Friday, Mar 25 at 11:24 AM
So I have been trying to stay in the background here on the sports blog while my more celebrated colleagues Matt Hobbs and Adam Lefkoe regale you with their tales from the road in the conference and NCAA tournaments. Tonight’s game however, is a game that is too much to pass up commenting on-it’s in my sweet spot, and I’m ready to knock it out of the park. It is a game I advocated for in a blog post a month ago as the most interesting match-up for UK and one that leaves my heart both thrilled and a little divided.
See, I go by the name Fan Man Dan on here, which is to say I blog from the fan’s perspective, and I’m here to tell you I am a fan of the two college teams than the two that meet at 9:45 in Newark. Here’s my story:
I was raised a Buckeye in northeast Ohio. My grandfather had the Ohio State marching band LP that he listened to the same way today’s kids listen to Rebecca Black. (What? That Friday song is kind of a joke? OK then whoever you crazy kids listen to, you get the picture).
Mostly we are a football people. A Saturday in the fall was spent in front of the TV if you weren’t making the trek to Columbus. Yes, in the days before cable and ESPN, I am old enough to remember my other grandfather listening to untelevised games on the radio. Sunday morning, I was reading the write-up. Carlos Snow, Chris Carter, Mike Tomzack, Chris Spielman were the idols of the day.
That’s not to say that OSU hoops didn’t get its’ run in the Buckeye state as well. The teams weren’t as successful, but in their good years were well worth following. Jay Burson, Jim Jackson, Dennis Hopson were the hoops heroes that were presented me by my culture.
Sometime in the early 90’s though, my tastes began to bleed over south of the border, particularly when it came to hoops. I was too short to dunk, so the Pitino 3 point shooting offense was appealing to me. (Sadly, while I grew taller, the dunking never happened) Additionally ,my dad had moved into Kentucky as his sales territory and brought me back Big Blue paraphernalia and the seeds were planted.
Then SHE happened. On the second stop of my career I took a job as a director at WTVQ in Lexington. It was there were I met my wife. See, she grew up a mile from the UK campus. When we started dating in the winter, UK hoops became a part of “us”. She is not a huge sports fan, but is bonkers for the Wildcats, so we watched.
It wasn’t hard for the Bogans/Fitch era Cats to nurture the seed of fandom that Pitino and my father had planted in the early 90’s and soon I was following the local team with as much vigor as you born and bred. Watching the Cats together with my wife is still one of the special things that make us, “us.”
So I love these teams both-all very understandable right? I suppose one of the things that sets me apart from the “real” UK fans is that I was born somewhere else and don’t have that fanatical stance many of you have. I don’t hate the Cards(in fact I am one of “those people” who support them except when they play UK) and I follow Ohio State sports as well as Kentucky ones.
And while you may not particularly like that about me, it does have one very tangible benefit today- I am very familiar with these two teams that meet tonight. I have seen 20+ games of both teams and I am about to share my thoughts on the game with you.
First, I need to say this, you can breakdown this game from many angles, but they all come down to this. These are two very good teams who should not be meeting in this round, but we should be thankful the tournament was set up in a way where they meet at all.
Let’s start with the favorites, Ohio State. We all know they got here via blowouts of UTSA and George Mason last weekend. They play a seven man rotation. They play cohesively and when they are on are by far the best team I have watched this season. Even when off, they have managed to win all but their two toughest games. Those two losses were offset with blowouts of the teams that defeated them in their second meeting. They are as good as Calipari made them out to be in his press conference Thursday.
Individually, they are being under-rated by the majority of Cats fans. Let’s start with their point guard Aaron Craft. He starts on the bench, but plays nearly 30 minutes per game. Announcers love to gush over this kids game and to a large part his game is one that is difficult to quantify. He is not asked to score, but is asked to effectively distribute and defend. He does those things very well. He is smaller and a freshman and can probably be rattled by Kentucky’s defenders.
David Lighty will likely start as the PG, but plays most of his minutes on the wing. He is their defensive stopper, but as he showed in the George Mason game, he can score if needed (most of the time it is not). He is a fifth year senior who sees a lot of the ball late in games due to his composure and array of abilities. He is the driving force behind the team as much as anyone. His game has little weakness.
Jon Diebler starts as the shooting guard and he is your typical three point shooting killer. We all know he made 10 in a game earlier this month, and if he is on a hot streak you can not beat Ohio State. He is a better defender than his reputation (in fact of the seven players OSU uses in rotation, only one is not a very good defender) He has decent handles, but doesn’t finish around the rim real well.
