Buckeyes give Hoyas painful reminder why they?re No. 1

April 01, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

One by one, the Ohio State players and coaches strode off the Georgia Dome court and flashed the No. 1 sign to the horde of fans across from their bench and next to the tunnel to their locker room.

Yeah, that?s right. Ohio State is No. 1.

What a reminder the Buckeyes ?the 35-3 Buckeyes?gave America in the first Final Four game last night. They were, in fact, the topranked team in the polls going into the NCAA tournament. What they did against Georgetown last night?thatwaswhy.

Greg Oden, half of the best college center matchup of this generation, out for the last 17 minutes of the first half? Ohio State still dominated. Roy Hibbert out with foul trouble, too? Dominated then as well. Hibbert in without Oden. Oden in without Hibbert. Both of them out. Both of them in ? as scarce as those occasions were, and thank you, officiating crew, for robbing us of that. It was all Ohio State every time.

Should we be that surprised? Yes. For one thing, they're still freshmen, at least the players who make or break their fortunes. Also, the Hoyas were, as even Buckeyes coach Thad Matta acknowledged, ?no question, the best basketball team we played this year.? They didn't luck their way to Atlanta, not off that win over North Carolina in the regional final.

Ohio State wasn?t nearly as impressive against opposition that good. Compared to Georgetown, it didn't seem as deep, as balanced, as potentially lethal.

But when you play your way, to your strengths, you become the threat. Ohio State did that perfectly, at the perfect time, under imperfect conditions.

?We knew if we played a halfcourt game, we'd play into their hands,? said Ohio State's wondrous freshman point guard, Mike Conley Jr. ?They have a big frontcourt. They?d be blocking a lot of shots. We didn?t want to have to deal with that.Wewantedto play our style of game.?

Conley saved Ohio State last night, with the 11 points he scored in the first half after Oden had been ticky-tacked to the bench, and with the tempo he pushed and maintained all night. No one on Georgetown could remotely handle him. Amazingly, handling Oden was an easier task ? but, wait, don't fall into that trap. Conley?s a tough chore by any criteria, even with the center of the new millennium next to him.

?I really don?t think about it too much, about me being overshadowed,? Conley said. ?Greg is deserving of all the attention he gets.?

Still, Conley did for Ohio State what Jeff Green didn?t do for Georgetown, and that was a shame for the Hoyas. Absent the super-size marquee players, those two had the game on their shoulders, and Green kept trying to shift it to someone else. A day after claiming that he's most proud of his unselfishness in keeping his teammates involved in their passand- move offense, he passed and moved way too much and shot way too little.

?I wouldn?t change anything,? Green insisted, not long after managing nine points ? four of five from the field, one of two from the line ? in possibly his last college game. ?I didn't want to force anything, so I just took what they gave me.?

The assertiveness Conley took onto the court every possession, that was what Green needed to bring. A player like him can?t take five shots in a national semifinal and expect to still be playing tomorrow night.

Oden took thatmany in the first eight minutes of the second half, after seeing his team get his back and take a 27-23 lead into the half.

Oden ? in foul trouble and still playing mostly with his left offhand, played like the evolution of the position he?s been on track to be since junior high. Eight points in those eight minutes (before his third foul, of course), and the offensive rebound, pump fake and rim-rocking dunk, accented by the two-hand slap of the backboard, were the nastiest.

And that move wasn?t even as sick as the dunk he missed nine minutes later ? the swoop onehand from the foul line into Green rattled off the rim on his way down from the rafters. Just the promise of it almost blew the steepled roof off the place.

Yet Ohio State did more without him on the floor to win than it didwith him. That's scary.

Hibbert made as good a use of his scant minutes as Oden did his; Hibbert had 19 points and six rebounds in 24 minutes, Oden 13 and nine in 20 minutes. In stretches, Hibbert was unguardable, and his presence accompanied every surge the Hoyas made. The last serious one was from about the 6?-minute mark until about 2? to go, when the Buckeyes' lead was trimmed to 56-52 and Oden picked up a fourth foul.

Georgetown didn?t score again until 45 seconds left, after Oden (jumper in the lane, rebound of a three-point miss, facial on DaJuan Summers) had wrestled control back.

Ohio State made an excellent Georgetown team look bad at times, and one of the best players in the country look timid too often.

If the Buckeyes do that one more time, tomorrow night, they'll be No. 1.

Oh, right. They are No. 1.



It's a good year in college basketball?well, a better year, at least?when Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell and Dean Smith are on hand, in person, to be honored at the Final Four, and JohnWooden is still able towatchUCLA(at home, at age 96) play in the semifinals.

Kentucky really, really believes it deserves a basketball coach as good as Florida?s BillyDonovan. Because of theway it conducts itself, Kentucky really, really doesn't.

It might not be theworst thing in theworld to have to miss seeing the Orioles' season opener ? against Johan Santana. Unless you?re a sadist.

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