How they got here:Brandon Knight became the hero in the first round, scoring one bucket in the game -- the game-winner against Princeton. A game later, Knight poured in 30 as the Wildcats’ ousted their nemesis from a year ago, beating West Virginia.
Ohio State comes to Newark looking like a No. 1 seed should -- clobbering everyone in its wake. The Buckeyes beat up on UT-San Antonio in their first game and easily dispatched George Mason, winning the two games by an average of 30 points.
Storyline: Kentucky wears the unfamiliar mantle of underdog, going up against the top-seeded Buckeyes, a team John Calipari said has made him stop and say, ‘Oh my goodness,’ while watching game tape.
These, however, are not your typical underdogs. Along with their tradition of success, the Wildcats have plenty to latch onto this season. UK won the SEC tournament, spent the entire season in the top 25 and rides an eight-game win streak into this game.
The NCAA road has been considerably kinder for Ohio State, an easy walkover from Cleveland to Newark with two easy games. But the Buckeyes, who have carried with ease the burden of a No. 1 ranking for a decent chunk of the season, aren’t fooled.
“I think it’s just the heightened awareness of how good your opponents are,’’ OSU coach Thad Matta said. “I think that these guys have done a much better job of not buying into all of the hype that goes along with this.’’
What to watch: What happens on the perimeter. Both teams are pretty good from behind the arc. Ohio State leads the nation, knocking down 42.4 percent of its 3-point attempts.
Kentucky isn’t far behind. A year after the Wildcats were done in by their lack of perimeter game, they now rank 12th in the nation, draining 39.6 percent of their 3-point tries.
Sometimes basketball isn’t confusing. Whoever is able to make more from long range could have the upper hand.
Who to watch: This will depend a lot on how UK chooses to defend Ohio State. If the Wildcats double Jared Sullinger, Jon Diebler will be key. When he’s on, he’s lethal. Diebler has sunk 110 3-pointers and is shooting 50 percent (yes, you read that correctly -- 50 percent) from the beyond the arc.
Josh Harrellson has had a terrific and unexpected senior season, surprising even himself he admitted on Thursday.
There’s no question that this will be Harrellson’s tallest order. It’s critical that he stays on the floor, something plenty of people have had a hard time doing against Ohio State and Sullinger. The Buckeyes big man averages just 2.4 fouls per game.
“I never thought I would be where I am, doing the things I am capable of now,’’ Harrellson said. “And going against Jared Sullinger will be a tough task. One of the best big men in the country, if not the best big man.’’
Of note: Ohio State is 345th out of 345 teams in fewest fouls per game. The Buckeyes commit just 14 fouls per game. OSU has shot 348 more free throws than its opponents and has made 126 more than its opponents have attempted. … Kentucky doesn’t make mistakes, a huge advantage against a team as savvy as Ohio State. The Wildcats average 10.6 turnovers per game. Only 11 teams in the country take better care of the basketball.
What they’re saying:
“With freshman starting and with veterans who really don’t have a lot of experience, the interesting thing for us is I really have no idea how they will play.’’ -- UK coach John Calipari
“They are athletic; they get out and run, they push the pace. They have bigs, they have wings and they have a guard who can pretty much do it all. So if we don’t come ready to play, it’s going to be a long night for us.’’ -- OSU senior David Lighty on what makes Kentucky difficult.