Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas emerged as a scoring threat for the Buckeyes in December's game against Kansas. The guard scored a season-high 19 points in the loss without center Jared Sullinger in the lineup.
NEW ORLEANS -- It's been 112 days since Kansas beat Ohio State 78-67 in Lawrence, Kan. In the course of a college basketball season, that period of time may as well be a lifetime.
On that December afternoon Jayhawks head coach Bill Self felt his team was traversing its most important game of the season.
"I felt like we had to beat Ohio State to put us in a position to have a quality win to get us in the NCAA Tournament," he said.
The two basketball powers meet yet again Saturday at the Superdome in the second national semifinal. Once more, Kansas' season hinges on beating the Buckeyes.
"I hope we get to play them again because that means we probably would have advanced in the NCAA tournament," Self said in December.
He's right, as they've both found their way to the Final Four. This time the Jayhawks must contend with Jared Sullinger.
Be careful what you wish for.
Ohio State's big man was in the midst of two consecutive games he missed because of a back injury.
Evan Ravenel and Amir Williams filled in for Sullinger and tallied 11 points and eight rebounds -- significantly less than his season averages.
The spotlight in the rematch is pointed squarely in the direction of Sullinger and Kansas star Thomas Robinson. Each was named first team All-Americans by the Associated Press on Monday.
Fans may have been robbed of the titanic matchup three months ago, but they will get their money's worth this time.
"Looking back now, what a smart decision," Self said. "Why risk anything? And still your team still gets to the Final Four."
Ohio State coach Thad Matta shares the same sentiment. He was disappointed the highly anticipated game wouldn't include both teams at full strength, but he cautioned those who disagreed with his decision that it would be foolish to jeopardize Sullinger's career and a season of promise.
"It was not an NCAA tournament game," Matta said. "I always want to have my players' best interests in mind.
"Knowing that we were still relatively early in the season, having Jared for the long haul was more important to me as coach. I felt very confident at the time we did the right thing."
Sullinger's value has been evident throughout the Buckeyes' run. The 6-foot-9, 265-pound behemoth has provided Ohio State with 18 points and eight rebounds per game in the tourney, highlighted by a 15-point second-half performance in the East regional final to fend off Syracuse, and send the Buckeyes to their second Final Four in six seasons.
To say Sullinger is the lone difference from the first game would be incorrect, however.
Both teams are dramatically different.
For the Buckeyes, Deshaun Thomas has emerged as a reliable scoring threat, while seven-foot center Jeff Withey has developed into an intimidating post presence for the Jayhawks.
Thomas scored a season-high 19 points against Kansas in December. He has equaled or bested that number 11 times since, including eight of the past 12 games.
"The first time we played we didn't have to guard Jared, so we were able to put all our concentration on Thomas and he still put up numbers," Self said.
"With Jared there, it's an even tougher matchup."
Withey is the wild card for the Jayhawks. Over the past three months, his point, rebound, and block numbers are all at career highs. In the Sweet 16 against North Carolina State, he tied a school single-game record with 10 blocks.
He came back in the regional final against top-seeded North Carolina and put up 15 points, eight rebounds, and three blocks, with two coming in the final two minutes.
Twice in the tournament, Ohio State lucked out when it came to facing a big man who could limit Sullinger's production. Sullinger and Robert Sacre, of Gonzaga, each dealt with foul trouble in a third-round game, voiding that matchup, and Syracuse's Fab Melo was missing in action the entire tournament due to an eligibility issue.
Kansas' Robinson, has also risen above expectations this season. He averaged more than seven points and six rebounds in 14 minutes per game last season, and the Ohio State game was only the 12th start of his career.
He dropped 21 points and seven rebounds on the Buckeyes to enter the national consciousness.
"He can hurt you in so many different ways," Matta said. "And that's what great players have the capability of doing."
Together, Withey and Robinson had the unenviable task of replacing the inside dominance of twin brothers Marcus and Markieff Morris, who were both first-round NBA draft picks.
"I think it's going to be good game," said KU guard Tyshawn Taylor.
"The last time we played them they had their best player on the bench and it was a home game [for us], so it's definitely their chance to get back at us."
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