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By Rusty Miller | Associated Press
COLUMBUS -- After Kansas knocked off Ohio State last season in the national semifinals, Buckeyes guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. didn't have the heart to even watch the championship game.
As this season has progressed, Smith has grown more and more excited by the looming specter of a home rematch with the Jayhawks.
"I've kind of been waiting for this game ever since our schedule got released in the summer," he said about Saturday's game pitting No. 9 Kansas against seventh-ranked Ohio State.
These are not the same teams from a year ago, when Kansas beat Ohio State twice. But that doesn't mean there still won't be a little edge to the game. What would you expect with the teams' recent history?
"I'm sure they have some hard feelings toward us and it is going to be a really tough environment," Kansas big man Jeff Withey said of the contest at Ohio State's Value City Arena. "We haven't really been on the road yet so we'll see how the new guys react to that. But we are definitely looking forward to it."
The 13th-ranked Jayhawks won the regular-season matchup at Allen Fieldhouse almost a year ago, taking advantage of All-America forward Jared Sullinger's absence (bad back) in a 78-67 victory over No. 2 Ohio State.
Then they squared off in New Orleans in the Final Four, with the Buckeyes leading most of the game and by 13 points before withering down the stretch to fall 64-62.
"If you look at the games last year, we didn't play them very well at all, but they guarded us. And they didn't play great, but we guarded them," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "The difference for us was in the second half we were able to get some 3-on-2s and some 2-on-1s and was able to make six or eight easy baskets and score easy points that we didn't have to go against half-court defense."
The game figures to be a grade card for each team.
"Kansas right now is playing at a level as high as anybody in college basketball," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "They start four seniors. It's like, wow. Their leading scorer is a redshirt freshman. So they're a very, very experienced, seasoned team. From the standpoint of the caliber of the team that they are, obviously you're going to hopefully learn quite a bit about your team as you get ready to head into January, February and March."
Comparisons to last year are frivolous, since the two best players on the floor are now in the NBA. Kansas' Thomas Robinson had 19 points and eight rebounds in the Final Four and now plays for pay for the Sacramento Kings.
Sullinger had 11 points and 11 rebounds but had three shots blocked by Withey in New Orleans. Currently with the Boston Celtics, Sullinger was surrounded by defenders after teammate Deshaun Thomas got into foul trouble in the semifinal.
Thomas, who pondered skipping out of his final two years to join them in the pros, is averaging 20.4 points and 7 rebounds a game. The 6-foot-7 junior never met a shot he wouldn't take -- and make -- which makes guarding him the biggest task for the Jayhawks.
"If you're a natural scorer like he is and averaging over 20 a game you've got the green light to shoot some good contested shots and he is good at making them," Self said. "He is a shotmaker. He is a professional scorer at our level and last year we didn't stop him."
Thomas had 19 points and kept Ohio State in it before a raucous crowd in Lawrence, Kan., a year ago.
The Jayhawks (9-1) have benefited from a comfortable schedule so far. They've had six home games in addition to three games before friendly faces in Kansas City. Their only loss came in their lone foray far from home, a 67-64 defeat to Michigan State in Atlanta.
Ohio State (9-1) dropped its biggest previous challenge, a 73-68 decision at current No. 1 Duke on Nov. 28. In that game, much like the last meeting with Kansas, the Buckeyes led most of the night but didn't make enough plays down the stretch.
Aaron Craft, Ohio State's pesky defensive whiz at point guard, believes the rematch will come down to toughness.
"Who's going to be the tougher team?" he said. "They do a phenomenal job of getting second-chance points, grabbing 50-50 balls, really limiting possessions. We have to find a way to overcome that, and match or better their intensity and their toughness. Because that's what Kansas basketball is about."
Funny, but that's what Kansas also thinks of Ohio State.
"They are physical and they play that Big Ten style where they try to bully you," Withey said. "They do all that really well. We've got to come ready."
No matter who wins, both would like a redo -- when the NCAA Final Four shifts to Atlanta in April.