Monday, March 29, 1999

Buckeyes raise high expectations

The Associated Press

        ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Despite the disappointment of a 64-58 loss to Connecticut in the NCAA semifinals, it's difficult for Ohio State coach Jim O'Brien not to be optimistic about the direction his program is taking.

        In a solemn locker room after Saturday's game, O'Brien told his team to look beyond the season-ending defeat.

        “I told them not to lose sight of the big picture,” O'Brien said. “I told them I was proud of them, once again. It was a disappointing loss, but when you think about the big picture, I think that's the thing we need to focus on. I'm very happy about the big picture.”

        Just a year ago, the Buckeyes were coming off a fifth straight losing season — the longest streak of sub-.500 years in school history. They were 8-22 in 1997-98, matching the school record for losses in a season. Their 1-15 Big Ten record left them in last place.

        Yet the Buckeyes — with transfer guard Scoonie Penn and sophomore Michael Redd leading the way — put together a remarkable 27-9 season that led all the way to Ohio State's first trip to the Final Four in 31 years.

        “It was a great opportunity, the ride we had,” Penn said. “I feel we have nothing to hang our heads about. It's a great experience.”

        With four starters and nine of the 11 players on the roster back, expectations will be high. Ohio State scored 354 points in its five NCAA tournament games — all but 46 by underclassmen.

        “We're basically the same team,” Redd said. “We have that confidence that we can do the same thing next year.”

        Penn and Redd have said they have no intention of leaving school early for the NBA. Center Ken Johnson, timid and foul-prone in December, became a shot-blocker and adequate scorer. Currently a junior, he even discovered that by virtue of a federal judge throwing out the NCAA's Proposition 16 academic requirements, he might gain another year of eligibility.

        “We had a great year,” Johnson said. “My attitude is to stay positive. We have a great team. Now, we look ahead to next year.”

        “We've learned a lot of lessons from March,” guard Brian Brown said. “Now we know what it takes.”

        Jason Singleton and Neshaun Coleman will be lost to graduation, but O'Brien will add three recruits that should fit into the mix. One — 7-foot-3, 245-pound Aleksandar Radojevic from Montenegro — played this season at Barton County (Kan.) Community College and is considered by many to be the top juco player in the country.