Sweet 16 Preview: Ohio State v Kentucky – 3 Things the ‘Cats Must Do To Knock Off the Buckeyes

The Wisconsin-Butler matchup on Thursday night is going to be outstanding. I cannot wait to watch that game. I am also greatly intrigued by UCONN-San Diego State, Florida-BYU, and really all of the other matchups on Thursday and Friday night because, well, this is the Sweet 16 after all.

But no matchup has me more intrigued than the matchup between the #1 seed and the #4 seed in the East Region – Ohio State versus Kentucky.

That’s why I am kicking off my part of our Sweet 16 previews off with this matchup. No sense saving the best for last. The most compelling matchup comes first for me.

First, the basics.

Sweet 16 Preview: Ohio State v Kentucky Game Info

If you have followed my NCAA Tournament predictions before, you know that I like to use objective data when assessing teams. This has worked out pretty well for single-game predictions, though not always when applied in a blanket way to an entire bracket. But hey – we’re past the point of predicting the whole bracket. Now it’s all single-game analysis, where we excel here at MSF.

So before we go any further, let’s quickly analyze some important metrics for this game, courtesy of the ESPN Bracket Predictor (which I am now using for the third straight year to give me an objective basis for comparing teams’ season-long body of work as a whole.)


sweet-16-ohio-state-kentucky-tickets-preview-tv-announcers-date-tip-time sweet-16-ohio-state-kentucky-tickets-preview-tv-announcers-date-tip-time

As you can see, there are only two out of the 15 metrics measure where Kentucky has an edge: turnover % (Kentucky ranked 6th, Ohio State ranked 7th) and opponent’s effective FG percentage (Kentucky ranked 11th, Ohio State ranked 123rd). So if we are looking at this game strictly on the basis of these very predictive stats, the Buckeyes are the obvious choice.

This is an Ohio State team that scores more points per possession than any other team America, and only 11 others allow fewer points per possession to opponents. That is pretty impressive stuff. Combine it with the Buckeyes’ bevy of NBA-level talent – literally every player in their rotation is an NBA prospect – and how much they have destroyed their first two opponents (combined winning margin: 63 points) in this year’s NCAA Tournament, and it suggests to me that the common notion that “there is no dominant team this year” might just be a big bunch of malarkey.

Ohio State has lost two games all season. They lost at Wisconsin and at Purdue (back when Purdue was actually playing like a #1 seed), two of the toughest places to win in college basketball. In fact, neither team lost a home game to anyone else.

sweet-16-preview-kentucky-ohio-state-prediction-pick-point-spread-game-time-announcers-tvSo can this dominant Thad Matta-led Ohio State team, which has not been beaten all season anywhere but in the most of hostile road environments, be beaten by a young, talented Coach Cal-led Kentucky team that was within a tiger stripe of being knocked out in the first round?


However, this is not a game where Ohio State can play its best and Kentucky can play its best and the whims of the basketball’s bounces will decide the game. If the Buckeyes bring their A game, it’s over. Ohio State wins. Kentucky is talented, but they do not have the lethal blend of talent and experience that Ohio State has. So Kentucky needs Ohio State to be slightly of its game, and the Wildcats need to do some things to push the Buckeyes in the direction of a B, B+ performance.

If Ohio State plays at a B/B+ level and Kentucky plays up to its potential, which admittedly would not be any kind of miraculous occurrence, we’ll have a game. Here are three ways the Wildcats can do it.

1. Guard the MF’ing 3-point line!

In listening to analysis of the Buckeyes during this tournament, I have often heard that controlling Jared Sullinger is the key to stopping Ohio State. So I expected that in the rare instances this season when the Buckeyes have lost that Sullinger has been held in check. Has he?

Here are Sullinger’s numbers in Ohio State’s two losses:

  • @ Wisconsin – 19 points on 7-12 shooting, 12 rebounds, 1 foul, 40 minutes played
  • @ Purdue – 25 points on 9-14 shooting, 6 rebounds, 4 turnovers, 4 fouls, 33 minutes played

For the season, Sullinger averaged 17.1 points per game and 10.0 rebounds per game. In Ohio State’s two losses, he averaged 23 points and 8 rebounds. So it seems to me that even when the Buckeyes lose, Sullinger is going to get his.

In looking at the box score, however, one statistic jumped out. The Buckeyes went 3-9 from downtown against Wisconsin and 4-15 from downtown against Purdue. That’s 7-24 (29%) in the two losses for a team that averaged 8 made threes and 18.7 attempts per game (approximately 42.7%) in their 34 wins. In fact, had five more of the Buckeyes 25 field goals against Wisconsin had been three-pointers – giving them their average of 8 – they win the game 72-71 rather than lose it 71-67.

It seems pretty clear: Kentucky must defend the 3-point line, and the stats certainly seem to suggest that they can.

