On Friday night things could truly start to get interesting for Buckeye fans in the NCAA Tournament.  After first and second round blowouts, albeit a rather unexpected one in the case of George Mason, Ohio State next faces the Kentucky Wildcats.  If you want to talk about basketball royalty, Kentucky is near the top, and while this year’s team may not quite fit the mold of the program’s past, it has plenty of talent to pose a legitimate threat to the Buckeyes’ run through the 2011 Tournament.

It’s almost as if Kentucky has flown under the radar a bit this season, having lost John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Patrick Patterson…and Daniel Orton…and Eric Bledsoe…and some others from last year’s high-profile team.  After putting together a solid season in a relatively weak SEC this year, UK romped through the conference tournament and laid the smack-down to rival (and subsequent higher NCAA tournament seed) Florida in the championship game.  You’ll be hard pressed to find many teams younger than Coach Cal’s 2010-11 Wildcats, which has 5 out of its 10-man roster representing the freshmen class while only featuring one senior, but clearly the team is dangerous.  Here’s why:

  • Talented youth.  Sullinger and Harrison Barnes have gotten most of the frosh

    hype over the past few months, but Kentucky’s Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones are very deserving of some headlines.  They post 17 and 16 points per game respectively, with Knight adding about 4 rebounds and 4 assists per contest and Jones contributing over 8 rebounds.  Knight’s 3 turnover-per-game average must be a little concerning for Wildcat fans, but otherwise the tandem is tough to handle with their inside-outside combination.  Knight scored 30 in the win over West Virginia, and while he only made one basket in the first round victory over Princeton, it just happened to be the game-winner.

  • Size.  Need someone to body up on Ohio State’s big guy down low?  How about 6’10, 275 center Josh Harrelson?  Or maybe you’d prefer 6’11, 250 backup Eloy Vargas, who only averages 8-9 minutes per game but brings an imposing presence off the bench.  The good news for Ohio State is that the offense won’t run through these two, meaning that as long as Sullinger and Lauderdale box out, there shouldn’t be too much trouble with the fouls in the paint.  However, Kentucky’s post players may present more resistance to Sullinger than he has faced against other teams on the defensive end.
  • Coaching.  Yes, there are “varied perspectives” on Coach Calipari, but right here, right now, we’ve got to play his team, and the record shows that his teams win (well, except for the New Jersey Nets).  In talking about coaches that can bring in the talent, Calipari must be in the conversation, and while the talent may not put it all together on a consistent basis, watch out when they do.  Calipari’s teams play an up-tempo, aggressive style, so Friday night’s game should be wildly entertaining to watch.  Whether it’s entertaining because Ohio State buys into some run-and-gun or because Ohio State continually frustrates the ‘Cats by slowing it down remains to be seen.

So why should Buckeye fans still have a lot of confidence going into this game?  Well, for starters let’s remember than Kentucky barely pulled out their first round victory over Princeton.  If a fundamentally sound team that can move the ball on offense almost upset Kentucky, then things start to weigh in Ohio State’s favor.  Second, while UK’s second round win over West Virginia had more of a margin, and West Virginia is a tough, tournament-tested team, they do not have nearly the same amount of offensive firepower as the Bucks.  Finally, the Wildcats are not known for their defense, and lapses in guarding Ohio State’s lineup of scorers can be rather detrimental to an opponent right now.

This game seems poised to be a challenge for Kentucky to see how far their talent can take them.  They’re riding an 8-game win streak (compared to Ohio State’s 9-game streak), and are starting to put it all together at just the right time.  As demonstrated in a late season victory over Tennessee, this team doesn’t get down if they’re behind early.  They keep fighting and clawing, so Ohio State cannot rest easy if a lead is opened up in the starting few minutes against Kentucky.  Rather, the foot must remain on the gas pedal, especially on the defensive end to prevent any momentum for the Wildcats.