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Published: Saturday, 12/22/2012

No. 7 Ohio State sees contest with No. 9 Kansas as chance to gauge talent

BY DAVID BRIGGS
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

COLUMBUS - Lenzelle Smith sees Ohio State’s top-10 basketball showdown against Kansas today as part of an ongoing story.

Just not the one everyone else is talking about.

For the Buckeyes’ junior guard, this Final Four rematch is not about revenge from last season but proving themselves ready for this one.

“This will be a good game for both teams to see where we are right now,” he said, “to tell us how much better we’ll have to be if we both want to win a national championship or make it back to the Final Four.”

No. 7 OSU (9-1) and the ninth-ranked Jayhawks (9-1) will meet at 4 p.m. as teams heaped with talent but still in search of a validating victory.

The Buckeyes showed well last month in a 73-68 loss at current No. 1 Duke but have otherwise gorged on standard non-conference fare, winning every game by double digits. Kansas fell 67-64 to Michigan State in its only previous brush with a ranked team while rocking and chalking everyone else.

“Now, we’ll find out how good we are,” KU coach Bill Self said. “Let’s be honest. The season starts Saturday.”

The casts have changed since the teams met twice last year -- both Kansas wins, including a 64-62 escape in a national semifinal OSU controlled until the final minutes.

All-American forwards Jared Sullinger and Kansas’ Thomas Robinson both left school early and became first-round NBA draft picks. Also gone are key sidekicks William Buford, a Libbey graduate who finished his career tied for third with Hall of Famer Jerry Lucas on Ohio State’s all-time scoring list, and Jayhawks point guard Tyshawn Taylor.

Yet both teams hurtle toward the start of league play with familiar expectations. Their rematch will play out before a sold-out Value City Arena and a national television audience on CBS -- the rare marquee December game that momentarily swipes attention away from football.

Ohio State coach Thad Matta expects a stiff test, saying “Kansas is playing at a level as high as anybody in college basketball.”

Freshman Ben McLemore leads the eight-time defending Big 12 champions with 15.9 points per game, though the Jayhawks’ greatest strength is their experience. They start four seniors -- including one of the nation’s top centers. Jeff Withey averages 14.1 points but stands out for the way he stonewalls others. The 7-footer averages a national-best 5.4 blocks (and, remarkably, has committed only 11 fouls).

“There’s not as many great shot-blockers as there used to be, but he’s probably the best in college basketball,” Matta said. “I don’t know if there’s anything you can do. You’ve got an awareness of where he is and that sort of thing, but he’s probably going to block a couple. You’ve got to keep playing.”

Ohio State, meanwhile, continues the search for its post-Sullinger identity.

Preseason All-American forward Deshaun Thomas averages a team-high 20.4 points, but the Buckeyes have lacked a true second option. Two candidates are Smith (11.7 points) and junior guard Aaron Craft (9.1 points), who has at times struggled in his evolution from facilitator to scorer. Though the Findlay native’s defense remains invaluable, he is shooting 37.7 percent.

Matta is confident it will all work out, with games like today’s pointing the way.

“You’re going to hopefully learn quite a bit about your basketball team,” Matta said.

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.



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