Talk hoops all year long in Luke Winn's blog, a journal of commentary, news and reader-driven discussions about the college game.
11/23/2007 11:46:00 PM
The Early Word On ... Texas A&M
Joseph Jones harassed Ohio State freshman Kosta Koufos into 4-for-16 shooting.
NEW YORK --Four things we learned about Texas A&M from its 70-47 rout of Ohio State in Friday's NIT Season Tip-Off Final at Madison Square Garden ...
1. The Aggies are still as physical as ever on D.
There's a noise that 6-foot-9 forward Joseph Jones occasionally makes while holding his defensive ground in the post. It's the basketball version of the tennis grunt, an "UGH!" that's muddied by his mouthpiece but can still easily be heard from press row. The first time Ohio State's budding Greek god, freshman Kosta Koufos, tried to back Jones down on the block, the Buckeyes' baby 7-footer was met with the sound and a collision, and the right-handed hook shot he attempted was off the mark. Jones says the grunts are an unconscious thing, but by being so aggressive, "I try to let players know that I'm here, and I plan on being here the whole night."
For Ohio State, it was the longest of nights. Koufos, who had scored 24 points on 10-of-17 shooting in Wednesday's semifinal against Syracuse, was manhandled by A&M and limited to just 10 points on 4-of-16 shooting. Said Jones of the Aggies' game plan, "Coach [Mark Turgeon] said [Koufos] has a tendency to shy away from contact, so we tried to play him as physical as possible." That they did, with the trio of Jones, Bryan Davis, and DeAndre Jordan not only keeping Koufos' offense in check but also holding him to only three rebounds, while A&M finished the game with a massive, 47-32 advantage on the boards. While the Buckeyes' cold shooting contributed to their worst loss since a blowout at the hands of Florida on Dec. 23, 2006, they were demoralized by the Aggies' thorough domination of the interior. It wasn't entirely a coincidence that OSU shot 24.6 percent from the field and went the opening 11 1/2 minutes of the second half with just one field goal. They were in the clutches of a defensive juggernaut.
2. Even DeAndre Jordan is starting to look the part of an A&M menace.
The 7-foot Jordan came out high school with five-star hype but didn't exactly live up to it when he first arrived in College Station. He was tentative and immature, and even when I saw an Aggies practice in mid-October, Jordan was getting roughed up by Jones and Davis, and was relatively ineffective on offense. "He was being a baby [then]," said Turgeon. "[Jones and Davis] have been great for DeAndre." What they've done is turn Jordan -- who didn't need to exert much energy to dominate tiny opponents of his 126-student Christian Life Center Academy in Houston -- into a force against high-major competition. He scored 11 points and grabbed eight rebounds in 26 minutes on Friday. Another near-perfect shooting performance -- 5-of-6 from the field -- brought his season field-goal percentage to a stunning 87.9 percent (29-of-33). Those buckets are mostly dunks and put-backs, but still, can you find another 7-footer who's averaging double-digits with that kind of accuracy?
In what might be perceived as a sign of respect, even Jones and Davis have begun to cut Jordan a break in practice. "Jo' and 'BD' used to do a thing where they'd screen me at the same time, kind of squishing me, and that took a lot out of me," Jordan said. "But now they don't really do it anymore, I think because they don't want me to get hurt during the season."
3. Dominique Kirk is no longer a question mark at the point.
In October, Turgeon said the Aggies' point-guard position, which had just been vacated by All-America/Lottery Pick Acie Law, "is a daily [question] for me." He had three options: Kirk, a savvy senior; Donald Sloan, an athletic sophomore; and B.J. Holmes, a diminutive freshman. Turgeon chose Kirk, with Sloan in relief, and the move has thus far been a resounding success. Kirk dished out a team-high five assists against zero turnovers against Ohio State, and his assist-to-turnover ratio through six games is 3.25-to-1, higher than both his (2.6) and Law's (1.9) from last season.
"Dominique has been phenomenal," said Turgeon, who in his playing days was a point guard under Larry Brown at Kansas. "The first day of practice I was like, 'Oh man, I've got problems.' But [Kirk] has come so far, and now he thinks like a point guard. ... So I feel much better today than I did then."
