NEW ORLEANS – The December doldrums are not the same as March Madness.
Luckily for Ohio State, which lost at Kansas 78-67 on Dec. 10 in what cannot be considered a prelude to their national semfinal matchup Saturday at the Final Four.
“It was our first loss of the season,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “I think of it more in terms of how that game prepared us with what we had to deal with going into the rigors of the Big Ten season. Playing without Jared [Sullinger] obviously made us a better basketball team. I know they are playing at a higher level. There were a lot of things that we didn’t do in that game that was true to our system.”
Or, as senior guard William Buford said, “We just didn’t value the ball at the end of the game.”
Lenzelle Smith, Ohio State’s sophomore guard, said he’s looking forward to the rematch.
“We lost, and any time you get another chance that’s a good thing. We got a chance to see some of the things we did wrong and work on those,” Smith said. “We were also missing our best player. Jared didn’t play the first time and I’m interested to see how we play with him. He is one of our leaders, and when he is rolling, everyone else is rolling.”
At the time of the Kansas loss, the Buckeyes were 8-0. It was hardly Ohio State’s last loss, considering the Buckeyes come to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome 31-7. What matters, however, is since losing to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament final, second-seeded Ohio State has defeated Loyola (78-59), Gonzaga (73-66), Cincinnati (81-66) and top-seeded Syracuse (77-70).
Kansas (31-6) took a break for finals right after that Ohio State victory and came back to lose to Davidson and fall to 7-3. The other two defeats were to Kentucky and Duke.
Clearly Kansas got hot after that, losing only at Missouri and Iowa State before falling to Baylor in the Big 12 tournament. In the NCAA tournament, the second-seeded Jayhawks defeated Detroit (65-50), Purdue (63-60), North Carolina State (60-57) and top-seeded North Carolina (80-67).
“When we played them early on, just like we played Kentucky early on, anybody you play in November or early December is like two seasons ago,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “They are definitely different in large part because Jared [Sullinger] didn’t play against us. It was a home game and we have a pretty good home court.
“The parts have improved individually and the pieces are fitting very, very well. We’ve gotten better too. In that particular game, we played well and our pieces fit better too. We’ve gotten consistent play from a variety of guys. They are a challenge because they score from all five spots. You are going to have to defend all five spots and that’s one of the biggest challenges.”
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With so much emphasis on the first semifinal game — between John Calipari of Kentucky and Rick Pitino of Louisville — the successes of coaches Matta and Self might have stayed under the radar this week. After all, Self’s resume includes winning the 2008 NCAA title and Matta took the Buckeyes to the 2007 Final Four, losing to Florida in the title game.
Self, who coached at Illinois but left before Matta got to Ohio State, knows what the Buckeyes are all about and talked about this game compared to the first. If nothing else, he knows that Sullinger, the 6-9 sophomore, leads his team with 17.6 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. He also had 36 blocks this eason.
“Things change with Jared being in there. Thad is a good coach,” Self said. “It’s a lot easier to get a team to guard than it is to be cohesive offensively. They guard and we guard too.
“I think this will be one of those games where easy baskets are hard to come by. Hitting 70-percent of those 50-50 balls may be as key a stat in this particular game as anything because both teams have done a great job in not giving up easy baskets. One thing that the Big Ten does well as a league, having coached in it for three years, is that you better be sound defensively. That’s the way the league plays.”
It’s also how top-level hoops are played and coached in the Big 12.
“We’ve had some years better than others coaching our guys. This isn’t a hard team to coach. It’s a lot easier coaching a team when everybody in your program agrees who your starters should be and everybody in the program wants those starters to play 30 minutes a game,” Self said.
“The guys who come off the bench to play, everyone thinks they should be the ones getting all the minutes off the bench. That’s not a hard team to coach and when a team cares a lot, it’s pretty easy. Coaching and managing egos and trying to cut nine guys to seven is more difficult. These guys haven’t been difficult at all. Taking a team with lower expectations and performing pretty well gives you the appearance that you are doing a better job coaching.”
That will actually be different next year, since KU is losing two staff members. Assistant coach Danny Manning will become the head coach at Tulsa once this Final Four ends, while director of operations Barry Hinson is going to Southern Illinois. In the meantime, it’s a coaching staff led by Self that the players appreciate.
“Coach Self does an amazing job coaching us,” said junior forward Thomas Robinson, who leads the Jayhawks with 17.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game.
“Coach Self, in my eyes, he knows he cannot coach all the players the same way and there are some days guys are having bad days. It could be because something is going wrong off the court, but he won’t be as aggressive or scream as much to that guy and things like that. I think he understands how to coach us and does a really good job getting to know his players. I think that shows.
“I have been here for four years and I have not always been the easiest guy to coach, I’m sure, but he has found a way to coach me and keep me in the loop. He has to deal with 15 other guys that have problems with other things and he does a good job with it. I am not sure what it is or how he does it, but he has been doing it for a long time, so I am sure he has the hang of it.”