Thursday, March 15, 2001

OSU center must be wary

Foul problems become trend for Johnson

The Associated Press

        COLUMBUS It's relatively simple for Ohio State: Keep Ken Johnson on the court, active and aggressive, and the Buckeyes have a good chance of success in the NCAA Tournament.

        But if their big man gets in foul trouble — as in recent games — the offseason might start sooner than expected.

        “If he's only playing 16 or 20 minutes, we're going to struggle, regardless of who we play,” coach Jim O'Brien said during preparations for today's first-round game against Utah State at the East Regional in Greensboro, N.C.

        On paper, fifth-seeded Ohio State (20-10) should handle the No. 12 Aggies (27-5). But it will be tough if its 6-foot-11 senior is restricted by fouls.

        “We all know how precious Kenny is to us,” forward Zach Williams said. “Late in the games, we need him to be in there as the go-to guy and as a presence in the low post.”

        In Ohio State's quarterfinals loss to eventual champion Iowa at last week's Big Ten Tournament, Johnson sat next to O'Brien for most of the first half after two nondescript fouls, then was whistled for two more quick ones in the second half.

        “I have to be a lot more cautious,” he said. “I'm definitely confident in going out there and making good, strong moves and getting everybody else pumped. But when I'm sitting down for 15 or 16 minutes, it's really hard to get in rhythm.”

        O'Brien said he has analyzed the situation by reviewing tapes. He privately has said there were several questionable calls. But he also acknowledges that officials are under the gun to make sure they meet the new directives to stop hand-checking, physical play and most contact inside.

        “In our first 24 games, he was only in foul trouble three times,” O'Brien said. “He committed 55 fouls and had 101 blocked shots — almost 2-to-1, blocks to fouls. In the last six games, he's been in foul trouble in five and he's committed 22 fouls and has 18 blocks.

        “I don't know what it is. Is it fatigue? Are teams going at him more? What is the lesser of a bunch of evils? As we try to come up with ways to protect him, the other guys are trying to come up with ways to expose him.”

        Johnson said he recognizes the obvious: He must stay on the floor.

        “Things are totally different now. Why, I couldn't tell you. Most of my fouls are all touch fouls, cheap fouls, moving screens, this and that,” he said. “I've just got to play a little smarter.”

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