Final Four: Ohio State vs. Kansas Preview

Mar 25, 2012; St. Louis, MO, USA; The Kansas Jayhawks celebrate during the trophy presentation after the finals of the midwest region of the 2012 NCAA men

It’s tough to imagine better all-around storylines in an NCAA Tournament Final Four than this year.  There are 48 Final Fours (U of L = 9, OSU = 10, Kansas = 14, UK = 15) and 13 National Championships (OSU = 1, U of L = 2, Kansas = 3, UK = 7) among this foursome.  There is a bitter in-state rivalry between U of L and UK.  There are regular season rematches on both sides, as UK beat the Cardinals earlier in the year, and Kansas beat a Sullinger-less Buckeyes team back in December.  If that’s not enough, OSU still hasn’t been able to get over the fact that the 2010-2011 team, arguably the best in school history, was stopped in the Sweet Sixteen by a young, athletic UK squad that returns a few of the same players.  

If it’s still not sinking in just how amazing this grouping is, compare it to last year, and it should open your eyes a bit.  Sure, Kentucky was there too, as were the Huskies of UConn, who made a surprising run all the way to the title.  However, the other two teams, the VCU Rams and the Butler Bulldogs, have just 3 Final Four appearances between them.  It’s nice to see the underdogs make it there occasionally, but sometimes you just want to see the giants battle it out as well.  In the 2012 Elite Eight, 7 of the teams present had appeared in at least 1 National Championship game in the past 25 years.   

Ohio State played a very good game and beat a Syracuse team that had just 2 losses all year, while Kansas overpowered UNC and won one of the best games so far in the tournament.  The speculation as to how OSU would do against Kansas with Jared Sullinger on the court can finally stop.

Below are my positional breakdowns for this Final Four matchup between The Ohio State Buckeyes and the Kansas Jayhawks…

#1 Guard (Tyshawn Taylor vs. Aaron Craft)

Tyshawn Taylor (#10, 6’3″, 185 lbs) is a scoring machine for the Kansas Jayhawks…sometimes.  Taylor had just 4 outings all year in which he scored 10 points or less, however, he did just that in his first 3 NCAA Tournament games.  He managed to put up 22 points against North Carolina in the Elite Eight matchup, because of excellent shooting from the field, but he was 0 for 5 outside of the arc.  In fact, the KU point guard is now 0 for 17 in the tourney from 3 point range.  With his recent drought aside, this is still a senior leader for an experienced Jayhawks team who averages close to 17 points and 5 assists per game on the year. 

If there is a flaw in his game, it is one that Aaron Craft will be chomping at the bit to exploit, because it’s Taylor’s tendency to be careless with the ball and turn it over.  He averages over a full turnover more than anyone Craft has gone up against so far in the tournament, and this could certainly be a factor in Saturday’s game.  As we all know, Craft will be glued to Taylor as soon as he crosses half court, and will do all that he can to make Tyshawn’s life miserable from the get-go.  On the other hand, if Craft has shown a slight give in his defense this postseason, it has been against a guard that can quickly drive to the hoop, as Taylor can.

I love this matchup.  Not because my homerism can come out and this is someone that Craft can dominate, but for the exact opposite reason.  Tyshawn Taylor will provide Aaron Craft with one of his biggest challenges yet, as he is one of, if not the, best scorer that our sophomore guard has lined up against.  With all of that on the table, I think that Taylor will be under his 16.7 ppg average, and Craft will outscore his own 8.8 ppg average.  On top of that, Craft’s leadership and ability to force turnovers in this game will be one of the deciding factors.  Advantage = Aaron Craft.     

#2 Guard (Elijah Johnson  vs. Lenzelle Smith, Jr.)

There is no shortage of excellent matchups in this game, and this should prove to be another one.  If there was ever an example of mirror image playing in this tournament, it’s Lenzelle Smith Jr., and Elijah Johnson.  Both are currently getting more points per game than their season averages, both are stepping up big when their team needs it most (see EJ’s game sealing shot against NC State and LSJ’s clutch 3s against Syracuse as examples), and both seem to finally be realizing their potential on the game’s biggest stage.

On top of that, the players matchup evenly in height with both Johnson (#15) and Smith Jr., measuring in at 6’4″.  LSJ has a few pounds on EJ, 205 to 195, but just about anywhere you look, these players stack up very evenly against one another.  Johnson typically helps his team to more assists, but Smith is sure to grab more rebounds.  LSJ has been a better percentage shooter from behind the arc and from the field, but EJ has been more consistent from the free throw line.  In other words, this matchup could be decided by the flip of a coin.  However, the one thing that will sway my decision is the pairing that we just listed above: Tyshawn Taylor vs. Aaron Craft.  I think that Craft’s defense on Taylor will push the ball into Johnson’s hands more often than usual, thus forcing him to run the offense on many possession.  For that reason, I’m giving this close battle to the Jayhawks’ junior guard.  Advantage = Elijah Johnson.    

#3 Guard (Travis Releford vs. William Buford)

Mar 24, 2012; Boston, MA, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes guard William Buford (44) drives around Syracuse Orange forward C.J. Fair in the first half of the finals in the east region of the 2012 NCAA men

It’s hard to imagine a matchup between a senior and junior on two powerhouse programs being overlooked, but that certainly seems to be the case here.  Travis Releford (#24, 6’6″, 210 lbs) is 4th on the team in scoring and is a solid rebounder.  Buford averages almost 6 more points per game than his counterpart, but has been very streaky lately.  In this particular game, these two players line up fairly well against each other, and should be able to play their own game without being asked to take on other roles or tasks.  For that reason alone, this matchup should go to the Buckeyes’ only senior.  Advantage = Buford.   

