When Kansas played Ohio State on Dec. 10 at Allen Fieldhouse, coach Bill Self believed it was the most important game of the Jayhawks’ season.
KU had already collected victories over Georgetown, South Florida and Long Beach State, but nobody was sure how those triumphs would enhance its NCAA Tournament credentials.
But a victory over the Buckeyes, then ranked second, was seen as must-win by Self.
“I felt like we had to beat Ohio State back in December to put us in a position to have a quality win to get us in the NCAA Tournament,” Self said.
The Jayhawks got that victory, 78-67, and now Kansas needs to beat the Buckeyes to reach the national championship game.
The rematch in the national semifinals is set for 7:49 p.m. Saturday at the Superdome in New Orleans.
There’s a huge difference between the first and the second meetings.
Jared Sullinger will play for the Buckeyes on Saturday.
In December, Sullinger was a game-day scratch because of back spasms, and Kansas controlled most of the game.
Sullinger is to Ohio State what Thomas Robinson is to Kansas, Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said after that game.
“Jared is a security mechanism,” Matta said. “When the ball’s in his hands we know good things are going to happen.”
That was the case Saturday night. Sullinger sat on the bench because of two fouls for most of the first half of the East Regional final against Syracuse. He played most of the second half and scored 15 points, leading the Buckeyes to their first Final Four since 2007.
Plenty of Kansas players stepped up against Ohio State in December. Tyshawn Taylor showed courage that day by playing despite a painful knee. He had sprained the medial collateral ligament and tore the meniscus in his right knee during a practice earlier that week, and doctors told him he could put off minor surgery for a few days if he could tolerate the pain.
Taylor had nine points and 13 assists and played solid defense on Aaron Craft, who finished with 11 points and six assists. But the big surprise that day for Kansas was forward Kevin Young. After a 13-point opener against Towson State, Young scored a total of 14 points in the next seven games.
Against Ohio State, he came up with 14, including two three-pointers. Young hasn’t made one in five attempts since that game.
Nobody fooled themselves that day for KU. The Jayhawks knew they defeated a weakened team and expect the Buckeyes’ best shot Saturday.
“We caught a break the first time,” Self said. “And we were just kind of finding ourselves. We knew they would be a team that could make a run and win a national championship.”