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Buckeyes on rise

Ohio State's strides in '99 make for bright future

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Posted: Sunday March 28, 1999 10:38 PM

  Pointing toward the future: With Scoonie Penn and Michael Redd back next season, Buckeyes coach Jim O'Brien doesn't have too much to holler about. AP

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) -- Despite the disappointment of a 64-58 loss to Connecticut in Saturday night's NCAA semifinals, it's difficult for Ohio State coach Jim O'Brien to not be optimistic about the direction his program is taking.

In a solemn locker room after the game, O'Brien told his team to look beyond the season-ending defeat.

"I told them not to lose sight of the big picture," O'Brien said. "I told them I was proud of them, once again. Obviously, it was a disappointing loss. But, you know, when you think about the big picture, I think that's the thing we need to focus on. I'm very happy about the big picture."

Just a year ago, the Buckeyes were coming off a fifth straight losing season -- the longest streak of sub-.500 years in school history. They were 8-22 in 1997-98, matching the school record for losses in a season. And their 1-15 Big Ten record left them looking up at every other team in the conference.

Yet the Buckeyes -- with transfer guard Scoonie Penn and sophomore Michael Redd leading the way -- confounded doubters and fans alike by putting together a remarkable 27-9 season that led all the way to Ohio State's first trip to the Final Four in 31 years.

"It was a great opportunity, the ride we had," Penn said of the Buckeyes, who were greeted by about 300 cheering fans when they returned to the Schottenstein Center in Columbus on Sunday afternoon. "I feel we have nothing to hang our heads about. It's a great experience."

With four starters and nine of the 11 players on the roster back, expectations will likely skyrocket. Ohio State scored 354 points in its five NCAA Tournament games and all but 46 of those were by underclassmen.

"We're basically the same team," Redd said. "We have that confidence that we can do the same thing next year."

Penn said last week he has no intention of leaving school early for the NBA. Redd has said the same. Center Ken Johnson, timid and foul-prone in December, advanced at warp speed to a cunning shot-blocker and adequate scorer. Currently a junior, he even discovered that by virtue of a federal judge throwing out the NCAA's Proposition 16 academic requirements, he might gain another year of eligibility.

"We had a great year," Johnson said softly in the dressing room at Tropicana Field. "My attitude is to stay positive. We have a great team, now we look ahead to next year."

No longer are the Buckeyes wide-eyed innocents when it comes to big games and win-or-go-home tournaments.

"We've learned a lot of lessons from March," freshman guard Brian Brown said. "Now we know what it takes."

Jason Singleton and Neshaun Coleman will be lost to graduation, but O'Brien will add three recruits that should fit into the mix quite well. One of them -- 7-foot-3, 245-pound Aleksandar Radojevic from Montenegro in Yugoslavia -- played this season at Barton County (Kan.) Community College and is considered by many to be the top juco player in the country.

Now the Buckeyes can bask in one of the greatest turnarounds ever in college basketball. By next October, though, the stakes will be raised. This year's underdogs will probably be considered bullies next year.

O'Brien said the success of the past season wouldn't sink in until he was sitting on a beach later this month. He already knows how far the Buckeyes have come.

"I'm hoping that in some small way we've been able to restore some of the respectability to Ohio State's basketball program," he said.

 
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