 
Aside from simply getting the nod in this battle, Buford should be key in the scoring for OSU.  While nearly every other position is almost locked in a heated battle, this is the one spot on the court that seems to clearly favor Ohio State’s guard over Kansas’ #3 man.  Releford is very consistent in his output, as he hasn’t scored above 12 points in one game since early January, and is typically in the single digits.  Buford, on the other hand, has been up and down this season, when most were hoping for a breakout year.  If Buford is able to perform at his average of 14 points in this game, I think that favors Ohio State.  However, if he is able to break through, get open looks, and approach the 20 point mark, then this could be the deciding factor in a game where a lot of the media attention will be directed towards the paint.
 
#4 Center/Forward (Jeff Withey vs. Deshaun Thomas)
 
Oh boy.  Where do I even begin on this one?  Jeff Withey (#5) is a blocking machine who measures up at 7′ tall and weighs close to 240 lbs.  Deshaun Thomas is a scoring prodigy who hits the scales at 225 lbs and stands 6’7″ tall.  In most occasions, these two might never even meet on the court, other than to play some help-side defense or pick up a man after a screen.  In this case, however, it seems highly likely that Jared Sullinger and Thomas Robinson, two players with similar stature and game play, would line up against each other.  This matchup creates problems all over the place for both teams.
 
For example, Thomas plays bigger than his 6’7″ at times, but giving up 5 inches to someone who will be planted in the paint with his back to the basket is a fairly daunting task.  OSU’s guards will likely be asked to double down onto Withey when he has the ball, as Sullinger will have his hands full with Robinson.  The other side of this, when OSU has the ball, slants in Thomas’ favor, since he is a very mobile scorer who can just as easily crash the boards and play underneath as bounce out and shoot 3s.  Withey can’t possibly hope to stay with Thomas on the offensive end, so I’d expect a lot of matchup problems and defender switches when the Bucks have the ball. 
 
This will be a fun one to watch, but if Thomas is able to hit his mid-range jumpers and a couple of deep balls, that should be enough to have Kansas second guessing their lineup and looking to move Robinson out to guard Thomas.  If that switch happens, then the advantage swings even more for OSU, in my opinion, as Sullinger can outmuscle Withey, and Thomas will be able to pull Robinson away from the glass, where he is so dominant.  Both players should be at an advantage when on offense, but Thomas’ scoring is much more proficient than Withey’s, so… Advantage = Deshaun Thomas.
 
#5 Forward (Thomas Robinson  vs. Jared Sullinger)
 

Mar 25, 2012; St. Louis, MO, USA; Kansas Jayhawks forward Thomas Robinson (0) celebrates after the finals of the midwest region of the 2012 NCAA men

Thomas Robinson (#0, 6’10″, 237 lbs) going up against Jared Sullinger is a battle that we’ve been waiting for for far too long.  It was supposed to take place back in December, but a back injury kept Sully out of the contest, and led to Robinson crushing OSU with 21 points.  TRob, as he’s affectionately known by Rock Chalk Nation, is a monster on the boards, grabbing almost 12 per game, along with over 17 points.  Sullinger is no slouch himself, with over 17 points and close to 10 rebounds. 

 
Both players are strong and physical underneath, rarely backing down from a rebound, post move, or defensive stand, which also leads to potential foul issues.  Perhaps the biggest advantage that OSU has is knowing that Ravenel and Williams were able to step in and play well against a very good Syracuse team last week.  On the other hand, going up against Robinson is not even remotely similar to finding Rakeem Christmas or Baye Keita in the paint.  TRob looks like Dwight Howard’s little brother, and his play isn’t too far from that.  Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel combined for 11 points and 8 rebounds agaisnt KU in December, and I have to think that Sullinger will be able to increase both of those numbers and serve as a more intimidating presence underneath. 
 
If OSU is able to get Robinson into early foul trouble, I have to think that Kansas would be in more trouble than the opposite situation.  Withey could certainly take up the slack underneath, but KU would suffer in having both Thomas and Sullinger crash the paint at that point.  Taking out foul troubles and “what if” scenarios, this battle between 2 All-Americans is one that I cannot wait to see.  As much as I want to pull the homer card and hand this one to Sullinger, Robinson’s skill set will make this a dream matchup on Saturday.  I’ll take the easy way out and say… Advantage = Push. 
 
Overall Prediction:  Kansas and Ohio State line up eerily even across the board in this Final Four game.  However, one team must win and advance to play the winner of the U of L Cardinals and the Kentucky Wildcats, and I think that that team is Ohio State.  There will be 2 deciding factors, and their names are Deshaun Thomas and William Buford.  As long as Craft, Smith Jr., and Sullinger hang tough and stay even with their opposing players, I think that Thomas will outscore and outplay Withey, and Buford will step up and beat Releford.  This should be a close game, but I think OSU is up by 6-7 before Kansas pulls it closer in the closing minute. 
 
OSU  76 – Kansas 73

Topics: Aaron Craft, Bill Self, Deshaun Thomas, Elijah Johnson, Jared Sullinger, Jeff Withey, Lenzelle Smith Jr., Thad Matta, Thomas Robinson, Travis Releford, Tyshawn Taylor, William Buford

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