I know that 11W will have their own preview, but being a big fan of both teams and watching a majority of their games this year I figured I would give it a go. It’s a bit late, but you can consider it my official application for the 11W beat reporter spot. I tended to write a bit more about the Kansas players, figuring that people know more about the Buckeyes.
1. Aaron Craft vs. Tyshawn Taylor
Craft (8.8 ppg; 4.7 apg; 2.5 spg): Defense, defense, defense, duh... Craft leads all players to at least make the Elite 8 in steals with 3.25 per tourney game. However his quick hands grab more than just ball, he has the lowest steal-to-foul ratio of all players with 9 or more steals in the tournament. His ability to cut off the ball while staying out of foul trouble will be one of the big keys if the Buckeyes are to win.
Tyshawn (16.7 ppg; 4.7 apg; 3.5 topg): Now a senior, KU fans know both ‘Good Tyshawn’ and ‘Bad Tyshawn’ (sound like a senior Buckeye fans know?). Tyshawn has been mostly ‘Good’ for the last half of the season and was playing on a torn meniscus the last time these teams met (he had surgery immediately after the game), so Buckeye fans will likely see a different player than the one that fumbled the ball 7 times in December. Tyshawn has struggled from 3 in the tournament but he gets to the rim and finishes, scoring 22 against UNC. While TRob may win national player of the year, the team runs through Tyshawn and as a Cousy Award finalist, he may earn his own post-season award.
Verdict: Both players are the emotional leaders for their teams despite being overshadowed by bigger name big men. It will come down to whether Tyshawn can take care of the ball and whether Craft can contain him without fouling. Tyshawn might be the fastest player in college basketball so he’ll get his chances, but Craft will win his share too. This one may be too close to call, but I’ll break your hearts and give it to Tyshawn.
2. Lenzelle Smith Jr. vs. Elijah Johnson
Lenzelle (6.7 ppg; 4.6 rpg; 2.0 apg): Lenzelle has had a coming out party in the biggest games of the season, scoring 17 and 18 points in the last two. Prior to that, he has been a solid role player who has flown under the radar all season. Offensive rebounding is probably the biggest thing he brings to the team on a regular basis.
Elijah (10.0 ppg; 3.1 rpg; 3.6 apg): Elijah is one of three Jayhawk juniors who have blossomed this year with an increased role, averaging nearly 20 minutes more per game. Like Lenzelle he is the consummate role player. And like Lenzelle, he is easily capable of providing the huge play that breaks a game open like the three pointer off a pick and roll against UNC to put the Jayhawks up 4 with 3 minutes to go which ignited the 12-0 run. Despite being only 6-2 he can jump out of the gym and he has had some highlight dunks that are reminiscent of Sam Thompson (even in high school).
Verdict: Another close battle that may actually have the biggest impact on the outcome since either one is capable of igniting his team. Elijah has been solid in the tournament, but I think because of his underrated defense Lenzelle continues on his tear and gets the best of this match up.
3. William Buford vs. Travis Releford
Willie B. (14.4 ppg; 4.9 rpg; 2.7 apg): Buford was supposed to be a star this year after averaging 30 minutes or more per game for his whole career. After the way his season has gone, Buckeye fans probably wish he thought he were a role player. We all know what he is capable of and he put up 21 last time these teams met, but it took 23 shots.
Releford (8.5 ppg; 4.2 rpg; 1.8 apg): After playing a bit as a freshman he redshirted the next year and now has become a solid starter for the Jayhawks. Releford reminds me a bit of Lenzelle in that he is the starter that everyone forgets about but is capable of putting up a big game out of nowhere. Like Lenzelle he gets his share of offensive rebounds and easy putbacks. Because of his underrated athleticism, he is also a solid defender who was paired against Hummel after TRob couldn’t keep up with him in the Purdue game so we could see him go up against DT.
Verdict: This one is Buford’s to lose. Releford will likely have a solid game, but nothing spectacular. So unless he pushes too much to do more than the Buckeyes need of him, I’ll give this one to Buford.
4. Deshaun Thomas vs. Thomas Robinson
DT (16.1 ppg; 5.4 rpg; 0.9 apg): Deshaun has become more and more the go-to guy as teams have collapsed on Sullinger. He has great range for power forward (likely because he is more of a small forward). His defense has improved, making him even more valuable to this team. His putbacks on the offensive boards pad his stats and make a big difference for a team that often struggles from outside.
TRob (17.7 ppg; 11.8 rpg; 1.9 apg): He should win NPOY. I know people might think Anthony Davis should win, but TRob is the reason this team, that lost 4 starters from last year’s team, has a chance win a championship. He gets to the rim, he rebounds, he blocks shots, he has improved his mid to long range jumper (including 7/14 on three pointers). He is solid off of the dribble which could be a tough match up for DT who isn’t known for his defense. His combination of size and athleticism reminds me a bit of Dwight Howard, but he struggles to pass out of double teams and turns the ball over too much for a guy who doesn’t bring the ball up the court.
