Lyons leads good-looking Arizona to third Sweet 16 in five years

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

SALT LAKE CITY -- Size over smarts. Arizona gave the same treatment to No. 14 Harvard on Saturday that it did to No. 11 Belmont on Thursday. It ended 74-51 for the Wildcats, dropping Harvard's all-time record to 1-4 in the NCAA tournament. The Crimson's ride was fun was but short-lived. The team we saw lose Saturday was closer to what many thought would show up against New Mexico.

Harvard was cooked from the start. The Crimson began 0 for 13 and trailed 17-2 with 12:30 to go. The shots that fell Thursday vanished here. But congrats to Tommy Amaker's squad. That club is going to be borderline Top 25-caliber next season. Be on the lookout.

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Harvard's night could be summed up in one play, when freshman point guard Siyani Chambers lost part of a tooth at the 19:03 mark of the second half. His team trailed 42-24 at that point. It was all happenstance and just bad luck. So it went for the team, which was 27.5 percent from 2-point range and 27.8 from beyond the arc. Chambers finished with six points. Kenyatta Smith had a team-high 10, the only Harvard player to crack double figures.

"It took us by surprise how hard they played, how physical they were," Harvard senior captain Christian Webster said. "The film didn't give them as much credit as they deserve."

The road has been easy for the Wildcats, who look good -- really good -- again.

"It's their time of year," Arizona coach Sean Miller said of his seniors' play.

But is it more about the opponents? We could get some more answers in five or six days. For now, times are nice again for Miller's team, a group that started 14-0 then went a bit sideways before landing as a No. 6 seed in this 2013 NCAA tournament.

The star was obvious: Mark Lyons with his game-high points 27 points (tying his career best) and three assists. He shot 12 of 17 from the field. This showing on top of his 23 points and four rebounds from the Belmont game, and it's clear he's been the most valuable player from any of the eight teams that came to Salt Lake City.

"It's a great feeling," he said. "I'm playing for my original coach who recruited me."

Lyons, who's been to the Sweet 16 with Xavier three times in the past (twice when eligible to play), was forced to transfer out after last season. He came to Arizona specifically for this, for one more shot to reach the second weekend of the NCAA tournament and go for, minimally, his first chance in a regional final.

"Mark's filled with confidence and when he gets his confidence going it's contagious on our entire team," Miller said. "The bigger the game can really bring out the best in him."

Lyons is an aggressive, confident player. Cocky, too, but the right blend most times. He's cost Arizona in spots this season, but at his best he makes the Wildcats a Top-10 club. And they look the part now. Arizona is a Sweet 16 team for the third time in five seasons thanks in large part to him and fellow senior Solomon Hill. Miller has often compared Lyons to having a running quarterback. There are options, and it's a matter of asking him to make the right choices.

"It's two-fold. You try to do two things to take advantage of that talent, and at the same time you ask him to get better at something that he's really not comfortable with," Miller said. "There are times when he's a float-out combo guard and there are times when it doesn't look the same as a team with a true point guard. But I wouldn't trade him."

Lyons was the reason Arizona had the hot start -- both in this game and back in the first two months of the year. There is no "nervous energy" when it comes to him, according to the coach.

"He gives you just the opposite," Miller said. "We're feeding off his positive energy and confidence right now."

A funny and poignant moment that speaks to Miller's words played out when there was a lull coming out of a timeout with 9:53 to go. The crowd was relatively quiet, and so Lyons was getting heckled in a good-natured way by two Harvard fans three rows up. Eventually he shot a look over to the fans, his team up 59-41.

"You don't have anything!" they yelled. "Nothing!"

Lyons could only smile. Then he put his head down to dribble, calmly spoke the next play to Hill. The ensuing possession ended in another two points for Arizona, a Brandon Ashley jumper off an assist from: you guessed it.

 
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