The Kansas Jayhawks and Ohio State Buckeyes meet for the second time this season, as the two teams collide in the NCAA Tournament's Final Four at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The winner will play for the national championship on Monday against either Kentucky or Louisville.
Bill Self's Jayhawks were certainly regarded as one of the top teams in the land when the season began. Kansas did little to tarnish that notion, winning the Big 12 regular season title. Despite not winning the Big 12 Tournament crown, Kansas earned its 41st bid to the NCAA Tournament and has been to a national-best 23 straight tournaments including this year. The Jayhawks boast a 92-39 all-time record in this event and reached their 14th Final Four and second under Bill Self, by navigating the Midwest Region with wins over Detroit (65-50), Purdue (63-60), NC State (60-57) and most recently North Carolina (80-67). The team has three national titles to its credit, coming in 1952, 1988 and 2008.
Self recently discussed his team's preseason goals and whether or not he thought the Jayhawks were a Final Four caliber squad heading into the 2011-12 season.
"We always think, dream and hope for that. There's no question that that's always the case. When we started (this year), I think the reality was, 'I hope we're good enough to get in.' The guys have done such a great job and played so well. They've gotten better. The players that we thought these guys could become, they've become."
The talented Jayhawks will have their hands full with Ohio State. Thad Matta's team shared the Big Ten regular-season title, but like Kansas, did not earn an automatic bid, falling in the Big Ten Tournament. A two-seed in the East Region, Ohio State bested Loyola-Maryland (78-59), Gonzaga (73-66) and Cincinnati (81-66) before punching its ticket to the Final Four with a 77-70 decision over top-seed Syracuse in the Elite Eight. This marks the 10th Final Four appearance for OSU, and the first since 2007. Ohio State, which is 45-22 all-time in the tournament, has one championship to its credit, coming way back in 1960.
Kansas holds a 6-3 series advantage over Ohio State, including a 78-67 win in Lawrence this season, back on December 10th.
The Orange made a late run in the last few minutes of the game, but Ohio State was able to hold on and earn a 77-70 victory over Syracuse last weekend and advance to New Orleans. Sophomore forward Jared Sullinger fought off early foul trouble to post a team-high 19 points. Lenzelle Smith Jr. poured in 18, while Deshaun Thomas and William Buford finished with 14 and 13 points, respectively.
Sullinger has certainly not suffered a sophomore slump. In fact, the 6-9 youngster was named a First-Team All-American for the second straight season, pacing Ohio State in both scoring (17.6 ppg) and rebounding (9.1 rpg). Sullinger has upped that to 21.8 ppg in seven postseason games this year. Sullinger is by no means alone at either end of the floor. Fellow sophomore Deshaun Thomas can fill up the basket as well at 16.1 ppg and has the ability to score both inside and out. Balance comes from depth in the backcourt. Senior guard William Buford gives the team a viable third scoring threat at 14.4 ppg. Sophomore point guard Aaron Craft may not be much of a scorer (8.8 ppg), but is a deft distributor (4.7 apg) and is perhaps the nation's top defensive guard, as evidenced by his school-record 95 steals this season.
While there have been brief lulls this year in Columbus, Sullinger and his teammates used any speculation about their makeup as fuel to succeed.
"People were asking, are we mentally tough enough, are we physically tough enough, can we do this, can we do that?" Sullinger said. "I relayed those questions back to the team. We did some soul searching, and now we've taken this to a whole other level."
Kansas shot a blistering 56.3 percent from the floor in the first half, but could not shake North Carolina, as the two teams went into the break tied 47-47. Despite falling off the pace in the second half (.355 shooting), the Tar Heels were even worse (.226). All five starters notched double figures for Kansas, led by guard Tyshawn Taylor's 22 points. Thomas Robinson just missed a double-double with 18 points and nine rebounds. Center Jeff Withey added 15 points and eight boards to the cause, while guards Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson tacked on 11 and 10 points, respectively.
Kansas is on a roll and a lot of that has to do with the dynamic duo of Robinson and Taylor. The 6-10 Robinson took the nation by storm this season, elevating himself from a part-time role player early on in his career to a consensus First-Team All-American this season. The Big 12 Player of the Year comes into this game averaging a double-double of 17.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game (second nationally). Taylor is a close second in the scoring column at 16.7 ppg, while leading the team in assists (4.7 apg). Johnson (10.0 ppg, 3.6 apg) has similar versatility. Withey (9.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg) has made significant offensive contributions at times this season, but is much more of a deterrent in the paint, setting the school record for blocks in a season with 129 this year. Defensive pressure is also something Kansas thrives on, limiting the opposition to just 61.6 ppg this year and ranking fourth in the country in field-goal percentage defense (.380).
Bill Self knows what the task at hand is with the talented Buckeyes.
"Their team has gotten better. People should talk about (sophomore forward) Jared (Sullinger) because he's terrific. He's an All-American without question, but I think (senior guard William) Buford is pretty good and (sophomore forward) Deshaun Thomas is averaging 22 points per game in the tournament. (Sophomore guard Aaron) Craft is as good as any guard around and (sophomore guard Lenzelle) Smith (Jr.) has played exceptionally well throughout Big Ten play. Their bench is good too, and they're big. Jared is terrific and deserves the accolades, but they're not a one-man band."