The unselfishness of Kirk and Sloan has transformed A&M from a team that often lived or died with Law's scoring ability into one with an extremely balanced attack. Against the Buckeyes, the Aggies had five players between nine and 15 points in the box score: Derrick Roland (15), Nathan Walkup (11), Jordan (11), Jones (10) and Josh Carter (nine).
4. A&M just might belong in the top 10.
Asked if the Aggies had made a national statement by winning the NIT title, Jones said, "I don't know if the world thinks we're a good team or not, but I think we're a pretty good team ourselves."
The world, Joe, should soon be warming up to that notion. In this young season, no team has destroyed a quality opponent like the 15th-ranked Aggies did to the Buckeyes on Friday. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim insisted on Wednesday night that "Ohio State is without any question a top-25 team" -- and then A&M made that same team look like an NIT club two days later. Even Turgeon admitted, "I wasn't expecting this. I was expecting a high-scoring game out of them. They're so hard to guard."
Given the vulnerabilities shown by a number of teams ahead of A&M in the AP poll -- Louisville, Marquette, Tennessee and Oregon, to name a few -- it's more than reasonable to consider the Aggies worthy of a spot in the lower portion of the top 10. In terms of administering bruising beat-downs, they might as well be ranked No. 1.
Kansas State freshman Michael Beasley has totaled 62 points and 38 rebounds in his first collegiate games.
It's difficult to ascertain when, exactly, the college hoops season begins. Sports Illustrated's preview issue -- what I've been working on lately rather than blogging -- comes out tomorrow. The first real "tournament" of the winter, the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic, takes place on Thursday and Friday at Madison Square Garden. Some teams have already played two regular-season games. Others have yet to play one. Basically: we're right in the middle of the beginning. And already, there has been no shortage of surprises: 1. The Zestier Mayonnaise
University of Illinois-Chicago's Josh Mayo was a huge prospect coming out of Merrillville, Ind., in the Class of 2005. So huge that he was assigned two stars in a photo-less, news-less profile in Scout.com's recruiting database. So huge that he wasn't even in Rivals.com's recruiting database. USC's O.J. Mayo, meanwhile, was a slightly huger prospect coming out of Huntington, W.V.: five stars in every recruiting service, and the No. 1 overall prospect in Scout.com's rankings. O.J. also was on the cover of SLAM last month standing in front of a Bentley. They are neither brothers nor cousins, nor did they, coming into this season, appear to be operating in the same basketball universe.
Until they went and actually played the games, that is. When the first weekend of the 2007-08 season was said and done, Josh Mayo > O.J. Mayo. The pride of Merrillville -- now a junior at UIC -- dropped 34 points on 11-of-17 shooting in an upset of Bradley on Saturday. The Fresh(man) Prince of L.A. had 32 against Mercer -- but he needed 27 shots to get there, also committed eight turnovers, and his Trojans lost by 15. To Mercer! Prediction: When Mayo is still taking 20-plus shots a game in three or four years -- for a bad NBA team -- he will not care about this. And Josh Mayo will still have yet to appear in a national publication, standing in front of a Bentley.
2. The Yellow Tie ... and that other thing
Oh, does Billy Gillispie long for the days -- just a week ago, really -- when his yellow tie was the only thing Kentucky fans were worried about. (Seriously, there was enough buzz over Billy Clyde's sartorial decision in UK's first exhibition game that Lexington columnist John Clay was justified in discussing it in his new YouTube series. He paraphrased the reactions of a few fans as, "Why was Billy Gillispie wearing a yellow tie? Doesn't he know he's in Kentucky? He's supposed to wear blue.")
Now the 'Cats, who were to be one of the main attractions in this weekend's 2K Sports College Hoops Classic at Madison Square Garden, are stuck at home, game-less, for two weeks after a rather stunning collapse: an 84-68 loss, on Wednesday, to a Gardner-Webb team that won nine games the previous year, and drew fewer people to all of its conference home games combined than UK did to its Big Blue Madness. (Thanks to mid-major guru Bill Trocchi for that absurd stat.)
