Before Big Ten play began, Ohio State suffered a lone loss. It was on the road against the #13 Kansas Jayhawks. Missing Jared Sullinger because of back spasms, the Buckeyes fell 78-67.
Now, after each 2-seed worked its way through its region and into the Final Four, the teams will square off once again. This time Ohio State is at full strength. Presented with the rematch, and an opportunity to avenge their only non-conference defeat, will Sullinger and company respond?
Since beating Baylor in the Big XII Tournament final, Kansas has survived a couple of scares. The Jayhawks have, in their own words, won ugly. They mauled 15-seed Detroit in Round of 64, but needed a comeback to escape Purdue two days later. That 63-60 final wasn’t the only close call, however; NC State took the Jayhawks to the wire before Kansas prevailed 60-57.
Those hard-fought wins and second-half rallies had toughened the team, and oddly enough, things got a little easier against the Midwest’s top seeded North Carolina Tarheels. Shorthanded after the loss of Kendall Marshall, UNC struggled down the stretch and Kansas pulled away late for an 80-67 victory and a ticket to new Orleans.
Meanwhile, Ohio State was busy in the East. After narrowly besting Gonzaga and needing two big runs to knock out the Cincinnati Bearcats, OSU found itself in a chalk situation as 1 met 2 in Boston with the Final Four on the line. Like the Tarheels, Syracuse was down a man; talented center Fab Melo was rule ineligible prior to the Tournament. The had a profound impact on the Orange as their inside game clearly suffered.
The Buckeyes took advantage of the weakness early and often, getting the ball to Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas in the paint. Though the strategy was sound, the execution was a bit off; though the Bucks pulled down a flurry of offensive rebounds in the game’s first few minutes, they also missed 6 of their first 10 shots from the floor. What could have been a vicious first punch instead landed weakly, and Syracuse’s counterpunch came in the form of consecutive 3-pointers by Scoop Jardine.
Unfortunately the game’s primary plotline consisted of some of the worst officiating ever witnessed, and the refs made their presence felt in all the wrong ways. Jared Sullinger went to the bench with two early fouls, the second being a nearly non-existent brush of a uniform. Syracuse was robbed of a possession with the officials could agree on an out-of-bounds call, flip-flopping their ruling at least three times before allowing play to continue.
To say that the refs called a tight game would be a descriptive disservice; all manner of contact drew whistles but so too did phantom calls. The only positive to come out of the performance was that the trio of officials erred frequently enough at both ends of those floor so as to even out their incompetence. Neither the Buckeyes nor the Orange could credit or blame the blown calls for their situations, and through it all the two sides played one heck of a good first half.
Knotted at 29, the matchup was living up to the hype and the seedings. ‘Cuse got a combined 13 points from Jardine and Dion Waiters while the Buckeyes spread the scoring around. As Sullinger sat with foul trouble Evan Ravenel and Amir Williams kept OSU rolling. Despite missing their best player for more than 13 minutes, the Bucks were in good shape.
After the break, a mini-run helped the Bucks go up 41-33; Lenzelle Smith, Jr., who received three stitches after a head bump left him bloodied in the first half, drained a key 3 to create the cushion. For the next 7 minutes or so, OSU held the lead, keeping the Orange at bay. But ‘Cuse was slowly eating into the advantage, and after the under-8 timeout it was a 1-point game.
Fouls continued to be a storyline in the second half as the whistles continued unabated. The two teams combined for a whopping 67 free throw attempts and 48 personal fouls. Before the clock expired OSU’s Aaron Craft and Syracuse’s Waiters and James Southerland had all fouled out.
Around the 4-minute mark the Buckeyes stretched the lead back to 2 possessions, going up 60-55. Syracuse got as close as 70-67, but couldn’t get over the hump, and down the stretch the Bucks made enough free throws to ice the victory.
Sullinger led all scorers with 19 in what ended up being a balanced game. A total of 7 players finished in double digits; Smith, Jr. (18), Thomas (14) and Buford (13) for OSU and Brandon Triche (15), Jardine (14), and Kris Joseph (10) for the Orange. In the end, the shooting was almost identical; 41.2% for Ohio State and 41.5% for ‘Cuse. Thomas and Buford pulled down 9 boards apiece as the Bucks out-rebounded Syracuse 37-22. That dominance on the glass was a big reason why the Bucks advanced to New Orleans.
But that winning formula may not cut it against the Jayhawks. Against UNC, Kansas grabbed 40 boards, including 10 offensive rebounds. Led by standout 6’10” forward Thomas Robinson, Kansas will present a much tougher matchup inside, and Sullinger probably won’t have as much room to operate as he did against the Orange.
Beating Kansas will require the same level of consistency that the Buckeyes enjoyed against the Orange, but the intensity will need to be even great. While OSU avoided its all-too-common cold spell in the regional final, hanging with Syracuse basket for basket and leading for much of the game, the Bucks still have some work to do in order to get back to the Championship Game.
Finding a way to control Robinson tops the list, and that goes hand in hand with keeping Sullinger out of foul trouble. Then there’s the issue of William Buford’s ice cold shooting; again Gonzaga, Cincy, and ‘Cuse Buford went a combined 8 for 33 (24%). Right now the Buckeyes are relying on Sullinger, Thomas, and Smith, Jr. with Craft adding the occasional offensive punch. Against the Jayhawks, OSU needs Buford as an outside threat.
Defensively, Ohio State is playing as well as it has all year, and Kansas should have its hands full dealing with that kind of pressure. But the Jayhawks are a balanced team on both ends of the floor as well, and nothing will come easy in this Final Four tilt. In order to avenge their early-season loss and have a crack at the title, the Buckeyes will need to bring their A-game.