After cruising through UTSA and George Mason, the Buckeyes face-off against a very young and talented Kentucky squad this Friday in the Sweet Sixteen. The Wildcats, who come in on an eight game winning streak (27-8 overall), are a very formidable opponent and are much better than the four seed they were given. Most experts were easily predicting them as a three seed, yet they were instead placed as the weakest four seed. What a nice gift to the Buckeyes. In fact, many believe it is the most intriguing matchup in the Sweet Sixteen. Andy Glockner of SI had this to say:
"Down the stretch of the season, I thought the Wildcats were a very legitimate Final Four contender and very well would have picked them to make it to Houston had they not been saddled with this Sweet 16 matchup. There are so many things to watch for here. The surging Brandon Knight vs. the NORAD-like defense of Aaron Craft. Jorts vs. Sullinger inside. Calipari vs. Matta on the sidelines. Multiple X-factors on both teams. Multiple lottery picks in the upcoming NBA draft. A game worthy of April will be played in March. And that's not to say that Marquette vs. North Carolina won't be fascinating, either."
I'm not sure anyone else slated this Wildcat squad in the Final Four, but his point is a good one. The Buckeyes shouldn't be playing this team in the Round of 16.
1) Win the inside matchups.
The Wildcats have two solid players they start in the frontcourt in Josh Harrellson and Terrence Jones, and how the Buckeyes handle these guys could dictate the flow of this game. Sullinger will likely spend most of the game battling Harrellson, which should be a lot of fun to watch. Both guys are physical big men (Sullinger is listed at 6-9 280 pounds while Harrellson is listed at 6-10 275 pounds) who make their living on the boards. While Sully is the Naismith Award finalist and most would expect him to dominate this dual, don't minimize what Harrellson can do. Not only did he lead the SEC in rebounds per game (8.8) and field goal percentage (.604), but has been on a hot streak throughout the SEC Championship and NCAA tourney so far. He obviously doesn't have the quickness or overall athleticism that Sullinger does, but this matchup isn't as one-sided as some may expect.
Then there is Jones. Early in the year he looked like he could be the number one overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, thanks to his versatility and ball skills as a big man. His production and draft stock have fallen in recent months, as some major holes have started to show in his overall play. He's still a very dangerous player though, who could present some major matchup problems for the Buckeyes. Neither Sullinger nor Lauderdale have the speed to run the floor well enough to handle Jones, while Lighty would be dealing with a major size disadvantage. It will be interesting to see how Matta handles this and what adjustments may be made during the game.
2) Defend the lane.
Calipari is famous for his use of the dribble-drive motion offense, and this year's Wildcat team is very good in its implementation of it. The offense all centers around the idea of keeping the middle clear with good spacing, and allowing the playmakers around the perimeter to penetrate. When they do, beating their defenders off the dribble, they get layups or kick it out to guys who come open. The Buckeyes will have to work hard to try to keep Kentucky's guards out of the lane and limit their easy looks. Between Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb, DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller, they have a lot of weapons who can get to the rack. Craft is definitely a great defender, but Diebler and Buford really have to be on their games come Friday. Having Lauderdale and Sullinger will help, but you better believe Kentucky will clear their bigs to leave the lane open. Also, their guards are great at finding their bigs cutting to the basket when help defense arrives.
Some of you at this point might be calling for a zone. Lots of coaches like to go with this strategy to try to clog up the lane against the dribble-drive, and while I have no clue what Matta will choose to do, this does have its limitations. While this does help limit driving lanes and increase help defense in the paint, it can also hurt you with good shooting teams. This Kentucky squad is a quality three point shooting team and has looked good against the zone all year. So I don't see OSU playing much zone. I instead look for Matta to allow his squad to play man-to-man, since the Buckeyes have such a plethora of athletes, and emphasize great on the ball pressure with physical defense. I also look for the big men to really hedge on ball screens to limit the effectiveness of guys like Knight and Lamb coming off of them.
3) Win the 3 point shooting battle.
Speaking of three point shooting, both the Buckeyes and Wildcats have made their living from behind the stripe. On the year Kentucky is shooting just under 40 percent while OSU is at 42 percent. The team that shoots the higher percentage on Friday will most likely have the upper hand, and on paper the Buckeyes appear the have the advantage here. Not only have they shot the three ball better on the season, but the Wildcats have struggled consistently in their perimeter defense, especially against premiere shooters. For instances, their loss at Vanderbilt early this season saw Josh Jenkins dominate the Cats, making 6 of 10 from behind the line. He's not even in the same league as a guy like Diebler, who is shooting 50 percent. Behind him and guys like Buford and Lighty, the Buckeyes sharp shooting could lead them to a victory.
4) Transition defense.
The last big key for the Buckeyes is how they handle things when Kentucky ups the tempo. Calipari loves to have his guys push the tempo coming off of turnovers and defensive stands, which leads to plenty of easy buckets in transition. This style of play works because the Cats are extremely athletic, and they run the floor very well with great spacing. In fact, in recent games Florida and West Virginia have struggled with this against UK, especially trying to account for Brandon Knight. So the Buckeyes have to be ready to get back on every single play, and to account for their man in transition, even the bigs. The one benefit is that this squad is arguably the most athletic team in the country, and have no excuse for why they can't handle Kentucky's speed and run with them. Also, if the Buckeyes can play well in the half court and make their open looks, it will limit how much Kentucky can push the tempo in this game.
So there you have it - four huge keys to winning against the Wildcats. The only other thing to keep an eye on is the foul situation throughout this game. Neither team plays their bench much, going 6-7 deep, so that will be a factor. If the Buckeyes can get the Wildcats in foul trouble, especially their bigs, this game could be smooth sailing for Matta and company.