You’ve got two great teams. Two great coaches. Two First Team All-Americans. Two #2 Seeds. Kansas and Ohio State. A pair that met earlier in the season but aren’t even close to being the same teams they were on that December day in Lawrence. While we are on the theme of two, at WFNY you’ve got a pair of trained eyes on each side. Kirk (responses in red), an Ohio State grad, and TD (responses in blue), a Kansas grad. We will be taking a look at the keys to Saturday’s Final Four tilt from both sides.
What did the Buckeyes/Jayhawks learn from their first meeting?
The Buckeyes learned that they’re not an elite team without their best player. At the time, I was quite impressed with how the Buckeyes showed up in a hostile Lawrence against a formidable Kansas team. A few months have passed, and I’m even more impressed. In my mind, there were two things that prevented the Buckeyes from securing that win even without Sullinger. The first was the out-of-nowhere performance from Jayhawk reserve forward Kevin Young (14 points), who has just 16 points in the entire NCAA tournament. The second was Kansas’s three-point shooting. The Jayhawks hit 9-of-17 threes with 5-0f-7 coming from Elijah Johnson. Johnson was covered by Smith Jr., who has improved drastically at defending behind the arc and Jordan Sibert, who has long since been replaced by Sam Thompson. If there was one takeaway point, it was that the Buckeyes learned the hard way how to still compete at a high level without Sullinger for short stretches (see the first half vs. Syracuse).
I’m not sure coach Bill Self and his players could have learned more than some of the defensive tendencies of the Buckeyes. Without Jared Sullinger playing in that December tilt, Ohio State was a completly different team. Evan Ravenel is not Sullinger. From a KU player standpoint, Tyshawn Taylor, the talented and mercurial Kansas point guard outplayed OSU’s Aaron Craft, dishing out a career-high 13 assists. However, he turned the ball over seven times and had to have learned he has to be extra-careful with the ball against Craft.
If anything, KU learned they could play and play well against a team that at the time was ranked #2 in the country. But as we all know, this Buckeye team has come a long way since then, as have the Jayhawks.
Which player has come the longest way since the game?
For the Buckeyes, there’s no doubt that it’s Deshaun Thomas. He’s the leading scorer of the tourney, and Thomas has become the most offensively versatile player on the team. Active on the offensive glass, a zonebuster from the foul line, effective with the sweeping hook in the key, and still a threat from three-point range, the Kansas game was the first where Thomas was called on to be the man. He answered with 19 points. Honorable mention has to go to Lenzelle Smith Jr., who has really risen to the occasion in big games. Strictly a rebounding placeholder guard at the start of the season, Smith Jr. has become a leader, one of the best three-point options, and an improved defender.
For Kansas, it has to be center Jeff Withey. The 7-footer was still somewhat of an added bonus kind of player then. He rebounded and blocked shots, but wasn’t much of an offensive threat. Since then, Withey’s offensive game has jumped to a new level. With Thomas Robinson the subject of constant double teams, Withey became more of a back to the basket scorer with moves we didn’t know he had. The Withey/Sullinger matchup should be a terrific one to watch on Saturday.
The single most important aspect of this game for the Buckeyes/Jayhawks is….
Maintaining offensive balance and identity. Ohio State is an inside-out team, led by Sullinger and Thomas. If they forget that with Buford and others taking contested three pointers, they’ll be going home. Only after entering the ball into the post, preferably with a mix of high-low action when Kansas goes zone against the Bucks, should the Buckeyes take outside shots. OSU will sometimes get complacent and lazy against the zone, simply passing it around the perimeter. That cannot happen.
Stopping OSU’s Deshaun Thomas. This will be the single most interesting situation in the game. With Thomas being a 6’7 stretch four man and KU playing two true college big men in Withey and Robinson, Bill Self has quite the quandary on his hands. When Kansas played Purdue in the round of 32, the same instance occurred with the Boilers’ Robbie Hummel. At the start of the game, Self had Robinson chasing Hummel around the perimeter, which isn’t ideal. Before he realized that was a bad situation, Hummel had lit the Jayhawks up for 22 first half points. At the half, he adjusted, using the smaller and quicker Kevin Young off the bench or defensive stopper guard Travis Releford on him. Then Self switched to the triangle and two making sure Hummel and three point shooter DJ Byrd didn’t hurt them. It worked.
But what will Self do with Thomas? Will he try Robinson on him to start and hope he doesn’t pull a Hummel? Will he go small, limiting the minutes of Withey? Or will he go triangle and two again with Thomas and William Buford being guarded by Releford and Elijah Johnson?
With that said, Thomas will have to guard Robinson on defense. That could be an issue for OSU as well.
Jared Sullinger vs. Thomas Robinson – Who has the edge?
Robinson, only because I’m not sure who on the Buckeyes is best equipped to guard him. In the first matchup, Robinson scored 21 on 7-of-9 shooting and 7-of-8 from the line. He did so against against a mix of Evan Ravenel, Amir Williams, and Deshaun Thomas. This time around, it will probably be Thomas who gets the call. He’s had some success with slowing the likes of Robbie Hummel (twice) and Draymond Green. So much of Sullinger’s game is getting foul calls and converting at the free throw line, and he’ll need to do so against a 7-footer in Withey. I’m not counting Sullinger out (he did manage to succeed against Gonzaga’s 7-footer Robert Sacre), but in a straight-up comparison, I think Robinson’s stat line will be more impressive.
It is such a tough call. Both are special college players and first team All-Americans. Both can score in the post at will. Both are the subject of constant double teams. Both have a very nice face up jumper that has to be respected. I don’t know if you can give the edge to either player. Obviously from my skewed vantage point, I’d give a slight edge to T Rob because of his superior explosiveness. No big man gets to the hole quicker and stronger than Robinson. But you can’t go wrong either way.
While everyone is excited about this matchup, the two won’t be guarding each other most likely other than when KU goes to its bench with Young for Withey. Sullinger will spend his time on Withey.
Who scares you the most on the opposing team?
Robinson’s the obvious answer, but I’m going with Elijah Johnson. Five threes in the last matchup and if the Buckeyes need to help on Robinson, he could find openings once again. Defending the three-point arc remains a weakness for the Bucks. I think Craft can keep Tyshawn Taylor relatively in check and force him into turnovers, as TD mentioned above.
Thomas. No doubt about it. As I said above, he is a real matchup problem for KU. He’s become a scoring machine and the dependable Robin to Sullinger’s Batman. He’s arguably become the most important offensive player on the Buckeyes.
Whoever wins, can they beat Kentucky?
Can they? Yes. Will they? I wouldn’t pick them. Kentucky is so deep with NBA talent at every position. The only thing Ohio State has on Kentucky is their defensive prowess and their team chemistry. Other than that, Kentucky has the advantage across the board. But, if anyone can beat Kentucky in a title game scenario, it’s Ohio State.
Ohio State probably has the better shot at doing so when you look at both rosters as a whole. But if I’ve learned anything from this year’s over-achieving Kansas group, they can never be underestimated.