OHIO STATE VS. KANSAS
Matchup: Two powerhouse programs clash in this national semifinal with the Buckeyes facing off against the Jayhawks. Jared Sullinger forewent the NBA last season to get a crack at the Final Four in 2012; he got his wish as Ohio State took down No. 1 seed Syracuse in the Elite Eight. Meanwhile, Kansas coach Bill Self is back in the Final Four for the first time since winning the nation title in 2008 with Rock Chalk. Kansas won a series of nail-biters in the tourney, including the Midwest Regional final against the Kendall Marshall-less North Carolina Tar Heels.
Who will come out on top? Let's take a closer look and break down the strengths and weaknesses of each squad.
Ohio State Buckeyes, East Region No. 2 seed
Backcourt: Point guard Aaron Craft is the definition of the term "pesky." The Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year harkens memories of "The Glove," Gary Payton. His suffocating defense, incredible instincts and aggressive play makes him the heart and soul of this Ohio State squad. Make no mistake, though, he can also dish effectively, averaging 4.6 dimes per tilt. And Craft can knock down an open shot or two as well. Lenzelle Smith Jr. is perhaps the most underrated player on the squad. He can score when needed, as witnessed by his 35 points combined in the last two tournament games. He also grabbed eight rebounds in the opener against Loyola and had two steals in the Sweet 16 against Cincinnati.
Frontcourt: William Buford is a swingman who can play the two or the three position. The senior has an NBA body at 6-foot-6, 220, and averaged 14.4 points, 4.9 boards and 2.7 dimes per game this year. Buford can shoot jumpers and also drive to the rack. Meanwhile, DeShaun Thomas has been perhaps the player of the tourney for the Buckeyes. The 6-7 sophomore has managed 21.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game in the Big Dance. The crafty lefty has a nice array of post moves using his dominant hand. But Thomas is so effective because of the attention that Jared Sullinger demands. Despite foul trouble and constant double and triple teams, Sullinger still posted a game-high 19 points in the Elite Eight against Syracuse. He is an absolute behemoth down low at 6-9, 265, imposing his will on opponents. His ability to get to the free-throw line, where he shoots 76.8 percent, makes him a dynamic offensive presence and the best player on the squad.
X-Factor: Aaron Craft. It's tough to underestimate the impact of his hustle, aggression and leadership. A coach on the floor, Craft gets the offense in order, while urging his teammates on the defensive end. He makes life miserable for opposing point guards, averaging 2.5 steals per game. Intangibles make Craft the glue for this squad. At times he can get a little out of control, but his fire is essential to his game. It is doubtful that coach Thad Motta would want him to change that part of his game.
Who They Beat to Get Here:
They'll Win If: the Buckeyes get to the free-throw line. Ohio State shot an astounding 42 free-throws in its 77-70 victory over Syracuse to get to the Final Four. OSU got to the foul line 27 times against Cincinnati in the Sweet 16. In their last loss, a defeat in the Big Ten Championship to Michigan State Spartans? Just 15 attempts. Add considering that four of the five starters shoot at least 71.1 percent from the charity stripe, and the Buckeyes have a big advantage when they draw fouls.
Kansas Jayhawks, Midwest Region No. 2 seed
Backcourt: Tyshawn Taylor has matured leaps and bounds from just a season ago, averaging career highs across the board for the Jayhawks. Taylor gets the ball rolling for the KU offense, including 4.7 assists per contest. On the downside, he is still prone to turnovers and is 0-for-17 from the three-point line in the NCAA Tournament. However, his athleticism makes up for it, and he is a nice complement to the interior play of Thomas Robinson. Elijah Johnson has scored double digits in every tournament contest and picked up the three-point slack with 9-of-20 treys. He is also a proficient disher, averaging 3.8 assists per game. Travis Releford averages 8.5 points and 4.2 rebounds, doing most of his damage from inside the three-point arc.
Frontcourt: The Jayhawks have two huge frontcourt weapons in Thomas Robinson and Chris Withey. The latter is a defensive presence; Withey posted a 10-block game against N.C. State in the Sweet 16. Meanwhile, Robinson has been in the National Player of the Year conversation for nearly the entire season. He's a physical specimen at 6-10, 240. He can jump out of the gym, but has also developed a few reliable post moves, and he even hit a three-pointer against UNC in the Elite Eight. Robinson averaged a double-double this year with 17.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game. He is a surefire lottery selection in June's NBA draft if he goes pro.
X-Factor: Connor Teahen. The 6-6 guard is a three-point specialist, attempting four treys per contest. Sometimes, he doesn't make an appearance at all, as witnessed by his zero points against UNC in the Elite Eight. By contrast, against Purdue just two games earlier, he played 31 minutes and hit two crucial threes for the Jayhawks. With Aaron Craft expected to hound Tyshawn Taylor, and Elijah Johnson likely drawing William Buford, it could be a sharpshooter like Teahen who breaks out with an unexpected outburst.
Who They Beat to Get Here:
NC State, 60-57
North Carolina, 80-67
They'll Win If: they outrebound Ohio State. Sullinger and Thomas feast down low, particularly on offensive rebounds and putbacks. If Withey and Robinson can hold their own and limit second-chance points, the Jayhawks will have an excellent chance at getting the W. Meanwhile, maximizing their own possessions is paramount; combined, the two bigs for the Jayhawks average nearly five offensive rebounds per contest. The battle of the boards will go a long way to determining the victor in this contest.
The matchup between Thomas Robinson and Jared Sullinger will be the main event in this slugfest. Aaron Craft will have his say, as will Tyshawn Taylor. However, the Jayhawks are a bit deeper than the Buckeyes and can withstand foul trouble from their stars a tad better than OSU. In such a bruising affair, that favors Kansas. Craft and Sullinger at times get a bit too emotional and must keep their respective cools in order to advance. A huge game from the freakishly athletic Robinson is in order, and Rock Chalk rolls on.