3. B-Easy There, Young Fella
First came the rumors, that Kansas State freshman Michael Beasley (nickname: B-Easy) had scored 42 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in a closed scrimmage against Marquette. Then came non-nationally televised confirmation of his dominance: Through the Wildcats' first two games, he's averaged 31 points and 19 rebounds. The opponents were Sacramento State and Pittsburg State, but do you see anyone else putting up those kinds of numbers? I ranked instant-impact freshmen in a gallery a few weeks ago and put Beasley fourth, behind UCLA's Kevin Love, Memphis' Derrick Rose and USC's Mayo. In hindsight, I'd revise the order of my top five to Beasley, Rose, Love, Indiana's Eric Gordon and O.J. Mayo. Rose will get the most wins of any of them ... but Beasley, as crazy as it sounds, could actually surpass Kevin Durant's freshman numbers of 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per game.
4. The D2 Invasion
Grand Valley State, the Division II team that sunk No. 8 Michigan State in the Spartans' first exhibition game of the season, appeared in this blog-space last Monday. When I asked the Lakers' L.J. Kilgore if he'd played in any environments as tough as the Breslin Center, he mentioned that the University of Findlay's Croy Gymnasium is rather intense, because "it gets so loud in there that it seems like a million people are against you." This was rather amusing, since Croy is more than 12,000 seats smaller than Breslin. I also figured it would be the last I heard about either Grand Valley State or Findlay all season. Four days later, Findlay upsets Ohio State in Columbus, 70-68. And much like the stunning Josh Mayo > O.J. Mayo development, we also have this: the Division II Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference > the big, bad Big Ten.
After an impressive performance in the European U-19 Championships, Ohio State freshman Kosta Koufus could find himself playing for Greece in Beijing.
AJ Mast/Icon SMI
Kosta Koufos returned home on Sunday from the European Under-18 Championships in Madrid, and by Monday the 18-year-old had slipped back into the anonymity of pickup games in his hometown of Canton, Ohio. Soon he'll make the 128-mile trip to Columbus to begin fall classes at Ohio State and, in the winter, inevitably become known to casual college basketball fans as "The Greek Guy who Replaced Greg Oden". Koufos, Rivals.com's No. 16-rated player in the Class of '07, is talented enough to start for nearly any program in the nation as a freshman. But it will take a while -- certainly much longer than it did for Oden -- for the 7-foot-1 big man to become a household name in the NCAA.
There is one place where Koufos is already quite popular, though: Greece. So much so that a ripple of Kosta-mania spread over the country's countless sports papers -- and even non-sports, national TV networks such as MEGA -- in the past few weeks. "The European media coverage was nuts ... almost out of hand," Koufos said of the scene in Spain, as well as what occurred when he arrived in Greece after the tournament. "After games, in the locker room, they were everywhere; I'd get pictures taken of me stretching. In Greece I was on TV every day."
What was the reason for the overseas media assault on a guy who, stateside, is only familiar to recruitniks and Ohio State fans? When you see Koufos' per-game averages from the U-18s, where he led Greece to a silver medal and was named the tournament MVP, the attention seems warranted: 26.5 points, 13.0 rebounds, 3.5 blocks and 1.4 steals, according to a gushing report from DraftExpress, which called it perhaps the best performance by a European junior this decade. It was promising enough for Koufos to get attention from the Greek men's senior national team, whom you'll recall were the savvy bunch that upset the U.S. team in the Athens games in '04. "I have to stay focused and work for it, but I have a real good chance to play in the 2008 Olympics now," Koufos said. One doubts there are other any other incoming college freshmen with the potential of playing such a sizable role in Beijing.
The Canton-born Koufos' connection to Greece is his mother, Kathy, who lived in Messini until the age of six, when her family emigrated to Australia and eventually the U.S., settling in Ohio. Kosta was able to obtain dual citizenship through a year-long, paperwork-heavy process, clearing him to follow what he called a "dream" and play for the Hellas. (The Greek media was already following Koufos before he was officially Greek: At the Jordan Classic in April, I sat next to a reporter who, I was somewhat stunned to learn, had traveled from Athens to see Koufos -- as well as investigate into whether Florida-bound guard Nick Calathes, who has Greek relatives, might also be a potential Hellas convert.)
