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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Ohio's John Groce to coach Illinois - OSU's Sullinger - Kansas vs OSU

Position-by-Position: Ohio State, Kansas fairly evenly matched

Jared Sullinger's balky back cheated us out of a one-on-one matchup between two of the best big men in the country back in December as Kansas got 21 points from Thomas Robinson in a 78-67 win at Allen Fieldhouse. But as luck would have it, we only had to wait four months to get a glimpse at the two future lottery picks trading low-post blows.

But seeing Sully and T-Rob go head-to-head is far from the only interesting matchup in Saturday's rematch between Ohio State and Kansas. Here is a position-by-position breakdown:

Point Guard
Without a hint of exaggeration, this may be the most intriguing individual matchup of the entire Final Four. Ohio State's Aaron Craft is arguably the best on-ball defender in the country. He doesn't give ball-handlers an inch of space and forces enough turnovers that SI.com's Luke Winn created a stat just to track them. Kansas' Tyshawn Taylor, on the other hand, has become notorious for the turnovers he commits and the bad shots that he takes. And while Bill Self would surely have less gray hair if Taylor had managed to eliminate that aspect of his game, there is no denying just how much the senior point guard means to the Jayhawks. He had 22 points, six boards, five assists and five steals against North Carolina. I've maintained all season long that Taylor is the most important player for Kansas, and if Craft can limit his production, that becomes a difference maker for the Buckeyes.

Edge: Even


Shooting Guard
This may as well be called the battle of the X-factors. Elijah Johnson has been terrific for Kansas down the stretch of the season. He's averaged 15.8 points in his last six games, providing an important third-scoring option alongside Taylor and Thomas Robinson. Johnson is, more or less, the reason that the Jayhawks advanced past Purdue in the Round of 32, as he finished with 18 points on a night that Robinson and Taylor combined to shoot 6-of-23. Lenzelle Smith Jr. plays a similarly vital role in the Ohio State offense. Smith had 33 points as Ohio State won two games in Boston last weekend, making arguably the two biggest shots of the game as the Buckeyes held off Syracuse in the Elite Eight. Smith also has a tendency to play his best when the lights are the brightest; he had 28 points in a win over Indiana this season and scored 17 in a win over Michigan.

Edge: Even

Small Forward
I should preface this by saying that the Buckeyes should have the advantage at the small forward spot because William Buford has become as inconsistent as he is talented. Buford is an important piece for Ohio State because of his ability to score the ball from the perimeter. When he is shooting well, it makes it that much more difficult for opponents to collapse on Jared Sullinger in the post. The problem is that those good shooting performances have become fewer and farther between late in the season. Buford was just 4-of-20 in the Boston regional, is shooting just 13-of-44 in the NCAA tournament and hasn't shot over .500 in a game since March 4, when he hit the game-winning jumper to beat Michigan State in the final game of the regular season. Travis Releford has developed a bit of a reputation as a defender, and while he's not necessarily a go-to scorer, he can chip in with 15 points on a good night.

Edge: Ohio State

Power Forward
Deshaun Thomas may end up being the key to this game for the Buckeyes. He's developed into one of the more explosive front court scorers in the country as his sophomore season has gone on, culminating in the 22.3 points that he is averaging in the four games in the tournament. The question for the Jayhawks is going to be how they matchup with him. Do you risk putting Thomas Robinson on him, or will Robinson's inability to be effective against Robbie Hummel be enough to scare Bill Self off of that idea? And if Robinson doesn't guard him, do you dare to put Jeff Withey on Thomas? Based on the way Kansas matches up with Ohio State, we may end up seeing quite a bit of Kevin Young in this game.

Edge: Ohio State

The matchup that we are all hoping to see is Jared Sullinger and Thomas Robinson, two All-Americas and arguably the two best low-post scorers in the country. The interesting part here is that Jeff Withey may actually be a better matchup on Sullinger defensively for the Jayhawks. Sullinger struggles when he is guarded by players with more length and athleticism than him; Withey is 7-feet and one of the most dangerous shot-blockers in the country. The problem with that is Robinson would be forced to guard Deshaun Thomas. If Sullinger and Robinson do get matched up with each other, it will be a treat for every fan to enjoy; both players thrive on their strength and ability to establish position in the post. But where Robinson thrives on his natural athleticism to score over players he overpowers, Sullinger -- while heftier and more of a land-warrior -- is much more skilled and technical on the block.

