Thursday, March 18, 1999

OSU, Auburn have stars to spare

The Associated Press

        KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Newcomers Chris Porter and Scoonie Penn get most of the attention, and deservedly so.

        Players of the year in their respective conferences — Porter in the Southeastern Conference and Penn in the Big Ten — the junior transfers helped Auburn and Ohio State end extended stays from the NCAA tournament.

        But Auburn and Ohio State are more than Porter and Penn — who will face each other tonight when the teams meet in the South regional semifinals at Thompson-Boling Arena.

        Auburn (29-3) and Ohio State (25-8) have not gotten to the NCAA round of 16 solely because of their impressive first-year players. Others have stepped up as Porter and Penn have failed in the postseason to match their season averages.

        Penn's 31 percent shooting (15-of-48) in the postseason is well below his season mark of 45 percent. And Porter is the fourth-leading scorer for Auburn in the NCAA tourney with only 9 points per game — seven below his team-leading season average.

        “It has been a balanced team,” Auburn coach Cliff Ellis said. “It's been a team that has not been centered around one player, although there has been a lot of credit given.”

        Porter was the only new starter for Auburn, which before this season had four consecutive winning records but had not been in the NCAA tournament since 1988. He had originally signed with Auburn, but first went to junior college because of academics.

        But with Porter drawing a lot of attention from defenders in the postseason, and his numbers down, others have emerged. Guard Scott Polhman had a career-high 28 points in an 81-74 victory over Oklahoma State last weekend.

        In the opening round against Winthrop, 12 Auburn players scored — with Pohlman and Doc Robinson each getting 14 — in an 80-41 victory.

        “One guy hasn't made or broken this team,” Pohlman said.

        Like Porter, Penn was the only new starter on his team this season.

        Auburn had at least experienced some success before Porter. Ohio State was 8-22 and finished last in the Big Ten at 1-15 while Penn sat out last season following his transfer from Boston College.

        Before the Buckeyes played a game this season, Penn was making a difference. He told his teammates on the first day of practice that they were going to the NCAA tournament.

        “I don't know how the other kids on the team responded, but I was the one that responded like I thought he was off the wall,” said Ohio State coach Jim O'Brien, who had Penn for NCAA appearances at Boston College in 1996 and 1997.

        “I just wanted us to be better than we were a year ago. But Scoonie's mentality is that when March comes around, you play in the NCAA tournament.”

        Penn was the only player with any postseason experience for the Buckeyes, who hadn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1992.

        Michael Redd, the Buckeyes' leading scorer (19.6 ppg), said Penn was the needed piece.

        “Scoonie brought a winning attitude to this program, brought a lot of leadership to this team and was another scoring weapon for our team, which we didn't have last year,” Redd said. “That is why we are winning this year.”

        Yet, while Penn is struggling from the field in the postseason, Reed has combined in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments to hit 36-of-71 field goals (51 percent).