Once in Spain, Koufos was forced to quickly acclimate himself with the Greeks' playing style. He speaks the language well enough to communicate with teammates, but had just over a week between when he arrived in Europe and the tournament's championship rounds began. "Kosta basically got off the plane and started playing," said Kathy. "Considering he had barely any practice with the guys, it worked out really well."
Well, indeed, and despite there being little-to-no U.S. media coverage of Koufos' performance (not a single newspaper article about it pops up in Google News), he kept Ohio State assistant Dan Peters informed on the Greek team's silver-medal run through regular phone calls. While no one expects the Buckeyes to be back in the Final Four, Koufos' summer abroad was a promising indication of how they might re-tool and remain Big Ten contenders in the year after Greg. Incumbent power forward Othello Hunter can handle more of the dirty work in the paint, and Koufos is a versatile big man who can provide offense at either the 4 or 5 positions. The adjective most frequently found in recruiting services' reviews of Koufos' game was "Euro-style." Now he has the passport to match.
MORE INTERNATIONAL BOOSTS
The top seven performances by current NCAA players on international teams over the summer:
1. Aron Baynes, Jr. C, Washington State (AUSTRALIA, World University Games): 18.1 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.3 blocks
The Aussies finished in 17th place at the WUG, but it wasn't Baynes' fault: He scored in double figures in every game and shot 67.1 percent from the field.
2. Gerald Lee, Soph. F, Old Dominion (FINLAND, U-20 Europe): 17.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists in Division B
U.S. fans last saw Lee posting a stellar, 10-point, 11-rebound performance off the bench in ODU's first-round NCAA tournament loss to Butler. Finnish fans saw him dominating second-division competition this summer the Euro U-20s.
3. Theo Davis, Fr. F, Gonzaga (CANADA, World University Games)
Team Canada has yet to release full stats from the Universiade in Bangkok, but game reports for the bronze medalists included a few beastly Davis stat lines, including double-doubles against both Korea and Japan.
4. Nikola Dragovic, Soph. F, UCLA (SERBIA, U-20 Europe): 12.1 points, 5.4 rpg, 29.3 mpg
A pine-rider for the Bruins during their latest Final Four run, Dragovic was the third-leading scorer for gold medalist Serbia, hitting 45.2 percent of his 3s.
5. Daniel Hackett, Soph. PG, USC (ITALY, U-20 Europe): 9.1 points, 2.0 assists, 3.9 reb, 1.8 steals, 22.6 minutes
Hackett, who will team up with O.J. Mayo in the Trojans' backcourt this fall, was the third-leading scorer for the bronze-medalist Italians.
6. Jevohn Shepherd, Jr. F, Michigan (CANADA, World University Games): 12.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.1 steals
Only a bit player on the Wolverines, Shepherd was a stud for Canada in the WUG, dropping 28 points on New Zealand and 19 on Israel for the bronze medalists.
7. Gal Mekel, Soph. PG, Wichita State (ISRAEL, U-20 Europe): 7.9 points, 3.1 assists, 26.5 mpg
Mekel, who played backup point for the Shockers as a freshman last season, led the sixth-place Israelis in assists and shot 41.2 percent from beyond the arc.
UPDATE: SI.com's Bill Trocchi, a Vandy man, alerted me to the stellar showing of incoming Commodores freshman Andrew Ogilvy, who was a surprise force in the Under-19 World Championships. Ogilvy averaged 22.3 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks for Australia -- and made Vandy coach Kevin Stallings look like a genius for quietly plucking the 6-11 center off the international recruiting market. The addition of the big Aussie might just make up for the loss of Ted Skuchas.
This is the third expansion of The Style Archive, which opened on Dec. 4, 2006, and has since grown to 26 exhibits. It's a blog-museum of sorts, dedicated to the most interesting stylistic elements of college hoops, from hairdos, to flair, to YouTube-worthy moves. Below are the six most recent additions; the complete Archive can be found here.
(Readers are encouraged to make archive nominations either in the blog comments or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org, and will be credited on the site for any successful suggestions.)
>> Jan. 23 Exhibits <<
Yo, Vanilla! Levon Kendall, 6-10 forward, Sr., Pitt Classification: Retro Vanilla Ice 'do Spotted: Jan. 16 vs. UConn by The Blog Notes: Big ups to Kendall for bringing back the cut worn by Robert Matthew Van Winkle in the early '90s. Kendall is stopping, collaborating and listening on the hardwood (as well as averaging 5.7 points per game).
