Another Final Four Proves Ohio State Not Just A Football School

What do UCLA, North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke and Kansas have in common with Ohio State?

The answer is obviously not football. The Buckeyes have celebrated five consensus national championships in that sport, five more than the Bruins, Tar Heels, Wildcats, Blue Devils and Jayhawks have won combined.

When the conversation turns to basketball, however, the overriding conjecture is that the Buckeyes do not belong in that group of elite programs. And that is where the overriding conjecture is dead wrong.

I mentioned this in a previous column a couple of years ago, but in light of the Ohio State basketball team making its 11th trip to the Final Four, it bears repeating.

Back in 1989 when Gary Williams was head coach of the Buckeyes, the two of us were visiting in the coach’s office at St. John Arena. At one point during the interview, Williams wheeled around in his chair, looked outside his second-story window and said something to the effect of “I’ll never understand why this school doesn’t support basketball the way it does football.”

Without much thought about how it would sound, I immediately replied, “Well, Coach, there’s a simple explanation and part of it is why your office is located on Woody Hayes Drive and not Fred Taylor Drive.”

Williams didn’t like it, but the implication was clear. Ohio State was then, is now and always has been a football school. That has to do with any number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the football program generates many, many more dollars than the basketball team.

Football is also the sport where most Buckeye fans get their identity. Ask 100 fans to name their favorite Ohio State sports memory and chances are 95 of them will have to do with football.

In terms of championships, however – or at least in terms of playing for championships – the basketball Buckeyes are very much on par with their football brethren.

Ohio State celebrates those five consensus national championships in football (1942, 1954, 1957, 1968 and 2002) and several more if you count the National Championship Foundation title in 1944, the championship awarded by the Football Writers Association of America in 1961 and the trophy handed out in 1970 by the National Football Foundation.

Meanwhile, the men’s basketball team has only the 1960 national title banner hanging in the rafters of the Schottenstein Center.

But with the basketball Buckeyes making their 11th trip to the Final Four, the program has cemented its claim to join elite status with the aforementioned cage powerhouses. Only UCLA (18), North Carolina (18), Kentucky (15), Duke (15) and Kansas (14) have made more trips to the Final Four than Ohio State.

The perception of Ohio State as a football school was steeped mightily by the Woody Hayes era that began in 1951, produced its first national championship in 1954 and became an all-encompassing behemoth in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

It was Taylor’s unfortunate fate to serve as basketball coach of the Buckeyes during the same era as Hayes. Taylor’s persona of mild-mannered tactician made far fewer headlines than his football counterpart’s bombastic personality. But the truth of the matter is that Taylor’s best years were more successful than any comparable stretch Hayes put together.

From 1960-63, the basketball team posted a 98-10 record (a .907 winning percentage) with four straight Big Ten titles, three trips to the Final Four and one national championship. Hayes’ best four-year span came between 1972 and ’75 when the football team went 40-5-1, good for an .880 winning percentage, won the Big Ten championship each year and appeared in a record-setting four straight Rose Bowls.

Still, Ohio State football has generally always trumped Ohio State basketball in the minds of most fans. Not that it should be that way. There should be room to embrace both programs by the majority of Buckeye Nation.

And why not? Florida proved in 2007 that national championships can be won both in football and basketball (victimizing Ohio State in the process of capturing both). Now, with Urban Meyer patrolling the halls of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center and Thad Matta marking his second trip to the Final Four in the past six seasons, why can’t the Buckeyes be national championship contenders in both sports?

History dictates they always have been.

A FEW OBSERVATIONS

** Did anyone notice that Syracuse began to leave William Buford alone on the offensive end during the final minutes of the regional final game? The OSU senior’s late-season shooting slump became more pronounced in the NCAA Tournament. After scoring 17 points on 5-for-11 shooting in the tourney opener against Loyola, Buford went 8 for 33 (24.2 percent) in the next three games vs. Gonzaga, Cincinnati and Syracuse.

Look, the last thing I would ever want to do is dump on a kid who has played his guts out for Ohio State these past four years. Likewise, I know Matta feels he owes Buford a huge debt of gratitude for his years of service. But doesn’t the coach also owe his only senior the chance to win a championship ring even if it means some Final Four bench time?

