Jim O'Brien has been making a name for himself in Columbus as a minor miracle worker. Despite never being picked to win the conference, entering the 2002-03, over the past four seasons O'Brien guided the Buckeyes to:
- Four straight NCAA berths
- An appearance in the Final Four
- 94 victories with only 35 losses
- Four straight 20 win seasons.
- Two Big Ten Titles
- One Big Ten Tournament Championship
However, this season has been anything but a rousing success. There will be no Big Ten title or twenty-win season. Whether or not there will even be an NCAA appearance is in grave doubt, and small groups of critics are doing their best vulture impressions by circling round the Schottenstein Center – searching for a spot to land.
What went wrong? Where did the wheels come off during this sojourn of a season?
A better question perhaps might be what didn't go wrong.
First, Jim O'Brien lost two assistant coaches over the past year. Dave Spiller, long a fixture on O'Brien's bench, opted to give up basketball and pursue other career opportunities. Though replaced by an able talent in Lamanta Stone, it takes time even for men who are familiar with each other to gel and fully compliment one another's coaching skills. Stability took another blow when Bruce Parkhill departed. Parkhill had a reputation for developing top-flight big men, and he is one who cannot be easily replaced. Monte Mathis, who filled in for Spiller in his absence last season, was added to the staff. In now way am I disparaging these two newcomers. The simple reality is that the more continuity on a coaching staff, the more likely the team is to succeed in any given season. Schemes, planning, types of recruits a head coach desires, and even simple communication is complicated when one (let alone two) assistant leaves.
Second, Ohio State lost a couple very talented and proficient basketball players last year. O'Brien and Ohio State fans were extremely fortunate in 2001-02 to have Boban Savovic, Brian Brown, Shawn Connolly, and Brent Darby. While Darby and Connolly both returned, the void left by the absence of the skills and leadership of Brown and Boban cannot be overestimated. A thick, physical guard, Boban not only played inside against bigger men and grabbed rebounds; he also was lights out from the three-point line. Throw in his quicker than expected hands and his passing abilities, and Boban contributed more than the box score could even begin to address. Meanwhile, Brian Brown was a defensive stopper extraordinaire as well as a clutch scorer. Brown's impact is not measurable considering it was his late insertion into the lineup that helped power Ohio State's Final Four run in March of 1999. To be sure, this year's starters in Sean Connolly and Brent Darby are not chopped liver. It is just that a backcourt of Darby, Connolly, Jernigan, and Fuss-Cheatham is not nearly as intimidating as Darby, Brown, Savovic, and Connolly.
Third, injuries. Injuries, injuries, and more injuries, 101 injuries to submarine a season, and pain is not just for sadists would all be apt titles of any book written about this Buckeye basketball season. First it was Charles Bass and his knees. Though Bass was likely destined for a redshirt season anyway, his gimpy knees ensured that he would not be available for depth if needed. Then it was the finger of Shun Jenkins. Jenkins, a junior college transfer, was someone that this team could ill afford to lose. Yet that is exactly what happened when Jenkins broke his thumb, forcing him to miss multiple games early in the season. Throw in Brandon Fuss-Cheatham. After a disappointing freshman campaign, Brandon appeared to be seeing the court much better and was shooting the ball with confidence before injuring his knee. In no time, he was forced to undergo a minor surgical procedure that kept him out of multiple contests, slowing his development. Only in the last week has he approached his early November form. How about Dials? Terence Dials took the conference by storm in 2001-02. While he was certainly not all-conference, Terence provided a much-needed dimension to the Buckeyes with his ability to bang and score inside. After recovering from an injury suffered this summer, Dials was expected to team with Radinovic inside to force opponents to play honest on the Ohio State guards. Unfortunately, Dials ended up with a stress fracture in his back that will likely force a redshirt. What about Connolly and Darby? Connolly has fought through an ankle sprain that has left him gimpy and without the necessary hops. Guards need to be able to cut on a dime and use their quickness to burn a defense. That is well nigh impossible when your ankle is a deeper hue of purple than the mantles of ancient royalty. Meanwhile, Darby has fought through extreme exhaustion from playing close to 40 minutes per game, the flu, a hip pointer, and a severely bruised hand. Of the players expected to contribute large minutes in 2002-03, only Williams and Radinovic have avoided the injury plague.
Fourth, fatigue has set in during several games. Fatigue is related closely to the injury issue because it limits the amount of substitutions. When there are no players on the bench who provide a lift or points, it is a serious coaching gamble to take a scorer like Brent Darby or Sean Connolly off of the floor for even a moment. This is not the type of team that can come back, and it has unfortunately proven it on several occasions by getting within a hair's breadth of their opponent…and then faltering. Without Dials, Jenkins, and Fuss Cheatham during long stretches this season, Radinovic, Connolly, Williams, and Darby have all logged iron-man type minutes. That is bound to catch up to a team sooner or later, and it has. After all three played 40 minutes against Coppin State, Williams, Darby, and Connolly combined to go 12-38 from the field (31.5%) in a 54-48 loss to Alabama. Against Morehead State, Darby played 36 minutes and actually asked to be taken out with four minutes left while Connolly logged 38 minutes. The result was that both looked poor against Pitt and combined for a 6-19 performance from the floor (31.5% again). The simple reality is that fans can expect to see more of this phenomenon unless Brandon Fuss-Cheatham can recover enough to provide a spark off of the bench and Jernigan can find his shot. Only quality depth will correct this problem.
