Mark Story: To stop Buckeyes, UK must shut down its outside shooters

Shutting down the trey might be Kentucky's only hope for an upset

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 25, 2011 

  • In Ohio State's two losses this season...

    Jared Sullinger hit 61.3 percent of his shots and averaged 22 points and nine rebounds.

    The Buckeyes' top perimeter shooters made only 30 percent from three-point range, well below their season average of 44.2.

    Jon Diebler hit 42.9 percent (3-for-7); Season average: 50

    William Buford hit 33.3 percent (2-for-6); Season average: 44.4

    David Lighty hit 25 percent (1-for-4); Season average: 43.5

    Aaron Craft hit 0 percent (0-for-3); Season average: 38.8

In the heady moments after Kentucky had out-toughed Bob Huggins' bullies to gain sweet revenge on West Virginia on Saturday, DeAndre Liggins had a message for the reporters gathered around his locker.

"I think we can shock the world," UK's defensive stopper said.

Ohio State is the Cats' chance to do just that.

A UK victory Friday night in Newark, N.J., would not only knock the No. 1 overall seed out of the 2011 NCAA Tournament. It would give Kentucky its first NCAA tourney victory over a team seeded higher than the Wildcats since Tubby Smith's No. 2 Cats upset No. 1 Duke in the 1998 South Region finals.

From the start of the 2010-11 season right up to the NCAA Tournament round of 16, the Buckeyes have been the nation's most consistently excellent team.

In strafing Texas-San Antonio and George Mason in their first two Big Dance twirls by a combined 61 points, Thad's lads (as in Matta) have been scalding. In NCAA tourney play, Ohio State is hitting 56 percent from three-point range (28-for-50).

To advance, the Cats' best option might be to take a page out of UK basketball history and utilize a variation of the defensive philosophy that Adolph Rupp used to employ against Pete Maravich.

In this case, let OSU standout big man Jared Sullinger get his points — and (try to) limit everyone else.

Providing defensive help on Sullinger risks giving Jon Diebler (50 percent on the season from three-point range), William Buford (44.4), David Lighty (43.5) and Aaron Craft (38.8) a chance to light up the night from long distance.

Examine the only two games Ohio State has lost so far this season:

At Wisconsin, the 6-foot-9, 280-pound Sullinger hit seven of 12 shots and went for a double-double (19 points and 12 rebounds); however, OSU made only three of nine three-pointers and fell 71-67.

Against Purdue, Sullinger pumped in 25 points on 9-for-14 shooting; however, the OSU perimeter combined to make only four of 15 three-pointers and the Buckeyes lost 76-63.

In its 34 wins, Ohio State has had only six games in which its margin of victory was five points or less.

During many of those games, the pattern was the same. At Northwestern, Sullinger had 21 and eight, but the three-point shooters were only 2-for-8. The result was a 58-57 OSU escape.

In a five-point win at lowly Iowa, Sullinger had 24 and 12, but the long-range bombers were only 7-for-19.

The freshman big man had 15 and 12 against Tubby Smith and Minnesota, but the trey attack produced only 8-for-22. That resulted in a 67-64 Ohio State escape.

In only two of the eight games OSU either lost or had close victories in did the three-point-shooting percentage reach 50 percent.

When Vanderbilt visited Rupp Arena on the last week of the regular season, the Kentucky brain trust used a "shut off the perimeter at all costs" strategy against Commodores star guard John Jenkins and Co.

That left UK big man Josh Harrellson essentially one-on-one with Vanderbilt center Festus Ezeli. The Vandy big man had 22 points and 13 rebounds, but UK held VU to only 2-for-11 three-point shooting.

The Cats won 68-66.

Sullinger is a better player than Ezeli.

"From what I've seen on TV, he's a load, a wide load," Harrellson said of Sullinger after the West Virginia game. "If I get him one-on-one, it will be a huge challenge."

Earlier in the season, you might have said that the 6-10, 275-pound Harrellson and his backup, the 6-11, 250-pound Eloy Vargas, gave Kentucky 10 fouls to throw at Sullinger.

Not now. Harrellson has been so productive in UK's five post-season tournament games (12.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 69.2 field-goal shooting), he's too valuable to just be viewed as fouls to give.

Fact is, Ohio State is strong enough that UK might take away its outside game and the Buckeyes still find another way to prevail.

Not limiting the Buckeyes' long-range artillery, however, seems the route to certain doom. OSU is 11-0 when it makes at least 10 treys in a game.

Going in, it appears Kentucky's task in Newark comes down to this: The best chance to shock the world is to stop the three.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com.Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com.

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