(2) Ohio State vs. (15) Iona
Ohio State Buckeyes
Representing the Big 10 for the fifth straight year is the Buckeyes (26-7,13-5), led by versatile junior forward Deshaun Thomas. Thomas has really thrived in the leadership role after being a secondary option earlier in his career, putting up 19.7 points and 7.1 rebounds a game. The Buckeyes finished the regular season with an RPI and strength of schedule ranked in the top 15. Their resume features a conference tournament championship, no bad losses and a 6-7 record against the RPI top 50. Those six wins include victories over every other ranked team in their league, include Indiana on the road. The Buckeyes play a physical brand of defense, giving up just 58 points a night. Point guard Aaron Craft really gets them sparked on that end of the floor, hounding the opposing ball handler all game long. His stability is also a key on the offense end, where the Buckeyes turn the ball over just 10 times per game on average. For them to go on an extended run, Thomas will have to get plenty of assistance from Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and the rest of his supporting cast. As a battle tested team that has gone up against some of the best teams the nation has to offer consistently, expect the Buckeyes to be a threat to advance deep into the tournament.
(15) Iona Gaels
On the surface, the Gaels (20-13, 11-7) did not look like a team that was going to be NCAA Tournament bound for the second straight year. They lost six of seven from Jan. 31-Feb. 23, but those six losses came by a combined 11 points. Their biggest margin of defeat during that period was three. With some minor tweaks, they were able to turn things around and win their last five games to claim the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s guaranteed bid. Even without star point guard Scott Machado, who is now playing professionally, the Gaels have managed to remain one of the nation’s most potent teams offensively. They scored 81.3 a night, second only to Northwestern State. They shoot the three particularly well, making 10 a night at a 37 percent clip. Lamont Jones has done a stellar job taking over for Machado, averaging 23 points and three assists in his final year of eligibility. Sean Armand is a major offensive threat as well, tallying 16 points and three assists a game, but big man David Laury could be the key for the Gaels’ chances of advancing. The sophomore averaged a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds. The Gaels are solely out to outscore the opposition as they struggle to get stops on the defensive end. Their best win was against Denver at home; they were 17-10 against teams outside of the RPI top 100.
HOOPSWORLD’s pick: Ohio State. The Buckeyes will buckle down defensively and get the win.