Steve's Say: O'Brien's Boys Back To Big Dance

Yes, the really big game is tomorrow. But for some Ohio State fans, today is also a cause for celebration. Tonight is the season opener for Jim O'Brien's men's basketball team, including the debut of transfers J.J. Sullinger and Tony Stockman. We take a look at the 29-game regular season schedule and find that O'Brien and his team may need their dancing shoes come March.

For the past eight years, I have taken a stab at predicting how the OSU men's basketball team will fare.

Some years I have done pretty well, others (like last year) I have not.

But, undaunted, I am back with my annual preview of what lies ahead over the next 3-1/2 months for Jim O'Brien's team, which opens tonight at San Francisco (11 p.m. Eastern).

This is the year OSU fans have been pointing to for some time as the Buckeyes have added transfers Tony Stockman and J.J. Sullinger, former Prop 48 Ricardo Billings and national top-10 prep prospect Ivan Harris.

They join a decent core group that includes mended point guard Brandon Fuss-Cheatham, mended power forward Terence Dials, small forward Matt Sylvester and inside men Velimir Radinovic and Shun Jenkins.

O'Brien watched his NCAA Tournament streak of four straight years end last year in a hail of injuries. He will be looking to start a new NCAA streak this year, although he notes that few members of his team have ever enjoyed that type of success at the Division I level.

The great thing you will notice about this year's schedule is teams like Duke, Alabama and Pittsburgh aren't on it. I'm the first guy who complained that O'Brien needed to beef up the nonconference schedule. But last year proved that, while that is a nice objective, it can also be self-destructive.

Make no mistake, when OSU is a consistent top-10 team, fans will expect that kind of scheduling every year. In the meantime, O'Brien is doing this the right way to build it. Now, as for charging full price for Dartmouth ...

OSU split its two exhibition games, drilling Coaches vs. Cancer in its opener before somehow losing in overtime to the EA Sports All-Stars last Thursday. That game illustrated that this team isn't quite a cohesive unit yet.

But maybe that element will be developed on this season-opening trip, which will also include three games at the Maui Invitational Monday through Wednesday.

The following is my game-by-game look at the upcoming season, broken down into four categories and listed chronologically within those categories (all games home, unless noted).

Layups (10)

* San Francisco, away, Nov. 21 -- The Dons (15-14 last year), who play in the tough West Coast Conference with Gonzaga and Pepperdine, have already played two games. They beat Tennessee-Martin in their opener before falling to Southwest Missouri State in a tourney at Springfield, Mo. This is somewhat of a setup, but you have to believe O'Brien will get the best out of his team after the last exhibition showing. War Memorial Gym (seating capacity 5,300) just sounds like a pit.

* Virginia Tech, at Nationwide Arena, Dec. 6 -- Would you believe Tech is 4-0 all-time against OSU, winning four December games between 1972-76? But the Hokies (11-18) are picked 13th in the bloated 14-team Big East. Former South Florida coach Seth Greenberg takes over here. He has three starters back, including 6-7 small forward Bryant Matthews (17.3 ppg). This game is at Nationwide downtown as a dry run for OSU's hosting of the NCAA men's tournament in that building in March.

* Samford, Dec. 13 -- The Bulldogs (13-15) join the Ohio Valley Conference this year after leaving the Atlantic Sun. Samford is picked ninth in the 11-team OVC.

* Furman, Dec. 17 -- The Paladins (14-17) haven't seen the NCAA since 1980. They are picked fifth in the South Division of the Southern Conference.

* Eastern Illinois, Dec. 23 -- The Panthers (14-15) are picked fifth in the OVC.

* Dartmouth, Dec. 28 -- The Big Green (8-19) are picked sixth in the stodgy Ivy League. Did you know that Dartmouth knocked OSU out of the NCAA Final Four ... in 1944?

* Maryland-Baltimore County, Dec. 30 -- The Retrievers (7-20) enter their first full year in the America East, where they are picked ninth (how do they find teams like this?).

* Penn State, away, Jan. 10 -- Ed DeChellis, who previously spent 10 years at PSU as an assistant, returns from East Tennessee State to replace Jerry (you are finally) Dunn. He and the Lions (7-21) will take their lumps, especially after top scorer Sharif Chambliss transferred to Wisconsin.

* Northwestern, Feb. 4 -- Bill Carmody is still on the job at Evanston, although he, too, faces a tough year with a thin roster with just 10 players. Guards Jitim Young and T.J. Parker give NU (12-17) some hope, but there is no inside game to speak of.

* Penn State, March 3 -- This should be the tune-up OSU needs to springboard toward a big showing in March.

Free Throws (8)

* San Diego State, at Maui Invitational, Nov. 24 -- Former Michigan coach Steve Fisher (you remember, "Jaaaa-len ... Ju-waaaan") begins his fifth year on the job here. He took the Aztecs (16-14) to the NCAA two years ago and the NIT last year. Wesley Stokes (you remember, the funky haired kid from Missouri) has arrived as a transfer. This is a dangerous Maui opener for the Buckeyes.

