Most of the nation's college basketball fans consider the Kentucky Wildcat vs. Ohio State Buckeyes Sweet 16 match-up to be a no-brainer pick. A no-brainer because the Buckeyes are the No. 1 ranked team in the country, they are the overall No. 1 seed in the Big Dance, they sport a sparkling 34-2 record, and they positively dominated their two NCAA Tournament opponents, beating UT-San Antonio 75-46, and a very good George Mason team 98-66. During the regular season, Thad Matta's club beat Florida by 18 (93-75), South Carolina by 22 (79-57), Purdue by 23 (87-64), and after Wisconsin beat OSU by four-points at the Kohl Center, the Buckeyes returned the favor by pounding Bo Ryan's club 93-65 (yes, the same Badger squad currently still alive and well in the Round of 16).
After all week hearing the so-called experts and pundits predict a precipitous Buckeye-induced downfall for the 'Cats, if Kentucky fans aren't yet convinced to prepare for the worst come 9:45 Friday night, here's some more bad news to make Blue backers reach for the Rolaids:
Ohio State shoots the three-pointer more accurately than anyone in the country, making the long-bomb 42.4% of the time -- OSU's long-range quartet includes Aaron Craft (38.8%), David Lighty (43.5%), William Buford (44.4%), and the incredibly consistent Jon Diebler (50.0%); the Buckeyes have an All-American big man in the form of freshman Jared Sullinger who can dominate games all by himself -- Sully averages a double-double with 17.1 ppg and 10.0 rpg; the Buckeyes have a point guard in freshman Aaron Craft who is adept at pilfering the ball from opponents (1.9 spg), and dishing the rock to his teammates(4.9 apg), putting them in a position to score; the Buckeyes have a shot blocker extraordinaire in 6'8" Dallas Lauderdale -- Lauderdale plays only 16 minutes per game, but blocks 1.5 shots per contest (plus, he has the coolest name in the tournament), in addition, Lauderdale is a shot-making machine, connecting on 73.3% of his attempts from the field; and finally, the Buckeyes are the most offensively efficient team in the country, scoring 1.2 points per possession -- That means OSU doesn't turn the ball over (10.2 tpg), and they shoot ball with extreme prejudice (49.9 overall field goal% and 56.8 effective fg%).
What are the Can-Do 'Cats to Do?
"Gloom, despair, and agony on me (ooh!), deep, dark depression, excessive misery (ooh!), if it weren't for bad luck I'd have no luck at all (ooh!), gloom, despair, and agony on me."
The good ol' boys from Kornfield County
Somebody call John Calipari and get our boys back from Newark; there's no sense in putting our beloved 'Cats through the Armageddon-like beat-down they are about to experience ... well, actually, hold the phone for a minute. Let's instead look at what the 'Cats can do.
After all, wallowing in misery created by the bad luck of a historically bad NCAA Tournament draw seems so counter-productive to ones "fandom," especially when Kentucky is demonstrably capable of beating anyone in the country. They are capable because this team does so many things well, and after the growth they have shown over the last month of the season, anything seems possible with this group ... even upsetting the allegedly unbeatable Buckeyes. So in an effort to raise the spirits of 'Cat fans everywhere, let's take a look at six of the can-do positives UK takes into their titanic tilt with Ohio State:
- Kentucky can score from anywhere on the court -- The 'Cats perimeter game, which is perhaps this team's primary offensive strength, is an equalizer like no other. With Doron Lamb making the shot 46.9% of the time, Darius Miller 44.6%, DeAndre Liggins 40.7%, and Brandon Knight 38.4%, the 'Cats can match the Buckeyes in the long-range-make category. And if UK is able to thwart the Buckeyes' three-point game by getting-up-in the Buckeye shooters, while making threes themselves, then a Kentucky victory seems much more likely.
- Josh Harrellson can make a difference, because of his vast, almost otherworldly improvement -- On the year, Harrellson is averaging 7.3 points per game, but in tourney play (SEC & NCAA) the big fella is averaging 12.2 points and 8.6 rebounds per contest, while shooting 69.2% from the floor (27-39). Calipari has been running the pick-and-roll with Harrellson of late, to great effectiveness. This makes Harrellson someone who now the opposition must be mindful of in UK's offensive sets, instead of only trying to keep him off the offensive glass.
- Kentucky can nearly match the value OSU puts on taking care of the ball, plus, Knight vs. Craft -- All season the 'Cats have valued possession, averaging only 10.6 turns per contest, likewise, OSU turns the ball over only 10.2 times per game. Normally, OSU's lack of turnovers is a huge advantage for the Buckeyes, but Friday night that advantage should be offset by UK's similar ability to value possession. Also, in this contest I like the Brandon Knight against Aaron Craft match-up: Although Craft is crafty, especially when it comes to stealing the ball, he has yet to face a point guard with the combination of length, long arms, and overall skill set of UK's Knight. Knight is certainly a great penetrator, who can get to the rim, or, he can knock down the three if his defender lags. Craft will have his hands full in this battle within the battle (maybe too full).
- The 'Cats can defend -- Simply put, DeAndre Liggins will be the best defender on the court Friday night. And with Ligs being charged with either slowing down Buckeye "2" guard Jon Diebler, or possibly with keeping second leading scorer William Buford out of the lane where he does most of his damage, I like Kentucky's chances of limiting Diebler or Buford to below their season averages of 12.6 and 14.5 points per game, respectively (look for long-armed Darius Miller to take whichever player Ligs does not). Overall, the Kentucky "D," an often overlooked plus for the 'Cats, is holding opponents to 39.3% field goal shooting (11th in the nation), and 44.3% efield goal shooting. Both figures are well below OSU's season averages, and are another reason to believe the fighting 'Cats have a (sucker) puncher's chance of upsetting the Buckeyes.
- Kentucky can rebound that basketball ... lately -- If Ohio State has one weakness, it's rebounding. Although the Buckeyes are slightly better than the 'Cats in offensive rebound percentage -- OSU is at 35.6%, UK checks in at 34.8% -- as well as defensive rebound percentage -- OSU at 71.5%, and UK at 69.4% -- this is an area Kentucky can capitalize on if Harrellson, Terrence Jones, and Miller continue to bang the defensive boards as they have of late -- 75.0% @ Tennessee, 72.7% vs. Ole Miss, 69.7% vs. Alabama, 71.4% vs. Princeton, and 73.5% vs. West Virginia.
- The 'Cats can run -- Although I would not describe the Buckeyes as slow-of-foot, man-for-man they cannot match the speed and quickness of UK. OSU is a team full of bulk, ripe for the picking if the 'Cats opt to get out and push the ball at a pace unfamiliar to Big Ten teams. OSU does averages nearly 77 points per game, but that is more a function of their ability to take care of the ball and make shots at a high rate, instead of their ability push the rock up the floor. Kentucky, as we all know, is fully capable of getting out on the break and manufacturing points via mismatches on the offensive end (otherwise known as the secondary break).
So fret not 'Cat fans, there are plenty of can-do avenues Kentucky can utilize to come out on top, in what should be a very tight, hard fought battle with the Buckeyes. Both teams are talented, well-coached ball clubs, and the tip-off should signal the onset of a war for the NCAA ages, and whichever team executes their "stuff" most efficiently will continue to dance, while the other will hear the fat lady singing the sad song of defeat.
Thanks for reading and Go can-do 'Cats!
** For the Thursday night, Sweet 16 A Sea of Blue Open Game thread, go here.