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
- Date: Friday, March 25th
- Tip Time: 9:45 ET
- TV: CBS
- Announcers: Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg
- Location: Newark, NJ
- Arena: The Prudential Center
- Point Spread: OSU -5
- Over-Under: 140
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- Vivid Seats: Ohio State-Kentucky Sweet 16 Tickets
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.)
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.
So 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.
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.