COLLEGE PARK -- The question has surely been raised mor than once in this bizarre season: How much would Gary Williams like to trade places with Randy Ayers right now?
After all, it was Williams who left Ohio State two years ago for Maryland, leaving Ayers, his top assistant, in line for what has become one of college basketball's plum jobs.
And while Ayers prepares to lead the fifth-ranked Buckeyes into the NCAA tournament this week, with an opening round game against Towson State Friday in Dayton, Williams' team not only is barred from the tournament by NCAA sanctions, but must watch as a part of the proceedings takes place on its Cole Field House court beginning Thursday.
But Williams is not at all bitter about the position that his former assistant and the players they recruited are in. In fact, he's more than a little happy that Ayers, who was 33 when he took over for Williams, has gotten this opportunity to be successful.
"There was some criticism about that [Ayers' age]," said Williams. "They said he was too young and didn't have any experience to coach at the Big Ten level. So, it's been nice to see him succeed out there."
Williams has watched the Buckeyes, the top seed in the Midwest region, blossom from a distance this year, after a 17-13 record last season. Despite losses to Purdue and Iowa to close the regular season, Ohio State amassed a 25-3 overall record and a 15-3 Big Ten mark that tied it with Indiana for the league championship.
The Buckeyes were awarded the conference's automatic tournament bid over the Hoosiers because they swept the season series, including a thrilling double-overtime win three weeks ago. As such, Williams said Ohio State was entitled to the Midwest's top seed.
"I thought they deserved it over the course of the year. Obviously last week was bad, but if they beat Indiana twice and that was the other team that was being considered for the Midwest, then I didn't see how they could give it to Indiana if they beat them and they had the same record," said Williams.
Williams was present for the recruiting of all five of the Ohio State starters and has taken a keen interest in the progress of 6-foot-8 senior power forward Treg Lee.
Lee, who is fourth on the team in scoring (11.5 pts per game) and second in rebounding (5.5), is just now having the kind of season that many projected for him when he graduated from Cleveland's St. Joseph High.
Lee missed his freshman season as a Proposition 48 casualty, and Williams said that vacant season may have hurt his development as a player.
"Treg's biggest problem, I thought, was when he was a sophomore in high school, he was as good as when he became a freshman at Ohio State. Then he had to sit out his first year," said Williams.
"That really hurt him in terms of development as a player because he needed to see that freshman year that what he did in high school wasn't necessarily going to be good enough to do it at the college level.
"So, he came out his sophomore year thinking he was going to be 'the man.' And he wasn't 'the man.' "
As a result, Williams said Lee had to discover he couldn't survive at the Division I level with just his great physical abilities.
"He had to show people that he could play. He had all this advanced reputation out there and he had never shown what he could do. Now, all of a sudden, there he is. He's done a great job with the leadership thing," said Williams.
Of course, Williams is more than pleased with the progress of 6-5 sophomore swingman Jim Jackson, the consensus Big Ten Player of the Year and a second team All-America choice this season, who is averaging nearly 19 points and more than four assists per game.
"You know a guy's going to be a good college player, but you never know if he's going to be great. Nobody can ever predict that," said Williams. "But what he did was to come in and he never missed a beat. He was good as a freshman. He won four games for Ohio State in the last second last year. And this year, he did the same thing.
"The great ones do it at the end of the game when it's close. And that's what Jim has given them. As a sophomore, to be able to do that in a good conference like the Big Ten, that's great."
As for Friday's game, pitting Williams' former team against Towson State, coached by Terry Truax, his former teammate at Maryland, Williams says the Tigers can't get rattled by having to play the Buckeyes on essentially a home court.
"He's experienced this before, having played Oklahoma last year. And they played well. They just can't change too much. They were successful playing a certain way and to try to change things in one week, I don't think that would work," said Williams.
"I think they've got to do what got them to the NCAA and hope that's good enough against Ohio State."