With Ohio State and Kentucky preparing for Friday night's Sweet 16 matchup, plenty has been made about how the youthful Wildcats will contend with the experienced Buckeyes. When it comes down to it, however, turnovers might go a longer way toward deciding the final outcome.
Entering the game, the Buckeyes and Wildcats on average turn the ball over at the same rate: OSU is sixth in the nation at 10.2 per contest while Kentucky is 12th at 10.6. However, while the top-seeded Buckeyes are only 93rd in the nation in steals per game at 7.1, they are much better at taking it from their opponents this season than their next opponent.
Kentucky sits 278th overall with an average of 5.3 thefts per contest.
What does it mean? Possibly that in a contest between two teams that do not turn the ball over that much, the Buckeyes are more likely to take it from their opponent than the other way around.
Freshman point guard Aaron Craft said that is a case of a defensive focus from the entire team, not just one individual.
"We don't go out and turn teams over a bunch of times in a game," he said. "We try to play pretty stable defense and play our game and not let outside influences dictate how we're going to play."
Seated in a chair surrounded by a squad of reporters inside the Prudential Center, Kentucky freshman point guard Brandon Knight said the pace at which Calipari likes his team to play occasionally results in a higher number of turnovers.
"He doesn't want us having zero turnovers because he thinks that means you're really not being aggressive," he said. "He's all right with us being aggressive and losing the ball sometimes as long as we're attacking and not being passive."
As the primary facilitator of the Kentucky offense, Knight's 146 assists and 108 turnovers both lead the team, good for an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.35. As OSU's first substitution into the game, Craft's 175 assists are the second-most for a freshman in program history. He has also handed out a team-high 78 turnovers, giving him a ratio of 2.24.
Knight, however, is also his team's leading scorer at 17.4 points per game – more than double Craft's average of 7.1. Knight said he is not sure how his team's pace compares to OSU's, but his counterpart for the Buckeyes said he expects a game with a high tempo.
"An up-and-down game is more of what we enjoy doing," Craft said. "I think we're a better team when we're able to do that. We're just excited to get to the game."
He also downplayed the thought that Kentucky's pace might lead to more turnovers.
"I think that's just an excuse people try to use," Craft said. "No matter how fast you're playing, it's all in your mind. You can take care of the ball whether you're going really fast or going really slow. Pace is not an excuse for turnovers."
In Kentucky's eight losses, the Wildcats have had 88 assists against 87 steals including a season-high 18 giveaways in a two-point loss Feb. 1 at Ole Miss. Similarly, Knight's totals dip to 30 assists and 32 turnovers in those games – all of which were played away from home.
Knight had six turnovers in the loss to the Rebels. For the season, he has eight games in which he has matched or exceeded that number including four of his last 10 games. By comparison, Craft had had six turnovers once: a Feb. 20 loss at Purdue. Since then, the OSU freshman has turned the ball over 11 times in nine games.
OSU's practices are closed to the media, but Matta has described them as being 70 percent focused on defense. While much of the rest of the sessions focus on shooting and repetition, the Buckeyes work on passing drills designed to cut down on turnovers each day.
Those drills focus both on the fundamentals of passing as well as avoiding careless plays. However, Matta pointed to the example of last year's national player of the year as an example of how he can live with the occasional turnover.
"I think this helps our guys: I tell them I'm not going to ask you to play perfect," the coach said. "Evan Turner last year, for three years I lived with a lot of his turnovers because he was a risk-taker. We wanted him to play a little outside of himself."
Kentucky freshman Terrence Jones said Calipari's focus similarly is on offensive execution rather than no turnovers.
"He says with how fast we play, there's going to be some turnovers in the game," the forward said. "Just control how many it is."
Regardless of the pace of the game, Craft – who along with David Lighty was named to the Big Ten's all-defensive team – said his team likes its defensive chances on any given night.
"We have a great group of guys," Craft said. "We've got a guy like Dave who has been through the battles and can guard. I think he's one of the best defenders in our conference. We have people who can get up and guard. We have a group of guys that enjoys playing defense and I think that's a big key."