NEW ORLEANS -- Back in December, after Ohio State held Jared Sullinger out of a 78-67 loss at Kansas because of back spasms, coach Thad Matta joked that he’d given the Jayhawks an early Christmas present.
KU’s Bill Self was ready with a comeback when the coaches crossed paths again Friday.
“Got anything for us for Easter?” Self said.
Unfortunately for Kansas, Sullinger and the Buckeyes will be at full strength when they take the Superdome court for Saturday’s rematch in the Final Four.
The Jayhawks, though, contend they’re a better team now, too. Point guard Tyshawn Taylor played the Dec. 10 game with a torn meniscus that required surgery the following morning. He dished out 13 assists against the Buckeyes but also had seven turnovers.
“It was so long ago,” KU center Jeff Withey said. “We’ve both grown so much. It feels like a year ago. It’s going to be a different game tomorrow.”
One of the biggest improvements for Kansas has been the play of Withey, who had two points and two blocks against Ohio State in December. Since then, the 7-foot junior has emerged as one of the top post players in the country. He has 20 blocks in four NCAA tournament games, including 10 in a Sweet 16 victory over North Carolina State.
Withey will be one of the main players charged with stopping Sullinger, who will likely be a lottery pick if he chooses to enter this summer’s NBA draft.
“I’m pretty long,” Withey said, “so hopefully that will bother him a little bit. If he doesn’t catch the ball, he can’t score. I’ll try to make him catch the ball as far away from the basket as possible.”
Withey smiled when asked to compare Sullinger to another player he’s faced.
“Thomas Robinson,” Withey said. “I’ve been playing against him for three years now (in practice). I’m going to have to use that to my advantage.”
As impressive as the 31-6 Jayhawks have been this season, they are still underdogs against an Ohio State squad that is deeper and slightly more talented. Ohio State shot 38 percent against KU in December while the Jayhawks shot 58 percent.
Somehow, though, it was still a five-point game with four minutes remaining. Kansas’ players are expecting another tough battle Saturday. Nearly 24 hours before the game, the Jayhawks couldn’t have appeared any looser.
“We’ve got to enjoy ourselves and soak it in,” guard Conner Teahan said. “No matter what the outcome is tomorrow, we know this season has been a success no matter what.”