* Third Game at Maui Invitational, Nov. 26 -- This could be the first-, third- or fifth-place game at Maui. With two wins, it would be the title game. The potential opponents are (most likely) Villanova as well as Chaminade, Hawaii and Santa Clara. The toughest of these opponents would be Villanova, which returns three starters from a 15-16 team. A win could give OSU the Maui title and a nice 4-0 start.

* Georgia Tech, Dec. 3 -- The Buckeyes will return home from Hawaii and have six days to rest up before tackling the Yellow Jackets (16-15) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge as well as a grudge match for last year's 72-58 loss to Tech in the NIT in Atlanta. It helps that big man Chris Bosh left for the NBA a bit prematurely. Guards B.J. Elder and Marvin Lewis had 12 and 11 points, respectively, in that game and they're back. Should be a good one.

* Minnesota, Jan. 7 -- You have to wonder if Dan Monson is the guy to turn this program around. They got a great player in 6-8 Kris Humphries, who ended up here after signing with Duke. They have Michael Bauer back as well, but it hurts that Rick Rickert went pro too soon. They looked like, well, Minnesota with a preseason NIT loss at Utah Wednesday night.

* Indiana, Jan. 20 -- The Hoosiers (21-13), under Mike Davis, are tough as nails at Assembly Hall but more than beatable outside of it. Davis has Bracey Wright (16.2 ppg) to lean on, but the Hoosiers are a year away from contending. VCA should be rocking for a Tuesday night ESPN game.

* Purdue, away, Jan. 31 -- Gene Keady quieted many of his critics with a Sweet 16 team (19-11) a year ago. The Boilers lose Willie Deane, but welcome four other starters back.

* Iowa, Feb. 18 -- You have to wonder if Steve Alford is the guy to turn this program around. Like Monson, he needs to start getting the Hawkeyes (17-14) to the NCAA on a regular basis. He has endured four straight losing seasons in the Big Ten. He has a nice seven-man nucleus, but Alford must push the right buttons.

* Minnesota, away, Feb. 25 -- Williams Arena is a tough place to play, but OSU has won in two of its last three trips to Minneapolis.

Three-Pointers (11)

* Dayton or Central Michigan, second game at Maui Invitational, Nov. 25 -- Fans would love to see an OSU-Dayton second-round match-up. Former Michigan State assistant coach Brian Gregory takes over for Oliver Purnell and inherits four starters from last year's 24-6 team that reached the NCAA. OSU leads the all-time series 3-2. Central Michigan (25-7) did Dayton better and reached the second round of the NCAA last year, but they face a rebuilding year. Either way, this will not be an easy game for Ohio State.

* Seton Hall, away, Dec. 20 -- The Buckeyes romped over the Pirates 71-54 last year in Columbus. Louis Orr's Pirates (17-13) were a disappointment last year, collapsing down the stretch with three losses in their last four games to miss the NCAA. Guard Andre Barrett exceeded his average of 16.7 ppg with 18 against OSU last year. This game will be played in cavernous Continental Airlines Arena (the Meadowlands), home of the New Jersey Nets.

* Texas Tech, Jan. 4 -- The big homecoming for former Buckeye and Indiana coach Bob Knight. You know Knight would love to come back to his alma mater, likely for the last time, and get a win. I give O'Brien credit here. This could have fiasco (and maybe even "loss") written all over it, but they will welcome the General back to OSU. Andre Emmett (21.8 ppg) is one of the top scoring guards in the country for Tech (22-13). If OSU beats Michigan in football on Saturday, this would be an afternoon warm-up for the Sugar Bowl that night.

* Illinois, away, Jan. 7 -- Former Southern Illinois head coach and Purdue assistant Bruce Webber takes over for Kansas-bound Bill Self. Where Self liked to just toss the ball out there, Webber brings the Keady regimented mind-set to the Illini (25-7). That may take some getting used to for free spirited backcourt mates Luther Head and Dee Brown. It will also take some getting used to not seeing Brian Cook under the basket for the Illini.

* Iowa, away, Jan. 24 -- OSU has won its last four trips to Carver-Hawkeye, so the law of averages must even out at some point.

* Wisconsin, Jan. 28 -- Quick, who won the Big Ten regular season title? Yep, Wisconsin and second-year coach Bo Ryan. But OSU did dump the top-seeded Badgers in the Big Ten tourney in Chicago, avenging a tough one-point home loss. Do-it-all guard Kirk Penney is finally gone after eight seasons with the Badgers (24-8). But Ryan has four other double-figure scorers back, led by Devin Harris (12.8 ppg).

