Kansas center Jeff Withey
In the big picture, Kansas’ trip to Ohio State on Saturday is simply a good game against two top-10 teams, a national title contender visiting another title contenders gym.
Kansas, whose only loss was 67-64 to Michigan State in Atlanta, hasn’t played a true road game this season, and the first one’s a toughie. Ohio State hasn’t lost a non-conference home game in nearly four years. Meanwhile, Ohio State is looking to avenge its only loss of the season in which the Buckeyes lost a 10-point second half lead at Duke on Nov. 29.
It’s a no-brainer for viewing.
But the basketball junkies, of course, will have something, too. Kansas’ Jeff Withey and Ohio State’s Aaron Craft are among the best defenders in the country in their own way. Ohio State will have trouble around the basket thanks to Withey’s blocks, and Kansas will have trouble getting around Craft’s man-to-man defense.
On the offensive end, two of the nation’s breakout players, Ben McLemore and Deshaun Thomas will try to crack potential defensive players of the year.
In short, there’s something for everyone in Columbus.
Game of the week
Kansas probable starters
Ohio State probable starters
Ohio State guard Aaron Craft
One of the most important matchups will be between Kansas’ emerging star guard Ben McLemore and Ohio State’s Aaron Craft. After sitting out last season as a partial qualifier, McLemore has emerged as one of the nation’s most dynamic players. He can drive to the basket and step out from the perimeter. His matchup against a physical and more seasoned defender in Craft will be a key proving moment for McLemore. Lenzelle Smith, who is getting more looks at the basket with William Buford gone, has emerged as Ohio State’s second-leading scorer at 11.5 points per game. Kansas has struggled at the point guard spot with Elijah Johnson taking over this season. In past seasons, Kansas has had multiple starters able to bring the ball up the court, but with McLemore and Travis Releford on the wings, Johnson’s on his own unless Self goes to the bench.
Withey’s momentum from the NCAA Tournament carried into this season. He set a record with 31 blocks in six Tourney games last season, a pace he’s maintained this season. Withey has averaged 5.4 blocks per game and is less than a month removed from a triple-double against San Jose State. He’ll try to stop shots against Deshaun Thomas, who is averaging 20.4 points per game. Thomas is a high-volume shooter from all over the court: Thomas has attempted 159 shots from the floor; no one else for Ohio State has more than 85 attempts. Ohio State has a small frontcourt, especially compared to the 7-footer Withey. The Buckeyes may have to go to the bench to counter his length: The 6-8, 260-pound Evan Ravenel is Ohio State’s biggest starter.
Ohio State is much deeper than its been in past seasons. The Buckeyes can absorb Craft’s absence for a time with Shannon Scott coming off the bench. In fact, Scott has more assists per minute (0.23) than Craft (0.16) this season. One of the key players off the bench for Ohio State may be the 6-11 Amir Williams, who added 30 pounds in the offseason and could be a better size matchup against Withey. Kansas has good depth on the bench, but it’s untested with two freshmen (forwards Perry Ellis and Jamari Taylor) and a sophomore (point guard Naadir Tharpe).
Kansas is looking to prove it can win a road game, but Ohio State may have more on the line: The Buckeyes are looking to avenge two losses to Kansas last season. The first was a 78-67 win at Allen Fieldhouse on Dec. 19, 2011 and the second sent Kansas to the national title game with a 64-62 win in the Final Four. Withey had seven blocks and contained Jared Sullinger in the national semifinal. Many of the key players from that game are gone, but enough are left for Ohio State to play with an edge, especially at home.
Prediction: Kansas 72, Ohio State 68
Expect this matchup to be closer than the two Kansas victories last season. That said, few have been better than Jeff Withey and Ben McLemore this season. With the exception of McLemore, the core of the Jayhawks’ lineup is made of veterans, so Kansas should be able to handle a difficult road environment.