Tonight, the Ohio State Buckeyes take on the Kansas Jayhawks in the 2012 NCAA Tournament Final Four. The game will be a rematch of the two teams December 10 meeting with one exception: The Buckeyes have Jared Sullinger back on the court.
In their initial meeting, the Jayhawks defeated the Buckeyes 78-67. Ohio State kept the game close until the end when it seemed they petered out and just couldn't hang with Jayhawks forward Thomas Robinson, who scored 21 points in the game. Tonight, though, things are different. Not only will the Buckeyes have Sullinger on the court, but DeShaun Thomas has continued to get better on offense and defense as the season progressed. Combine that with the team as a whole peaking during the tournament and there's a completely different dynamic to this game.
There has been a lot of talk about how Sullinger will defend Robinson during this game, and no doubt he will help, but his main target will be establishing a paint presence with Jeff Withey. Withey is a 7'0, 235 pound center from San Diego, and while Sullinger gives up three inches in height, he out-weighs Withey by nearly 50 pounds. Strength in the paint will be key tonight in defending the red-shirt junior, and we'll likely see Evan Ravenel and Amir Williams relieve Sullinger. Ravenel gives up a little more in height, but his strength is what will help the Buckeyes tonight. Williams length and agility will be his best assets against Withey, especially if he shows those moments of brilliance that we've already seen during the tournament.
Sullinger, Ravenel and Williams will all have to step over and help out Thomas with defending Robinson, though. Robinson is Kansas' leading scorer (17.7 points per game) and rebounder (11.8 boards per game) this season. He's the reason that the Jayhawks are where they are, coming in and making clutch shots and creating plays offensively and defensively for the second seed out of the Midwest Region.
Then there's the guards. Aaron Craft was given kudos for his academic excellence by having the highest GPA in the Final Four. But let's not forget that Craft was also awarded the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award. Tyshawn Taylor has the misfortune of being guarded by Craft, who has the uncanny ability to frustrate the crap out of his marks. His speed and quick hands lead to steals and turnovers on a regular basis. In their last meeting, Taylor scored nine points and had 13 assists. Craft needs to use all of his wiles to stop those assists from happening tonight.
Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford will contend with William Buford and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. All four players will get their points and make their impact, likely without much consequence. Hopefully the "real" Buford shows up and Smith continues to make key shots when the Buckeyes need it. While that's going on, they need to make sure that Johnson and Releford have minimal impact on either end of the court.
Both teams have evolved since December. Every player on either side has progressed and improved his game. Now it's time to see which team has been more successful in those improvements.
This game is called a rematch, but it's not really. This isn't a regular season game early in the season. This is the Final Four of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. The Buckeyes look to prove that they can win it all and the loss in December was a fluke. Kansas looks to prove that it doesn't matter who's on the court, they're the better team. Both teams want the championship or they wouldn't be where they are now. Kansas last won a National Championship in 2008. Ohio State? 1960. Who do you think wants it more?
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