Verdict: As amazing as Deshaun has been, even picking up his defense, he just isn’t going to have the overall edge here. Both had pretty big games in the previous matchup, but I think Robinson was a bit better. Robinson is the likely NPOY for a reason and while both will again put up big numbers, TRob beats out Deshaun.
5. Jared Sullinger vs. Jeff Withey
Sullinger (17.6 ppg; 9.1 rpg; 1 bpg): Sully has had another great year with very similar stats to last year. The rebounds went down again, which is likely due to him spending more time outside the paint, some of which is behind the three point line since he is shooting 4 times as many 3 pointers as last year (making 5 times as many). His interior post game is probably the best in college basketball. If he were 5 inches taller, he would be the next coming of Shaq. But his lack of height mixed with his lack of jumping ability will likely make him merely very good at the next level and not great.
Withey (9.2 ppg; 6.2 rpg; 3.5 bpg): It took about half of a season, but Withey has started living up to KU’s hopes for him when he transferred from Arizona. The 7-footer is a former volleyball player so he can also move pretty well which is why he is such a good shot blocker. He leads all tourney players with 5 blocks per game and his last two against UNC sealed the deal by leading to easy points on the other end. He sometimes sits against tough match ups, playing only 9 minutes against Missouri the second time around. But when he is in there, the high-low post game between him and TRob is a tough match up for anyone and helps alleviate tough perimeter defenders like Craft.
Verdict: This matchup isn’t the one that people want to see since the two All-Americans will likely be guarding others for most of the game. But I do think this is a particularly tough matchup for Sully given Withey’s length and shot blocking prowess. However Withey doesn’t take too many charges because he goes for blocks so this should keep Sully out of foul trouble. Sullinger uses his body well even against bigger defenders and can extend Withey outside the paint. If he does, in fact, stay out of foul trouble Sully will win this battle.
OSU: Wait…bench… what’s that? Oh you mean all 5 starters don’t have to play the whole game? I think we have all imagined Thad having that inner dialogue at various points of the season. Ravenel and Amir came off the bench against Syracuse and played well. We’ve seen Sam Thompson fly through the roof and Shannon Scott get his chances to make a shot. But frankly we always pray that no one gets in foul trouble because we aren’t ready to trust the bench much at all.
KU: The Jayhawk bench isn’t much deeper. The first two guys off the bench are former walk-on Connor Teahan (a poor man’s Brady Morningstar) and Loyola Marymount transfer Kevin Young. Occasionally, Lamar transfer Justin Wesley and freshman Nadir Thaarpe get a chance, but neither one contributes much.
Verdict: Kevin Young is the reserve most likely to have the biggest impact on the game. He goes all out and gets offensive rebounds like there is no tomorrow since he knows his playing time is limited and fouls aren’t an issue. Self tends to rotate Withey and Robinson once they both have a foul in the first half and leaves Young in for long periods of time. His energy may cause some problems for Deshaun and may help keep DT off the offensive boards. It’s hard not to love his effort, but KU fans wish he had even a quarter of the talent of either of the starting bigs. But since the bar is so low, KU walks away with the bench advantage.
Thad Matta: He has had an unbelievable run since he joined the Buckeye family. The record for wins in a season at OSU prior to his arrival was 27 games. His average win total is 27.6 per season. That stat alone shows you how good he is.
Bill Self: Replacing Roy Williams looked to be a tall order for the former Illinois coach, but with his success he is quickly making Roy into an afterthought. He has more wins than any other college coach since he has taken over in Lawrence (Calipari had that until he had to vacate a bunch of wins at Memphis). The Jayhawks have won 8 straight Big XII championships and has never been worse than a 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. And don’t forget the 2008 National Championship over Calipari’s Memphis team that included Derrick Rose.
Verdict: Both are great coaches. Buckeye fans are hoping Matta never leaves. What he has done at a football school in terms of bringing in top basketball talent is unrivaled. However, Self is possibly the best coach in the country right now. They lost 4 starters and 2 solid bench players off of last year’s team and didn’t miss a beat. Self switched defenses near the end of the UNC game and Roy didn't have an answer. KU closed that game on a 12-0 run and the new defense sparked several transition points in that run.
Since both teams have such short benches the outcome of the game could hinge on how visible the refs want to be. With Sullinger back and a neutral site it is easy to say that the Buckeyes will have the edge this time around, but KU is one of the most improved teams since the midway point of the season. Four weeks ago the Buckeyes wouldn’t have had much chance, but they too are improved since then. I just don’t think they have come far enough and I think this is a tough match up for the Buckeyes’ best players. I think the Jayhawks win, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes an overtime to pull it off.
If 11W has a word limit, my shot at this reporter gig just went up in flames… Thanks for reading if you’re still here.