By Zach Hayes, Rush The Court
It was clear from the first game of the season that everyone’s favorite breakout player, Kansas’ Thomas Robinson, was going to live up to the hype. At the same time, Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, a first team All-American as a freshman and preseason All-American as a sophomore, was widely viewed as the premier big man in the country. It only took a quick glance at the calendar for December 10 to stand out: Ohio State at Kansas. Or more accurately: Sullinger at Robinson. Unfortunately, Sullinger’s body would spoil all our fun. The Buckeyes’ leading scorer sat out the visit to Allen Fieldhouse with painful back spasms and Ohio State limped to an 11-point loss.
Barring a freak accident in the next three-plus days, the Ohio State-Kansas sequel won’t lack one of its biggest stars. Sullinger is healthy and Robinson is ready, two exceptional talents and future lottery picks banging bodies in the post with a trip to the sport’s brightest stage on the line: Monday night at the Final Four. Of course, Ohio State-Kansas is about much more than two players. It’s about Tyshawn Taylor trying to take Aaron Craft off the dribble. It’s about Travis Releford chasing William Buford all over the floor. It’s about Bill Self and Thad Matta matching wits on the sidelines. Heck, I’m sure Jeff Withey will be matched up with Sullinger for a good portion of Saturday’s game.
Louisville-Kentucky may be the Final Four main event, but you may want to stick around for the after party.
Backcourt- The much-maligned Tyshawn Taylor posted a redemptive senior season, staying out of Bill Self’s doghouse, limiting turnovers and shooting a robust 39 percent from three. Taylor is a tough cover due to his blazing speed, swift crossover and irrepressible confidence, a characteristic never more evident than when Taylor pulled up for a 3-on-1 three-pointer late in Kansas’ Elite Eight win over North Carolina despite the fact he hadn’t made a shot from behind the arc in the entire tournament. His running mate is the much-improved Elijah Johnson, a bit player turned double-digit scorer and clutch shot-maker. We might be talking about Robbie Hummel’s unprecedented run to the Final Four if Johnson didn’t bail out the Jayhawks during a Robinson/Taylor no-show in Kansas’ second-round escape against Purdue. Travis Releford is Bill Self’s go-to perimeter defender. He’ll receive the challenging task of chasing William Buford around screens for 40 minutes. Buford underachieved relative to inflated expectations this season, coming off an extremely efficient junior campaign, but ask Michigan State if he’s capable of exploding at any moment. Lenzelle Smith is essentially Johnson’s clone, a 6’4” glue guy who’s canned his fair share of clutch shots this tournament. The matchup to track is Aaron Craft, far and away best perimeter defender in the country, and Taylor with his athleticism and quickness. Taylor went 1-of-4 from the floor with six turnovers guarded by Craft in their December meeting. Slight Edge: Ohio State.
Frontcourt- Equally tantalizing are the frontcourt matchups: DeShaun Thomas and Jared Sullinger vs. Jeff Withey and Thomas Robinson. Thomas is the leading scorer in this year’s NCAA Tournament, a versatile southpaw who shot a phenomenal 61 percent from two and has never met a shot he didn’t love. That irrational confidence is to Thad Matta’s benefit on the offensive end, but the kindest way to describe Thomas’ defensive effort is the anti-Aaron Craft. It’ll be interesting to see if Self shows some triangle-and-2 or zone so Robinson or Withey don’t have to chase Thomas around the floor. The scenario is similar to when Kansas faced Missouri’s four-guard attack, but there’s no Matt Pressey on Ohio State you can leave unguarded. The one-on-one scrap we all want to witness is Sullinger vs. Robinson. According to Synergy and Luke Winn’s tournament blog, Sullinger is much more efficient away from the block than Robinson. The Buckeye star is fully capable of utilizing the mid-range jumper he perfected last summer, while Robinson is a superior overall rebounder. Withey actually posted a higher block percentage than Anthony Davis, but isn’t much of a low-post scoring threat outside of dunks and put-backs. Slight Edge: Ohio State.
Bench- Much like Louisville and Kentucky, the bench simply isn’t a major factor for either side. Remember 2012 the next time somebody denounces a team’s Final Four chances because of their lack of depth. While Matta has always rejected using more than six or seven players, backup big men Evan Ravenel and Amir Williams simply holding the fort while Sullinger was on the bench for 13 minutes during the first half of Ohio State’s regional final win over Syracuse may have saved their season. It’s doubtful that Williams, backup point Shannon Scott or backup wing Sam Thompson will see more than a few minutes combined because of the stakes, unless of course foul trouble is a factor. Kansas doesn’t have a bench due to a combination of early entries, recruiting whiffs and graduation, an obstacle that renders the job Self did this season even more remarkable. Connor Teahan has the reputation of a solid shooter, but he’s canned only 34 percent from deep on the season. Kevin Young will spell Robinson or Withey. His 6’8” frame is actually a better matchup opposite Thomas. Slight Edge: Kansas.