Edge: Even

Neither team has much of a bench. Evan Ravenel and Amir Williams have both provided quality minutes when Sullinger gets in foul trouble, while Jordan Sibert and Sam Thompson have both seen minutes off the bench during the tournament. The reason that Kansas gets the advantage, however, is because of Kevin Young and Conner Teahan. Teahan has been an important piece for the Jayhawks all year with an ability to shoot the ball, but the more valuable piece will be Young. Early in the season, it was difficult to imagine Young earning playing time. But as the season went on, he's developed into a valuable piece off the bench. He brings energy and athleticism, and, more importantly, he allows the Jayhawks to go small when Withey is faced with a mismatch.

Edge: Kansas

With all due respect to Thad Matta, who is a sensational coach, I'm not sure that there is anyone in the country who has done a better job this season than Self. He led Kansas to a Big 12 title and has now taken the Jayhawks to the Final Four despite a roster that doesn't have a typical amount of Kansas talent. They also lost their depth when three freshmen were ruled ineligible. More importantly, Self has gotten his team this far with the mid-game adjustments he has made. The switch to a triangle-and-two defense was a major part of the reason that Kansas beat Purdue, N.C. State and North Carolina.

Edge: Kansas

Amid criticism, OSU's Sullinger shows growth on and off the court

This week, The Associated Press named Jared Sullinger a first-team All-America. Sullinger received the honor last year, too. So I guess the critics are right: He did not improve.
Sullinger is only a sophomore, but in a short-attention-span sport in a short-attention-span world, he already seems like old news. Sure, he leads Ohio State into the Final Four on Saturday. And (as the All-America honor indicates) he has been recognized as one of the best players in college basketball. But there was much more talk this season about Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis, who will be (and should be) the No. 1 pick in this year's NBA Draft. And Kansas star Thomas Robinson, who went from sophomore reserve to junior All-America. And Michigan State senior Draymond Green, who seemed to add a new offensive skill every week and led the Spartans to a top seed in this year's tournament.
Sullinger? He is ... uh, just really good. Again. As a freshman he averaged 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds for a Big Ten champion that earned a No. 1 seed. As a sophomore he averaged 17.6 points and 9.1 rebounds for a Big Ten champion that earned a No. 2 seed. People who expected him to dominate college basketball this year have been disappointed.
Sullinger seems like the same guy we saw as a freshman. But he isn't. And that is why he stayed in school.
Sullinger would have been a top-five pick in last year's NBA Draft. When a player of his caliber chooses to return to college these days, we tend to ask two questions: Can he improve his draft stock? And can he win the national championship?
Sullinger returned for a simpler reason: He needed to spend another year in college.
His father Satch, who coached him in high school, says: "My wife and I were really concerned, releasing a 19-year-old to the professional world, where the team camaraderie would never exist again the way it does in high school, grade school and college."
Sullinger has not had the year he envisioned -- or rather, he has not had the year that others envisioned for him. Draymond Green beat him out for Big Ten Player of the Year. NBA scouts don't seem to love him quite as much as they did a year ago. Sullinger has an impressive vertical leap for a 280-pound man, but he is not a quick jumper. Scouts worry his shot will get blocked a lot in the NBA.
It is not always easy being the flavor of last year. Sullinger, one of the nicest college basketball stars you could meet, seemed angry on the court at times this season. He complained too much to officials. He got frustrated by physical defenses.
When Sullinger was a freshman, the beauty of his game was that he didn't care about point totals or highlights. He could pass out of 10 double-teams, and when that 11th defender came to double down on him, he would pass again. But this February, he seemed so determined to prove his worth that he forced some shots.
As a freshman, Sullinger used Twitter as prolifically as his favorite low-post moves. But on Jan. 11 of this year, he tweeted: "I'm taking a social media vacation. I'm done with y'all" and he hasn't tweeted since.
Ohio State assistant coach Jeff Boals said: "You saw the vitriol that people would send these kids after a bad game, just unbelievable, the stuff people would write to him. Instead of responding to it or let it affect him, he just decided to get off it."
Satch says: "All you're doing is filling your head with a whole bunch of garbage. People have a right to say whatever they want. You also have a right not to read it."
In late February, after Sullinger looked especially frustrated in games, the coaching staff showed him film and tried to calm him down.
"He's not an emotional guy, so you knew it really affected him for him to show it," Boals said.
The public did not notice, but Sullinger has improved in subtle ways. As a freshman, he hoisted 12 three-pointers, and that may have been 12 too many (He made three). This year he shot 38, and he made 16 -- he is a genuine threat from the perimeter. Sullinger's numbers might look the same, but in context they are more impressive. Last year he had sharpshooter Jon Diebler and senior wing David Lighty to open up the defense. This year's Buckeyes do not have as many offensive weapons.
"They would double- and triple-team more," Boals said. "Very few teams played him one-on-one this year."
Now Sullinger may be the most important player in this Final Four. If the Buckeyes beat Kansas on Saturday, Sullinger has a puncher's chance of leading the Buckeyes past Kentucky in a national final. He has the size and skill to get Davis, the Kentucky star, in foul trouble, and that may be the only way to beat the Wildcats.
But that's just a basketball question. And this isn't really a basketball story.
"I don't know whether his skill level improved," Satch says. "It probably did. But the biggest thing that happened to him is he grew between his ears."
Jared is the youngest of three boys. His oldest brother J.J. played for Ohio State, and his brother Julian played for Kent State.
"I have three grown men now," Satch says. "Last year [Jared] still needed a father. Now he just needs counsel."
Fathers (or at least, fathers like Satch) usually want their sons to stay in college. Counsel offers advice when it's needed. Satch says he hasn't talked about the NBA with his youngest boy. But his concern about sending Jared into the professional jungle has waned.
"I have no worries about any of my sons," he said.
Jared Sullinger may yet grab that national title. But he has already achieved something greater this season: He has convinced his father it's OK to let go.

