As fans get set for a fantastic pair of games tonight between Kentucky and Louisville and, of course, Ohio State and Kansas, I’d like to take a little time to talk about just how great it is that the Buckeyes are here and how truly unexpected it is given some of their shortcomings this season.
Many thought last season was the Bucks’ best shot at the Final Four and more. It didn’t happen, and the Buckeyes lost three big emotional leaders from that team in David Lighty, Jon Diebler, and Dallas Lauderdale. One player they didn’t lose was Jared Sullinger. With Sully, Buford, and Craft returning from that core group of the top six players, they needed more. The two players that have come the longest way are the other two starters, sophomores Deshaun Thomas and Lenzelle Smith Jr. Thomas gave last year’s team a dynamic boost in a few select games, and Smith Jr. was slowed by a wrist injury and was the ninth man in a 7 man rotation. Together, these two have helped the five-man unit gel much like last year’s group did. The chemistry, thought to be holding them back mid-season, has come on strong, and the Bucks play together as a team and complement each other as well as any team out there.
I touched on it earlier this week in my article with TD, but it is truly amazing how different the Buckeyes are since that matchup in Lawrence. Jordan Sibert played big minutes in that game, and he hasn’t hit the floor in meaningful action for weeks. Evan Ravenel had to play over 30 minutes in that game, and Amir Williams had to pick up the rest without Sullinger. Sam Thompson and Shannon Scott, two of the first bench options for Matta now, barely played in that showdown. That was also one of Craft’s first aggressive games on offense, and he has been much more consistent attacking on offense down the stretch.
One of the biggest questions in this game for me is how effective Aaron Craft can be in slowing down Tyshawn Taylor. Taylor turned it over 7 times in that first matchup with Craft forcing 5 of those. He scored just 9 points, but Taylor dished out 13 assists, many to Elijah Johnson for open threes. Thomas Robinson will likely get his 20, but the key for the Bucks will be to contain everyone else, and Taylor is probably the second most capable scorer. That’s a lot of pressure for Craft, but he’s accepted the challenge of Trey Burke, Kevin Pangos, Cashmere Wright, and Scoop Jardine in recent weeks with resounding success. If Robinson and Sullinger roughly cancel each other out, it will be whether Thomas, Buford, and Craft can outplay Taylor, Johnson, and Withey. I like the Buckeyes’ odds should it come to that.
If Ohio State can remain true to what’s got them here in the previous four games, they’ll be in really good position to win. That means working inside-out and going to Thomas and Sullinger throughout the game down low. Call me crazy, but William Buford’s been all too quiet in this tournament. He’s got to have at least ONE 20-point game in this tournament after having 9 such games all season, right? If Buford doesn’t have a strong game, it will once again be up to Smith Jr. to pick up the slack. On defense, it will be keeping the larger Kansas off the offensive glass and getting out on three point shooters.
Next season might not look incredibly promising right now for the Bucks. What you see is what you get with no commits for next year and the lone senior departing in Buford. Sullinger will undoubtedly leave, and with a tremendous Final Four, you never know if Deshaun Thomas will be told that he’d go in the first round. That would leave the backcourt of Craft and Smith Jr. to join with the young unproven group of Shannon Scott, Amir Williams, LaQuinton Ross, and Sam Thompson. My point is the Bucks’ time to go for it is now. They’re here, and they need two more games. I know Kentucky’s the overwhelming favorite, as they should be. If you play the game out 10 times with Kentucky against each of the others, no doubt Kentucky wins 7 or 8 of those 10 against all three teams. But, Calipari’s never won a title, and the pressure is on UK, not Kansas, not Ohio State, and certainly not Louisville. In short, no way do I expect Kentucky to cakewalk to a title.
Regardless of what happens, it’s been a fantastic year, and this team will go down as one of Matta’s best at OSU. I’m just hoping the music doesn’t stop tonight and the Buckeyes can keep on dancing into Monday night.
(Photo: Jim Rogash/Getty Images)