In a game billed as the under-card for the 2012 Final Four, the Kansas Jayhawks and Ohio State Buckeyes put on a show that was worthy of top billing as KU defeated Ohio State 64-62, on the strength of a suffocating defense.
Back in December, the two teams met in Allen Fieldhouse, with Kansas prevailing 78-67 in a game where neither team was at full strength. KU's Tyshawn Taylor was playing at less than 100 percent and would have a knee scoped eight hours after the game. The Buckeyes were minus All-American Jared Sullinger.
Few who saw that game would have predicted it to be a preview of the season-ending championship series in New Orleans.
Kansas entered the season minus two NBA lottery picks (Marcus and Markieff Morris) and two senior guards. Most viewed the 2011-12 season to be a rebuilding year for Bill Self and the Jayhawks.
What developed for Kansas over the course of the season was the emergence of a double-double machine in Thomas Robinson, a conference Defensive Player of the Year in Jeff Withey and a tough, gritty guard named Tyshawn Taylor. Sprinkle in a group of capable, defensive-minded reserves and role players, and Bill Self had the recipe for a national title contender.
The stifling Jayhawks' defense was on display in last night's latter semifinal game against Ohio State. In the first half, the Buckeyes managed to push out to a 13-point lead at times. Sullinger had not dominated but did manage seven points despite being clearly bothered by the length of Withey.
William Buford paced the Buckeyes early, hitting a pair of three-pointers, and vaunted defender Aaron Craft forced the Jayhawk guards into two charging fouls and nine first-half turnovers. National Player of the Year candidate Thomas Robinson got off to a slow start offensively for Kansas, and it appeared as if KU would fall too far behind to stage another tournament comeback.
Ohio State had forged a double-digit lead on 43 percent shooting in the first half, which is not blistering hot, but more than many previous foes of the Jayhawks had mustered. As it has been for seemingly the entire tournament, Kansas got off to a slow start and appeared over-matched in the first 20 minutes of play.
But with just under 10 seconds to play in the first half, Jeff Withey blocked a shot by Sullinger. The ball was gobbled up and moved quickly down court by Elijah Johnson, leading to a bucket by KU defensive stopper Travis Releford at the buzzer.
Momentum had swung the Jayhawks' way, even though Kansas trailed by 11 at the half.
When the two teams resumed play for the second half, it was obvious that Kansas would not go quietly into the night, as the opening basket was made by KU, trimming the Buckeyes' lead to nine. KU then began to clamp down on Ohio State and went on a 13-4 run that saw the game tied at 38.
From there, KU seemed to get stops and key defensive plays on every possession, dominating the boards on both sides of the floor and all but eliminating Sullinger as an offensive threat. Withey blocked shots, Johnson and Taylor pressured the ball and Robinson bullied Deshaun Thomas, forcing the Buckeyes forward to the bench with foul trouble.
From there, Kansas was able to take control of the game offensively and score enough to manage a small but decisive two-point lead at just under three minutes to play. When the dust settled, Kansas had held Ohio State to a paltry 24 percent from the field in the second half, and a dismal 11 percent shooting over the last five minutes of the contest.
What many have said Kansas' run to the title game has been smoke and mirrors, it has turned out to be a proven formula: defense wins championships.
KU has not had an offensive output to break any records. They have not had a consistent offensive effort from more than one player at a time during the entire tournament. The Jayhawks have not dominated on the scoreboard since mid-season.
Here they stand, in the midst of naysayer smoke and non-believer mirrors. There may not be a group of players anywhere that are as mentally tough or battle-tested as this Kansas team. The Jayhawk journey to the championship game against Kentucky has not been sexy, but it has been very predictable.
The Jayhawks will need every bit of their defensive prowess to battle all of the weapons Kentucky will throw at them. Five McDonald's All-Americans versus none on the Jayhawks roster sounds like a mismatch on paper, but McDonald's does not sell toughness, grit or the will to win.