Sunday, March 11, 2007

No. 1 seed: Buckeyes a (young) two-headed monster

By Gregg Doyel/CBS

There's an axiom in college basketball about the value of veteran leadership in the NCAA Tournament: The more experienced the team, the better. Everyone says so.

Everyone, meet Greg Oden.

That axiom is true up to the point where the best player on the court stands 7-feet-1, weighs 280 pounds and moves like a cheetah. When that happens, whether that 7-1, 280-pound cheetah is a freshman or senior is absolutely irrelevant.

This is Ohio State's story. The Buckeyes are not a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament because they have solid seniors on their roster, though they do. They are the No. 1 seed in NCAA Tournament because they have the best center in the country in Oden, a first-team All-American who is a freshman today and the No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick tomorrow.

The Buckeyes aren't just ignoring the axiom on experience. They're laughing in its face. The only thing better than experience, that axiom goes on to say, is an experienced set of guards. And the only thing better than an experienced guard is an experienced point guard. Everyone says so.

Everyone, meet Mike Conley Jr.

Conley is Ohio State's point guard. Ohio State's freshman point guard. He leads the Big Ten in assists and is sixth nationally at 6.4 per game. He made the All-Big Ten's first unit according to the media, and the second unit according to the coaches, which goes to show that sportswriters know the game better than coaches. Because Conley was the fourth-most important player in the Big Ten this season, behind only Oden, Wisconsin's Alando Tucker and (maybe) Michigan State's Drew Neitzel.

Conley controls the pace of play at both ends, too good of an athlete to be slowed on offense and too rabid of a defender to be beaten on defense. Conley can get to the rim whenever he wants, and his choices are to try to finish himself or to offer a lob to Oden. Why Conley doesn't attack the rim every time down the floor, frankly, is a mystery to me. He and Oden will be in the NBA soon enough. They might as well start working on their two-man game right now.

Ohio State has other options, which is why the Buckeyes aren't merely a very good team but a potential national champion. Freshman wing Daequan Cook (11.3 points per game, 44 percent on 3-pointers) tailed off badly in league play but still was named the Big Ten's Sixth Man of the Year. Junior guard Jamar Butler (3.8 assists, 38.6 percent on 3-pointers) gives the Buckeyes a solid secondary ball-handler and perimeter shooter. Senior shooting guard Ron Lewis (11.3 ppg) attacks the rim. Senior power forward Ivan Harris (38.6 percent on 3-pointers) is a mismatch on the perimeter. Freshman wing David Lighty is a defensive specialist off the bench.

Those are some good parts, but the engine is Oden and the fuel is Conley. Together they lead the Big Ten in six major statistical categories, with Oden on top in rebounds (9.3), blocked shots (3.5) and field-goal shooting (61.4 percent) ... and Conley leading in assists, steals (2.3) and assist-to-turnover ratio (3-to-1, which is ridiculously high for a college point guard, much less a freshman college point guard.) Conley also leads all Big Ten guards in shooting from the field at 53.3 percent.

So pick your poison, tournament coaches. Double-team Oden? Concoct a way to keep Conley out of the lane? Pick one, because you can't do both.

Oh, let's be honest: You can't do either.


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