Look back at the stat images above. One of the most impressive numbers for Kentucky is their effective field goal percentage defense, which is a KenPom stat that gives 50% more credit for defending the three-point line as opposed to normal field goal percentage defense. This bodes well for the Wildcats if we agree that it is imperative that they must limit the number of good looks the Buckeyes get behind the line. They did it against Princeton (3-14) but not quite as well against West Virginia (7-19).

If Kentucky can hold the Buckeyes to 3-4 three point field goals made, Sullinger can put up his usual stats and the Wildcats should have a chance to win in the end.

2. Everyone else can be normal, but Brandon Knight has to be great

Again, I’m not sure I agree with the conventional wisdom. This time, it is the conventional wisdom about Kentucky big man Josh Harrellson.

I keep hearing the Harrellson is the key to Kentucky winning, but I just don’t buy it. Sure, he’s important, and he needs to make life tough on Jared Sullinger, but we have already established that Ohio State can be beaten when Sullinger gets his numbers. Here now is something else we can establish: beating Ohio State does not require a great game from the guys inside.

Here are the numbers for the big men in the two games Ohio State lost this year:

  • @Wisconsin: Keaton Nankivil – 7 pts, 2 rbs; Jon Leuer – 12 pts, 6 rbs; Mike Bruesewitz – 12 pts, 2 rbs
  • @Purdue: JaJuan Johnson – 13 pts, 6 rbs, 4-10 FGs

Wisconsin does not have a traditional low block center like a Harrellson or a Johnson, so the comparison there is incomplete. But it is telling that even the very good Jon Leuer had just 12 points and 6 rebounds in his team’s biggest regular season win of the year. More telling is JaJuan Johnson’s stat line. This is the Big Ten Player of the Year, so you would think he would have to be terrific to beat a team led by Jared Sullinger. He wasn’t. In fact, Sullinger almost doubled him up in points.

So how did Purdue and Wisconsin win then?

  • @Wisconsin: Jordan Taylor: 27 points on 5-8 3FGs, 7 assists, 1 TO, 39 minutes
  • @Purdue: E’Twaun Moore: 38 points on 13-18 FGs, 7-10 3FGs, 5 assists, 4 rebounds, 38 minutes

Clearly, the Buckeyes lost because the best guard on the opposing team decided to put his team on his back and have a career day.

brandon-knight-kentucky-ohio-state-game-time-point-spread-pick-predictionBrandon Knight, the floor is yours.

For Kentucky to beat Ohio State, Knight simply must be spectacular, and there does not appear to be any way around it. Sure, Harrellson needs to be solid and eat up space down low. And yes, Terrence Jones probably needs a double-double. And sure, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller are going to need to score more than the 9 combined points they scored against West Virginia. But the key is Knight.

In the Wildcats’ first tournament game, Knight infamously scored just one bucket. Luckily for he and the ‘Cats it was the most important bucket of the game and they moved on. But another 1-8 shooting night from Knight and it will be goodnight for Kentucky.

To his credit, the cerebral and mature freshman bounced back against West Virginia in the Round of 32 and poured in 30 points on 9-20 shooting. He only had four assists and he turned the ball over four times, but against the Buckeyes I don’t think that matters. Knight needs to play balls-to-wall, even if that means a few mistakes, and be the ultimate scoring catalyst for his team.

Based on how this year has gone for Ohio State, going up against such a guard is the only way they lose.

And now the final thing that needs to happen for Kentucky to beat Ohio State and advance to the Elite 8…

3. The game needs to be moved to Lexington

Uh oh. I don’t think even John Calipari, the greatest salesman in the history of college basketball, could pull this one off. (Not that I’d necessarily bet against him…)

Has Kentucky shown it can guard the three-point line well enough to contain Diebler and Co from downtown? Yes.

Has Brandon Knight shown Jordan Taylor- and E’Twaun Moore-like ability to have an out-of-this-world scoring day? Yes, he just did.

So Kentucky has a chance. They really do. But the other element of Ohio State’s losses this year is something Kentucky simply cannot recreate: home court advantage.

Not many teams go into Mackey Arena or the Kohl Center and come out alive. If those are the only two places you lose all year, you’re a pretty damn good team. Well, Ohio State is a pretty damn good team, and I think they are going to win Friday night.

Now, if this game were in Lexington, where Big Blue Nation could rowdy it up and Ashley Judd could clap-clap-clap from the stands and the ghost of Adolph Rupp could spin a few Jon Diebler threes out instead of in…well then maybe the ‘Cats could do what the Badgers and Boilermakers could do. But this game is not in Lexington; it’s in Newark. And so even if Kentucky does everything right – if they guard the 3 and Brandon Knight goes off – they won’t have the home court edge to knock Ohio State from their A- game down to a B+ or a B.