The No-Tie Look Tony Bennett, head coach, Washington State Classification: Semi-formal coaching attire Spotted: Jan. 16 in Seth Davis' Hoop Thoughts Notes: The 37-year-old Bennett took over the Cougars after his father, Dick, retired in March 2006. Will Tony's instant success -- he's led Wazzu from the Pac-10 cellar to the top 25 -- start a sideline style trend?
The Vault II Deron Washington, 6-7 forward, Jr., Virginia Tech Classification: Posterizing layup Spotted: Jan. 6 at Duke by the Blog Notes: The Blue Devils' Greg Paulus would like to forget what Washington did to him at Cameron -- a crotch-in-the-face vault for a clutch layup -- but this play will be immortalized on YouTube.
The Clarence Clemons Warren Carter, 6-9 forward, Sr., Illinois Classification: Messy, spiked-out hairdo Spotted: Jan. 14 at Michigan State by the Blog Notes: We're calling Carter's look the Clarence Clemons -- rather than the Ernie (from Sesame Street), as one friend suggested -- because it looks exactly like this photo of the E Street Band saxophonist.
The Frizzled Frosh Robin Lopez, 7-0 center, Fr., Stanford Classification: Unkept curly 'fro Submitted by: Stanford student Michael Lazar Notes: Lopez is, to our knowledge, the second player (after Wazzu's Derrick Low) who keeps his mane in check with an accessory running over, rather than around, his head. It's a good way to tell him apart from his twin.
The Dangling Mouthpiece D.J. Augustin, 5-11 guard, Fr., Texas Classification: Constantly visible mouth flair Spotted: Jan. 20 at Villanova by the Blog Notes: Augustin, Kevin Durant's partner in crime on the Baby 'Horns, is bringing back a look that Illinois' Dee Brown was known for in 2003-04: He uses a mouthpiece, but never keeps it completely inside his mouth.
UPDATED: The Polynesian Revival Derrick Low, 6-2 guard, Jr., Wash. State Classification: Hip-to-ankle tattoo Spotted: Dec. 28 at UCLA by the Blog Notes: Originally we called this a knee-length tat -- but in the process of writing this story we learned the real details on the traditional Hawaiian tattoo Low got in the summer of 2006.
UPDATED: Great Oden's Beard Greg Oden, 7-0 center, Fr., Ohio State Classification: Old-man facial hair Spotted: Jan. 17 vs. Northwestern by The Blog Notes: Oden began the season with a 40-year-old's grizzly beard, but shaved it in advance of the Buckeyes' Jan. 17 date against Northwestern. He's no longer being asked for his birth certificate prior to games.
The Style Archive debuted on Dec. 4 with 14 exhibits, and then added four more on Dec. 21, including "The Dove" and "The Screech Fro." This is our second expansion.
(The complete Style Archive, with all exhibits, can be found here. Readers, remember to make nominations either in the blog comments or to email@example.com. You'll be credited on the site for any successful suggestions.)
>> Dec. 29 Add-Ons <<
Great Oden's Beard Greg Oden, 7-0 center, Fr., Ohio State Classification: Grizzly-old-man beard Spotted: Dec. 23 at Florida by Commenter Notes: An anonymous commenter noted that the beard Oden has been sporting of late "looks like an artist's depiction of LeBron in 15 years." Oden told SI that he's highly amused by his old-man rep.
Knee-length Tat Derrick Low, 6-2 guard, Jr., Wash. State Classification: Diamond-patterned leg tattoo Spotted: Dec. 28 at UCLA by the Blog Notes: Low, the Hawaiian PG who has led Wazzu's surprise start, has a diamondback-like tattoo that runs from his left sockline into his shorts. He also has Archive-worthy hair, but we're still looking for a good photo.
Ohio State's Greg Oden couldn't make a move without Al Horford or one of his Gator teammates hounding the Buckeye freshman.
Jimmy DeFilippo/US PRESSWIRE
Three things learned from watching No. 5 Florida's 86-60 rout of No. 3 Ohio State on Saturday ...
