Michael Periatt / Managing editor
With the faintest of grins, Ohio State’s Lenzelle Smith Jr. made sure to note that former Kansas big man Thomas Robinson won’t be in Columbus to bully the Buckeyes in the paint Saturday.
“That’s a huge relief,” the junior guard said, as if the thought of the hulking 6-foot-10, 240-pound forward evoked memories – perhaps agonizing ones – of what happened the last time the teams met.
Largely thanks to his 19 points and eight boards in last year’s Final Four matchup, Robinson, who was selected as the 5th overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, helped ensure the anti-climatic end to what would’ve been OSU’s first national championship berth since 2007.
Kansas coach Bill Self’s squad rallied from nine down at halftime to best the Buckeyes, 64-62, before falling to Kentucky on the sport’s biggest stage.
Word of that might’ve taken some time to reach Smith Jr., though.
“I didn’t continue to watch college basketball,” he said.
Almost eight months later – and more than a year ago since the Buckeyes’ first setback against the Jayhawks in a similarly hyped early-season matchup last December – OSU (9-1) might have another chance at revenge.
But Smith Jr., who admitted to have “been waiting for this game since our schedule got released” stopped short of calling Saturday’s game revenge.
“My mindset’s not on revenge,” he said. “We’re two different teams right now.”
Smith Jr. likely is right in his assessment of playing the Jayhawks without Robinson and the likes of former guard Tyshawn Taylor among others.
Kansas (9-1) might not be quite the team it was last year – but maybe neither are the Buckeyes, which find themselves in a similar boat without the inside presence of former forward Jared Sullinger.
“We’re trying to do our best with what we still have,” Smith Jr. said.
And while the teams – in their personnel and dynamics – are different, the stakes aren’t quite as dissimilar.
Similar to both meetings in 2011, Saturday’s showdown finds both clubs toward the top of the Associated Press poll-OSU at No. 7 and Kansas at No 9.
In a 30- or 40-game season, such a contest seems to inevitably have an inability to genuinely shape the course of success for either program.
But the outcome could serve as a projection. It did last season, after all.
“Obviously you’re going to hopefully learn quite a bit about your basketball team as you get ready to head into January, February, March,” said OSU coach Thad Matta.
“My job is to keep thinking big picture and knowing what lies ahead, but you use this game as an opportunity.”
Even inside the confines of the Schottenstein Center, Matta maintains an “experienced, seasoned” Jayhawks squad pose a threat that will almost certainly challenge an OSU team that’s been largely untested – save for a 73-68 loss against Duke on Nov. 28 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“I think Kansas right now is playing at a level as high as anybody in college basketball,” Matta said. “They start four seniors. Man, it’s like wow.”
Smith Jr. said Saturday might just to come down to which team proves more durable.
“I think for both teams this game is going to be a toughness match,” he said.
He’s not alone in that theory, either.
“Who’s going to be the tougher basketball team?” said OSU junior guard Aaron Craft.
“They do a phenomenal job of getting second-chance points, grabbing 50-50 balls, really limiting possessions for us offensively.
“We have to find a way to overcome that – if not match that, or be better (than) their intensity and their toughness. Because that’s what Kansas basketball is about.”
The features Craft listed seem to be suggestive of a team matching its talent with as much effort.
OSU, arguably, has struggled with that coming into its game against the Jayhawks, and it might have been best exemplified against a mediocre Big South squad Tuesday, when OSU eked out perhaps its most ugly win of the season, 66-55, against Winthrop.
“I guess what we’ve learned is we’re not gonna be able to just come out here any given night and think we’re gonna play our best basketball,” Smith Jr. said. “We have to mentally prepare for that leading up to the game.”
“It’s part of being a winner and we’ve lacked on some (of) that sometimes.”