2007 NCAA Final Four Preview: Ohio State Buckeyes

by David Mihm | March 27th, 2007

Starting Five:

G – Mike Conley, Jr. (11.0 ppg, 6.1 apg, 2.2 spg)
G – Ron Lewis (12.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg)
G – Jamar Butler (8.6 ppg, 3.7 apg)
F – Ivan Harris (7.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg)
C – Greg Oden (15.4 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 3.3 bpg)

Key Bench Players:
Daequan Cook (10.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 42% 3P%), Othello Hunter (6.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg), David Lighty (3.6 ppg)

How They Got Here:
First Round – Defeated Central Connecticut State 78-57 thanks to Greg Oden’s double-double.
Second Round – A Ron Lewis three at the end of regulation led to an OT defeat of Xavier, 78-71, in one of the best games of the Tournament.
Sweet 16 – Came back from an 18-point halftime deficit to nip Tennessee 85-84.
Elite 8 – Out-executed Memphis in crunch time to pull away 92-76.

2007 Changes:
The Buckeyes feature the nation’s best freshman class, and four of those players average better than 15 minutes per game.

Greg Oden is, as everyone knows, one of the top players in the country, and was officially named a first-team All-American yesterday. The 7-0, 280 pound behemoth is a defensive presence on the same level as Patrick Ewing in his prime. The number of shots Oden alters significantly over the course of a game is at least twice his 3.3 blocks per game average. And he’s developing more and more polish on the offensive end after recovering fully from an off-season injury to his dominant right hand.

Mike Conley, Jr. was Oden’s high school teammate at Indianapolis’ Lawrence North. As the son of an Olympic gold medalist in track and field, Mike Jr. makes the most of his loaded genetic pool, and is one of the quickest players in the country, on par with UCLA’s Darren Collison and UNC’s Tywon Lawson. More importantly, he’s a lock for college basketball’s MENSA society, with an astounding 2.7:1 Assist-Turnover ratio.

Daequan Cook was the third highly-touted member of OSU’s freshman class, and he has blossomed into a terrific sixth man, averaging just over 10 points a game, largely on 42% shooting from beyond the arc. Like Conley, Cook is very athletic and torched a number of teams for 20+ points on Ohio State’s non-conference schedule. Although Cook seems to have hit a bit of a freshman wall against more talented competition, he’s a guy opposing teams can’t afford to leave open, particularly from beyond the arc.

David Lighty is the final member of the Thad Five who receives significant minutes (minutes which have increased with Cook’s recent struggles). The 6-6 wing played 20 minutes against both Tennessee and Memphis, and he provides energy and hustle which seem to inspire his teammates.

And while the “Thad Five” has certainly made a significant impact for the Buckeyes this year, key role players from last year’s team have provided stability: namely Jamar Butler, Ron Lewis, and Ivan Harris. Othello Hunter has also blossomed in an expanded backup role to Greg Oden.

(Incidentally, Mark Titus, a 6-4 guard from Brownsburg, Indiana who hasn’t seen many minutes this year, the answer to a sure trivia question about the fifth member of Ohio State’s 2006 recruiting class.)

Strengths: Versatility, Perimeter Balance, Greg Oden in the post.
As Ohio State has proven on multiple occasions this year, it can win games at any tempo. The Scarlet and Gray put up 107 points against VMI, the nation’s highest-scoring team, in its season opener, and also emerged victorious against uptempo Tennessee and Memphis. The Buckeyes have also had their share of low-scoring affairs, including two brutal defensive battles with Wisconsin and five more grinding victories against Michigan State, Purdue, and Illinois.

As is the case against UCLA and Florida, opposing defenses can’t just key on one perimeter player. Mike Conley, whose ability to penetrate is unmatched by any point guard remaining in the Tournament, must draw each team’s top outside defender. And since Butler, Lewis, Cook, and Lighty can all knock down open shots with ease, a zone probably isn’t going to work either.

And it’s hard to make too much of Oden, whose game-changing presence in the paint may be the most impressive display of its kind in the last 20 years.

Weaknesses: Defensive Complacency, Cold Shooting.
Where Ohio State has really struggled in the Tournament is on the defensive end. Too many times, the Buckeyes will relax on the perimeter, knowing they have Greg Oden down low, which leads to an inordinate number of foul opportunities for their star as he tries to prevent open layups. Tennessee’s guards in particular were able to get into the lane with ease in the first half of their matchup, and every team in the Tournament has made a pretty good percentage of its shots from the perimeter. For Thad Matta’s sake, one hopes Ohio State’s players are aware of the explosiveness of the Hoyas’ backcourt after Georgetown’s shooting display against North Carolina.

OSU often settles for outside shots, particularly when Greg Oden is out of the lineup. More often than not, these shots go down, but against the tremendous teams remaining in this Tournament, one six- to eight-minute slump could do the Buckeyes in. It’s critical that Conley and Butler penetrate and kick, rather than just swing the ball around the perimeter, to turn their team’s outside looks into high-quality shots.

Crunch Time Strategy:
Much like UCLA, the Buckeyes are tough to defend as the clock winds down because so many players can take the last shot. Ron Lewis has been Mr. Clutch for Ohio State in the Tournament, hitting big threes late against both Xavier and Memphis. (Lewis also hit a game-winner against Tennessee in early January.) Conley can cause major problems with his driving ability, often leading to free throws. Butler’s experience as a full two-year starter makes him a great option on a kick-out, and teams really have to concentrate on boxing out, because Oden will always be ready for a last-second putback.

Prospective Matchups:
The Buckeyes match up well with every team in the Final Four. What their perimeter lacks in size, it makes up for in quickness, with Conley and Butler among the speediest guards in the Big Ten. Greg Oden will do plenty of damage even against Roy Hibbert and Florida’s power duo (if the Gators and Buckeyes both make it to the title game). Depth isn’t really an issue anywhere other than center, and even at that position Othello Hunter gives them solid minutes off the bench—remember he started 11 games in place of Greg Oden at the beginning of the year.

In the first game, I look for Georgetown’s guards to limit OSU’s open looks from the perimeter, which means Conley must get into the lane with even more regularity than we’ve seen so far. If Hibbert confronts Conley, it’s going to leave Oden open for more than a few dunks…At the defensive end, Oden’s traditional one-man zone will probably limit the number of back-door opportunities in the “Georgetown” offense. The big question for the Buckeyes, as for any team, is who to put on Jeff Green? 6-7 Ivan Harris will certainly start there, and if he plays well defensively, Ohio State should win the game. But Green will probably post up Harris early (on the opposite side of the floor as Oden) and if he’s successful, JT III might go big with Patrick Ewing, Jr. at the 3 to create even more conundrums for Thad Matta.

The Buckeyes would probably prefer a matchup with the Bruins, should they make the final, because of Oden’s clear advantage over Lorenzo Mata inside. 6-4 Ron Lewis and 6-6 David Lighty are two of the few guards in the country who might be able to cause problems for Arron Afflalo, and from a fan’s perspective, Conley-Collison would be an absolute dream matchup at point guard.

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