** Imagine one game with this scenario: Jared Sullinger gets his normal double-double, Aaron Craft has an overall game like he did against Gonzaga, Deshaun Thomas lights up the scoreboard as he did against Loyola, Lenzelle Smith Jr. rains in threes the way he did against Cincinnati and Syracuse and Buford shakes off his lengthy slump and finally plays the way we know he’s capable of playing.

No opponent – not even heavy favorite Kentucky – could match that kind of firepower.

** How do you like this starting five for next season: Craft at the point, Smith at shooting guard, LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson at forward and Amir Williams at center.

Craft is already a star and Smith only needs consistency to become one. Ross has an impressive skill set, Thompson can literally jump out of any gym and Williams will become better and better the more experience he gets.

Of course, that starting five is minus Sullinger and Thomas. This year was a gift from Sullinger, who could have gone to the NBA last year and been a lottery pick. As for Thomas, continued success through the Final Four will likely mean he’s gone next year as well.

TOURNAMENT TRIVIA

** Did you know the NCAA Tournament is the brainchild of a former Ohio State basketball coach? In 1938, OSU head coach Harold Olsen, also a past president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, proposed the concept of a national championship tournament. The first tourney was held the following season at Patten Gymnasium on the Northwestern University campus in Evanston, Ill., with Olsen’s Buckeyes losing to Oregon in the title game. Olsen remained tournament chairman from its inception until 1946.

** Did you further know the term “Final Four” also has Ohio roots? It first appeared that year in an article for “The Official Collegiate Basketball Guide” and was coined by Cleveland Plain Dealer sportswriter Ed Chay. In the story, Chay simply mentioned that “outspoken coach Al McGuire’s (Marquette) team was one of the final four” during the previous season’s tournament. Someone at the NCAA liked the phrase and the governing body of college sports later trademarked it.

** McGuire is credited with first referring to the NCAA Tournament as “The Big Dance.” During his team’s run to the 1977 championship, the coach wore the same blue blazer for each regular-season game. When asked if he would continue to wear the blazer in the NCAA Tournament, McGuire replied, “Absolutely. You gotta wear the blue blazer when you go to the big dance.”

Buckeyes Have Made Sixth Most Final Four Trips

Ohio State has a rich NCAA Tournament tradition through the years including appearing in four of the first eight Final Fours. The Buckeyes return this season to college basketball’s version of the Promised Land, taking on Kansas on March 31 in the national semifinals at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.

It will mark the program’s 11th trip to the Final Four, the sixth most in tournament history.

North Carolina and UCLA are tied for the most Final Four appearances with 18 each. Next is Kentucky, which this season makes a 15th trip to the Final Four to tie Duke for third most, while Kansas will be making trip No. 14 this year.

Ohio State began making Final Four treks in 1939 – the NCAA Tournament’s inaugural year – and has appeared in three consecutive Final Fours on two occasions. The Buckeyes were among the tournament’s final four teams from 1944 through 1946 and made three straight trips again in 1960-62.

The 1960 appearance resulted in the program’s only national title, including a 75-55 blowout of defending champion California in the championship game.

Here are brief recaps of Ohio State’s previous 10 trips to the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four.

1939 – The first-ever NCAA Tournament featured an eight-team field consisting of seven conference champions and one independent. East region teams were Brown, Ohio State, Villanova and Wake Forest, while Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Utah State represented the West.

Quarterfinal matches weren’t close with each advancing team winning by double digits. The same held true in the semifinals as OSU rolled to a 53-36 victory over Villanova while Oregon easily dispatched Oklahoma by a 55-37 final.

In the title game, held in Patten Gymnasium on the Northwestern campus in Evanston, Ill., the Howard Hobson-coached Ducks scored a 46-33 win over the Buckeyes to capture the title. Ohio State took a measure of solace when All-America forward Jimmy Hull was named the tournament’s most valuable player.

1944 – Ohio State made a return trip to the tournament as part of an eight-team field that also featured Catholic, Temple and Dartmouth in the East region as well as Iowa State, Missouri, Pepperdine and Utah from the West.

