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Rising Star: Arizona Senior Mark Lyons

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(credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

(credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

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By Mark Chalifoux

Mark Lyons had a solid career at a perennial basketball power and helped lead his team to the Sweet 16—last season. This season, he helped lead another basketball power, this time Arizona, to the Sweet 16, and has been even more impressive in this run.

In 2012, Lyons, then a redshirt junior at Xavier, helped lead the Musketeers to the Sweet 16 with wins over Notre Dame and Lehigh. However, that Sweet 16 came after a tumultuous regular season that left the guard at odds with head coach Chris Mack. Part of that was stemming from Lyons role in a postgame brawl with rival Cincinnati that was one of the major storylines of the 2011-2012 season.

Lyons and Mack decided to part ways and Lyons took advantage of an NCAA exemption to play his final season for the head coach that originally recruited him to Xavier, Arizona’s Sean Miller. The Wildcats had a roster of talented young players and a deep frontcourt and Miller needed a tough point guard to help pull the pieces together. Enter Mark Lyons.

The 6-foot 1-inch combo guard became the first player to reach the Sweet 16 in consecutive seasons with different teams by improving his defense and taking over the point guard duties at Arizona after playing as a shooting guard at Xavier. Lyons has had his ups and his downs but saved his best basketball for the tournament. Lyons played stout defense and poured in a career-high tying 27 points in Arizona’s 74-51 blowout win over Harvard.

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Lyons got those points by making 12 of his 17 shots and also had three assists. His number line doesn’t look too different from last season at Xavier, as Lyons has averaged 15.4 points per game for Arizona (up from 15.1 at Xavier) and nearly three assists per game. However, he’s also greatly improved his free throw shooting (up nearly 10 percentage points) and became a much better defender this season.

He’s shooting much better from beyond the arc in the tournament (nearly 50 percent after shooting in the low 30s for much of the season) and is averaging 25 points per game after the first two wins. The road gets tougher for Lyons as Arizona has a match-up in the Sweet 16 against Sean Miller’s former mentor, Ohio State head coach Thad Matta (the two coached together at Xavier).

Lyons will be facing one of the best perimeter defenders in college basketball in Ohio State guard Aaron Craft. As stout as the Wildcats interior is, the Lyons v. Craft matchup will be the key to advancing to the Elite 8. Lyons hasn’t drawn much interest from NBA decision makers, but he has the athleticism to play professionally somewhere and if he finishes the tournament strong, he could work his way into the second round of the draft.

The Wildcats haven’t truly been tested yet in this tournament, so the final chapter in Mark Lyons tumultuous, yet very successful, college career starts this weekend.

Mark Lyons hits game winner in win over No. 5 Florida:

Mark Chalifoux is a college basketball contributor for CBS Local Digital Media and can be reached at mark.chalifoux@gmail.com and @markchalifoux on Twitter.

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