Fifth, coaching limitations. Jim O'Brien is a basketball savant. He is recognized far and wide as a great tactician who exploits matchups and molds the five young men on the floor into a sum greater than their individual parts. How good is he? Give the man a wand, and he could play Dumbledore in the next Harry Potter flick. The only problem is that it is impossible to exploit matchups if you have nothing to exploit them with. The short bench that Ohio State already had entering the season (due to the transfer status of Sullinger and Stockman and the non-qualifying scores of Billings) was only made worse with the loss of 3 players (Dials, Fuss-Cheatham, and Jenkins) for extended periods of time. This is not to downplay the abilities or heart of the other members of the team. It is simply meant to say that in the era of 13 scholarships, when you have 3 members of the team hurt, 2 coming off of years in which they did not play basketball (Sylvester and Jernigan), and 2 others ineligible to play (plus Billings)? That means you have exactly 6 scholarship players to choose from.
Well, that is the bad news. Injuries, the loss of two assistants, the lack of depth, the loss of two talented seniors, and the necessity of iron man minutes have just decimated this team's record. O'Brien and his merry band have done incredibly well just to eke 10 victories out and protect themselves against opposing teams seeking to exploit mismatches. Perhaps Jim would like to borrow Dumbledore's wand to see if he can wave it over his roster of walking wounded…
Yet that is not all there is to see on the court for this year's Buckeyes. There is a sterling silver.
First, this team has heart. They are not about to give in and throw in the towel on the season. After being humiliated by Pittsburgh, they fought back to win their next game. After losing the Big Ten opener to the Michigan State Spartans, the Buckeyes unexpectedly punched the Hoosiers in the nose. Only 48 hours after he had to leave the game with a bruised leg in East Lansing, Darby carried the Buckeyes to a victory over IU while playing all 40 minutes. Following three straight losses (the last a blowout to the same Indiana team they had defeated), the Bucks could have packed it in and quit, but they came out swinging once again to defeat Iowa on the road. Despite being undermanned and outgunned, this team continues to fight, and it is starting to pay dividends. Radinovic is beginning to play physical, scoring points and snagging a few rebounds. His double double against Northwestern is very possibly a sign that he is finally ready and willing to be physical enough to make his 7 foot frame a real problem for future opponents. Fuss-Cheatham is getting healthy and contributing meaningful minutes. Sylvester is starting to show signs that his basketball game did not end up lodged in the same region as the stray bullet that struck him last year. Again, this team has heart, and their efforts are beginning to reap rewards.
Second, help is on the way. Even if this team does not make the postseason (and I still believe they can and will); take a gander at the projected roster for the next several seasons. You will not believe your eyes. At center, Ohio State will have Bass, Dials, and Radinovic (though he will be a senior in 2003). At the four spot, Williams and Jenkins are seniors while top 25 recruit Ivan Harris will be looking to log minutes and become a fixture at forward for the next few seasons. The real beauty is when Buckeye fanatics realize the kind of guards that will be returning for the Bucks. Fuss-Cheatham and Stockman (a former Mr. Ohio Basketball) will duel at point guard with the loser still contributing on a regular basis. Sullinger (the best player at Arkansas as a freshman), Billings (a top recruit who just missed qualifying), Sylvester (who is now starting to find his game after two injury plagued seasons), and Jernigan (who will hopefully find his game next summer) will all battle for the remaining two spots… Wow. The last time O'Brien had this much talent, the Buckeyes ended up in the Final Four.
Third (and finally), Jim O'Brien and his staff are not the Three Stooges. Besides the lack of physical resemblance to Larry, Curly, and Moe, they possess serious smarts. They will learn more from the painful experiences of 2002-03 than the average staff. They will improve internally as coaches, and this will thus improve the Ohio State players in 2003 and beyond. They will learn about the players' strengths and weaknesses when under the gun in an excruciating fashion that will not soon be forgotten. If used correctly, this information that has been oh so painfully collected will be worth its weight in gold in the coming seasons.
So what should Buckeye fanatics do?
Support this team. Yes, they may not be the most talented bunch ever to don the Scarlet and Gray. Yes, they may not win the most games of any team in the last few seasons. Yes, they may not walk away with a league title. They probably will not even qualify for the NCAA tournament. However, they are playing with heart, grit, and determination in the face of a string of debilitating injuries. If they are refusing to give up on themselves and each other, then I have a question…
What right have supposed die-hard fans have to give up on them?
The reality is that how Buckeye fans react to this year's team will say more about their character than that of the team. Which is it? Are you a fair-weather fan who only watches the Buckeyes to see them win? Or, are you with them through thick and thin? Will you quit on them when they refuse to quit on themselves? Or, will you continue rooting for them even when the odds are long and the sky is darkened by the storm clouds upon the horizon?
This team has already chosen to show that it has the heart to finish what they have started…Will you?