Andy Gottesman / Multimedia Editor
Both have talented freshmen competing in their first NCAA Tournament.
Both have grizzled veterans with March Madness experience.
Both have coaches who have coached for a national championship.
Ohio State’s and Kentucky’s jersey colors might be one of the few differences between the two teams when they square off in the Sweet 16 on Friday.
“They’ve got great pieces … especially how they are playing (with) their size, their length, their athleticism,” OSU coach Thad Matta said of the Wildcats. “They’re a little bit like us — they can move the pieces around and play, in essence, a point guard and three wings and a big guy.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari had similar things to say about the Buckeyes.
“I’ve watched a ton of Ohio State tape. There are times I watch the tape and I go, ‘Oh my goodness,'” he told reporters Thursday, after his team’s open practice. “And, they are really talented. They play to their strengths. … They have got great strength; they have got size.”
Both teams start three guards and two forwards and have a sixth man who averages at or near starter’s minutes. OSU freshman point guard Aaron Craft averages 29.4 minutes per game off the bench, while Kentucky freshman guard Doron Lamb averages 28.4 minutes from his seat on the pine.
The Buckeyes and Wildcats also find offense from a number of players. Three Kentucky players have led the team in scoring over its past five games, while four OSU players have done so over the same stretch.
Three Wildcats — Lamb, freshman forward Terrence Jones and freshman point guard Brandon Knight — have scored 30 or more points in a game this season. Knight, who scored his career-high 30 points in Kentucky’s third-round matchup against West Virginia, might be the most dangerous.
“I think obviously Brandon Knight is a tremendous talent,” Matta said. “It looks like he has really grown into a tremendous basketball player. He can do a lot of different things out there.”
Knight leads the Wildcats in per-game points, assists and turnovers, with 17.4, 4.2 and 3.1, respectively. The freshman has been inconsistent so far in the tournament, scoring just two points in Kentucky’s first game, against Princeton.
Besides Knight, the Wildcats have senior forward Josh Harrellson to contend with OSU forward Jared Sullinger, Big Ten Freshman of the Year winner and Naismith Award finalist.
The 6-foot-10, 275-pound Harrellson has averaged 15 points and nine rebounds per game in the tournament so far, slightly above Sullinger’s respective 14.5 and 8.5 averages.
“Obviously he is a huge body,” Matta said. “I know he led the SEC in rebounds.”
Rebounding has been a determining factor for the Wildcats, as they have been outrebounded in five of their eight losses this season. Kentucky averages 38 rebounds a game, four more than the Buckeyes.
Because of the Wildcats’ fast-break style — they average 76 points per game — they often use their rebounding edge to run the floor. Matta said he thinks Kentucky’s offensive prowess might overshadow its defensive abilities.
“I think that when you’ve got a high-powered offensive team, your defense always gets overlooked,” he said. “I really like their defense — their numbers are great, and they are playing really, really hard.”
OSU guard David Lighty said he realizes there is not just one particular area of the Wildcats’ game that the Buckeyes can focus on.
“To stop them, we have to try to take them out of their rhythm,” he said. “They like to get up and down and fast-break, and they have got the players to do it. With that athleticism and size, they probably like to disrupt things in the passing lane, so (we need to be) smart on the offensive end executing our game plan and just doing what the coaches tell us to do.”
Friday’s coaching matchup might be the most intriguing of all.
Though Matta has never coached against Kentucky in his career, he has matched up against Calipari. Matta’s Buckeyes defeated Calipari’s Memphis squad, 92-76, in the regional finals of the 2007 NCAA Tournament.
Having known Calipari for many years, Matta said he has great respect for his Kentucky counterpart.
“I admire the job that he’s done,” Matta said. “X’s and O’s-wise, obviously, he is one of the best, in my mind.”
Despite not having played Kentucky, the Buckeyes have played teams this season that resemble the Wildcats.
“As I’ve looked at it, it’s a combination of teams,” Matta said. “I think Florida, with their size and athleticism, is one team; and Florida State, with their athleticism, I think would be another.”
OSU beat Florida and Florida State by an average of 16 points during the regular season. Kentucky went 2-1 against the Gators this year and did not play the Seminoles.
Despite his team’s success against teams that mirror the Wildcats, Sullinger said the Buckeyes are looking forward, not back.
“Basically,” he said, “we’ve just got to play hard and play smart and let our veterans run the show on Friday.”
The Buckeyes and Wildcats are scheduled to tip off at 9:45 p.m. Friday at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.