Friday, March 09, 2001

Ohio State enters Big Ten tourney on a roll

Buckeyes have beaten league's best

By Larry Phillips
Mansfield News Journal

        COLUMBUS — Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, Iowa's Steve Alford and Illinois' Bill Self already know this: There is no upside in playing Ohio State at this week's Big Ten tournament.

        Not only have the Buckeyes beaten Michigan State, Iowa and Illinois, but they also wield the conference's best big man, Ken Johnson, and the league's best coach, Jim O'Brien.

        This week, third-seeded Ohio State made its first appearance in the AP poll, checking in at No.24. So, a loss to the low-rated Bucks could be crippling for hopes of a top NCAA seed, or could signal a snub to the Big Dance for the Hawkeyes.

        Iowa will be the quarterfinal opponent when Ohio State (20-9 overall, 11-5 Big Ten) opens the conference tourney at 10p.m. today in Chicago. The Buckeyes bring the conference's longest winning streak (seven games) into that contest — five of those victories were on the road. They also knocked off every league team except Indiana and won't see the Hoosiers unless both reach Sunday's final.

        Yet O'Brien's bunch is nowhere near as talented as co-champions Illinois and Michigan State. The Bucks were picked to finish between seventh and ninth in the conference by preseason prognosticators.

        But chemistry, coaching and a man-child are at work here.

        On Monday, Johnson became a two-time winner of the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year award. He is also a consensus first-team all-conference player, something former teammate Michael Redd couldn't claim.

        Most figured the Buckeyes would flounder without Redd (who was a second-team media pick in 2000 and exited school a year early), point guard Scoonie Penn and forward George Reese. Those three led Ohio State in scoring and carried the school to a Big Ten co-championship.This season's edition exceeded everyone's expectations.

        Johnson contributes 12.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, 4.1 blocked shots and immeasurable havoc. His 6-foot-11 frame creates an intimidating presence leading to altered shots, turnovers and ultimately surrender in the lane.

        Junior guard Brian Brown tops the team in scoring at 14.5 points and guard Brent Darby bounces off the bench for 9.5 points. Darby has become the team's third scorer, and the sophomore's recent offensive surge fueled the conference winning streak.

        Freshman forward Zach Williams adds 6.9 points. Meanwhile, wing players Boban Savovic and Sean Connolly are good shooters who chip in 8.7 and 7.7 points, respectively.


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