SvoNotes: Final Four Run Lives On At OSU

Fifteen years ago, Ohio State basketball reannounced its relevance on the national stage with a stunning run to the Final Four. We look back on the run and what it means in Buckeye hoops history.

Fifteen years ago, after Ohio State had broken a 31-year Final Four drought to advance to college basketball's signature event in St. Petersburg, Fla., who could have blamed Michael Redd if he'd have had palm trees on his mind?

Instead, what he thought of was 8-22.

That was the Buckeyes' record one year prior when Redd was a freshman flash on one of the worst teams in the Big Ten. One year later, he was a bona fide superstar, a 21.0-point-per-game-in-the-Big-Dance stud in a Final Four T-shirt, and he could scarcely believe it.

"It was really tough to suffer the way we did last year, and i can't tell you what it means to be where we are right now," Redd said after Ohio State defeated St. John's to reach the Final Four on March 20, 1999. "I grew up watching these kind of games on TV and now I'm part of them. It's tremendous.

"I was just thinking about all the struggles we had last year, how the fans stayed with us and all the crying we did after games and just wondering when it would ever get better. I followed (the Buckeyes) when they had Jimmy Jackson and I've seen them suffer for five or six years. They used to be called the Suckeyes instead of the Buckeyes. I've seen it all."

So what had changed in a year – or even the three decades prior of good but not great basketball, a history marked with fantastic players but less impressive results?

Well, there was the addition of Scoonie Penn, who had sat out the previous season after transferring in from Boston College while following head coach Jim O'Brien. There was the on-court maturation of Ken Johnson and Jason Singleton. There were the additions of George Reese and Brian Brown, key pieces both.

And then there was O'Brien, who pushed and cajoled the group into a unit that was good enough to go 12-4 to place second during the Big Ten season, then upset top-seeded Auburn on the way to the Final Four.

"It's the Final Four," O'Brien said at the time before returning to Columbus, where he addressed a crowd of 1,000 fans with a megaphone at Value City Arena in the middle of the night upon the team's return.

"You spend your entire career trying to get to this place. There are players and coaches who have been involved in hundreds of games who never get the opportunity to get this, and here we are. I'm just thankful to get this chance."

The post-arrival celebration at the Schottenstein Center was just as jubilant and emotional as the one held in Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn., after OSU held off the Red Storm's comeback attempt.

Football coach John Cooper was in attendance for the games near his hometown, while board of trustees members like Alex Shumate and Ted Celeste also made the trip to cheer on the Buckeyes.

When the final verdict was in, thousands of OSU fans stayed for the postgame party while players, coaches and staff members hugged and cried together.

"This is unbelievable," athletics director Andy Geiger said. "It is a dream come true. I've been going to Final Fours for a long time, and I dreamed that someday my school would participate in one. I am happy about that."

The stars, of course, were Penn and Redd. The smooth-shooting Redd was impossible to handle in the tournament, as he put up 22 points and 10 rebounds in the Sweet 16 win vs. Auburn and added 20 more points and five assists vs. St. John's. At the point, Penn pulled the strings, posting 26 points vs. the Tigers and 22 with eight assists in the win vs. the Red Storm.

"They are one of if not the best combination in the country," O'Brien said. "They complement each other well, and they are two of the best kids you would ever want to coach."

Of course, the run would soon come to an end. A UConn team featuring Richard Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin waited in Florida, and the Buckeyes dropped a 64-58 final in the national semifinals. Hamilton had 24 points, while Redd and Penn combined for just 26 against the Huskies' stifling pressure. UConn would go on to win the national title.

The story in Columbus also soon turned. The Buckeyes would not be able to recapture the magic, making the NCAA Tournament each of the next three years but failing to get out of the opening weekend. After a below-.500 season in 2004, O'Brien was fired for lying about NCAA violations, and an investigation soon found other violations that led to the Final Four run being vacated.

It will always live on in Ohio State lore, though, when O'Brien and his players put together their stunning run, turning what had been decades of frustration into one of the most memorable hoops moments in school history.

From the program's 1968 Final Four appearance through 1990, the team went more than two decades without winning more than one game in the Big Dance. Then came the comet of Jimmy Jackson and an Elite Eight run in 1992. Three short years later, though, OSU was 6-22.

Along came O'Brien, Penn and Redd, plus the cast of characters that helped them get back to the top. The BSB cover after the Final Four loss said "The Unforgettables," and they have lived up to that 15 years later.

"I'm hoping that in some small way we were able to restore some of the respectability to Ohio State's basketball program," O'Brien said at the time.

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