The Buckeyes drew Temple in the quarterfinal round and dealt the Owls a 57-47 loss at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Back at the Garden for the semifinals, OSU wasn’t quite as fortunate, falling to Dartmouth by a 60-53 final.

The Big Green went on to lose a 42-40 decision to Utah in the championship game. The Utes were led by freshman Arnie Ferrin, who was named the tournament MVP. Ferrin went on to become the only four-time All-American in Utah history and led the team to the 1947 NIT title as a senior.

1945 – The 1945 tournament was filled with legendary coaches including Adolph Rupp of Kentucky, Henry Iba of Oklahoma A&M, Howard Cann of NYU and Harold Olsen of Ohio State. Each would later be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

The Buckeyes were joined in the East region by Kentucky, NYU and upstart Tufts University while the West was represented by Arkansas, Oklahoma A&M, Oregon and Utah.

OSU got past Kentucky in the quarterfinals by a 45-37 score, but the Buckeyes dropped a 70-65 overtime thriller to NYU in the semifinals. The Violets advanced to the championship final, where they lost a 49-45 final to Oklahoma A&M. The Cowboys’ 7-foot center Bob Kurland, who won Olympic gold medals with the U.S. basketball team in 1948 and 1952, was the tournament MVP.

1946 – The Cowboys and Kurland were back to defend their title in ’46 and were joined in the West region by Baylor, California and Colorado. Meanwhile, Ohio State was making its third straight tournament appearance and was part of an East region that included NYU, North Carolina and Harvard.

The Buckeyes rolled to a 46-38 win in their quarterfinal match with Harvard but came up short again in overtime in the semis, losing a hard-fought 60-57 decision to North Carolina. Meanwhile, A&M (now known as Oklahoma State), sailed through Baylor and Cal before notching a 43-40 win over the Tar Heels in the championship final.

Kurland repeated as tournament MVP and Iba claimed his second straight national championship. That was a first-ever feat in the NCAA Tournament and would not be repeated until a Bill Russell-led San Francisco won back-to-back titles in 1955 and ’56.

The 1946 tournament marked the first time that losers of the national semifinal games played one another for a third-place trophy. Ohio State captured that honor with a 63-45 victory over Cal, thanks in part to 19 points from junior center Jack Underman. The third-place game would continue through the 1981 tournament.

1960 – Thanks to a strong class of high school stars signed in 1958, Ohio State made the first of three consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament championship game.

By 1960, the tournament had expanded to include 25 teams playing in four regions. The Buckeyes were included in the six-team Mideast region along with Georgia Tech, Miami (Fla.), Notre Dame, Ohio University and Western Kentucky.

Tournament teams were not seeded in those days, but OSU received an opening-round bye before facing high-scoring Western Kentucky, which was coming off a 107-84 pasting of Miami in the regional quarterfinals. But the Hilltoppers had no answer for Ohio State sophomore center Jerry Lucas, who totaled 36 points and 25 rebounds during a 98-79 victory. Lucas’ point total remains an OSU record for an NCAA Tournament game.

The Buckeyes went on to coast to an 86-69 victory over Georgia Tech in the regional finals, giving the team its first trip to the Final Four in 14 years. OSU then proceeded to run roughshod over its opponents, first taking a 76-54 decision over NYU before blowing away defending national champion California by the 75-55 score in the title game.

Lucas was named tournament MVP after averaging 24.0 points and 16.0 rebounds in four games.

1961 – With Lucas returning along with junior classmate John Havlicek and senior captain Larry Siegfried, Ohio State was a heavy favorite to repeat as the national champion. The Buckeyes, who entered the tournament with a perfect 24-0 record, were placed in a Mideast region that included such perennial heavyweights as Kentucky and Louisville as well as such underdogs as Morehead State, Ohio University and Xavier.

Following a first-round bye, OSU had some difficulty with Louisville before scoring a 56-55 squeaker over the Cardinals. The regional final was a much more comfortable affair as the Buckeyes got 33 points and 30 rebounds from Lucas during an 87-74 win over Kentucky. The rebound mark established another OSU record in an NCAA Tournament game for Lucas.

