Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Round 3.
Last season, we saw the beginning of a thrilling out-of-conference rivalry between the Kansas Jayhawks and Ohio State Buckeyes.
In early December, Thad Matta's squad went into Allen Fieldhouse and gave the Jayhawks a run for their money on one of the toughest courts to play on in the country, but without Jared Sullinger, they came up short.
It appeared as though the Buckeyes and Sullinger were going to get revenge in the Final Four, but an epic late-game comeback by the Jayhawks propelled them to the national championship in exciting fashion.
On Saturday, No. 7 Ohio State will once again get a chance at revenge as it hosts No. 9 Kansas.
Last week's CBS on Saturday's game between Indiana and Butler has a solid shot at going down as the best game of the season, but if last year is any indication, the Jayhawks and Buckeyes will follow up that instant classic in fine fashion.
Where: Value City Arena, Columbus, OH
When: Saturday, Dec. 22 at 4:00 p.m. ET
Kansas Injury Report (via USA Today)
F Justin Wesley, Finger, Out until early January
Ohio State Injury Report (via USA Today)
None to report
What They're Saying
Everyone knows Deshaun Thomas can fill it up in a matter of minutes. The preseason All-American was clearly Ohio State's No. 1 option coming into the season.
However, a big concern was who would give the Buckeyes a second and third option on the offensive end, and that problem hasn't yet been quelled (via Pro Basketball Draft):
NBA scout who has seen Ohio State play this year, "They seem too sporadic on offense.No reliable 2nd option.Must fix that by March."— Probasketballdraft (@Probballdraft) December 16, 2012
That very well may be true, but dynamite sophomore LaQuinton Ross, who is arguably the most talented player on the team, is beginning to show glimpses of being that all-important second scorer.
CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein notes how important Elijah Johnson has been over the past couple of weeks for the Jayhawks:
Elijah Johnson has been an unsung presence in Kansas' recent surge. 28 assists, 10 turnovers in last four games.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) December 20, 2012
His matchup with Aaron Craft at the point guard position will be (spoiler!) arguably the most important matchup of the game.
Kansas Player to Watch: Travis Releford
There certainly isn't a lack of candidates here.
Ben McLemore is quickly establishing himself as one of the best all-around offensive players in the country and is absolutely sky-rocketing up draft boards.
Jeff Withey, meanwhile, is controlling the other end for Kansas. Not only is he blocking an absolutely ridiculous 5.4 shots per game, but he's avoiding fouls and improving his offensive game in the process.
But I have to go with Releford.
Yes, he's a solid offensive player. He may not be a terrific outside shooter, but he's a slasher who can get to the hole and score in transition, and as a result, he has a team-high 69.7 true shooting percentage to go with a solid 13.0 points per game.
But Releford's importance in this one will be on the defensive end, as there is a good chance he'll draw the task of guarding Deshaun Thomas, who is easily Ohio State's No. 1 option on offense.
Thomas, while sometimes inconsistent, has shown that if he gets anything that resembles an open look, he'll knock it down. Releford, who is without a doubt one of the stingiest on-ball defenders in the country, will have to make sure Thomas doesn't see those looks.
Moreover, he will have to keep Thomas off the glass, as the Buckeye junior has a real knack for cleaning up his teammates' garbage.
Ohio State Player to Watch: LaQuinton Ross
Much like with Kansas, there is plenty of intrigue on this team.
If you're a fan of hard-nosed, I'm-going-to-drive-you-insane defense and rosy red cheeks, then Aaron Craft is your man. If you're a fan of watching one of the best scorers in the country, Deshaun Thomas is someone you want to watch.
But if we're talking about importance, LaQuinton Ross is the player to keep an eye on.
At 6'8", 220 pounds, the sophomore has the true look of an NBA small forward. While he hasn't yet found his stroke from the outside, he's incredibly athletic. He also gets to the hoop with ease and uses his size well to finish.
If Ross' outside shot (which I feel like I might be under-selling. If he's on, he can stroke it) isn't falling, he needs to use his length and athleticism to get inside and challenge Withey.
Also, I'll put out an honorable mention here for Sam Thompson, who has the sheer athleticism to jump over Jeff Withey and surprise no one in the process.
Matchup to Watch: Elijah Johnson vs. Aaron Craft
Johnson still isn't overly efficient as a scorer (His 52.4 effective field goal percentage is sixth on the team and 20th in the conference), but with McLemore really stepping on the offensive end, his role is shifting towards being a true point guard.
That transition is going swell.
The senior, in addition to averaging a steady 9.6 points, is dishing out 5.3 assists to just 2.6 turnovers per contest. That's a ratio of 2-to-1, which is good enough for seventh best in the conference.
Moreover, as we mentioned above, he's been even better in the last few games in which Kansas has looked at its absolute best.
Running the offense on Saturday won't be so easy, as he'll be going up against arguably the toughest on-ball defender in the nation in Aaron Craft.
The junior is scrappy, quick, has fast hands and he's smart. He's every point guard's worst nightmare. His steals are actually down this year to 1.7 per game, but as Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn points out, he has still been elite in forcing turnovers.
There are some talented big men in this game, but guard play here will be of the most importance.
Both teams are top 20 in offensive and defensive points per possession. Both have an elite scorer. Both have an elite defender. Both have size, athleticism and veterans to rely on, as well as exciting youth. Both, so far, are looking like good bets to make it to the Georgia Dome in March.
Who ya got?
With two similar teams, the home-court advantage that Ohio State holds usually serves as a very important factor.
However, Kansas has the tools on defense (Releford on the outside, Withey on the inside) to slow down Deshaun Thomas, and after him, it's hard to trust any of the Buckeyes' other inconsistent—albeit talented—options on offense.
That should be enough for the win, although Ohio State's top-notch defense on the other end will certainly keep things interesting.
Kansas 64, Ohio State 61