Editor's note: Each Friday morning, Jay Bilas will break down the weekend's top game. This week it’s No. 9 Kansas (9-1) at No. 7 Ohio State (9-1) at 4 p.m. ET Saturday.
Kansas outlook: Bill Self, when asked about his team's recent surge, said, "Let's be honest, the season starts Saturday." That means the Jayhawks' game at Ohio State is the real test of just how far they've come, and just how far they need to go. I was able to watch KU practice on Nov. 1, and the pieces for a very good team were there. Then I watched the Jayhawks practice in mid-November and lose to Michigan State. Kansas had taken major steps forward. Now the Jayhawks are showing signs of being able to beat anybody. Doing it consistently over time, over 40 minutes and over the course of long season, is the real measure. Starting in Columbus, Kansas will learn exactly where it is in that journey.
Whether it is KU's high-low actions, its ball-screen offense or its ability to play angles to get the ball inside, every Jayhawks opponent has to be able to guard through ball reversals and guard the second and third side of the floor. The Jayhawks are getting better and better at reversing the ball and putting more pressure on the defense, as well as playing with a better pace. On defense, they've been excellent. Since the loss to Michigan State, no Kansas opponent has shot more than 40 percent from the field, and the Jayhawks have shot more than 50 percent in each of the past four games. The defensive surge has been spearheaded by Jeff Withey. His protection of the rim and ability to block shots without fouling has made Kansas into one of the best defensive teams in the country inside the 3-point arc. Withey, even if he doesn't score a single point, can be the team's most valuable player. He has 54 blocks in only 10 games, and has only 11 personal fouls. That is incredible.
Kansas must keep Aaron Craft out of the lane, win the backboards and have all five guys active in guarding Ohio State ball screens with Deshaun Thomas. While he is not listed as an X factor, Elijah Johnson will be key in this game if Kansas is to win. He has to control the ball, find open shots and guard Craft.
Ohio State outlook: OSU does not play quite as well defensively as Kansas does, but the strength of its D is on the perimeter. From national Defensive Player of the Year candidate Aaron Craft (he'll have to wrestle the award away from Withey) to the much improved Shannon Scott to Lenzelle Smith Jr., Ohio State can guard the ball and press up into you. Craft makes the Buckeyes special on defense. Inside, they are less intimidating, but still good. This is not a team that forces a lot of turnovers, but they simply don't beat themselves. Ohio State does not turn the ball over and does not take bad shots. Essentially, the Buckeyes make you inbound the ball more than they do, and that means they play you 5-on-5 when you have the ball. The offense is a great help to its defense. Watch for Ohio State to down or ice Kansas ball screens to limit the Jayhawks to one side of the floor.
On the offensive end, Ohio State has an elite scorer in lefty Deshaun Thomas. The Buckeyes push the ball upcourt, then run a set-play offense that features special actions for Thomas, and they play off of him. He is a versatile, hungry scorer who loves to pick and pop. And he gets after the offensive glass. He also has post moves, face-up skills and can really stretch you out. Smith is another lefty who is a very good corner shooter. He is second to Thomas in made 3s and must be forced to drive the ball and be limited on the offensive glass. He is an excellent wing rebounder who can get second-chance opportunities.
Inside, Ohio State has been going small more often this season, and will against Kansas to pull Withey away, but Thad Matta needs great performances from Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel. Both have to play inside and on the perimeter on the defensive end, and both have to finish plays and rebound effectively. Even though Ravenel and Williams combine for only 11 points per game, Ohio State needs productive minutes from its frontcourt.
KU's rock: Ben McLemore. The young wing is blossoming into a star. McLemore has to be kept out of transition, where he glides to the rim and explodes to finish, and he must be challenged at the 3-point line and forced to drive the ball into active help. The freshman has averaged 19 points and 5 rebounds per game over his past four and is averaging 15.9 points per game. Expect Ohio State to be physical with him, and players such as Smith, Sam Thompson and Craft could spend time on him.
OSU's baddest man: Thomas. The lefty is a drop-dead scorer. The best way to deal with a scorer is to make it tough on him on both ends. Kansas has to run him and make him guard people. Thomas prefers to score rather than defend, as do most scorers. Getting a foul on him is a big play. Thomas is averaging 20.4 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, and has made 27 3s in only 10 games. He leads the team in rebounding and offensive rebounds, and to limit him, Kansas cannot allow him open 3-point attempts, free throw opportunities or offensive rebounds. Thomas must be forced to shoot difficult, contested 2-point shots. He can hit those, but must take more of them in order to get his usual points.
Kansas X factor: Travis Releford and Kevin Young. Releford has been incredibly efficient and is playing the way an experienced senior should play. An outstanding individual defender, Releford leads the Jayhawks in steals, can guard Thomas some and also knock down open shots. Young brings great energy and activity and uses his quickness and bounce to beat bigger, stronger opponents to the ball. Perhaps these two don't have to score big, but they have to play big roles for KU to win on the road.
Ohio State X factor: Craft and Scott. Craft's defense and leadership will be there, but he also has to be able to score more. He struggled to score at Duke, going 3-of-15, and he has to provide some offense for Ohio State to win. Scott is a different player this season. Confident and in control, he leads the team in steals and is second in assists, sporting a near 5-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. The defense of Craft and Scott can be a major factor.
Stats to watch: Offensive rebounds, free throws and Thomas' defensive matchups. For Ohio State, getting second shots will be important. Kansas defends the rim and paint, and OSU needs to find extra possessions through offensive rebounding. The free throw line can be a factor, but neither team gets to the line frequently. The team that gets there more often, and hits, will have an advantage. Lastly, whom Thomas guards will be important, as he has to make Thomas work and defend. And who guards Thomas will be important. Young and Releford probably will spend time on him. Remember, Thomas went 3-for-14 against Kansas in last season's Final Four and will be looking to redeem himself.
Who wins: Ohio State has not been quite as tested overall as Kansas, but the Buckeyes learned a lot on the road at Duke when they had a chance to win and fell short in the second half. The numbers favor Kansas. In the Final Four, KU got out in transition in the second half and was able to generate easier scores. In Columbus, that may prove more difficult. Because Ohio State battles so hard and the Buckeyes are at home, I like OSU to win in a tight one.