In the national semifinal game against St. Joseph’s, coached by the famed Dr. Jack Ramsay, the Buckeyes ran away with a 95-69 victory. But two days later, they were denied a second straight title when Cincinnati landed four players in double figures and scored a 70-65 upset win.

Lucas was again named the tournament’s most valuable player after averaging 24.5 points and 18.3 rebounds during his four games.

St. Joseph’s won the third-place game with a 127-120 win in four overtimes over Utah. No NCAA Tournament game has since gone to four overtimes. The victory was later vacated when St. Joseph’s was rocked by a gambling scandal.

1962 – The Buckeyes were determined to avenge their only loss from the year before and sailed into the 1962 tournament fresh off a third straight Big Ten title and a 23-1 regular-season record.

OSU found some familiar faces in the Mideast region as Western Kentucky and Kentucky again qualified for tournament play. But neither team from the Bluegrass State could get past the Buckeyes as the Hilltoppers dropped a 93-73 decision in the semifinals before the Wildcats were victimized in the regional finals by a 74-64 decision.

Those victories sent Ohio State back to the Final Four, and the team sailed through Wake Forest, 84-68, in the semifinals. But Lucas sustained an injury in that contest and wasn’t his normal self for the championship game rematch with Cincinnati. The OSU star still accounted for 11 points and 16 rebounds, but the Bearcats got 22 points and 19 boards from center Paul Hogue to win a surprisingly easy 71-59 decision.

Despite the fact he averaged 18.0 points and 15.0 rebounds during the tournament, Lucas was denied a third straight MVP trophy as the award went to Hogue, who had averaged 29.0 points and 19.0 rebounds in the Final Four.

1968 – Legendary head coach Fred Taylor appeared in his fourth and final Final Four, guiding an overachieving team to a tie for the Big Ten championship.

The Buckeyes were back in the Mideast region, joined by the likes of Bowling Green, East Tennessee State, Kentucky, Marquette and Florida State. OSU received a first-round bye despite going only 18-7 during the regular season. Its first tournament action came in the regional semifinals and resulted in a 79-72 win over East Tennessee State.

That set up a regional final vs. Kentucky, and the Buckeyes squeezed out an 82-81 victory thanks to a combined 45 points and 19 rebounds from senior forward Bill Hosket and sophomore center Dave Sorenson.

Unfortunately for Ohio State, it ran into a North Carolina buzz saw in the national semifinals and bowed with an 80-66 loss. The Tar Heels went on to lose a 78-55 decision to UCLA in the title game, giving the Bruins their fourth national championship in five years. Lew Alcindor (who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) was named tourney MVP.

The Buckeyes took home the third-place trophy following an 89-85 win over an Elvin Hayes-led Houston team. Junior forward John Howell scored 26 points and pulled down 13 rebounds in that game for OSU while Hosket added 19 points and 17 boards. Hayes had game-high totals of 34 points and 16 rebounds for the Cougars.

1999 – Ohio State ended a 31-year Final Four drought with an improbable postseason run by a team that had finished with an 8-22 record the year before.

The NCAA Tournament had undergone lots of changes since the Buckeyes had been away, including an expansion to include 64 teams. OSU entered the tournament as the No. 4 seed in the South region and opened with double-digit victories over Murray State (72-58) and Detroit (75-44) before bouncing No. 1 seed Auburn by a 72-63 final.

That set up a regional final vs. third-seeded St. John’s, and the Buckeyes scored a 77-74 victory over the Red Storm to earn a trip to the Final Four in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The magical postseason run ended there, however, with a 64-58 loss to eventual champion Connecticut. The Buckeyes were victimized by a cold second half from the floor as they made only 8 of 33 attempts (24.2 percent). Ohio State guards Michael Redd and Scoonie Penn totaled 15 and 11 points, respectively, in the title game but shot a collective 10 for 31 (32.2 percent) for the contest.

Five years later, Ohio State’s feel-good march to the Final Four as well as most of the team’s victories from 1999 through 2002 were vacated due to NCAA violations committed during head coach Jim O’Brien’s tenure.  

2007 – Third-year head coach Thad Matta put together a team that featured several veterans and a mix of talented freshmen, and that formula propelled the Buckeyes all the way to the national championship game.

