Pair Of Second Year Players Poised To Improve

Coming out of high school, Ivan Harris and Ricardo Billings were both highly-touted prospects and were expected to contribute to the Buckeyes early in their career. For each of them though, their first season didn't go quite as they had hoped. This year, however, things should be different.

Last season, the Ohio State Buckeyes men's basketball team underachieved greatly, disappointing fans a great deal on their way to a forgettable 14-16 record. Arguably the two most highly-touted players on the roster are hoping to live up to their billing.

Figuratively and literally speaking.

Ricardo Billings, the 6-3 210-lb guard from Detroit, Mich. and Ivan Harris, the 6-8 200-lb forward both came to Ohio State as extremely sought-after basketball players. But in a season of misery, under different paths, neither star shined brightly.

Harris was nearly unanimously considered a top 50 player his senior year of high school at national powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va.

Originally a native of Springfield, Ohio, Harris made the transfer from South high school to Oak Hill in hopes of landing him more national recognition. The plan worked to perfection as he landed himself a spot on the famed McDonald's All-American game.

As the first McDonald's player to choose Ohio State since 1992, Harris led Oak Hill to a 34-4 record while averaging 16 points a game, 10 rebounds a game, and over two blocked shots per contest.

Coming out of high school, Harris was considered a top 10 player nationally by USA Today, Bob Gibbons, and Frank Burlison, amongst many others. The Insiders Hoops had him nationally ranked at the 10th best forward.

With a lot of high expectations as a freshman last year, Harris only provided 3.4 points a game off the bench. Although shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 43 percent from 3-point range, he rarely saw action because of his lacking progress in playing physically down low.

Harris is poised to thrive in the new system being implemented by head coach Thad Matta, however.

"It definitely will suit me a lot better personally," Harris said of the new style of play this upcoming season. "Mostly I'm better on the perimeter, but I'm trying to establish myself to where I can play inside and get a little stronger so I can be a little more of a threat. I just got to get a little stronger in the paint and then I'll be all set."

Although Jim O'Brien never really got through to Harris last season, it seems he got the message in the off-season.

Harris, who last season showed flashes of being the player most everyone thought he was in high school, worked hard at improving his game and vows not to leave any doubt this season.

"I worked on my ball-handling a lot," Harris said. "I worked on ball-handling and a ton of shooting drills from all over. I also got stronger."

Back in the summer, former assistant coach Lamonta Stone mentioned that Harris did often look good in practice, but he was just lacking the toughness they wanted out of him at the power forward spot.

Harris' potential value to this year's team might have been evidenced by the last game of the regular season. In that game against Illinois, he had eight second-half points and five rebounds as Ohio State battled back from 17 points down nearly winning the game at the end.

The second-half rally featured the Buckeyes spreading the floor with four perimeter players and Terrance Dials taking over the game down in the low post-much like Matta hopes to do with this year's team.

Billings, meanwhile, averaged 23 points and 11 rebounds as a senior at Rogers Academy in Detroit. He was the Insiders Hoops' number 15-rated guard nationally.

He signed with Ohio State in the fall of 2001, however, being a Prop 48 casualty, he was forced to sit out all of the 2002-2003 season.

Being unable to play or even practice the year before, last year he had to shake off a lot of rust in order to contribute for his sophomore season.

Twice last year, Billings scored in double-figures, both coming early in the season. However, as the team began to unfold during mid-season, Billings was one of the many players to draw the iron fist of O'Brien as he found a seat on the bench.

He was never fully able to recover, as his confidence dropped and his shots missed their mark more times than not.

This summer, Billings was noticeably two steps quicker, and some unexpected advice from former Buckeyes Scoonie Penn and Brent Darby transformed Billings into a dangerous weapon.

"All that stuff has really helped a lot," Billings said of their advice. "I think they did a real good job of helping the players out this summer. They want to see us do well, and I think it was a cool thing for them to do."

Rarely was Billings missing an open jumper this summer, and often times he was impossible for opposition to guard, whether it was in pick-up games or during the summer league.

It's safe to say he's very confident.

"I've been really confident ever since the season ended, no doubt about that," he added. "I think that first year was a real learning experience for me. Now I feel like I'm more of an experienced player."

There wasn't any special secret for Billings to get it right. He said it was just a matter of working hard and working smartly.

"It was all about playing every day, coming in and working on your game," Billings explained. "Those types of things that you don't really notice just kind of take care of themselves when you work hard and play a lot. Then when you actually work on them, it makes it that much better."

Billings is hoping to make Buckeye fans proud of him, and he believes he will transform into the type of player everyone is expecting.

He also has some high ambitions to model a few former Buckeyes -- Penn and Darby -- the very ones that have helped him this summer.

"It gives you a huge sense of pride to see that these guys care," Billings said. "They are off doing their own thing playing basketball for money, and yet they come back and spend time with us helping us out. I want to be that type of person too. I want to come back and help Ohio State when I'm done."

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