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Ohio State, Wichita State vie to be best in the . . . West?

The NCAA West Regional doesn't have any western schools left, or any even close to the Pacific time zone. But it has an intrgruing final in Buckeyes vs. Shockers.

March 29, 2013|Chris Dufresne
  • Wichita State guard Fred Van Vleet (23) gives the three-point sign after a teammate's long-range basket against La Salle in the second half of a West Regional semifinal game Thursday night at Staples Center.
Wichita State guard Fred Van Vleet (23) gives the three-point sign after… (Jaime Green / McClatchy-Tribune )

Some West Regional final this turned out to be. The closest school left, Wichita State, is located 1,380 miles from epicenter court at Staples Center.

Ohio State in the NCAA West makes as much sense as Dallas in the NFC East.

That is not to say Saturday's game between No. 9-seeded Wichita State and No. 2 Ohio State won't be terrific in a salt-of-the-earth, country-strong sense.

The West bracket turned out to be as fragile as a bird's nest. Of the top eight seeded teams, only No. 6 and No. 2 survived much past the check-in desk.

Third-seeded New Mexico, a popular Final Four pick, got cut off at Wasatch pass last week by a Harvard squad making its second-ever NCAA appearance. New Mexico looked like lost Lobos against the Crimson.

No. 4 Kansas State was felled in its own backyard, Kansas City, by a school from the heart of Philadelphia, La Salle.

No. 5 Wisconsin, which had won 10 of its previous 11 NCAA openers under Coach Bo Ryan, didn't make it past Mississippi.

No. 7 Notre Dame, in an opening loss to Iowa State, played as well as its football team did against Alabama in the Bowl Championship Series title game. (Not good.)

Wichita State impressively dispatched No. 8 Pittsburgh and No. 1 Gonzaga in Salt Lake, so here we are about to jump center with the Shockers and Buckeyes.

Ohio State is the higher-seeded team from the more prestigious conference, but Wichita State has the more impressive run. The Shockers defeated three opponents, including No. 1-in-the-nation Gonzaga, by 38 points.

The Buckeyes had a breezy 25-point win over No. 15 Iona but needed closing three-point shots in consecutive games against Iowa State and Arizona.

If Ohio State and Wichita State swapped jerseys you'd hardly notice the difference. Both are tough, physical teams with impressive coaches. Wichita State could hang with most teams in the Big Ten, particularly Northwestern.

Ohio State would also lose games if it played in the rugged Missouri Valley Conference.

Buckeyes Coach Thad Matta has earned more national shine, but Gregg Marshall is closing fast as he becomes a hot national coaching candidate.

Matta has a record of 352-103 in 15 years as a head coach with Xavier and Ohio State. Marshall has a 332-152 record in 15 years at Winthrop and Wichita State. Matta has made 11 NCAA appearances and reached the Final four twice; Marshall's Wichita team won the NIT two years ago.

Both schools have good guards. Aaron Craft is a natural-born leader for Ohio State and a player of national renown. He's a hounding defender and clutch player. Wichita State's Malcolm Armstead didn't just fall off the turnip truck, though, and he hit most of the important second-half shots in Thursday's win over La Salle. He is averaging 16 points per game in the NCAA tournament.

Armstead, a transfer from Oregon, is no stranger to high-level basketball. He said Friday that playing the Missouri Valley Conference has probably better prepared him for playing against Ohio State.

"It's more physical in the Missouri Valley," he said. "Pac-12 is more finesse, like NBA-style play. Don't really run a lot of sets in the Pac-12."

Both schools also have talented complementary players and pep bands.

What Ohio State has that Wichita State doesn't have is superstar Deshaun Thomas. It is here where the schools look different.

Ohio State's style? "Very similar to us," Marshall said, "minus the go-to guy."

Wichita State has to scrap for points, while they come easily and often to Thomas, who averages 19.7 per game for the Buckeyes. Thomas is a future NBA player and the reason Ohio State should be favored to win Saturday and advance to the Final Four.

"He is — 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."

To win, Wichita State will need to get more loose balls and win more contested rebounds. Cleanthony Early is the Shockers' leading scorer at 13.7 points per game.

Ohio State has more big-game experience but maybe more pressure. The loss of Gonzaga, New Mexico and Wisconsin pretty much made the West the Buckeyes' region to lose.

Thomas said Friday that the departure of the West's top guns "kind of opened the door to us." He also knows how fast doors can slam.

"They're a good team," he said of Wichita State. "They're physical. They play hard. They're scrappy. We can't overlook these guys."

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