1. Al Horford delivered one of the gutsiest performances you'll see all year.
I think Billy Donovan was being honest Thursday, when he told reporters his leading scorer and rebounder, Al Horford, was a no-go for the Ohio State game with a high (left) ankle sprain. "It's just obvious right now with what he has movement-wise, he can't play," Donovan said. And this was a buzz-kill: We had worried for so long that the Buckeyes' frontcourt phenom, Greg Oden, wouldn't be available for this clash -- and now we were getting Oden, but likely having to watch him against a shell of a Florida team.
By Friday, though, we were hearing that Horford -- who had missed the Gators' previous two games -- was feeling good enough to practice. Then on game-day (once team doctors had said the injury couldn't be worsened by playing) it was announced Horford was available, although he wouldn't start. At that point, the realistic expectation was he would be able to offer a few, adrenaline-fueled stretches off the bench.
Horford went and did something else instead: He entered the game at the 17:44 mark of the first half, went on play 25 minutes and was the unquestioned star of the afternoon, delivering an 11-point, 11-rebound performance on his bum ankle. He thoroughly outplayed Oden, who had seven points and four rebounds in 28 minutes. He logged four more minutes and had four more points than healthy teammate Joakim Noah. Never mind what Donovan or the doctors said earlier in the week -- it seemed as if Horford came in believing he could still take over the game.
His biggest moments all occurred in the second half, when Florida turned a reasonably close game into a slaughter. After Oden picked up his third foul -- and went to the bench -- at the 16:47 mark, Horford threw down two dunks to extend Florida's lead to double-digits. When he grabbed his 10th rebound with just under 12 minutes left, he turned into a 6-foot-10 point guard, dribbling the ball up the floor and feeding the Gators' actual floor general, Taurean Green, for a 3. That put Florida up 15, at 60-45, and when Ohio State called a timeout, a fiery Noah came flying off the bench to greet Horford at half court, hugging him and screaming in his face in vintage Noah fashion.
"I was able to be aggressive, like I always am," Horford said. "I definitely felt more comfortable in the second half."
Minutes later, Horford bulled his way into Oden in the lane, drawing the freshman 7-footer's fourth foul. By that point, Ohio State's young star looked defeated. He was unable to make aggressive defensive moves in the paint, and was lagging far behind his teammates in running up the floor. Battling with Noah, Chris Richard, and especially the hobbled Horford had simply been too exhausting.
"It had to be hard on Greg," Donovan said. "We were throwing two and even three guys at him and he had to guard different people each time. Our guards also drove to the basket and made him leave the inside guys defensively. So we really made him work."
2. Contrary to popular belief, you can zone Ohio State.
Three days before Oden was healthy enough to make his debut, the Buckeyes established an early rep as one of the nation's most dangerous perimeter teams by hitting 13-of-26 3-pointers against North Carolina on Nov. 29. Florida bucked conventional wisdom Saturday, playing large stretches of the game in a 2-3 zone -- and OSU couldn't capitalize, especially in the first half, when they shot just 2-of-9 from long distance (the Buckeyes would finish 6-of-24).
Corey Brewer and Green extended the edges of the zone out far enough to put pressure on OSU's best shooters, and yet the strategy still allowed the Gators to contain Oden. Early in the game, while guarded by Richard and Horford, Oden was surprisingly passive about finding gaps and demanding the ball in the lane. Now, not every team is going to be able to get away with zoning Ohio State. But if you have athletes like Florida does, who can ensure the Buckeyes won't get wide-open looks from beyond the arc, throwing a zone at them isn't a death wish.
3. After struggling early on, Florida is finally playing like a title team again.
I had been harsh on the Gators, leaving them out of this week's Power Rankings -- but not because I didn't think they were capable of being one of the nation's elite teams. They had only played two games against decent opponents (Kansas and Florida State), and lost both. I was just waiting for Florida to play like ... well, Florida.
That's what finally happened Saturday, when the Gators thrashed a team that will likely finish the year in the top 10, and shot 58.6 percent from the field in the process. Horford's gritty showing helped Florida dominate OSU on the glass by a margin of 37-20, and Florida's three perimeter starters (Green, Brewer and Lee Humphrey) combined for 54 points.
