After cruising through UTSA and George Mason, the Buckeyes face-off against a very young and talented Kentucky squad this Friday in the Sweet 16.
The Wildcats, who come in on an eight game winning streak (27-8 overall), are a formidable opponent and are much better than the four-seed they were given.
Most experts were easily predicting them as a three-seed, yet they were instead placed as the weakest four-seed. What a nice gift to the Buckeyes. In fact, many believe it is the most intriguing matchup in the Sweet 16. Andy Glockner of SI had this to say:"Down the stretch of the season, I thought the Wildcats were a very legitimate Final Four contender and very well would have picked them to make it to Houston had they not been saddled with this Sweet 16 matchup. There are so many things to watch for here. The surging Brandon Knight vs. the NORAD-like defense of Aaron Craft. Jorts vs. Sullinger inside. Calipari vs. Matta on the sidelines. Multiple X-factors on both teams. Multiple lottery picks in the upcoming NBA draft. A game worthy of April will be played in March. And that's not to say that Marquette vs. North Carolina won't be fascinating, either."I'm not sure anyone else slated this Wildcat squad in the Final Four, but his point is a good one. The Buckeyes shouldn't be playing this team in the Round of 16.
So enough about how tough this matchup could be. Instead, let's talk about what the Buckeyes have to do right to get past Coach Calapari and company.
It comes down to four keys...
1) Win the inside matchups.
The Wildcats have two solid players they start in the frontcourt in Josh Harrellson and Terrence Jones, and how the Buckeyes handle these players could dictate the flow of this game.
Jared Sullinger will likely spend most of the game battling Harrellson, which should be a lot of fun to watch. Both players are physical big-men (Sullinger is listed at 6'-9" 280-pounds while Harrellson is listed at 6'-10" 275-pounds), who make their living on the boards. Sully is the Naismith Award finalist and while most would expect him to dominate this dual, don't minimize what Harrellson can do. Not only did he lead the SEC in rebounds per game (8.8) and field-goal percentage (.604), but has been on a hot streak throughout the SEC Championship and NCAA tourney so far. He obviously doesn't have the quickness or overall athleticism that Sullinger does, but this matchup isn't as one-sided as some may expect.
Then there is Jones. Early in the year he looked like he could be the number one overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, thanks to his versatility and ball skills as a big-man. His production and draft stock have fallen in recent months, as some major holes have started to show in his overall play. He's still a very dangerous player though, who could present some major matchup problems for the Buckeyes.
Neither Sullinger nor Dallas Lauderdale have the speed to run the floor well enough to handle Jones, while David Lighty would be dealing with a major size disadvantage.
It will be interesting to see how Matta handles this and what adjustments may be made during the game.
2) Defend the lane.
Calipari is famous for his use of the dribble-drive motion offense, and this year's Wildcat team is very good at using it.
The offense centers around the idea of keeping the middle clear with good spacing, and allowing the playmakers around the perimeter to penetrate. When they do, beating their defenders off the dribble, they get layups or kick it out to guys who come open. The Buckeyes will have to work hard to try to keep Kentucky's guards out of the lane and limit their easy looks.
Between Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb, DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller, they have a lot of weapons who can get to the rack. Craft is a great defender, but Jon Diebler and William Buford really have to be on their games come Friday. Having Lauderdale and Sullinger will help, but you better believe Kentucky will clear their bigs to leave the lane open. Not to mention that their guards are great at finding their bigs cutting to the basket when helping defense arrives.
Some of you at this point might be calling for a Zone. Lots of coaches like to go with this strategy to try to clog up the lane against the dribble-drive, and while I have no clue what Matta will choose to do, this does have its limitations.
The Zone-D does help limit driving lanes and increase help defense in the paint, it can also hurt you with good shooting teams. This Kentucky squad is a quality three point shooting team and has looked good against the zone all year. So I don't see OSU playing much zone.
Instead look for Matta to allow his squad to play man-to-man, since the Buckeyes have such a plethora of athletes, and emphasize great on the ball pressure with physical defense. Also look for the big-men to hedge on ball screens to limit the effectiveness of guys like Knight and Lamb coming off of them.
3) Win the 3 point shooting battle.
Speaking of three point shooting, both the Buckeyes and Wildcats have made their living from behind the stripe. On the year Kentucky is shooting just under 40 percent while OSU is at 42 percent. The team that shoots the higher percentage on Friday will most likely have the upper hand.
However, the Wildcats have struggled consistently in their perimeter defense, especially against premiere shooters. For instance, their loss at Vanderbilt earlier this season saw Josh Jenkins dominate the Cats, making 6-of-10 from behind the line. He's not even in the same league as a player like Diebler, who is shooting 50 percent.
4) Transition defense.
The final key for the Buckeyes is how they handle things when Kentucky ups the tempo.
Calipari loves to have his guys push the tempo coming off of turnovers and defensive stands, which leads to plenty of easy buckets in transition. This style of play works because the Cats are extremely athletic, and they create great spacing on the floor. In fact, in recent games Florida and West Virginia have struggled with this against UK, especially when trying to account for Brandon Knight.
The Buckeyes have to be ready to get back on every single play, and account for their man in transition, including the bigs. They're one of the most athletic teams in the country, and have all the tools to handle Kentucky's speed. If the Buckeyes can play well in the half-court, it will limit how much Kentucky can push the tempo.
There you have it.
The four keys to beating the Wildcats.