Thursday, March 11, 1999

Transfer Penn keys Buckeyes' revival

Boston College coach brought big-time point guard

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When Jim O'Brien bolted his alma mater, Boston College, to resurrect a dormant Ohio State program, he knew he'd have at least one ally in his corner. And it was, O'Brien knew, the best friend a coach could have.

        The young man coming with O'Brien from Boston College was no ordinary player. James “Scoonie” Penn, a 5-foot-10 point guard, already had impressive credentials: Big East rookie of the year in 1996, Big East Tournament MVP in 1997, Massachusets player of the year as a senior in high school. The catch was that by transferring, Penn wouldn't be eligible for a year.

        And if O'Brien didn't know exactly how valuable Penn was before last season, he certainly discovered it as Ohio State struggled to an 8-22 record and a 1-15 mark in the Big Ten — and then rediscovered Penn's magic this year as he sparked the Buckeyes to an improbable 22-win regular season and earned the Big Ten's co-player of the year honors. Penn got the media's vote; Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves garnered the coaches' vote.

        “A player of the year is somebody who not only helps your team but helps other players get better,” O'Brien said. “A lot of players have all they can do to take care of their own games. Scoonie and Mateen are both the type of players that will help other guys on their own team.”

        Then, O'Brien added, “From my own personal perspective, Scoonie was definitely the player of the year in our league. I shudder where to think we'd be without him.”

        Penn's impact on the court was massive: He took some of the scoring load from two-guard Michael Redd, last year's Big Ten freshman of the year, and ran the Buckeye offense with his smooth passing skills and deft eye. With Penn, Ohio State became the Big Ten's second-best team, finishing 12-4 in the league as he averaged 17.2 points and 4.1 assists per game.

        “I don't know if you can out a number on what he means to a team like that,” said Michigan guard Robbie Reid, “but a lot of (their turnaround) is related to him. Apart from his numbers, he adds so many intagibles. He helps other guys get their numbers, and he's made Michael Redd's job about 80 times easier, scoring, giving him the ball in the right spots. And Scoonie knows when to take over a game, and he has the ability to do that.”

        Said Cleaves: “I think he's a better scorer than me. I think I'm more of a power point guard. He's more quick and flashy.”

        When Penn arrived, the Buckeyes, who hadn't been to postseason play since 1992, immediately had a battle-tested leader to set the tone in practice. As Ohio State heads into the NCAA Tournament with a No. 4 seed, Penn is still the only Buckeye to have played in March Madness.

        “Scoonie's the type of guy that doesn't care about what he's done in the past,” said Buckeyes sophomore forward Jon Sanderson. “He earned all of our respect from the very beginning, being around him, playing in open gym, practices last season. We knew he was going to be the leader of this team this year.

        “He's an extension of Coach O'Brien out on the floor. He gets on guys if they're not working hard. He's just a great person, a great point guard, a great leader.”

        How important is Penn to this Ohio State team? Consider the last regular season game at Penn State. Penn hit his first seven shots and had scored 20 points with 10 minutes remaining when he fell hard to the floor and bruised his hip and buttocks. Penn State came back, took the game to overtime and won, and though he returned, Penn scored only two more points on two free throws.

        Or consider the Buckeyes' second round Big Ten Tournament loss to Illinois. Still bothered by the injury and hampered by leg cramps, Penn shot only 5-of-13, and Ohio State's offense didn't run smoothly. Redd had to take the scoring chores on his shoulders for 32 points, and the supporting cast didn't contribute much offensively.

        “Scoonie's more of a pure point guard,” Reid said. “He's a distributor first, a scorer, penetrator and shooter second. Scoonie's strengths are more in the open court. He's exceptionally quick, and he's got a great crossover.”

        Penn vows to be healthy for the NCAAs, and after what he has done this year, can you question him? When he told reporters at the preseason media day Ohio State would make the NCAA Tournament this year, many were stunned.

        Not Penn. He believed, and that's why he came with O'Brien.

        “A lot of people questioned me,” Penn told the Chicago Tribune earlier this season. “I knew it could be done here. Now they're going to be jumping on the bandwagon.”


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