Position-by-Position: Ohio State, Kansas fairly evenly matched
Jared Sullinger's balky back cheated us out of a one-on-one matchup between two of the best big men in the country back in December as Kansas got 21 points from Thomas Robinson in a 78-67 win at Allen Fieldhouse. But as luck would have it, we only had to wait four months to get a glimpse at the two future lottery picks trading low-post blows.
But seeing Sully and T-Rob go head-to-head is far from the only interesting matchup in Saturday's rematch between Ohio State and Kansas. Here is a position-by-position breakdown:
Without a hint of exaggeration, this may be the most intriguing individual matchup of the entire Final Four. Ohio State's Aaron Craft is arguably the best on-ball defender in the country. He doesn't give ball-handlers an inch of space and forces enough turnovers that SI.com's Luke Winn created a stat just to track them. Kansas' Tyshawn Taylor, on the other hand, has become notorious for the turnovers he commits and the bad shots that he takes. And while Bill Self would surely have less gray hair if Taylor had managed to eliminate that aspect of his game, there is no denying just how much the senior point guard means to the Jayhawks. He had 22 points, six boards, five assists and five steals against North Carolina. I've maintained all season long that Taylor is the most important player for Kansas, and if Craft can limit his production, that becomes a difference maker for the Buckeyes.
This may as well be called the battle of the X-factors. Elijah Johnson has been terrific for Kansas down the stretch of the season. He's averaged 15.8 points in his last six games, providing an important third-scoring option alongside Taylor and Thomas Robinson. Johnson is, more or less, the reason that the Jayhawks advanced past Purdue in the Round of 32, as he finished with 18 points on a night that Robinson and Taylor combined to shoot 6-of-23. Lenzelle Smith Jr. plays a similarly vital role in the Ohio State offense. Smith had 33 points as Ohio State won two games in Boston last weekend, making arguably the two biggest shots of the game as the Buckeyes held off Syracuse in the Elite Eight. Smith also has a tendency to play his best when the lights are the brightest; he had 28 points in a win over Indiana this season and scored 17 in a win over Michigan.
I should preface this by saying that the Buckeyes should have the advantage at the small forward spot because William Buford has become as inconsistent as he is talented. Buford is an important piece for Ohio State because of his ability to score the ball from the perimeter. When he is shooting well, it makes it that much more difficult for opponents to collapse on Jared Sullinger in the post. The problem is that those good shooting performances have become fewer and farther between late in the season. Buford was just 4-of-20 in the Boston regional, is shooting just 13-of-44 in the NCAA tournament and hasn't shot over .500 in a game since March 4, when he hit the game-winning jumper to beat Michigan State in the final game of the regular season. Travis Releford has developed a bit of a reputation as a defender, and while he's not necessarily a go-to scorer, he can chip in with 15 points on a good night.
Deshaun Thomas may end up being the key to this game for the Buckeyes. He's developed into one of the more explosive front court scorers in the country as his sophomore season has gone on, culminating in the 22.3 points that he is averaging in the four games in the tournament. The question for the Jayhawks is going to be how they matchup with him. Do you risk putting Thomas Robinson on him, or will Robinson's inability to be effective against Robbie Hummel be enough to scare Bill Self off of that idea? And if Robinson doesn't guard him, do you dare to put Jeff Withey on Thomas? Based on the way Kansas matches up with Ohio State, we may end up seeing quite a bit of Kevin Young in this game.
The matchup that we are all hoping to see is Jared Sullinger and Thomas Robinson, two All-Americas and arguably the two best low-post scorers in the country. The interesting part here is that Jeff Withey may actually be a better matchup on Sullinger defensively for the Jayhawks. Sullinger struggles when he is guarded by players with more length and athleticism than him; Withey is 7-feet and one of the most dangerous shot-blockers in the country. The problem with that is Robinson would be forced to guard Deshaun Thomas. If Sullinger and Robinson do get matched up with each other, it will be a treat for every fan to enjoy; both players thrive on their strength and ability to establish position in the post. But where Robinson thrives on his natural athleticism to score over players he overpowers, Sullinger -- while heftier and more of a land-warrior -- is much more skilled and technical on the block.
Neither team has much of a bench. Evan Ravenel and Amir Williams have both provided quality minutes when Sullinger gets in foul trouble, while Jordan Sibert and Sam Thompson have both seen minutes off the bench during the tournament. The reason that Kansas gets the advantage, however, is because of Kevin Young and Conner Teahan. Teahan has been an important piece for the Jayhawks all year with an ability to shoot the ball, but the more valuable piece will be Young. Early in the season, it was difficult to imagine Young earning playing time. But as the season went on, he's developed into a valuable piece off the bench. He brings energy and athleticism, and, more importantly, he allows the Jayhawks to go small when Withey is faced with a mismatch.
With all due respect to Thad Matta, who is a sensational coach, I'm not sure that there is anyone in the country who has done a better job this season than Self. He led Kansas to a Big 12 title and has now taken the Jayhawks to the Final Four despite a roster that doesn't have a typical amount of Kansas talent. They also lost their depth when three freshmen were ruled ineligible. More importantly, Self has gotten his team this far with the mid-game adjustments he has made. The switch to a triangle-and-two defense was a major part of the reason that Kansas beat Purdue, N.C. State and North Carolina