Big Ten: Buckeyes Poised For a Run

By Phil Kasiecki - March 11, 2007

CHICAGO - We all knew Ohio State had the talent to repeat as Big Ten champions. They had a very heralded recruiting class (which Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney was quick to note at the beginning of the trophy presentation) and added the newcomers to several key players from last season's team. But there were some unknowns. How soon would Greg Oden play, if at all, and how effective would he be? How quickly would the freshmen develop? Would there be chemistry issues with freshmen coming in and playing a lot of minutes?

Even head coach Thad Matta admits he wasn't sure what to expect coming in.

"I really didn't know what to expect," said Matta. "I thought that we could have a really good basketball team. To be sitting at 30-3 and have won 17 straight games and two of our losses to No. 1 seeds that were ahead of us, one without Greg Oden, the other he had been playing for three weeks, the other one at Wisconsin, I'm pretty excited with where we are today."

The season has hardly been perfect for Ohio State. As they won early, questions swirled about just how good they were because they didn't play the toughest of schedules and lost games at North Carolina and Florida. Then the loss at Wisconsin in January looked to some like a statement that the Badgers were the team to beat and the Buckeyes weren't ready yet. It turns out, that's the last time anyone beat them, as they now ride a 17-game winning streak into the NCAA Tournament. That streak has been capped thus far by a great defensive effort, and one that didn't have Oden as the dominant force. Sure, Oden blocked four shots, but he only played six minutes in the first half and the Badgers shot just 33 percent from the field.

The Buckeyes were built for a run like the one they're currently on and might very well finish. This team was going to have a bump in the road or two with its youth, but the talent is undeniable. That four of the freshmen have played a lot of basketball together certainly helped expedite their learning curve, as Oden, Mike Conley, Jr., Daequan Cook and Mark Titus all played AAU together on a team that won their share of tournaments (Oden and Conley were also high school teammates). It also doesn't hurt that they are a humble bunch and came in feeling like they had plenty to learn.

"We knew each other's style of play, and I think the older guys really accepted this pretty well. That really helped out the team chemistry," said Conley.

Proof enough of how humble this group is came from Oden, who was quick to remind me that Titus was also an AAU teammate. Titus has played 17 minutes in 13 games on the season, but Oden wants to make sure no one forgets him. But that's not all. Observers said that Oden had a surprised look when he was announced as the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. After that, what did he do with part of the net he cut down?

"I gave it to a cheerleader, because they're just as much a part of this team as any of us," Oden said.

The freshmen say the veterans have been a big reason they have had the success they have had to this point. It's not just in the stat sheet, where players like Ivan Harris, Ron Lewis, Jamar Butler and Othella Hunter have played key roles, while Matt Terwilliger has contributed inside as well. They've helped the freshmen adjust to life in college and with the difference between the high school and college games, with Conley citing the speed of the game and mental preparation among them. In turn, the veterans see that the freshmen don't come in feeling like they already have it figured out.

"They're not really worrying about their success, but playing team basketball," said Lewis.

Matta has had to keep all of these players together, and he has managed to do that thus far. He's pretty happy with the cast of players he has, and not just because of their immense talent.

"We really don't care who gets the credit, we just want to win basketball games," said Matta. "The new guys did a great job of coming in and saying, 'what do we need to do?' and the older guys did a good job of showing them."

The Buckeyes have developed well as the season has gone along. Their youth cast aside, they are playing arguably their best basketball at the right time and will naturally be one of the teams to beat in the NCAA Tournament. This is how it was all supposed to go: bumps in the road early, but everything better later on.

"This basketball team is not done yet," Matta said after being presented with the trophy.

They may not be done playing for a few weeks at the rate they're going.

Posted by Phil Kasiecki at 07:53 PM on March 11, 2007

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