NEW ORLEANS - A rematch with an asterisk.
On Dec. 10 in Lawrence, Kansas defeated Ohio State, 78-67 - the Buckeyes' first loss of the season and the only game they would lose to a nonconference foe. When the two teams meet in Saturday's Final Four semifinal, that game is as insignificant as a gnat buzzing inside the cavernous Mercedes-Benz Superdome,
The teams that face off Saturday to decide who plays the winner of Kentucky-Louisville - ironically, another rematch of a regular-season game - in Monday's national championship game have evolved considerably. Ohio State (31-7), with just one senior on the roster, has developed young players like Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. Since that mid-December game, Kansas (31-6) has found its identity as a tough-minded team that overcomes challenges.
Perhaps the biggest caveat to the Ohio State-Kansas game is that the Buckeyes were without Jared Sullinger. The 6-9, 265-pound sophomore didn't play against the Jayhawks because of a bad back.
"Having Jared, he obviously makes us a better basketball team," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said of his team's leading scorer and rebounder. "It was unfortunate that he didn't get to play in the game in December. By the same token, I think that probably helped us in the long run that he wasn't out there. I think playing in that environment was something that probably helped us throughout the course of the season."
A year ago, Sullinger was one of the top freshmen in the country and Ohio State was the overall No. 1 seed in the 2011 NCAA Tournament but was upset by No. 4 seed Kentucky in the Sweet 16. Sullinger surprised some by returning for his sophomore season.
as good a low-post scorer as there is in the country," Kansas coach Bill Self
said. "He brings a lot to the table. We caught a huge break when he
didn't play the first time. He's a terrific player.
They're not the same team that we played because they've improved a lot. I don't think we're the same team they played because we've gotten a little bit better.
"Certainly I don't know if the first game has one thing to do with the outcome tomorrow."
Kansas post players Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey figure to share defensive duties on Sullinger; the 7-foot Withey will probably start the game guarding him.
While there will be a lot of attention paid to the battle of the post players, the game could well come down to another matchup: Kansas senior guard Tyshawn Taylor against Ohio State sophomore guard Aaron Craft.
In the first meeting, Taylor had 13 assists and seven turnovers. He was playing with a bulky knee brace (he had minor knee surgery the day after the game) and he said that limited his game.
"I could have played better," Taylor said. "I think a lot of people forget that I was hurt when we played the first time. From December 10th to now, I think I'm a complete different player."
Craft sets the tone for Ohio State with his pesky defense. According to ESPN Stats And Information, Craft is the only player who has forced more than 50 turnovers as an on-ball defender. He has forced the player he's guarding into 57 mistakes. Craft also has set a school record with 97 steals.
"He's going to pressure," Taylor said. "I'm looking forward to this challenge even more so than I was when we played the first time. I think he's a terrific on-ball defender, a terrific guard, and I think it's going to be a really good matchup."
Kansas finds itself one victory away from playing for the school's fourth national championship. For a school making its 14th Final Four trip, perhaps that's what is expected. But for a team that followed up its defeat of Ohio State with a loss to Davidson, this season's journey has been as satisfying as it has been surprising.
"We always think, dream and hope for that," Self said of the Final Four. "There's no question that that's always the case. When we started (this year), I think the reality was, 'I hope we're good enough to get in.' The guys have done such a great job and played so well. They've gotten better. The players that we thought these guys could become, they've become."
Men's Final Four Semifinal
No. 2 Kansas (31-6) vs. No. 2 Ohio State (31-7)
7:49 p.m. Saturday, New Orleans, CBS
Why they're here: Kansas was an at-large selection from the Big 12. The Jayhawks defeated No. 15 seed Detroit, No. 10 seed Purdue, No. 11 seed North Carolina State and No. 1 seed North Carolina. Ohio State was an at-large selection from the Big Ten Conference. The Buckeyes defeated No. 15 seed Loyola (Maryland), No. 7 seed Gonzaga, No. 6 seed Cincinnati and No. 1 seed Syracuse.
Coaches: Bill Self, Kansas; Thad Matta, Ohio State.
Scouting Kansas: The Jayhawks are one of the nation's top teams in terms of field goal percentage defense limiting teams to 38 percent shooting. Kansas has been even in better in four NCAA Tournament games allowing foes to shoot just 35.7 percent. Junior guard Elijah Johnson has been the "x factor" thus far. He's KU's second-leading scorer in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 13.5 points per game and shooting 9-of-20 from 3-point range. Senior guard Tyshawn Taylor scored 22 in the regional final victory but he has struggled in the NCAAs; he's 0-for-17 from 3-point range. Junior center Jeff Withey has 20 blocks in the NCAAs and his defense around the basket will be crucial against an Ohio State team that loves to score from the paint.
Scouting Ohio State: The Buckeyes suffered their first loss and only nonconference defeat at Kansas on Dec. 10. However, sophomore Jared Sullinger didn't play in that game because of back trouble. The 6-9, 265-pounder averages 17.6 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. However, in the NCAA Tournament, Deshaun Thomas lead Ohio State with 21.8 points per game. The 6-7 Thomas along with 6-6 William Buford (the team's only senior) and 6-4 sophomore Lenzelle Smith Jr. are the top 3-point shooters and create matchup difficulties because of their ability to score from the perimeter and get to the basket. Sophomore point guard Aaron Craft sets the tone with his defense. He's a terrific on-ball defender and has 13 steals in four NCAA games.