Oden does it all for Buckeyes

Freshman center leads Ohio State over Memphis to make Final Four

Posted: March 26, 2007

SAN ANTONIO - By unofficial count, Greg Oden was only asked the same question 24 times. Or once for every minute that he was able to play on Saturday at the Alamodome. Yet, as each fresh media wave converged upon his locker, he sat totally composed on a chair, flanked on each side by what appeared to be team managers. At least they didn't look like bodyguards, but you never know.

Good thing there's a time limit on player availability, or the postgame assault might have continued until daylight.

Anyway, the biggest man in college basketball handled it the way he seems to handle most things. Which is to say, better than most of the folks doing the asking. So keep telling yourself he's still a pup.

The subject at hand was Memphis forward Joey Dorsey, who said on Friday that Ohio State's center was "overrated," among other things. Take that. The rest of the Buckeyes were outraged. If Oden was, too, he sure didn't let on.

"I don't let comments get to me," he said, matter-of-factly. "In the Big Ten, fans say [stuff like that] all the time. I didn't think about it. He was probably just trying to fire his team up. I just wanted to help my teammates [win]. I've seen him dunk on highlights. I didn't want to let that happen.

"Coach [Thad Matta] told me he was calling me out. I just didn't want to let anything get in my head. That's how I am. I just want to go out and play hard. It's over with. I think [too much] was made of it.

"It's not about me."

And so it went, over and over. Until it was finally time for the rest of the world to leave him alone for awhile. He had earned it.

The numbers don't fib. Despite being in foul trouble for the third straight game in this tournament, Oden finished with 17 points and nine rebounds. He made seven of his eight shots, although he was quick to point out that he missed half of his six free throws. He had just one block, but a good half-dozen "changes." Dorsey? How about three boards in 19 minutes? The rest of his stat line was nothing but zeroes.

The frightening part is, Oden is still learning.

He wasn't the lone reason Ohio State beat Memphis in the South Regional final, 92-76. His high school teammate, fellow first-year man Mike Conley Jr., was the regional's Most Outstanding Player on merit. But there's no getting around the reality that without Oden, the Buckeyes (34-3) are a really good team. With him, they might be the best team. We'll find out next weekend. Winners of 21 straight, their next assignment is East champ Georgetown, which beat North Carolina, 96-84, in overtime yesterday.

The second-seeded Tigers (33-4), who lost in the Final Eight for the second straight March and lost their 24-game winning streak in the process, trailed by five when Oden went to the bench with his third foul a little less than 3 minutes into the second half. By the time he came back with 12 1/2 minutes to go, Memphis was up five. Three minutes later, the Buckeyes were back in front. An Oden dunk put them ahead for keeps, with 9 minutes showing. His teammates made sure there would be no dramatics by making all 16 of their freebies in the closing 3:47. Their previous two games had been decided in overtime and by a point. Maybe they were due for an ending that allowed them to breathe.

"We're still in a fight," Oden reminded everyone. "I'm used to cutting down nets [thanks to three straight Indiana state titles]. It feels great, but this is not over with. I hope we have two games left.

"It's not a one-on-one game. There's four guys out there with you. They can play. I hope [the previous two games] made us better. We'll enjoy this moment. But we're not invincible. Next week's a business trip. We're not going there on vacation."

For a team that gets so much out of four freshmen, it never has been. The expectations were singular from the first practice. And here they are, right on schedule, with one last set of nets up for grabs.

"I don't think we're too young," Oden insisted. "It's not about how old we are, or how old anyone else is. We do what we're here to do: go to school and play basketball."

For the record, his classes for the next semester are history, biology and math. Calculus, actually. As one of the OSU managers joked, "It's not going to be easy." When asked what kind of history he was taking, Oden smiled and replied, "I don't have no specifics. We're on spring break. So I'm not worried about that."

Fair enough. It never hurts to have a proper read on priorities. Or motivation.

"When somebody talks about Greg, they're talking about all of us," said Conley, who had 19 points. "We took it upon ourselves to come out and play."

And when they do, they're capable of greatness. Individually, collectively.

Three years ago, Matta, who was coming off a Final Eight appearance with Xavier, took over a program that was trying to move on after previous coach Jim O'Brien was fired. The Buckeyes won 20 times in 2004-05 and 26 last season, when they lost to Georgetown in the second round. This team was put together to succeed now, and succeed at the highest levels. It's never easy to match that hype. Just ask their football team. But these Buckeyes, if nothing else, are on the verge.

"Three years ago, we talked about a vision," Matta said. "It just became a reality."

Any more questions? *

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