Ohio State carried a 30-3 record into the tournament, earning a No. 1 seed in the South region. An opening-round 78-57 rout of Central Connecticut preceded a pair of heart-pounding victories – a 78-71 overtime win over Xavier followed by an 85-84 victory over Tennessee to get to the regional finals.

There, the battle-tested Buckeyes took out second-seeded Memphis, getting 22 points from senior guard Ron Lewis during a 92-76 decision to advance to the Final Four at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

During the national semifinals, Ohio State scored a 67-60 win over Georgetown before the postseason ride ended with an 84-75 loss to defending national champion Florida in the title game. Freshman center Greg Oden totaled 25 points and 12 rebounds for the Buckeyes while freshman point guard Mike Conley Jr. added 20 points, six assists and four steals.

The loss was especially bitter because the Gators had defeated the OSU football team three months earlier to capture the national title in that sport.

Where Have You Gone, Jonny Diebler?

With the sincerest of apologies to Paul Simon, this musical question begs an answer as Ohio State enters March Madness: “Where have you gone, Jonny Diebler? Buckeye Nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

I left out the “woo woo woo” part, but you get the idea.

Diebler, like Joe DiMaggio in Simon & Garfunkel’s 1968 hit “Mrs. Robinson,” has left and gone away, taking his talents to Greece where he is averaging 10.1 points per game and connecting on 52.8 percent of his three-point shots in his first season for the Panionios BC team.

Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, Diebler seems to have also taken most of his former team’s outside shooting prowess with him overseas.

For much of the season – or at least since mid-February when the Buckeyes began losing games at an alarming pace – many observers have been of the opinion that the team lacks the floor leadership provided last season by David Lightly. Me? I think leadership is overrated especially when you can’t find the bottom of the basket, and that has been the Achilles’ heel for Ohio State this season.

To put it bluntly, there are nights when the Buckeyes couldn’t hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle. They simply have no outside shooter on whom they can rely on a consistent basis. The team’s best three-point marksman is none other than Jared Sullinger at 39.4 percent, but I doubt very seriously OSU can hang its NCAA hat on the long-range shooting of a player who needs to spend 90 percent of his time in the paint.

Ohio State could be one of the streakiest shooting teams I have ever witnessed over the course of an entire season. It’s not just that the Buckeyes’ touch comes and goes on a game-to-game basis; it ebbs and flows by the minute.

A perfect example came in the second half of the Big Ten tournament championship final against Michigan State. The Buckeyes made seven of their first nine shots after the break to turn a two-point halftime deficit into a 52-45 lead at the 14:06 mark of the second half.

Then they proceeded to miss 11 of their next 13 attempts from the floor, falling back into a 62-57 hole with 5:48 remaining. OSU followed that cold spell by making two of its next three shots to climb back within two at 64-62 at the 3:27 mark, but the Buckeyes finished the game with misfires on eight of their final nine attempts and dropped a 68-64 decision to the Spartans.

That second-half performance (12 for 34, 35.3 percent) knocked their shooting percentage down to 39.7 for the game. That from the same Ohio State team that shot 60.7 percent two days earlier on the same floor during an 88-71 victory over Purdue.

Unfortunately, you never know what you’re going to get on a nightly basis from this year’s Ohio State team. The Buckeyes played like world-beaters back in late November when they chewed up and spit out a Duke team that finished 27-6 this season. And OSU played inspired basketball at Michigan State on March 4, going into the Breslin Center and erasing an early 15-point deficit before securing a 72-70 victory and the piece of the Big Ten regular-season championship that went with it.

Then there were the lackluster performances that resulted in three losses – two of them at home – during a six-game span in February. There were times during that stretch when passes became lazier, help defense disappeared and the Buckeyes looked a step slow and largely uninterested.

There was also one other constant in those defeats – lousy shooting.

Ohio State finished second in the Big Ten this season in shooting percentage, its 48.3 mark just a tick below Indiana’s 48.7. But in their seven losses, the Buckeyes shot barely better than 40.0 percent – 160 for 391, which equals 40.9 percent. In four of those games, the team shot less than 40 percent, and in the first loss to Michigan State on Feb. 11, the Buckeyes turned in a season-low performance of 26.4 percent during a 58-48 loss.

