Los Angeles, CA – Off to the Elite Eight for the first time in more than three decades, the Wichita State Shockers find themselves pitted against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Staples Center on Saturday, for the right to represent the West Region in the Final Four in Atlanta next weekend.
The ninth-seeded Shockers, who finished second in the Missouri Valley Conference this season behind Creighton, began their journey in this tourney with a 73-55 triumph over Pittsburgh in the second round last week, followed by a 76-70 so-called upset of top-seeded and top-ranked Gonzaga, and then crushed La Salle on Thursday night in a 72-58 decision.
With the most recent victory, Wichita State tied the school record for wins in a single season at 29, set back in 2010-11 when the program captured the NIT championship. With another victory the Shockers not only set a new standard for the school, they also land in the Final Four for the first time since 1965.
While WSU has a record of 11-10 in this event over the years, the Buckeyes have a much lengthier and successful history in the tournament, churning out a mark of 48-23 and having won the 1960 championship, but clearly OSU has had a considerable drought when it comes to celebrating a title win.
Nevertheless, the second-seeded Buckeyes are setting their sights on advancing to their 11th Final Four and expect to move beyond that round in all honesty. Into the Elite Eight for the 14th time in program history, Ohio State advanced by slipping by Arizona in the waning moments of a 73-70 final on Thursday night. The victory, which followed triumphs over Iona (95-70) and Iowa State (78-75) in earlier rounds, was the 11th in a row for the Buckeyes overall.
In terms of the all-time series between these two programs, Ohio State lists a 3-1 advantage over the Shockers, although the teams have not met since the early 1960s.
The survivor of this outing will go up against a representative from the Midwest Region next Saturday for an opportunity to compete in the national title game on Monday, April 8.
The Shockers took all the air out of La Salle's balloon in the opening minutes of their meeting on Thursday, running out to a 14-2 advantage and never looking back. Leading by double digits the entire second half, WSU was paced by Malcolm Armstead who tallied 18 points, to go along with six rebounds and four assists, followed by Carl Hall with 16 points, eight boards and three blocked shots. Ron Baker chipped in another 13 points as the squad dominated on the glass as expected, 47-29.
Cleanthony Early, who was inserted back into the starting lineup and finished with eight points and seven rebounds versus the Explorers, continues to be the leading scorer for the group with his 13.7 ppg and is also the leading rebounder with 5.3 per outing, but at the same time he has frequently limited himself due to foul trouble and that's not something he and the Shockers need to deal with against a stronger interior program such as Ohio State.
Hall (12.7 ppg, 7.0 rpg) plays almost exclusively in the paint for the Shockers, accounting for a team-best 49 blocked shots at the defensive end of the floor, while Armstead (10.8 ppg, 147 assists, 71 steals) gives the group some balance by hitting 35.5 percent of his 3-point tries this season.
As a group, Wichita State has been beating opponents on the boards by more than eight per game this season and while the squad has not had a steady diet of Big Ten foes on the schedule, the fact that the Buckeyes have been topped on the glass by 2.6 rpg in three NCAA Tournament games might be a good sign for WSU.
Last week it was Aaron Craft who saved the day for the Buckeyes with a late, game-winning shot, but on Thursday it was reserve LaQuinton Ross who answered the bell for OSU as he took a pass from Craft near the top of the key and drained what proved to be the game-winning 3-pointer with only seconds remaining on the clock.
Ross, who played just 18 minutes, accounted for 17 points, one of four players to reach double figures for the Buckeyes. Deshaun Thomas dropped in 20 points, Craft another 13, to go along with five rebounds and five assists, followed by Sam Thompson with 11 points and eight boards as the team outscored the Wildcats by a 22-18 margin at the free-throw line, and knocked down 7-of-13 shots beyond the arc.
During this tournament Thomas has made good on 57.5 percent of his field goal attempts, including 8-of-13 out on the perimeter, en route to 22.0 ppg, but he is just one of four players producing double digits for the program. Ross is now up to 13.7 ppg, thanks to 6-of-11 shooting on the outside, while Thompson augments his 12.7 ppg with seven boards per contest, and Craft pitches in with 11.7 ppg as well as 6.0 apg and 3.0 spg.