Conley beckons (cont'd)
Posted: Sunday February 25, 2007 9:37PM; Updated: Monday February 26, 2007 3:08AM
There was rampant speculation leading up to Saturday that Ohio State was an uber-talented team suffering from a void in leadership. Despite being on an 11-game Big Ten winning streak and the verge of their first back-to-back conference titles since winning three in a row from 1960-62, the Buckeyes had nearly been defeated by cellar-dwelling Penn State twice in a span of seven days. There were questions as to whom, exactly, the team would lean on when it was struggling. The seniors, Lewis and Harris; the incumbent junior point guard, Jamar Butler; or the star freshman duo of Conley and Oden?
"That's the conflict on this team, that a lot of us are freshmen and we look up to Ron and Jamar, and when teams are coming back on us, we look to them for leadership," Conley said last week. "If it has to be a freshman to step up and yell at somebody, then so be it, that's how it's going to have to be."
We now know, after this physical, nail-biting victory, that the Buckeyes' leadership must come first and foremost from their freshmen. Lewis, Harris and Butler are capable of starring on any given night, and will be invaluable in the quest to Atlanta. Oden must continue to get as many touches as possible in the post. But when the game is on the line, OSU needs to take its cues from Conley.
It took Conley's shot to finally put a substantial win on Ohio State's résumé. Until Sunday its No. 1 ranking in the coaches' poll was somewhat hollow; the Buckeyes had lost all three of their meetings with ranked teams (at UNC, Florida and Wisconsin) and could boast a pair of defeats of Michigan State as their only semi-big victories. To take down Wisconsin in a game that Matta described as a "punch after punch after punch" kind of affair gives OSU validation. No. 1 doesn't seem all that absurd anymore for these Buckeyes, and their horrid, 26-point loss to the Gators on Dec. 23 seems a distant memory.
Conley, meanwhile, has not only established himself as the Big Ten's best point guard, but also one of the best in the country regardless of age. His 120.9 personal offensive efficiency rating is better than the likely top two All-America candidates at the position, Texas A&M's Acie Law (114.5) and UCLA's Darren Collison (118.5). What's left for Conley to do is fully grab the reins of the Buckeyes; not just by setting the tone on offense but also by being a fearlessly vocal freshman leader. "Michael doesn't say a lot," said Matta, "but he's one of those guys that when he talks, everybody's kind of tuned in to what he's saying."
In the post-game press conference, Oden tuned in to Conley for one of the final questions, about the atmosphere at the arena. "It's one to remember," Conley said. "I've never been a part of something like that in my life."
Oden, when asked for a follow-up, responded with only three words: "What he said."
The big man already knows what's best for the Buckeyes: deferring to their point guard.