The poor shooting cannot be traced to just one player. Sophomore point guard Aaron Craft, for example, missed a pair of layups in the second half of the Big Ten tournament title game against the Spartans, and he was a 50.5-percent shooter for the season.

But senior guard William Buford is a lightning rod for most of the team’s critics, and the numbers don’t lie. During the team’s 27 victories this season, Buford shot 45.6 percent (155 for 340) from the field and 38.7 percent (48 for 124) from three-point territory. During the team’s seven losses, Buford’s percentages went off a cliff – 32.6 overall (31 for 95) and 17.4 from behind the arc (4 for 23).

To be sure, Buford is just one player out of five on the floor. But more often than not, the rest of the team takes its shooting cues from its only senior. During the conference tournament final loss to Michigan State, Buford made three of his first four attempts and then missed seven of his final eight, including two three-pointers in the final 33 seconds while the Buckeyes were trailing by five.

I’m not trying to suggest that Buford is the sole reason Ohio State lost seven games this season. The Buckeyes lost seven games this season – including four of their last 10 – because they do not have anyone who can be relied upon to consistently knock down an outside shot.

That is the major reason that Ohio State misses Diebler so much. It’s also how the Buckeyes have gone from a lead-pipe Final Four lock to a team whose NCAA Tournament fortunes are now anyone’s guess.

Will Turner Really Tell NBA To Wait?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Johnny All-Star drops hints during the season that he’s thinking seriously about returning to State U for another year only to seize the first available opportunity to jump to the professional ranks.

It happens all the time at almost every school. Jim Jackson, Chris Gamble, Mike Conley Jr. and Beanie Wells are just a handful of the Ohio State examples of former players who decided million-dollar pro contracts trumped another season of college life.

As with every rule, however, there are exceptions. Mike Doss, A.J. Hawk and James Laurinaitis are OSU football players who decided to forgo NFL riches in lieu of one more year of college ball. When it comes to basketball Buckeyes, though, the ones who chose staying over leaving are few and far between.

Evan Turner may be different. When the junior star indicated Feb. 26 that he was open to returning to Ohio State for his senior season, I got the impression that it wasn’t merely a throwaway line for the media as the Buckeyes tried to focus on a third Big Ten championship in five seasons.

It seemed Turner was genuinely interested in returning to OSU next season.

Turner seems to walk to a little different drumbeat than most of college basketball’s elite players. While there is little doubt he dreams of being an NBA star one day, he has no illusions about his current game and how much he will have to elevate his performance when he enters the league.

There is also something a little more cerebral about Turner than your garden variety college athlete. Not only is he a student of his game, he is a perfectionist. Many players will claim they have a similar goal but spend very little time trying to achieve that perfection. Not Turner. He appears to realize he remains a work in progress. To that end, he is constantly tweaking his game and therefore is able to consistently show improvement – not only from year to year but often within the course of a single season.

A prime example is Turner’s freshman season with the Buckeyes. He averaged 8.5 points and 4.4 rebounds while starting 30 of 37 games – pretty good stats for any first-year player. But while many freshmen hit the proverbial wall late in the season, Turner peaked down the stretch, and scored a combined 37 points against Mississippi and Massachusetts as Ohio State won the NIT championship.

Despite that performance, Turner worked hard during the offseason to improve his rebounding and that helped result in a sophomore season that included game averages of 17.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists while starting all 33 games for the Buckeyes.

In the middle of that season, OSU head coach Thad Matta became dissatisfied with the play of his point guards and asked Turner if would be willing to man the position. You don’t have to be John Wooden to know the difference between being a wing player and a point guard, not to mention the discipline it takes to be the on-the-floor quarterback of a basketball team.

You also don’t need to be the Wizard of Westwood to realize how much practice time Turner has invested to reach his comfort level as the Buckeyes’ point guard. During this past offseason, he worked on his ball-handling skills, something he has been doing since he was growing up in the Chicago suburbs. He also spent time – a lot of it – on perfecting his jump shot because he realized few opposing teams have defensive answers for a 6-7 point guard who can consistently make pull-up jumpers.