William Buford starts at small forward. He is the most dangerous Buckeye off the dribble. He is also a good shooter. (sensing a pattern?) At times he is forgotten in the Buckeye offense when Diebler is hitting and Sullinger is doing his thing, but the minute you shut down those two, Buford fills the void.
Jared Sullinger starts at forward. I know he doesn’t look like the picture of the modern athlete. He’s kinda wide, and almost plays below the rim. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking Harrellson is in the same league simply because he too is a tall wide-body player. Sullinger has all the basic post moves mastered. He has a decent inside jumper. He gets to the spot on the floor he wants to get to and the guards at OSU are great at getting him the rock. He draws fouls and does not commit them. He’s old school to be sure, but he can get it done and has all year.
Dallas Lauderdale is another senior and while not called upon to do anything other than dunk and defend, he does both with vigor. He does little else, but the Buckeyes do not need him to.
The last main contributor is 2010 Mr. Basketball Indiana Deshaun Thomas. He plays a lot like Buford, but does not defend as well. He has multiple 20+ games on the season, but is mainly asked to contribute minutes, but is capable of points if needed.
Most locals will know all there is to know about the Cats, so I won’t go through their players with as much detail. The Cats, despite some struggles on the road earlier in the season, do appear to have settled into a rhythm. Knight has become a go to guy, Harrellson has become a buzzsaw, Miller, Lamb, Jones have all proven valuable at different points in the season. Liggins has been consistent and is turning into a heck of a player and Vargas is even showing some usefulness.
The Cats really need good showings from Knight and Jones. Knight has become the go-to guy and against a stingy defense like OSU, you need your go-to guy. Jones athletic abilities make him unique in this match-up with no real good player for OSU to put on him one-on one. Jones needs to get rid of the turnovers and bad shots in a game like today though. Could one of the other players go off? Sure, but these guys seem most likely.
Defensively, the Cats will all need to be on their game due to the dangerous players all over the court for the Buckeyes. Any one of the Buckeyes top 7 can fill it up. I think UK has a decent shot at slowing Sullinger, Harrellson and Vargas give them 10 good fouls, they just need to make sure 7 or 8 of them are on Sully and not the other Buckeyes.
In fact, Kentucky matches up as well with the Buckeyes as any team they have faced all season. I spent much of the early part of the week thinking Ohio State is just plain better and would win just because of that. I’m glad I didn’t write this then. There has been some analysis that I read and watched this week that has turned me onto some aspects in Kentucky’s favor that I hadn’t thought of.
Of particular interest is the comparison I have seen both on ESPN and Kentuckysportsradio.com between the Northwestern games and what Kentucky brings to the table. Northwestern played Sullinger one-on-one and while he had big games, they were able to limit the guards.
If they choose to follow a similar plan (which if Calipari is telling the truth that he never watches film, they may not), the Wildcats’ length should bother the Ohio State shooters and the size inside would seem to be able to match up with the post game of Ohio State. On the surface this could go either way and in a perfect world, UK can easily win this game seeing as their players are far more skilled than Northwestern’s.
Here’s where the Northwestern comparison breaks down however: NU plays very disciplined on offense and with the abilities of the Buckeyes to defend, that offensive detail was likely needed to score on OSU while the defense shut it down. In fact NU is more disciplined than UK on both ends, and UK will need to be both disciplind and skilled to pull this off and the dribble drive offense by its very nature is undisciplined.
Look, both teams have a shot. This is as good a game as the committee could have asked. A game that is maybe 80-20 in favor of Ohio State to the ley-fan, is probably more like a 65-35 proposition when we look at it closer. Ohio State is still more veteran, still has fewer blemishes, has been more consistent and is better and in my opinion will pull off a low-scoring victory 58-53.
I know that prediction won’t go over big with the in-laws. I am trying to look at the game as scientifically as possible, all biases aside. When I think about who to cheer for tonight, I know I like UK, and would love to see my wife happy. In my heart of hearts though, I guess I am a Buckeye in Wildcat country, this game has helped me realize this much. O-H!
So, for the first time in our 7 years of marriage, it’s time to put some tape through the middle of the living room at home: blue on one side and scarlet on the other. The two year old can be assured of more than a few wardrobe changes before we put him down for the night and he misses all the excitement.
And Oh, I’m going to be tired in the morning when I drag myself in here to direct Good Morning Kentuckiana with Adrianna and Reed, but this is too much to pass up, I have been waiting too long for these two teams to meet.
It’s tourney time Kentuckiana and this Ohio boy is ready to play too. Well after his afternoon nap of course.