Date: Friday, March 25
Time: around 9:45 EST (about 30 minutes after the UNC vs. Marquette game ends)
After losing talented freshmen John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins to the NBA Draft, John Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats are right back in the Sweet Sixteen with a fresh crop of newbies that promises to be a burden for mighty Ohio State to take down. Like you'd expect from a young team, Kentucky had all sorts of troubles on the road this season. In SEC play, they were only 2-6 on the road, but they earned a 4 seed by thriving on neutral floors. This was mostly apparent during the SEC Tournament in Atalanta, where the Wildcats rolled through Ole Miss, Alabama and Florida without even playing a close game. Close victories over Princeton and West Virginia in their first two NCAA Tournament games have ensured that this young Kentucky squad is battle hardened and ready for their toughest match-up yet.
That match-up will be with the Ohio State Buckeyes. Although Thad Matta's squad has only lost two games all season, they've been alternating between being dominant and vulnerable as of late. Back in February, the Bucks dropped roadies to Wisconsin and Purdue, but then finished the regular season as strong as is physically possible with winning margins of 19, 21, 21 and 28 over Illinois, Indiana, Penn State and Wisconsin. Yes, three of those teams made the NCAA Tournament. In the Big Ten Tournament, it was a different story, as Ohio State narrowly edged Northwestern in overtime and just barely pulled away from Michigan after the Wolverines had closed within 2 points with 10 minutes remaining.
However, if their most recent victory -- a 98-66 bulldozing of George Mason -- has taught us anything, it's that Ohio State can score on you from everywhere. Lately, it's only been a question of how much they win by. I'd be pretty surprised if Kentucky can defeat them tonight, but the Buckeyes are certainly not a lock to advance.
|Offense||Kentucky||Ohio State||D-1 Average|
|Defense||Kentucky||Ohio State||D-1 Average|
When Ohio State has the ball, look to see whether Kentucky chooses to double-team him or not. This decision really is a picking of the poison, but the Wildcats have a good defensive big man, Josh Harrellson, who is at least a big enough body (6'10, 275) to put on Jared Sullinger. Whether he can handle Sullinger's athleticism is another story, but I expect Kentucky to at least try going one-on-one with the Ohio freshman just in case they don't have to expose themselves too early to the country's best 3-point attack. If Harrellson gets into foul trouble, Kentucky can bring in fellow big man Eloy Vargas (6'11, 250), but he hasn't been counted on too often this season.
When the Bucks do kick it out to the perimeter, Kentucky does have a stable of athletic guards capable of stepping out and guarding shooters, but when Jon Diebler, David Lighty and William Buford get hot, there's usually very little room for error. Still, Kentucky has found success this year on defense, holding opponents to a ridiculous 44.3% eFG.
When Kentucky has the ball, they will turn the tables on Ohio State and offer their own efficient barrage of 3-point shooting. I see David Lighty guarding super-athletic freshman Terrence Jones for much of the game and Aaron Craft harassing point guard Brandon Knight, which leaves either Diebler or Buford guarding Doron Lamb and his 47% 3-point shooting when the starting lineups are rolled out. If in need of defensive assistance, Ohio State can get help off the bench from DeShaun Thomas. Thad Matta hasn't dug too deep on the bench this season, but Thomas has been a good defender and a very efficient scorer (54.5% FG) when he's actually on the floor.
I hope I didn't make it sound like a given that Lighty and Craft would be able to slow down Kentucky's Jones and Knight. That would be far from the truth, as Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight are capable of scoring on anyone. On the season, Jones averaged 16.1 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game while Knight had 17.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 4.2 assists, including 30 points, 3 rebounds and 4 assists in the win over West Virginia. Knight's ability to assist his teammates is rivaled only by his 38% 3-point shooting, which is obviously a great combination for a point guard. Jones can shoot the 3, but he should stay focused on getting inside, because his main strength is drawing fouls and he's got four teammates who all shoot from outside with much better accuracy.
Harrellson will be the offensive x-factor for Kentucky. He's not much of a scorer, but his great offensive rebounding skills can possibly get Sullinger in foul trouble. I think Matta would be more comfortable using Ohio's typical "small" lineup of Craft, Buford, Diebler, Lighty and Sullinger for this game, so if he has to bring in Dallas Lauderdale to guard Harrellson, it will either take some bite out of the Buckeye offense (if subbed for Sullinger) or create a mismatch elsewhere on the floor (if subbed for another player).
Yes, there is a chance for Kentucky to win tonight, but I expect Sullinger to wear the Wildcats down on the inside on the way to a Buckeye victory. However, Kentucky is quite formidable and they've been playing great lately, so I would definitely watch this game instead of taking my word for it.