John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports
The warmup acts are finally over. It's time for the game that Buckeye fans and players have had circled on their calendars since the schedule came out.
The Jayhawks and the Buckeyes tangled twice last season, and neither game went well for the Scarlet and Gray. Star big man Jared Sullinger missed the first match in Lawrence due to back spasms, and Jayhawk Thomas Robinson ran roughshod over the Buckeye frontline in a 78-67 Kansas win. The two squads met again in the Final Four, where Sullinger was held in check and the Buckeyes shot 33% from the field, losing 64-62, ending their season.
You remember it, I remember it, and you better believe the rest of the Buckeyes remember it. Many of the key members of last year's team are gone, from Sullinger and Will Buford for the Bucks, and Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor for Kansas, but that doesn't diminish the importance of this year's matchup. Both teams are ranked in the top ten, both are looking for a signature win, and both want to stand out from the memory of last year's squads.
Kansas is sitting at a 9-1 record, a close loss against Michigan State the only thing keeping them from an unblemished record. Their victories are decent if not a little unspectacular for a team so highly regarded, notching wins over Saint Louis, Washington State, Belmont, and a merciless beatdown of Colorado that couldn't have been more savage if Tad Boyle had owed Bill Self money. The Jayhawks have been solid over a bevy of statistical categories, as they are in the top 20 nationally in assists per game, field goal percentage, and opponent effective field goal percentage. Given the struggles of Texas and the flaws of Baylor and Kansas State, the Jayhawks have to be considered the prohibitive favorite in the Big 12.
A big part of that is because of the play of their veteran big man, Jeff Withey. The senior 7-footer is averaging 14.1 points per game, and a team leading 8.1 boards per game. While he provides a legitimate and efficient post presence on offense and rebounds well, he's also averaging a ridiculous 5.4 blocks per game, inducing 12 against San Jose State. Withey's ability to swat shots and limit opponents to a single shot opportunity lets Kansas get on the fast break and score easier points in transition, setting up multiple chances for 4 and 5 point swings.
Senior Kevin Young joins Withey in the frontcourt. Young plays a more modest amount of minutes relative to Withey, but is just as capable of slapping up big rebounding numbers as well as points if he's given the shot opportunities. He averages 6.7 points and 6.7 boards a game. He's not nearly the shotblocking threat that Withey is, on account of only being 6-8, but is certainly somebody the Buckeyes will need to account for on the glass. The 6-8 freshman Perry Ellis will also see minutes, and can provide a scoring jolt (6.2 ppg).
Elijah Johnson leads the attack at guard. The 6-4 senior has good size and better judgement, averaging 5.3 assists against only 2.6 turnovers per game. He's been a competent, if not unspectacular, three-point shooter and is capable of hitting free throws, but won't be called upon to be a huge scoring option for the Jayhawks.
Senior Travis Releford joins Johnson, averaging 13 points, 3.2 boards, and 3.3 assists per game, providing Kansas with a little bit of everything. He has size (6-6), efficiency (58% shooting from the floor), and has a nose for the ball (1.6 steals per game). He's shot better than 60% from the floor in each of his five previous games, and could be a very dangerous player against the Bucks.
The Jayhawks offensive attack is led by freshman Ben McLemore, a 6-5 wing from St. Louis. McLemore rebounds well for his position (5.6 boards per game), and boasts the best three-point range on the team, hitting 39% on the season, while not being afraid to shoot from deep multiple times a game. He's a little less efficient than his teammates and while prone to making the occasional freshman mistake, his offensive ceiling is also higher than Releford or Johnson. He's scored more than 20 points three different times this year, and has hit double digits in every matchup since KU's opener. Diminutive (5-10) guard Naadir Tharpe will also spell the above in the backcourt, where he will provide additional three-point shooting range.
Kansas will be a tough matchup for the Buckeyes, even if the Jayhawks' statistical exploits may be a little inflated by the quality of their competition. The Bucks struggled the last time they faced an elite big man, and Withey is one of the best post defenders in the entire country. He's comfortable enough down low to get buckets of his own and should prove a perennial matchup problem for the Buckeyes. Finding a way to get him out of position, or into foul trouble, will be critical for Ohio State.
The Buckeyes will also need to win the backcourt battle. Aaron Craft may not be playing his best offensively, but he still is a dynamite defender and quality passer. Craft and Scott will need to have exceptional games to keep Johnson and company from getting comfortable. It also wouldn't hurt to get a few easy baskets of their own to counteract anything on transition that starts from rejections.
Ohio State is not without advantages. They get Kansas at home, and the Jayhawks lost the only time they faced a quality squad far from the friendly confines of Phog Allen Fieldhouse. Deshaun Thomas, at his best, is more explosive offensively than any player on Kansas, and he can hit enough jumpers to keep the Jayhawks from just packing the paint and preventing drives.
Plus, this game means more to Ohio State than it does for Kansas. Going into Big Ten play without a real quality win could be a big seeding disadvantage for Ohio State, while Kansas doesn't have a true rival to their presumed rise to the Big 12 crown. Those previous defeats have rubbed the Buckeyes the wrong way, and we can probably expect their best effort accordingly .
Holy War It's going to be a battle, but I feel like we're due for a holy crap Deshaun did WHAT kind of game. I think Thomas goes off for at least 25, Flyin' Sam Thompson gets a few more huge dunks to keep the crowd in it, and OSU's tough backcourt defense creates enough steals to squeak out a close one, 68-64.