NEW ORLEANS — With all the talk about Saturday’s first national semifinal pitting Kentucky against Louisville, it’s easy to forget Ohio State’s tilt with Kansas.
Well, easy to forget if you’re not a Buckeye and not forward Jared Sullinger, Ohio State’s standout forward.
That’s because on Dec. 10, Kansas handed Ohio State its first loss of the season, a 78-67 setback that Sullinger missed with back spasms.
But one thing came in that darkness for the Buckeyes (31-7) that could help them come 7:50 p.m. Saturday – maturity.
“The biggest thing I learned was that you just have to play hard,” Sullinger said when asked what he saw after watching film of that first matchup. “There were a couple of times where we could have got the lead or cut to two or one and we just didn’t capitalize. We were just playing young.”
Sullinger is averaging 17.6 points and 9.1 rebounds per game this season, though his presence on the interior is just as important. He has 36 blocks and 42 steals this season.
Without Sullinger in that first game, Ohio State shot only 38.7 percent while allowing the Jayhawks to hit a blistering 58.3 percent of their attempts.
And Thomas Robinson, Kansas’ likely lottery pick at forward, hit for 21 points and seven rebounds.
If the Buckeyes are to get past Kansas (31-6) this time, they’ll have to find a way to contain Robinson, the Midwest Regional’s most outstanding player. He’s averaging 15.8 points and 12.5 rebounds per game through four NCAA tournament games.
For Kansas, that December win is ancient history, seemingly “two seasons ago,” according to coach Bill Self.
“We are a lot different and a lot more mature as a team,” Robinson said. “We stick together more now. We are playing better right now. We have definitely come a long way.”
Robinson, though, might not be who this game hinges on.
That could be Sullinger.
“He is the key on our team,” Ohio State forward Deshaun Thomas said. “People are going to double down on him and it will set up more shots for us. It’s big.”