Friday, March 12, 1999

Ohio State waking up to possibilities




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        INDIANAPOLIS — Get used to this. Get used to the idea of Ohio State as a basketball power. Get used to the Buckeyes as mighty and methodical.

        The elements are all in place: A dazzling new arena, a sound and savvy coach, the most challenging conference in the country, a talent pool too deep for wading.

        The Buckeyes returned to the NCAA Tournament Thursday night after a seven-year absence with a performance that portends a long run among the nation's elite. Jim O'Brien's squad did nothing really spectacular in beating Murray State 72-58, the important point being that there was no real need of heroics. The Buckeyes outclassed a Racers team with 27 wins despite sub-par shooting, indifferent rebounding, and an unremarkable effort by Scoonie Penn. They missed 12 of their first 15 shots from the field and were bludgeoned throughout on the backboards.

        But they were too quick, too deep and too dogged on defense. Murray State shot 27 percent from the field and committed 17 turnovers. And that was the gist of that game.

        The Buckeyes did what good teams do this time of year: Play ugly, and yet prevail.

        Lest we get carried away with a first-round conquest of a No.13 seed, it ought to be pointed out that this probably isn't the year for the Buckeyes. This is, after all, much the same team that finished last season 8-22, plus Penn at point guard. Yet unlike most schools that show enormous improvement in a short span, the Buckeyes' progress does not automatically engender suspicion. A competent coach can reverse a trend quickly in Columbus, for resources are

        plentiful, the profile is high and interest is acute.

        Strap Bob Huggins to a polygraph and ask him how much he wanted O'Brien's job. Inject some truth serum into Pete Gillen and see how he salivated when his name came up for consideration. Ask any coach in America how many better jobs exist in college basketball, and the count is unlikely to take two hands.

A snoring giant
        “You cannot imagine the magnitude of the long arms of Ohio State,” O'Brien told a Boston writer in January. “That carries unbelievable clout in the state of Ohio. You're from Ohio State, so they are interested in what you have to say.”

        For three decades, Ohio State has been college basketball's snoring colossus, a school that squandered its many built-in advantages through cockeyed hiring and high-risk recruiting. At the top of his game at Indiana, OSU graduate Bobby Knight was sounded out about returning to Columbus. As the story goes, someone in Scarlet and Gray had the temerity to ask Knight why he thought he could turn things around. This was akin to asking Edison if he could screw in a light bulb.

        But now, all the planets are properly aligned. Barring underclass applicants for the NBA draft, O'Brien will lose only two players from a team that now stands 24-8. He will gain a 7-foot-3 center named Aleksandar Radojevic, currently playing junior college ball in Kansas.

O'Brien will win
        O'Brien is going to win big eventually with the Buckeyes, or John Cooper owns Michigan.

        “The next few years, I think this program is going to become one of the elite teams,” Penn said, replacing his drenched game jersey with a dry T-shirt. “I really do. We've got the best arena in the country. When people see that, they might want to come to Columbus.”

        This is a quantum leap from the last years of Randy Ayers, when the Buckeyes were known mainly for their high ranking on police blotters. Michael Redd, the sophomore guard from Columbus West High School, surveyed the wreckage and contemplated heresy.

        “I really didn't care for the program,” Redd said Thursday night, fresh from a 27-point effort. “Even though I was from Columbus, I was a big Michigan fan. But as time went on, I got to thinking, "I've got to stay home and help the program out.'”

        Henceforth, the Buckeyes should not need to rely on charity.

        “Part of our challenge now is that so many people want this so badly in Columbus that there is a sense that "It's back and it's done,'” O'Brien cautions. “But it isn't. We have a long way to go.”

Get used to them
        What O'Brien understands that some of his constituents may have missed is that the better you get in college basketball, the steeper the climb. Getting from dreadful to decent is a lot easier than going from solid to spectacular. Beating Murray State is not going to get you a statue on High Street.

        “In order to be able to move on, you have to play a lot better on both ends,” O'Brien said. “The teams are only going to get better as the tournament goes along. It's only going to be more difficult.”

        Still, considering where the Buckeyes have been, where they are now is not too bad. Get used to them.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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