The result? Turner has improved on last year’s numbers that nearly won him Big Ten Player of the Year honors. With one game remaining in the regular season, he was averaging 19.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game. He had also raised his shooting percentage from 50.3 percent last season to 54.3 this year, and cut his assists-to-turnovers ratio by more than 20 percent.

Best of all, Turner gets it. As Matta put it recently, his star player is not playing with one foot out the door, understanding that while the NBA will make him a rich young man, the mere realization of a lifelong dream doesn’t translate into instant success.

“I don’t want to go to the league and sit on the bench,” Turner told reporters Feb. 26. “I want to go to the league and play right away and be an impact player. I want to make sure I’m fully ready. I don’t want to go into a situation where I’m not ready and not be the best I can right away.”

At the risk of overstating the obvious, it would mean a lot to Ohio State basketball should Turner truly return next season. In fact, it could be the kind of thing that finally elevates Matta’s program to elite national status.

Turner’s return for 2010-11 would likely entice David Lighty and William Buford to stay another season as well (if either player is truly thinking about leaving), and with all five starters back the Buckeyes would be overwhelming preseason favorites to win another Big Ten championship. Add to that another sterling recruiting class signed by Matta, and the conference title would be only the beginning.

Success breeds success, and that kind of team would not only put more fannies in the seats at Value City Arena, it would also help Matta continue to restock his roster with the best high school talent the nation has to offer. Additionally, another league championship and possible Final Four run couldn’t help but pump a few extra bucks into the Ohio State athletic department bank account, another facet of success that cannot be discounted.

Turner is no dummy. If he thinks he can make it in the NBA next year, he’s gone. After all, why does one attend college in the first place? Isn’t it simply a means to increase your future earning power? How many business school students would choose to finish their degree work if a Fortune 500 company came calling with a multimillion-dollar contract following their junior years? Not many.

Still, there is always something to be said for college life. For professional athletes, the money is going to be there. But for all those zeroes on that contract, your senior year on campus is something you can never get back.

Turner is one of those increasingly-rare players who seems to understand that. Like Doss, Hawk and Laurinaitis before him, he seems to embrace college life and it would appear to embrace him back. Turner is one of the most popular figures on the Ohio State campus – and that’s saying something at a traditional football school – and he has forged relationships and friendships he admittedly enjoys.

Of course, it’s his decision whether or not to return for one more season as a Buckeye and millions of dollars would turn the head of any young man. Turner is not just any young man, however, and that’s why the answer may be different this time.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Today is a big day for birthdays in the Buckeye Nation with former basketball coach Gary Williams and former football players Lenny Willis, Doug Plank and Robert Smith celebrating.

Gary B. Williams was born March 4, 1945, in Collinswood, N.J., and was a starting point guard at Maryland in the mid-1960s. He began his coaching career at Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden, N.J., and won a state championship there. Williams joined the college ranks in 1972 as an assistant at Lafayette where he was also the school’s head soccer coach. Williams spent two seasons at Lafayette and two more at Boston College before landing his first head coaching job in 1978 at American University. He went on to head the programs at Boston College and Ohio State before returning to Maryland. Williams, who won the 2002 NCAA championship with the Terrapins, was 59-41 in three seasons with the Buckeyes from 1987-89, and his 1988 team was NIT runner-up.

Douglas Walter Plank was born March 4, 1953, in Greensburg, Pa., and was a three-year letterman defensive back for the Buckeyes from 1972-74. He was a 12th-round draft choice by Chicago in the 1975 NFL draft, and wound up becoming the first rookie to lead the Bears in tackles. Plank wound up playing eight seasons with the Bears and he became such a favorite of Chicago defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan that Ryan named his famed “46 defense” after Plank’s jersey number. After his playing days were over, Plank went into coaching – first in the Arena Football League and later in the NFL. This past season, he served as assistant defensive backfield coach for the New York Jets.

Leonard Leroy Willis was born March 4, 1953, in Washington, D.C., and was a three-sport star in high school before becoming an All-American at JUCO. Willis transferred to Ohio State in 1974 and became a football and track star for the Buckeyes. He led the Big Ten in kickoff returns in ’74 and ’75, and established a school record that still stands when he returned two kickoffs for touchdowns against Oregon State in 1974. Willis was Minnesota’s fourth-round selection in the 1976 NFL draft, and he played four seasons as a kick returner for the Vikings, Saints and Bills. He later played several seasons in the old USFL before beginning a coaching career in 1985 on Earle Bruce’s staff at Ohio State. Since 2002, Willis has been director of facilities at the University of Illinois.

