If he’s on his game, Mark Lyons could get Arizona the NCAA title
Florida Gulf Coast is a hot story and, gee, that old La Salle played great, but all of that may not matter.
Forget Louisville, Indiana, Duke and Syracuse and save your talk about difference-maker guards Peyton Siva of Louisville, Miami’s Shane Larkin, Ohio State’s Aaron Craft and Michigan’s Trey Burke leading their schools to this year’s national title.
The truth is, Arizona will win this year’s NCAA title if senior guard Mark Lyons plays the way he played last weekend in Salt Lake City.
All Lyons did in two lopsided, dream-killer wins over No. 11 Belmont and No. 14 Harvard was score 50 points while making 20 of 32 shots. He hit six of 13 three-point tries and committed only four turnovers in 67 minutes.
Many “experts” picked Belmont to upset Arizona, but that didn’t come close to happening, mostly because of the former X-factor from Xavier.
The Harvard game was over 10 minutes after it started. “He did what most great guards do,” Harvard guard Siyana Chambers said after Lyons scored 27 points against the Crimson. “He tried to make plays for himself, get two people to guard him and make plays for his teammates.”
Arizona emerged from Salt Lake City with two wins by 40 total points. The sixth-seeded Wildcats face No. 2 Ohio State on Thursday at Staples Center in a regional semifinal.
If Lyons keeps this up, John Havlicek in his prime might not be able to save Ohio State.
Of course, the “if” on Lyons needs to be in capital letters, set in bold type and punctuated with an exclamation point. There is plenty of hope for the rest of the field because history suggests Lyons cannot keep playing at this level.
He has been instrumental to Arizona’s 27-7 season but also a contributor to some of the team’s sketchy stretches.
Ohio State Coach Thad Matta claims his team is facing the “best team in the West,” but that’s just gratuitous lip service tied to his friendship with Arizona Coach Sean Miller. Miller was an assistant on Matta’s staff at Xavier.
If it is accepted that UCLA, Oregon and California are located on the West Coast, well, Arizona had an 0-5 record against those schools.
Arizona could, with more help from Lyons, end up the best team in the West this weekend.
There is no question that Arizona needed a point guard this season and that a point guard needed Arizona. Lyons ran his course at Xavier after he and Coach Chris Mack had what they call a mutual parting of ways. Lyons wanted to take over the point position this season for departed star Tu Holloway when it was clear that might not be his natural position.
Lyons is a shoot-first guy with a shaky handle, but Arizona needed instant scoring punch to blend with returning veterans and a top recruiting class.
Because Lyons had graduated and had one year of eligibility left, NCAA rules allowed him to transfer without sitting out a season. He chose Arizona because he knew the system, having been recruited to Xavier by Miller. “I’m playing for my original coach who recruited me,” Lyons said in Salt Lake City, “playing with a bunch of guys who believe in me and got faith in me.”
He is not a prototypical point guard.
“The analogy I’ve used to describe Mark Lyons is he’s a running quarterback, if you use the football analogy,” Miller said. “There are times when he’s a flat-out combo guard. There are times it doesn’t look the same as a team who has maybe a true point guard.”
Here is some supporting evidence: Entering the NCAA tournament, Lyons had taken a team-high 363 shots but owned the worst shooting percentage (41.6%) among Wildcats starters. He had a terrible assist-to-turnover ratio (95 to 88) but averaged a team-leading 15 points in part because he could draw fouls and make free throws (112 out of 131).
Lyons was a clutch performer and dazzling at times: He made the game-winning layup to beat Florida and two free throws to put down San Diego State. He scored 25 points against Stanford and scored 24 in two other games.
Lyons also had four turnovers and no assists in 23 minutes against Texas Tech, missed all seven shots against Southern Mississippi and shot three for 14 against Utah. In consecutive February losses at USC and UCLA, Lyons shot six for 24 with six turnovers.
He could infuriate Arizona fans at times, with Miller at one point telling the Arizona Daily Star, “I mean, I don’t give a … what other people think about him.”
Lyons at his best, which he was last weekend, puts Arizona in elite basketball company. Opponents can’t be expected to deal with the combination of Lyons going off and Arizona’s NBA-sized front line, led by senior Solomon Hill and 7-foot freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski.
Lyons has also been in the pressure cooker before as part of three Sweet 16 teams at Xavier. He is the first player to make consecutive Sweet 16 appearances for different schools.
He is not, obviously, the perfect point guard. “But I wouldn’t trade him,” Miller said. “He doesn’t give you that nervous energy. He gives you just the opposite, a confidence that I believe has become contagious on our team. … We’re feeding off his positive energy and his confidence right now.”
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