Thus, Thad Matta and the Buckeyes march on to the Elite 8 – but not easily. Every eventual national champion seems to have a dramatic, nail-biter game before they reach the Final 4. The Buckeyes haven’t had theirs yet. They will on Friday night, as both teams hit their season averages for points right on the money.

  • Ohio State-Kentucky Prediction: Ohio State 77 – Kentucky 76
  • Ohio State-Kentucky Spread Pick: Kentucky +5
  • Ohio State-Kentucky Over/Under: 140 (keep in mind folks, for this game to go under the two teams would have to combined for 14 fewer points than their aggregate average.


What do you think? Will the Buckeyes breeze? Will the Wildcats pull of a Sweet 16 upset? The comment section yours to agree with, disagree with, challenge, or expound on anything you just read. That’s how we do things here.

About Jerod Morris

I love words. I write for Copyblogger and founded MSF, The Assembly Call, & Primility. I practice yoga, eat well, & strive for balance. I love life. Namaste. Say hi on Twitter, Facebook, & G+.


  1. Richard C. says:

    Mr. Jerod: I hope U R wrong…..and Ky wins 68–65 in a defensive battle. Only if the game stays close will Ky have a chance at the end. An 8 – 10 point lead by O.S. with 3 to 4 minutes leftt and I fear it will end in a blow–out by O.S. A 4-5 deficit with just under 3 min. and I believe Ky (with Jones being the hero) will pull it off. Cannot disagree with your very good analysis, and if I were a betting man I would take Ohio State -5 before these odds change……..but being a Ky native and having seen them play in almost all of the gyms in SEC and t ournaments, I'll pull for an upset. O.S. has the toughest draw in my opinion with N.C. and Conn. waiting in the wings………..GO CATS! GO BIG BLUE!

  2. Strength of Schedules aren't right for either team. UK SoS is 8 and OSU is 23

  3. If KY shows up and has only one hot player they will fall. If KY shows up ready to play with several guys on thier game KY can't be stopped. It's a freshman thing. Harrelson Miller and Liggens need to show up or for KY to win. The two words they need to play by is Aggresive and Ownership. Ky must play Aggresive and Own the court. If not OSU will smell the blood and blow KY out. GO BIG BLUE

  4. GatorFlavor says:

    LMAO WTF u people don't know jack. Kentucky WILL Win OSU is over rated, predictable and JUST LIKE their football counter parts will choke when its on the line. . . . u people need to watch the games and stop listening to commentators

    • I think from the analysis above it's pretty clear that I have watched Ohio State play plenty. Kentucky certainly has a great chance to win, but there is a reason why Ohio State is #1 overall and favored. They are more likely to win. Kentucky certainly has it in them, but they'll have to play their best game of the season to beat the Buckeyes.

    • you will eat them words my friend

    • Great analysis

      • That was sarcastic @ GatorFlavor.

        JerodMSF nice analysis, I like the objective baseline. I miss how you put the score at a one pointer though?

  5. Could you consider this a home game for the Cats because I would estimate 70% or so of the fan will be rooting for Kentucky (this estimate has no real data backing, just my personal guess due to how many people follow the Kentucky basketball program in comparison to the Buckeyes which is more followed for football).

    • Well, I don't like it when people act like games on neutral courts can ever be "home" games. They will probably have a lot of support in the form of cheering, but part of home court advantage is playing on your rims, being in your locker room, just being comfortable.

  6. I completely disagree with the suggestion that the game would have to be in Lexington. Everyone knows that Kentucky fans travel more than any other teams fans. Listen to the analysts on ESPN they all say the same thing. When Kentucky plays whether it be at Rupp, Florida or we are flooding the airports at Hawaii there will be more Kentucky fans there than anyone suspects. Go Big Blue!!!

    • First off, I disagree that just having home fans can recreate a home environment. Rims, locker rooms, sleeping in your bed…all of these things and more contribute to home court advantage.

      Secondly, I am not saying that Kentucky CANNOT win because it's not in Lexington. I stated in the post that Kentucky can win this game and it won't take any kind of miracle or be all that unexpected. But, these Buckeyes have only lost in two of the toughest places to play in America. And that is one advantage that Kentucky will not have that Purdue/Wisky did. We'll see if they can overcome it. Either way, I think it's going to be a great game.

  7. MacAttack says:

    OSU Vs. Kentucky – Cheerleaders to Predict? This site picks college basketball games exclusively on attractiveness of cheerleaders-and hasn't gotten a game wrong. Luckily they think Ohio state cheerleaders are hotter (unsure about this) than Kentucky's. Pretty hilarious.

  8. I do love the manner in which you have presented this specific issue and it does indeed provide me a lot of fodder for thought. On the other hand, from everything that I have seen, I really wish as other commentary pack on that folks stay on issue and not embark upon a soap box involving some other news du jour. Still, thank you for this excellent piece and whilst I do not necessarily concur with it in totality, I value the perspective.


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