It's hard to believe the Buckeye find themselves here. Not only are they playing in the Final Four for a shot at a national title, a place very few thought this team would be just a month ago, but they get a second chance to knock off a Kansas team that defeated them early this season.
In that game back in December, a Sully-less OSU squad battled hard in Allen Fieldhouse, but would ultimately come up short 78-67. William Buford went 8 for 23 in that game (1/6 from three) while Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel got beat up by Robinson, who went for 21 points and seven rebounds. He and the Jayhawks shot a staggering 58% from the floor that afternoon and 52% from behind the three point stripe.
Now nearly four months later they meet again in the Final Four, a place the Jayhawks haven't been since winning the title back in 2008. For Thad Matta, he returns for this first time since 2007 when he and the Buckeyes fell short to Florida in the championship game.
Bill Self's squad has had a quietly dominate season this year. After losing to teams like Kentucky, Duke and Davidson in the non-conference, Kansas buckled down to take the Big 12 crown. At one point they rattled off nine straight conference victories in January-March before being taken down by Baylor in the Big 12 Tournament.
Their NCAA run thus far has been pretty bumpy, and they have survived scares from teams like Purdue and NC State to get to this point. Comparing their journey (Detroit, Purdue, NC State, and North Carolina) to Ohio State's, there is no question that the Buckeyes have had a tougher draw to get to New Orleans.
What has helped the Jayhawks all season and through the tourney is their experience. They start four juniors and a senior, and the first two guys off the bench are also upperclassmen. It's that veteran presence that can also be credited for their solid defensive play. In their last 14 games, only two teams have eclipsed the 70 point mark against them. Thus far in the tournament, they are holding opponents to under 60 points a game, and teams have a miserable time shooting the ball against them.
Offensively, Kansas is led by the two-headed attack of forward Thomas Robinson (17.7 ppg, 11.8 rpg) and guard Tyshawn Taylor (16.7 ppg, 4.7 apg). As aforementioned, Robinson was a thorn in the side of the Buckeyes in December, as he has against teams all season long. He is shooting over 50% from the field on the season, and was 7-9 in the first meeting, something that Matta and company must correct tonight. As for Taylor, he's a very versatile guard who can hurt you in a multitude of ways. Not only is he a slasher that can get to the rack and provide for teammates, but he is very steady from behind the arc (38.5%). Catch this though: Taylor has yet to make a three in the tourney so far!
Those two are far from the only weapons the Jayhawks have, though. Guard Elijah Johnson (10.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.6 apg), who scored 15 in the first meeting, is also a threat. He averages the second most minutes on the team and has the ability to get hot from three. Center Jeff Withey (9.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg) has also come on strong this season, shooting 54 percent from the floor while also accumulating 129 blocks on the year. Keep an eye on Conner Teahan and Kevin Young off the bench; they combined for 19 points back in December against the Buckeyes.
Ohio State Breakdown:
The Buckeyes come into this game on a wave of some of their best basketball of the season. With Deshaun Thomas joining Sullinger and Buford as a major scoring threat during this tourney run, teams have had a hard time accounting for all the different options OSU can throw at them. In fact, Thomas; emergence has easily been the biggest storyline for Ohio State during March Madness.
The Craft-Smith Jr. guard combo has also proven to be one of the toughest backcourts in the country. Both have always showcased the ability to play excellent defense, but offensively they have really stepped things up during this run, especially Lenzelle. He has poured in 35 points in the last two games against Cincinnati and Syracuse, and has made the Buckeyes starting five look very difficult to stop.
As for tonight, the Buckeyes need a few things to happen. First, Craft has to play the kind of defense on Tyshawn Taylor that he has become infamous for. One of the reasons Ohio State was able to hang in the first game against the Jayhawks was that Craft held Taylor to nine points. While Taylor did have 13 assists, the return of Sully and OSU's confidence on defense will shrink that number if Craft plays his type of game. Keeping Taylor out of the lane is vital, where he has killed teams getting to the free throw line and setting up easy baskets for Withey and Robinson.
The Buckeyes need Deshaun Thomas and Jared Sullinger to play big and own the boards. Both are dealing with size disadvantages at their positions, something that has hurt OSU at times this season. If Robinson-Withey outplay Thomas-Sullinger, the Buckeyes will have a very tough time grabbing the W in this game. I also fully expect one of the two guys to get in foul trouble in this game, meaning Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel will have to provide some big minutes as they did against Syracuse.
Finally, Buford and Smith Jr. have to win their matchups and hurt the Jayhawks on the offensive end. Those two guys both have the most favorable pairings, and need to come out and impose their will early. Neither one did in December in Lawrence, and it killed the Buckeyes. Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson combined for 25 points (knocking down six threes), while causing trouble on the defensive end against Buford and Smith Jr. That has to change tonight.
So there ya have it. Let's hope for a whistle-light game, and a Buckeye victory. I'll take OSU 68-65.