NCAA Basketball

College Basketball Sweet 16 Preview: Kentucky vs. Ohio State

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(4) Kentucky Wildcats vs. (1) Ohio State Buckeyes
Prudential Center – Newark, NJ
Friday, Mar. 25, 2011
Time: 9:45 pm EST (approx.)
Television: CBS (Jim Nantz, Play-by-Play; Clark Kellogg, Color)
Radio: 84-WHAS (Tom Leach, Play-by-Play; Mike Pratt, Color)

Pick your poison.

That is what opponents have to do when they face the 2010-11 version of the Ohio State Buckeyes. Do you double down on their freshman beast underneath and scurry back to defend the perimeter? Do you defend Sullinger one-on-one down low and have defenders stand their ground at the perimeter to guard shooters and penetrators?

This is the dilemma that John Calipari will be forced to deal with late Friday night.

Ohio State enters the Sweet 16 as the overwhelming favorite to win the National Championship. And rightfully so. Their 34-2 overall record is extremely impressive and their two road losses, at Wisconsin and at Purdue, are nothing to hang their head about.

Head coach Thad Matta is in his seventh season at Ohio State and is in the midst of his fifth NCAA Tournament appearance with the Buckeyes. He is a tournament tested coach, taking Butler to the NCAA second round in 2001, and Xavier to the NCAA all three seasons he was there, including an Elite Eight appearance, prior to taking the job at OSU. He won the NIT championship in one of the two years where he didn’t make the big dance, lost to Florida in the 2006 National Championship, and last year they advanced to the Sweet 16.

Besides being really good, the Buckeyes have a very rare roster that meshes both youth and experience. They lost Evan Turner to the NBA Draft as he was selected second overall by the Philadelphia 76′ers, but return four of five starters from their Sweet 16 appearance a year ago. The returnees are seniors Jon Diebler, Dallas Lauderdale, David Lighty and junior William Buford. The four players have combined to play in 537 games as Buckeyes.

The rest of their team consists of five freshmen, with Sullinger and point guard Aaron Craft getting extended minutes, along with seventh man Deshaun Thomas.

Defenses are forced to pick their poison because the Buckeyes have one of the best inside/outside combinations in the country. When Sullinger is scoring down low and Diebler and company are knocking down threes, this team is nearly unbeatable.

For a team that boasts a plethora of veteran leaders, they may not be in the position of title favorite without their freshman beast underneath.

Sullinger (6-9, 280) has had an incredible year and that is why he is a Naismith Player of the Year candidate. My guess is that the award will go to Duke’s Nolan Smith, BYU’s Jimmer Fredette or UConn’s Kemba Walker, but losing that award will not tarnish Sullinger’s strong rookie season, especially if he can lead his team to an NCAA title.

He leads the team in scoring with 17.1 points and is shooting nearly 55-percent from the floor. Because of his physical play underneath he gets to the line a ton and he knocks down a formidable 70-percent of his free throw attempts.

In the Big Ten tournament, he was voted MVP after becoming the first player to record double-doubles in each game of the event. Speaking of double-doubles, he averages one with 10.0 rebounds to go along with 17+ points.

The kid is unbelievably gifted and combines his physical play with soft touch around the rim. He is smart. He knows his role. You won’t see Sullinger step out and try to knock down 17-footers. You won’t see him prancing around the perimeter in an attempt to make plays off the dribble. He knows that he is most effective on the block. He knows that he is surrounded by players that can shoot it and get to the rim off the bounce.

The first of the three perimeter threats for the Buckeyes in junior William Buford (6-5, 205). Buford is second on the team in scoring with 14.6 points and has averaged double figures in each of his three seasons as a Buckeye. He gives them a player with explosive offensive talent. He can slash to the basket at will, pull up from 15 feet and knock it down from deep.

He is second on the team in threes made with 60 and shoots 44-percent from beyond the arc. The junior ranks third on the team with 3.0 assists and third with 4.0 rebounds.

Next up is 27-year senior David Lighty (6-5, 220). I’m pretty sure that Lighty played with Clark Kellogg in Columbus. He ranks fourth on the team in scoring with 12.1 points per game and is second in rebounds and assists with 4.1 and 3.3, respectively.

Lighty has played in 153 games at Ohio State, the most all-time in Ohio State history and he provides the Buckeyes with an exciting finisher at the rim and yet another outside threat. He has connected on 50 threes this year while shooting 44-percent.