John Groce to coach Illinois

Illinois will hold a news conference Thursday to announce John Groce as the Illini's next coach, multiple sources told ESPN.com on Wednesday night.
Groce took Ohio to the Sweet 16 this season before the Bobcats lost to North Carolina in overtime.
Illinois was working on the news conference and release Wednesday.
Groce and athletic director Mike Thomas negotiated over the contract before a deal was finally struck earlier Wednesday.
Throughout the day Tuesday, Thomas said through a spokesperson that the deal wasn't done yet. Sources close to Groce said that he spent early Tuesday calling around to discuss the contract and ensure that it was the right deal for him.
An Ohio source said Groce was in Athens, Ohio, on Wednesday, and had a meeting scheduled with his team Thursday morning before flying to Champaign for a news conference.
Groce, 40, replaces Bruce Weber, who was fired March 9 after nine seasons. The Illini failed to reach the NCAA tournament this past season for the third time since 2008 and went 41-49 in the Big Ten during that span. Illinois finished 17-15 overall and 6-12 in the Big Ten in 2011-2012.
Groce has been one of the country's hottest coaching names after leading the No. 13-seeded Bobcats to a Sweet 16 run, which included wins over No. 4-seeded Michigan and No. 12-seeded South Florida, and ended with an overtime loss to top-seeded North Carolina.
It was Ohio's second appearance in the NCAA tournament in Groce's four seasons. The Bobcats won the MAC tournament title as a No. 9 seed in 2010 and went on to upset No. 3 Georgetown as a No. 14 seed in the NCAA tournament. They lost to Tennessee in the following round.
Ohio went 29-8 overall and 11-5 in the MAC this past season. The Bobcats finished third in the MAC East. The Bobcats have gone 85-56 overall and 34-30 in conference in Groce's four years.
Groce arrived at Ohio after being an Ohio State assistant coach from 2004-2008. With the Buckeyes, he developed a reputation as an elite recruiter as he helped sway Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. to Ohio State.
Groce was also previously an assistant at Xavier from 2001-2004, at Butler from 2000-2001, North Carolina State from 1996-2000 and Taylor (Ind.) University from 1993-1996.Groce was born in Muncie, Ind., and played for Todd Lickliter at Danville High School in Indiana. Groce later played at Taylor, an NAIA program.
He has recruited the state of Illinois before. At Ohio, he signed Bobcats current starting point guard D.J. Cooper from Seton Academy in South Holland, a Chicago suburb, and former Ohio player James Kinney from Champaign Centennial.
Groce or Illinois will have to pay Ohio $200,000 for terminating his contract early. He signed a contract extension in April of 2010 that took him through the 2014-2015 season.
Groce made a base salary of $250,000 in the 2011-2012 season. He also was given $25,000 for radio and television appearances and $25,000 for public appearances. He also earned bonuses of $5,000 for a conference winning record, $10,000 for winning the MAC tournament championships, $20,000 for winning two NCAA tournament games and $20,000 for being one of the final 16 teams remaining in the NCAA tournament.
Illinois owes Weber $3.9 million after firing him with three years remaining on his contract.

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