* Michigan State, Feb. 7 -- To borrow and twist a John Cooper line, "If I'm going to play Michigan State, I want to play them on a neutral floor in Columbus." That is the only place OSU will see MSU during the regular season. Some think MSU (22-13) is a Final Four-caliber team after venturing to the South Region final against Texas last year. Sometimes spectacular guard Chris Hill (13.7 ppg) directs the traffic. Tom Izzo should have his head examined for a sked that includes Kansas, UCLA, Kentucky, Duke, Oklahoma and, oh yeah, defending national champion Syracuse.

* Wisconsin, away, Feb. 14 -- This may be OSU's toughest task of the season. The Badgers were a perfect 8-0 at home in Big Ten play last year. This will be a Saturday night game on ESPN.

* Indiana, away, Feb. 21 -- Assembly Hall is always a house of horrors for OSU. I'm too depressed about it to look up the exact record, but it is something like 23-4 in favor of IU.

* Michigan, away, Feb. 29 -- The dark cloud has lifted over the Wolverines (17-13) as UM is once again eligible for NCAA play. Tommy Amaker may have a team that could push its way into The Big Dance, led by guard Daniel Horton (15.2 ppg). By this point in the year, this could be a game with big postseason implications. This will be the teams' only meeting in the regular season and CBS will have it with a noon start on a Sunday.

* Illinois, March 6 or 7 -- CBS may pick this regular season finale up for a Sunday broadcast. It could factor huge in the Big Ten race for both sides.

Half-Court Heaves (0)

This is usually the toughest category of games, reserved for things like Duke in Greensboro, N.C., or at Pittsburgh. The games at Illinois and Wisconsin look tough but I don't see anything on this 29-game slate that meets this criteria (i.e. an unwinnable game).

Summing Up

As we total it up, that's 10 Layups, eight Free Throws, 11 Three-Pointers and no Half-Court Heaves.

You have to hit all of your Layups, so give OSU 10 wins. Seventy percent is good on Free Throws, so there are six more. If you hit 33 percent of your Three-Pointers, you are on target, so there are four more. We don't have any Half-Court Heaves.

That leaves OSU at 20-9 overall and roughly 10-6 in Big Ten play. That should be good enough to place OSU somewhere in the top five and give them a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament, which thankfully switches venues back to Indianapolis.

Even with a first-round loss there, the Buckeyes will have enough wins on their card by that point --not to mention an RPI somewhere in the high teens to low 20s -- to write their own ticket to the Big Dance.

Looking Back

I have been trying my hand at these game-by-game breakdowns of each OSU basketball season since 1995. Here is how I've fared each time:

* 2002-03 -- Last year, I picked OSU to finish 18-9 overall and 10-6 in Big Ten play. Unfortunately, injuries to Fuss-Cheatham and Dials, among others, kept that team from fulfilling its potential. OSU ended the regular season 14-13 overall and 7-9 in Big Ten play. The Buckeyes caught fire and won three games at the Big Ten tournament before being drubbed by Illinois in the finals. The NIT loss at Georgia Tech ended OSU's season at 17-15.

* 2001-02 -- I picked OSU to go 20-7 overall and 10-6 in Big Ten play. Alas, OSU ended the regular season 20-7, but got a piece of the Big Ten title at 11-5 in conference play. After winning the conference tournament and going out in the second round of the NCAA, the Buckeyes finished at 24-8.

* 2000-01 -- I predicted that OSU would finish the regular season 18-11 overall and 8-8 in Big Ten play. The Buckeyes finished the regular season 20-9 and 11-5 (third) in the Big Ten. After the NCAA, OSU finished 20-11.

* 1999-2000 -- I predicted that OSU would finish the regular season 23-7 overall and 12-4 (second) in Big Ten play. OSU actually ended the regular season 22-5 and 13-3 in Big Ten play, earning a piece of the title with Michigan State. The discrepancy in games comes from the preseason NIT, where I believed OSU would play four games instead of just one. And, after all of the postseason was complete, OSU ended up 23-7 anyway.

* 1998-99 -- I had the Buckeyes going 18-11 and 7-9 in Big Ten play. Instead, OSU stunned the basketball world with a 22-7 regular season (12-4 Big Ten, second) before advancing to the Final Four and finishing 27-9.

* 1997-98 -- I picked OSU to go 11-18 overall and 4-12 in Big Ten play. O'Brien's first team finished the regular season 8-21 and 1-15 in the conference.

* 1996-97 -- I had the Buckeyes finishing 15-12 overall and 7-11 in Big Ten play. Instead, the team finished 10-17 overall and 5-13 in the conference, numbers good enough to get Randy Ayers fired.

* 1995-96 -- I picked OSU to finish the regular season 14-13 overall and 7-9 in Big Ten play. The Buckeyes finished 10-17 overall and 3-15 in Big Ten play.

* Summing Up -- In eight years, I have missed on my predictions by an aggregate of 23 wins -- or an average of almost three wins per year. My numbers look better over the past six years -- just the O'Brien seasons -- when I have been off by a combined 14 wins.

That means the margin of error is somewhere between 2.3 and 2.9 wins. But don't hold me to that.

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