Originally created 02/11/99

Ohio State en route to biggest turnaround



COLUMBUS, Ohio -- At times, it seems as if Jim O'Brien can't believe it. He looks at the Big Ten standings, and there's his team in second place.

Few can quite believe it, either.

Just a year ago, Ohio State was at its lowest point in 99 years of men's basketball. Now the Buckeyes are making one of the great turnarounds in NCAA Division I history.

"I never thought going into this year we would find ourselves in this position," O'Brien said.

Ohio State is 18-6 overall and 8-3 in the Big Ten -- a galaxy away from last season's marks of 8-22 and 1-15. Now they own a No. 13 ranking entering Saturday's game at Iowa.

"There's no question that going into this season, if somebody would have said, 'With only six games remaining you guys are going to be 13th in the country,' I would have thought that they were crazy," O'Brien said.

Ohio State has five difficult Big Ten games remaining, then the conference tournament and a likely NCAA tournament berth.

If they win the rest of their regular-season games, take the league tournament and one NCAA tournament game -- in other words, nine straight wins -- the Buckeyes will be assured the greatest Division I turnaround.

"Last year was really a tough season for them," Bob Knight said after Ohio State battered Indiana 73-56 last month in the most lopsided loss he has endured to his alma mater. "This year they've really improved defensively. I think Ohio State is a team that will give anybody in our conference a difficult time."

"They are a top 15 team," says Minnesota coach Clem Haskins, whose team fell 89-60 to the Buckeyes.

Just a year ago, the 22 losses matched the worst total in school history and the Big Ten record was its worst ever. The team lost a record 17 games in a row during the season and extended its Big Ten losing streak to 20.

Now Ohio State is closing in on Michigan State for the Big Ten lead. After Tuesday night's 74-69 win over Michigan -- running Ohio State's record at its new Value City Arena to 12-1 this year -- O'Brien didn't want to discuss the postseason. It was as if he might jinx himself.

"All I want them to do is to be focused in on the next opponent," he said. "We've had very few -- and forget about bad games -- we've had very few bad practices this year."

With four starters back this season, the only substantive addition was point guard James "Scoonie" Penn.

Penn, a muscular pinball generously listed as 5-foot-10, was the freshman of the year in the Big East three years ago at Boston College under O'Brien. He was the conference tournament MVP two years ago.

O'Brien, who was hired in 1997 to replace Randy Ayers and clean up a program damaged by brushes with the law, brought Penn to Columbus.

Before the season, Penn was asked how good the Buckeyes would be.

"The first thing he blurts out is, `I think we should be in the NCAA tournament,"' O'Brien said. "I'm looking at him like, you know, he's nuts."

Penn is joined by Michael Redd, who a year ago became the first freshman to lead the Big Ten in scoring. Center Ken Johnson has turned into a shot-swatting presence while forwards Jason Singleton and Jon Sanderson do their share on defense and the boards.

Contributions also have come from reserves George Reese, Neshaun Coleman and freshmen Brian Brown and Boban Savovic.

"I have a hard time believing right now there are not 13 teams in the country better than we are -- or more than 13," O'Brien said. "We have some very good wins, but I still remain very, very cautious in what we're doing with our team because I think there's a fine line with how good we can be."