The Ohio State basketball program might have hit its glory years from 1960-62 when they reached the NCAA final three straight times and won one crown, but they still had their moments in more modern times. The Buckeyes won back-to-back Big Ten titles in 1992-93 and came within a win of the Final Four the latter year. They made it all the way to college basketball’s center stage in 1999.
But both times the promise was fleeting. Randy Ayers, head coach in the early 1990s couldn’t sustain the winning and was dismissed. Jim O’Brien followed up the Final Four run with a couple mediocre years and was eventually fired after an NCAA probation and ended up in a messy legal battle with the university. Thad Matta was brought in prior to the 2005 season to get things cleaned up, both on and off the court.
Matta’s first team won 20 games and even though probation denied them a shot at March Madness, they made their mark when they beat undefeated Illinois in the final game of the regular season. A year later it was a Big Ten crown, although they couldn’t get on a March run. Then, prior to the 2007 season, Matta hit the motherlode in recruiting.
A four-player class included quality starters like David Lighty and Daequan Cook. But the real prizes were point guard Mike Conley and center Greg Oden. The latter was a 7’0” shotblocker and dominator who looked like a certain one-and-done player. Conley had the same kind of ability. Matta had the horses, but he didn’t have much time to make them run in rhythm.
Ohio State opened the 2007 season ranked #4 in the nation. They lost a close one at sixth-ranked North Carolina, and were buried at sixth-ranked Florida, the defending national champion. Even with these two losses, OSU won all the rest of their non-conference games, never dipped lower than seventh nationally, and then started Big Ten play 2-0.
The Buckeyes went to Wisconsin, where Bo Ryan looked to have his best team. After falling behind early, Ohio State made a run, but lost 72-69. This writer, a partisan Wisconsin fan, recalls watching the game in an Arizona sports bar on ESPN. There were a few OSU fans there as well—the football team had just lost a national title to Florida in Tempe a few days earlier. It wasn’t the greatest of weeks for Ohio State sports.
Things got better in a hurry though, as Matta’s team reeled off 11 straight wins. None were against ranked teams, although no one in the Big Ten ever dismisses a win over Michigan State. A narrow escape at Penn State helped push the Buckeyes back to the top of the polls when Wisconsin came in to Columbus for the rematch on February 25.
It was an odd game—in the AP poll, it was #1 vs #2. But in the coaches’ poll, Wisconsin held the top spot. So this became the first instance of two #1 teams going head-to-head. In a taut defensive game, Ohio State made the last stop and got a 49-48 win that clinched their second straight Big Ten championship. The Buckeyes solidified it in the conference tournament with three straight double-digit wins, including the rubber match against Wisconsin, who had been hit with a key injury down the stretch.
The Buckeyes were the #1 seed in the Southeast Regional when the NCAA Tournament began over St. Patrick’s Day weekend. After the standard blowout of Central Connecticut State in the first round, OSU got more than it could handle in the second round and by all accounts, probably should have lost.
Ironically, the opponent was Matta’s old employer at Xavier, coached his former #1 assistant Sean Miller, now the head coach at Arizona. The Buckeyes trailed 59-50 with less than three minutes left. Oden would foul out down the stretch. But on a team whose freshmen were the focal point, it was senior Ron Lewis that came up big.
He scored eight crucial points in the closing moments, none bigger than a three-pointer with two seconds left that sent the game to overtime—a shot made possible by a missed Xavier free-throw that could have iced it. In overtime, Conley took over, scored 11 points and Ohio State pulled away.
During the course of the Big Ten season, Ohio State had stepped out of the league to play a non-conference date with Tennessee. The Buckeyes won that game on the road 68-66, and now the Vols were awaiting them in the Sweet 16, as the two teams joined Memphis and Texas A&M in San Antonio’s Alamodome.
The fans who bought tickets for the doubleheader got their money’s worth. Ohio State trailed 49-32 at half and Oden was a non-factor. Lewis again came up big though, knocking down 25 points. Conley scored 17, dished six assists and even grabbed seven rebounds from the point guard position. Ohio State again escaped, 85-84. #2 seed Memphis played a similar barnburner, nipping A&M 65-64 to set up the battle for the Final Four.
Ohio State wasn’t letting the prize slip away now that they were so close. A 41-32 Buckeye lead at halftime turned into a decisive 92-76 win, with Lewis scoring 22 points and Oden playing strong inside with nine rebounds. They were on their way to the Final Four in Atlanta.
Georgetown was the opponent, with future NBA center Roy Hibbert occupying the post. Oden was the projected #1 pick in the draft though, and outrebounded Hibbert 9-6, though the former won the scoring battle 19-13. Conley scored 15 and controlled the backcourt, as Ohio State won an ugly 67-60 game. They were one game from the title, just as the football team had been two months earlier. And just like the football team, the basketball squad had Florida standing in its way.
Oden played like someone hungry for a ring, dominating the post with 25 points and 12 rebounds, but Florida could at least neutralize him somewhat, with future NBA mainstays Joakim Noah and Al Horford on the blocks. And the Gators owned the perimeter. While Ohio State shot 4-of-23 from three-point range, Florida guard Lee Humphreys popped four treys by himself. Taurean Green hit three more. Ohio State was always in the game, but Florida was always in control and it ended 84-75 for the Gators.
Conley and Oden indeed left after one year. The point guard now runs the show for the Memphis Grizzlies. Oden’s story has had a sadder ending. Foot injuries have ruined his career in Portland after he was taking one spot ahead of Kevin Durant in the NBA draft. Oden looks headed for the same unfortunate place in history as another Portland center, Sam Bowie, who went one spot ahead of Michael Jordan.
As for Ohio State, while they haven’t yet won that first national title since 1960, they haven’t followed the 1990s pattern of slippage. They’ve consistently contended for, and won, Big Ten titles and gotten #1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. In 2012, they made a return trip to the Final Four. Thanks to their fine head coach and the boys of 2007, Ohio State basketball is a regular fixture on the national landscape.