"Their offense is one of the toughest I've played against," Indiana senior guard Dane Fife said. "It's fluid, and all the players know what they're doing." Adds O'Brien, "We don't have marquee guys, but we have good chemistry and guys who play hard. Sometimes that's enough."
It certainly is this season in the Big Ten, which is suffering through such a down year that its nonconference winning percentage of .644 is the league's lowest since 1981-82 (.574). What's more, the conference has just two teams ranked in the Top 25. That, however, doesn't fully explain Ohio State's success, nor do individual statistics. The Buckeyes didn't have anyone selected to the all-conference team in the preseason, but they work hard on defense and work well on offense: Through Sunday they were second in the nation in field goal percentage (50.5%) and were holding teams to 58.7 points a game. That's a tribute to their three best players: 6'4" senior guard Brian Brown (who averages 15.2 points), 6'5" senior guard Boban Savovic (12.1) and 6'1" junior guard Brent Darby (11.1).
Brown, who scored a career-high 26 points against Indiana, best reflects O'Brien's philosophy. O'Brien initially didn't want to recruit Brown out of Bishop Loughlin High in Brooklyn, but he became interested in him while visiting the home of Brown's high school teammate Will Dudley, now a Buckeyes senior forward. "Will's mother said Brian might be the nicest kid on their high school team, and her son was sitting right there," says O'Brien, who adds, "Brian is as consistent a human being as I've ever been around. He always has a smile on his face. He does the same things in practice all the time. He never does anything great, but he never does anything bad."
Brown's tempered approach seems to be contagious. The Buckeyes always sit in the same seats on the team bus and occupy the same chairs while watching videotape. With the Big Ten's preseason favorites—Illinois and Iowa-having their weak moments, Ohio State could win its first outright regular-season Big Ten championship since 1991-92. "A lot of people watch us and figure it's no fun to play this way," Dudley says. "We may not be flashy, but we think it's more fun to win."
Louisiana Tech's Rising Star
Ford Inspired by Famous Father
Louisiana Tech junior center Cheryl Ford loves it when her father attends her games, but she wishes he'd keep quiet. "He sits there and cheers for me the whole time," Ford says. "I try to block it out and play." Ford's father happens to be Utah Jazz star Karl Malone, and on Sunday the Mailman and 10 other members of the Jazz sat courtside while Ford scored 13 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to lead the No. 8 Lady Techsters to a 68-45 victory over SMU in Dallas.
Malone, who stayed in town an extra day after the Jazz had lost to the Mavericks, admits to being 20-year-old Cheryl's toughest critic but tries to keep his advice constructive: Don't rush your free throws, avoid cheap fouls and, whatever you do, don't date any of my teammates. After struggling in her first two seasons, Ford, who, like Malone, wears number 32, through Sunday was averaging 11.7 points and 79 rebounds while shooting 50.0%.
Before signing with Louisiana Tech, her dad's alma mater, Ford was a three-time Class C All-State player for Summerfield (La.) High. She and her twin brother, Daryl, a sophomore reserve guard for Tech's men's team, were raised by their mother, Bonita Ford. Malone fathered the twins when he was in his late teens, and later he and Bonita Ford settled a paternity suit that she had filed against him. Malone was estranged from the twins until 1998, when he set about trying to build a relationship with Cheryl and Daryl.
Since then the twins have spent summers with Karl, his wife, Kay, and their four children at the Mal-ones' Utah house and at their Arkansas ranch. Karl talks to Cheryl nearly every day and tries to make it to a couple of her games each year. On Dec. 30 he chartered a plane to see the 6'3" Ford play at Fresno State. "There were a lot of lost years for a lot of reasons," Malone says of his relationship with the twins. "You wish you could make up those years, but you can't, so you go on."
Says Cheryl, "I love my father to death, and I'm so glad I'm finally getting to know him. I love it when he comes to my games. I get butterflies knowing he's in the stands."