Kragthorpe: NCAA wins tie Arizona, Wichita State to Utahns
Nobody enjoyed the basketball proceedings at EnergySolutions Arena more than Ohio State.
While the Buckeyes were dealing with their own set of problems in Dayton, Ohio, a sequence of upsets in Salt Lake City was clearing their way to the Final Four.
Imagine if OSU's Aaron Craft had missed a last-second 3-pointer and the Buckeyes had gone on to lose to Iowa State in overtime Sunday. That would have left No. 6 seed Arizona as the top team in the West Region for the Sweet 16 in Los Angeles.
As it is, Thursday's pairings are Arizona vs. No. 2 Ohio State and No. 9 Wichita State vs. No. 13 La Salle.
Gone: No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 3 New Mexico from ESA, plus No. 4 Kansas State and No. 5 Wisconsin from another West pod in Kansas City.
Part of the fun of having the NCAA Tournament in town is bonding with the teams that advance from here. Even without knowing star forward Gordon Hayward would become a Jazz player three months later, Utahns naturally became attached to the Butler Bulldogs after they qualified for the 2010 Final Four by winning the West Region at ESA.
That gave us a personal stake in Butler's unlikely quest, more to reason to care as Hayward's would-be winning shot against Duke sailed through the air, banked off the glass and bounced off the rim in the national championship game.
Having sent Arizona and Wichita State off to Los Angeles, Utahns are far from assured of having a Final Four connection this year. Yet the Wildcats and Shockers will be worth watching this week, after delivering impressive performances in front of us and making themselves endearing especially in the case of Wichita State.
Arizona keeps giving the University of Utah program more credibility, having beaten the Utes by a total of seven points in two Pac-12 meetings this season. The Wildcats hammered Belmont and Harvard by a combined 40 points and are positioned to give Ohio State all kinds of trouble.
They "have all the pieces, when you think about what's necessary to possibly have a championship-level team," said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, the former Duke star.
The Pac-12 ties give Arizona a built-in following around here. When it comes to adopting a team for its own sake, Wichita State is a great choice. Gonzaga was the closest thing to a home team in the ESA field, but the Bulldogs were outplayed by WSU and could not follow through on their No. 1 ranking in the polls and No. 1 seed in the West.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few accurately concluded that his Bulldogs were not overwhelmingly athletic, but possessed basketball skill, competed hard and played together. That describes Wichita State.
Having watched the Shockers for two games, I admire their toughness. They battle on every defensive possession and go after every rebound as "a team full of fighters," in the words of forward Carl Hall.
The way they persevered against Gonzaga, after enduring a 15-minute stretch when they went from leading by 15 points to trailing by eight, summarized their season. The Shockers have overcome all kinds of injuries to get where they are, and Gregg Marshall is a terrific coach.
Toughness is displayed by a willingness to take big shots. In that sense, the Shockers definitely deserved to beat Gonzaga. After going 2-for-20 from 3-point range against Pittsburgh, WSU hit 14 of 28 attempts against the Bulldogs.
That's a two-game total of 16-for-48, 33 percent almost exactly the Shockers' season percentage. These things tend to even out. That's how Wichita State came out ahead.