Outside Shooting- The more you study these two squads, the more similarities pop up. Neither team relies heavily on manufacturing points from beyond the arc because neither makes a healthy percentage of their three-point shots, a possible explanation for why they’re headed to New Orleans and Florida is headed to class. Kansas and Ohio State both rank in the bottom half of Division I in percentage of three-pointers per field goal attempt, while the Jayhawks shoot it slightly better (35 percent) than the Buckeyes (33 percent). Although Taylor is a superior shooter to Craft, Ohio State can make you pay from range with any of the five players in their starting lineup; Thomas has attempted 138 threes at a 36 percent clip, while the multi-dimensional Sullinger has made 16-of-38 on the campaign. Plus, would it surprise anyone if Buford exploded for six threes on Saturday night? Slight Edge: Ohio State.
Rebounding- Kentucky’s frontline may boast more lottery picks, rangy shot-blockers and gifted athletes, but Ohio State actually ranks higher in defensive efficiency (behind only Louisville) largely due to the fact they allow an offensive rebound on only 24.8 percent of opponents’ possessions, good for second in the nation. Sullinger is an elite offensive and defensive rebounder, while Thomas contributes on the glass and Ravenel chips in during his limited minutes. Robinson snagged an astronomical 30.9 percent of all defensive rebounds to lead the nation, but Ohio State counters with a superior team rebound margin. Slight Edge: Ohio State.
Defense- There’s little to dislike on the defensive end of the floor for either side. Despite shooting slumps, talent dips and inconsistent scoring outputs, Kansas and Ohio State garnered number two seeds for a reason. Kansas wouldn’t have survived their pathetic shooting displays against Purdue and NC State without the shot-blocking of Withey and perimeter defense of Releford, while Ohio State’s backcourt duo of Craft and Smith makes life absolutely miserable for opposing scorers. Craft has the quickest hands, nimblest feet and best instincts of any defender in the nation. Since Taylor is so undeniably important to initiating Kansas’ offense, Craft’s irritability could make a considerable impact. Slight Edge: Ohio State.
Alpha Dog- “Guard play wins the day” is a commonly heard refrain. That hasn’t necessarily been the case this season throughout college basketball. All five of the AP first team All-Americans and three of the five second team All-Americans are forwards or centers. Two of those honorees are Sullinger and Robinson. When an opponent is on a ferocious scoring run and the Buckeyes desperately need a bucket, they isolate Sullinger in the low post, daring defenses to double. Kansas knows where their bread is buttered as well, throwing the ball to Robinson’s sturdy frame in the post and letting him operate. While Robinson is more athletic and can play above the rim, I actually trust Sullinger more to get me two points. Slight Edge: Ohio State.
Wild Card- If Russ Smith is the ultimate coin flip in this year’s Final Four, Taylor is a close second. The senior point guard actually strayed from this persona during most of Big 12 play. He was a near lock for double-digit scoring and four to five assists as the Jayhawks won their eighth straight conference crown. The NCAA Tournament has been an individual nightmare, though: 21-50 FG, 0-17 3FG, 6-11 FT and a 15:13 assist-turnover ratio in four games (that includes a 22-point output in which he was guarded by Stilman White). Taylor is just as capable of winning Final Four MOP as he is posting a triple-double with points, assists and turnovers. Buford can relate to Taylor’s difficulties. The senior wing’s season-long struggles have extended into the tournament. He’s shooting just 30 percent from the floor in the Buckeyes’ four games. The fact Ohio State is still playing despite Buford’s woes is all that more remarkable. Slight Edge: Kansas.
Coaching- Both Matta and Self are outstanding recruiters and even better in-game coaches. I often marvel at their half-court sets and ability to get their best players open in opportune areas to score. Self would receive my fictitious vote for national coach of the year. Not only is Self an incredible 268-52 since taking the Kansas job, but he’s somehow molded a team with four new starters, two ineligible blue-chip freshmen, a former walk-on sixth man and a Loyola Marymount transfer seventh man into a Final Four team. He might be the best coach in America. Slight Edge: Kansas.
Pressure- Once any team reaches this stage, there’s pressure to win the national championship. Heck, it’s the reason Sullinger returned to school, right? Still, one gets the sense that these two teams are playing with house money. It wasn’t too long ago that Ohio State was scuffling through a period of in-fighting and soul-searching. They needed a late-second win at Michigan State to merely share the Big Ten title. Most Kansas fans would tell you their team has already exceeded even the loftiest of preseason expectations. Edge: Neither.
Crowd- Kansas is a basketball school. Ohio State is a football school. Both teams have enormous fan bases that will represent themselves well in New Orleans. But Kansas’ fans live for this stuff. Many Buckeye supporters are just as excited for the spring football game. Edge: Kansas.
Final Verdict- The bluegrass battle is receiving all of the hype, but this could very well be the superior game. Honestly, every one of these categories could be argued either way. KenPom projects a three-point Ohio State win. That seems about right. Slight Edge: Ohio State.
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