Not exactly an undercard: Kansas, Ohio State feature top talent

NEW ORLEANS - There will be another game Saturday night. It will have nothing to do with Kentucky, other than the winner will be playing some school from Kentucky on Monday night for the national championship.

When Ohio State and Kansas take the floor at the Superdome, the 68-team NCAA Tournament will be down to three. There will be gloating and despair after Louisville plays Kentucky in the early game. Then there will be basketball between the Buckeyes and the Jayhawks, very good basketball.

Ohio State coach Thad Matta may be the least interesting man in the world, but he can coach hoops. His 2004 Xavier team nearly made it to the Final Four. Greg Oden and Mike Conley, in their one season at Ohio State, lost the championship game to Florida in 2007.

Kansas coach Bill Self has had more disastrous NCAA moments than any big-name coach in the 2000s. He also won a national title in 2008 when Memphis gave away the championship in the final seconds of regulation.

Matta's 2007 team and Self's 2008 club were more talented than their teams this year. Regardless, one of these teams are 40 minutes from a championship.

The inside matchup is fascinating. The point-guard matchup may be determinative.

Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Deshuan Thomas have been the best offensive exacta in this tournament. In fact, Thomas' 87 points lead all scorers. And Sullinger's board work is why Ohio State is plus-10.2 rebounds per game so far in the tournament.

Everybody thought Sullinger was going to the NBA after his freshman season. He thought differently.

"Me coming back was pretty much I wanted to make a statement that not everybody is using college basketball as a pit stop to go to the next level, that there's more than money and endorsements," Sullinger said. "There's championships that you got to win at every level. . . . I've won a championship all the way from elementary [school] to now. . . . I pride myself on winning. That's the biggest thing. That's why I came back."

If Sullinger goes pro after this season, his coach certainly will understand.

"I think that he's put a stamp on this program," Matta said. "He's going to be known as one of the all-time greatest players to wear the scarlet and gray. I think that is something that is important to him."

Kansas will counter with double-double machine Thomas Robinson and shot-blocking phenom Jeff Withey, who has 20 blocks in four games.

"Great basketball player," Sullinger said of Robinson. "Plays hard. Plays smart. In my eyes, college player of the year. I know some think different. But with his season, the way he took his team to the top, you just got to give it to him."

Robinson liked the sound of that.

"Like he said, everybody got their opinion," Robinson said. "I agree with him."

Sullinger, out with back spasms, did not play when Kansas beat Ohio State on Dec. 10.

"What do I think he can bring?" Self asked, referring to Sullinger. "He's as good a low-post scorer as there is in the country. He brings a lot to the table. We caught a huge break when he didn't play the first time."

The point guards won't get nearly as much hype as the bigs. Kansas' Tyshawn Taylor never stops attacking. There are times when he tries so hard, it is counterproductive. If Ohio State's Aaron Craft can get Taylor to play too fast, it's an advantage for the Buckeyes. Craft is an amazing defender on the ball, off the ball, around the ball.

Each team plays excellent defense. Both are in the top five of the defensive efficiency ratings.

Kansas' biggest issue is long-range shooting. The Jayhawks are only 16 for 68 from three-point range in the tournament. Last season, Ohio State was the best long-range shooting team in America. The Buckeyes were not close to that this season. But with the recent emergence of Lenzelle Smith, they are becoming more of a threat from the arc.

Rosen in town. Penn senior Zack Rosen was in town Friday to be honored at the Superdome along with the other nine finalists for the Senior Class Award. Purdue's Robbie Hummel won the award, which recognizes sports skills, community service, character, and academics.

 


Contact Dick Jerardi at jerardd@phillynews.com.