as he shot 71 percent from the floor and 4-of-6 from long range to down Gonzaga. The experience of Galloway would seem to give the Shockers guard an advantage in the backcourt, which will be imperative for La Salle, as it is outmanned up front and needs to exploit the Shockers backcourt to pull off yet another upset

La Salle will Win IF:
Galloway puts up another 20-plus points and receives help from backcourt teammates Tyreek Duren and Tyrone Garland. The Explorers are undersized, but have been able to take advantage of their quickness and expose bigger, slow-footed teams thus far in the tournament by stretching the floor and shooting very efficiently. La Salle could find trouble, however, if Wichita State pounds the ball inside, where a pair of 6-foot-8 forwards will have a decided size advantage. A four-guard lineup for the Explorers means they will advance only if their guards are able to dictate the pace of the game.

Wichita State will Win IF:
Gregg Marshall devises a plan to get Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall the ball inside early and often. Success in the paint for the Schockers does two things to help win the game: it takes advantage of mismatches in the post and keeps the high-octane La Salle offense from dominating the contest with its guard play. Marshall's group has been successful this season by maintaining excellent balance with not only its scoring, but operating as a complete unit offensively and defensively. If the team is to punch a ticket to the regional final, Wichita State must play another complete game on both ends of the floor.

Player to Watch:
Wichita State's Cleanthony Early. In the Shockers' wins over Pittsburgh and Gonzaga, Early has starred offensively. In losses during the regular season and conference tournament, he has done anything but. Against Creighton in the Missouri Valley Conference final, Early was held to two points and the Shockers were unable to generate enough scoring to overcome the lack of production from their leading scorer. La Salle appears to be without any real solutions for him inside, so the Explorers can only hope to contain him by speeding the game up and keeping Wichita State at bay on the perimeter.

Look for Wichita State to squeak out another win. La Salle is prone to defensive shortcomings and one-dimensional offense. If the shots aren't falling, it could be a long night for the Explorers. The Shockers will look to pound the opposing bigs in the post and utilize their size advantage to arrive in the Elite Eight.

No. 6 Arizona vs. No. 2 Ohio State

Key Matchup:
Arizona's Mark Lyons vs. Ohio State's Aaron Craft. This battle of veteran floor generals represents a contrast of styles, as Craft is one of the nation's best defenders and Lyons is a more prolific scorer. Both are extensions of their coaches, as Lyons followed coach Sean Miller from Xavier to run his offense, while Craft is a three-year starter who works tirelessly to set the tone. The key to this matchup might be as simple as which guard gets inside the other's head. Traditionally, Craft is not much of a scorer but has been clutch lately in that role. He scored 18 points against Iowa State and drilled the aforementioned game-winner. Lyons, meanwhile, looks for his shot first as opposed to Craft, the more traditional facilitator. If Craft can take away Lyons' shot, he can take him out of his comfort zone, perhaps giving the Buckeye a slight advantage.

Arizona will Win IF:
The Wildcats wear down Ohio State in the frontcourt and defend the rim effectively. The one place Arizona can claim an edge is in the post, where Solomon Hill and Brandon Ashley provide girth against a lean and athletic front line for the Buckeyes. Deshaun Thomas is a load for any team to handle, but the Wildcats have a handful of defenders who could present challenges for him inside. The problem, however, may be the 3-point line, which Arizona does not defend particularly well. If Thomas, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and LaQuinton Ross look for their points outside and shots fall early, Ohio State could conceivably shoot Arizona out of the building.

Ohio State will Win IF:
Craft makes life miserable for Lyons and the offense bogs down as the veteran guard's frustrations mount. The Buckeyes will look to attack Arizona with their dynamic wing scorers and keep the ball in front of them when defending the Wildcats in the halfcourt. Craft's turnovers in Ohio State's last game looms troublesome for this game if the issues reoccur. This year's team is a bit deeper than the last several editions of Matta's group, but foul trouble could still be an issue if Thomas is hit with a few quick whistles while defending Arizona's bigs. Ohio State will move on if Craft and backcourt partner Shannon Scott can neutralize the Wildcats' effectiveness on offense with tight perimeter defense and shot-making ability.

Player to Watch:
Ohio State's Sam Thompson. Thompson is one of the most dramatically improved players in the country. An outstanding athlete, the Buckeyes forward is known for his highlight-reel dunks. More important to Ohio State's hopes of advancing, however, Thompson's jumper is coming along quite nicely, and he gives opposing defenses one more shooter to defend. If Craft and Thomas are both playing well, Thompson likely will have an open lane and open shots from outside. How he responds likely will determine Ohio State's fate.

If Craft and Scott impede passing lanes, Thomas and Smith make shots and Thompson attacks the rim, the Buckeyes win. Ball pressure is something Arizona likely will have to deal with, but expect Ohio State's offense to run more fluidly and get more clean looks at the basket. Offensively, someone other than Thomas must step up as a scorer. The game plan to beat Ohio State this season has been to take away its best player offensively and make someone else beat you. That is precisely the task at hand for Craft, Thompson and company, as they look to create and knock down open shots for each other in a versatile offense.