With all of this talk about outside shooters, I guess it’s finally time to get to the Big Ten’s career leader in three-point shooting. That is senior Jon Diebler (6-6, 205), or Threebler as he is referred to in Columbus. The kid’s three-point shooting numbers are simply astounding. His 370 career three-pointers made are the Big Ten’s all-time best. This season he is shooting an incredible 110-for-220 from deep, an even 50-percent. His 50-percent shooting from deep in the best single season mark in OSU history. He has made 140 field goals this year, 110 of which of threes.

He had a two-game stretch at the end of the regular season where he shot 17-for-20. Unreal. The kid can strait shoot it.

That closes out the Buckeye’s main contributors, but you will also see extended minutes from senior Dallas Lauderdale (6-8, 255) and freshman Aaron Craft (6-2, 195). Lauderdale, who looks like he is 40, has seen his playing time diminish this season because of Sullinger. But, he has not allowed the lesser playing time to affect his play. He consistently comes up with timely blocks and much like UK’s Josh Harrellson, he knows how to get himself in position to score easy buckets at the rim.

Craft is another reason why Lauderdale’s minutes have diminished as he has provided them with an organizer on the offensive end and a lockdown defender on the defensive side of things. He gets the Buckeyes into their offense and is their best distributor, averaging a team-high 4.9 assists per game. If given an opening he can score the basketball and that is evident by his 7.1 points-per-game.

But, the most important thing about his game may be his defense. Matta calls him a tenacious defender and says that he has the best lateral movement of any defender he has ever seen.

Brandon Knight, who followed a struggling performance versus Princeton with a career-high 30 in UK’s win over West Virginia, will be put to the test with Kraft eyeing his every move.

With 34 wins on the year, you would expect OSU to be atop of many statistical categories, and they are. At 50-percent, they have the best shooting percentage in the Big Ten, and they lead the conference in scoring with 77.6 points-per-game. They also lead the Big Ten with a 42-percent shooting clip from beyond the arc and their 279 threes made rank third in the league.

They also rarely foul. Something that is important for a team that only goes seven deep. They are second in the nation with fewest fouls per game with 14.5. They also rank second in the nation with an assist-to-turnover margin at 5.29.

So how do you beat the Buckeyes? Despite the fact that they won the Big Ten Tournament, I think if you look at their first two games in the tournament you get a little bit of an idea.

For one, you either defend the perimeter or hope and pray that they have an off-shooting night. In their first round match-up versus Northwestern, the Wildcats took Ohio State to overtime. How? The Buckeyes shot 3-for-15 from deep and 32-percent overall in the game.

In the semifinals, Michigan nearly pulled off the upset by getting the Bucks into foul trouble. Like Kentucky, this is not a very deep team. Matta does not want to have to reach for an eighth guy. Against the Wolverines he was forced to play little-used freshman guard Jordan Sibert and seventh-man Deshaun Thomas significant minutes.

Thomas is an efficient scorer, with 7.7 per-game, but Matta does not want to have to reach farther than him.

In contrast, Kentucky must be effective from deep and stay out of foul trouble. Duh.

To pull off the upset, the Cats will have to get a West Virginia performance by Knight and not a Princeton one. In OSU’s two losses, they were dominated by opposing guards. Jordan Taylor put up 27 points and seven assists in Wisconsin’s win and E’Twaun Moore dropped 38 in Purdue’s win.

Finally, the Cats have to win the battle of the glass. The Buckeyes rank just sixth in the Big Ten in rebounds with 37.3 rebounds and their second and third leading rebounders are wing players in Lighty and Buford, who both average just over four a game. Kentucky has more size than Ohio State at nearly every position except the “5″ and they have to take advantage of that.

Expect Deandre Liggins to guard Diebler, Lighty and Buford at times. Calipari will put him on whoever is the hot hand. Darius Miller has to return to his ways prior to the West Virginia game when he was virtually non-existent. Miller provides the ‘Cats with a inside-outside scoring threat and he could have success posting up Ohio State defenders.

Underneath, Kentucky needs Josh Harrellson to just keep playing like he has been. They also need Terrence Jones to focus on rebounding and defending. With just Sullinger playing underneath the majority of the way, either Harrellson or Jones should have an advantage when it comes to cleaning the glass and stealing some easy buckets.

This is going to be a heck of a game and that is why CBS sent their A-crew to lovely Newark. I love the way Kentucky is playing right now and would pick them to beat pretty much anyone in the tournament, save Kansas, Duke, maybe North Carolina, maybe UConn, and Ohio State.

Ohio State is clearly the best team in this tournament and it’s going to take more than a perfect game for the Wildcats to pull off the upset. It will also take a subpar performance from the Buckeyes and some luck. It will be fun to watch, but in the end I expect the Bucks to simply be too talented and experienced.

Ohio State 73, Kentucky 71