"These games are a test and Ohio State was like the exam," Noah said. "For the first semester, we passed it. We get an A. We're going to do it all over again in the second semester."
What was one of the most highly anticipated games of the regular season didn't turn into a thriller, but it served a different purpose. For all of us who lauded the Gators' stars for staying in school after winning a national championship, and then recently had worried that they might not make a run at another title, those doubts were erased.
Despite wearing a thick brace on his right hand, Greg Oden still blocked five shots in 23 minutes.
The crowd at Value City Arena started roaring at the 16:40 mark of the first half on Saturday, with their team trailing Valparaiso 4-2. The cheers were not in appreciation of the Ivan Harris 3-pointer that would soon find the bottom of the net, but rather because a giant had just risen off of the Ohio State bench.
So much anticipation had built up for the debut of Greg Oden, the No. 1-rated freshman in the country, that he received a standing ovation for simply stepping on the floor when he entered the game at 16:01. The 7-footer had been rehabbing his right wrist for months since having surgery in June, and had it wrapped heavily in a black brace on Saturday. As he bent into defensive position for his first collegiate possession, he blew into his injured hand -- a gesture that reminded us that he hadn't seen live game action since June, and might be, well, a little cold coming out of the gate.
Oden had become such a folk hero that you yearned for him to immediately do something superhuman, like a backboard-shattering dunk or a swat into the crowd. The reality, however, was that he was essentially playing with one hand and needed time to get into the groove.
He leaped for a block attempt on the first play, but Urule Igbavboa's shot went over his outstretched arm and swished to put the visitors up 6-5. Soon after, a fast-breaking Crusader threw a bounce pass through Oden's legs for a layup. The first time he touched the ball on offense, on a wild feed from fellow freshman Mike Conley Jr., the ball bounced off Oden's hands and out of bounds; the third time he received it in the post, he traveled. When he made his first trip to the free-throw line, at 12:56, he had to shoot left-handed, but did it from a funky-looking righty stance, hitting one of two.
And then, late in the first half, the awkwardness and rust gave way to raw talent, his ailing wrist be damned. His first block and field goal were recorded within 15 seconds of each other, and the impact of his mere presence in the lane started to become noticeable. Valpo's offense, which had attacked the basket early, was stricken with Odenphobia: a fear of getting stuffed in the lane.
In the second half, Oden became the Buckeyes' focal point on both sides of the floor. His game was not graceful, but he bulled his way to 14 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks. In one possession he blocked two Valpo shots within three seconds of each other, and made a disgusted face afterward, as if he were appalled that the Crusaders would re-attempt to score on him after being denied the first time. Valpo's Moussa Mbaye, the 6-9, 225-pound center who drew the unenviable assignment of guarding Oden, was repeatedly overpowered on the block, and the Crusaders resorted to fouling Oden frequently -- he attempted 15 lefty free throws, making eight.
Considering that Oden was such a force despite extremely limited use of his dominant hand -- and that he posted his double-double in just 23 minutes of playing time, the late-arriving star's potential seems limitless. As one TV announcer remarked on Saturday, "When he's completely healthy, he may be illegal." Indeed, it's hard to imagine many post players, even in the Big Ten, having the ability to hold their ground when he backs his 280-pound frame into the lane and drop-steps to the basket.
The Buckeyes team that routed Valpo 78-58 contrasted greatly in style to the one that hung with North Carolina, before falling 98-89, in Chapel Hill on Wednesday. That Ohio State squad, sans Oden, was more exciting to watch, running and gunning, relying on the playmaking skills of senior Ron Lewis and freshman Daequan Cook. But it was also more unstable, willing to decide its fate from beyond the 3-point line (it made 13-of-26 against the Heels). The Oden team, at least on Saturday, was less dynamic -- but looked more ready for the long haul in the Big Ten, with a center who plays strong interior defense and provides balance to its perimeter prowess on offense.
After offering cautious estimates of a Jan. 2 debut, the Buckeyes trotted out their big prize much earlier than expected. Living up to the hype will be a daunting task for Oden, but after finally seeing him in action, one has to wonder: Once he's freed from the constraints of the wrist brace, will anyone be able to stop him?