Robert Scott Smith was born March 4, 1972, in Euclid, Ohio, and came to Ohio State after an All-America prep career at his hometown high school. Smith broke Archie Griffin’s freshman rushing record with 1,126 yards in 1990 but then sat out the 1991 season in a dispute over academics with then offensive coordinator Elliot Uzelac. Smith returned in 1992 and led the Buckeyes in rushing with 819 yards before making himself eligible for the NFL draft. The Minnesota Vikings selected him with the 21st pick of the first round, and Smith finished his eight-year career as the team’s all-time leading rusher. He also earned two Pro Bowl selections. Smith is currently a college football analyst for ESPN.

Also celebrating birthdays this 4th day of March: Texas Gov. Rick Perry is 60; Philadelphia Phillies third base coach Sam Perlozzo is 59; pro golfer Peter Jacobsen is 56; actress Catherine O’Hara is 56; actress Patricia Heaton (Debra Barone in “Everybody Loves Raymond”) is 52; actor Mykelti Williamson (Pvt. Benjamin Buford “Bubba” Blue in “Forrest Gump”) is 50; former lightweight boxing champion Ray Mancini is 49; former NBA all-star guard and current Sacramento, Calif., mayor Kevin Johnson is 44; gay rights activist Chaz (born Chastity) Bono is 41; and Cincinnati Bengals safety Chinedum Ndukwe is 25.

FINAL THOUGHTS

** Ohio State isn’t the only school to monkey with the early part of its 2010 football schedule. Utah has moved its opener against Pittsburgh to Sept. 2, most likely the second game of a primetime doubleheader that begins with the Buckeyes hosting Marshall. Meanwhile, Toledo will host Arizona the following evening for a Friday night affair televised by ESPN, and the season-opening weekend culminates Labor Day night when Boise State and Virginia Tech square off in primetime at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.

** Here is some trivia for you: Name the first football coach ever to win 100 or more games both at the collegiate and professional levels. The answer comes later.

** Ohio State vs. defending national champion Alabama in next year’s BCS National Championship Game? That’s how ESPN.com writer Mark Schlabach envisions the end of the 2010 college football season. He ranks the Crimson Tide and the Buckeyes atop his preseason top 25 with Boise State, Oregon and Virginia Tech rounding out the top five. Schlabach also has three other Big Ten schools in his rankings – Wisconsin at No. 9, Iowa at No. 12 and Penn State at No. 22.

** If you like the blue turf at Boise State, you’re really going to love this. Division I-AA Eastern Washington has announced plans to install a red playing surface at its Woodward Field facility in Cheney, Wash. How long before Nike suggests installation of a yellow field at Oregon’s Autzen Stadium?

** The trivia answer is Don Coryell, who went 104-19-2 from in 12 seasons at San Diego State from 1961-72 and then posted a 111-83-1 mark in the NFL as head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals (1973-77) and San Diego Chargers (1978-86). If you guessed former Ohio State All-American end Sid Gillman, you were close. The innovative Gillman posted a 122-99-7 record in the pro ranks with the Chargers, Rams and Oilers, and was 81-19-2 in 10 college seasons at Miami (Ohio) and Cincinnati. Interestingly, Coryell has always maintained that he was heavily influenced by Gillman and routinely took his entire San Diego State team to Chargers workouts to observe how Gillman ran his practice sessions.

Ranking OSU’s Best Tailbacks Redux

In the nearly 14 months since I listed my top 10 Ohio State tailbacks of all-time, I have received a steady stream of e-mails critical of the list. Most of what I have heard has to do with the omission of Chris “Beanie” Wells although most of my electronic pen pals don’t seem to realize I formulated my list before the 2008 season – which would be Wells’ final one as a Buckeye.

It seems like as good a time as any to go back and take a second look at my list with the first question being: Does Wells belong on it?

Of course he does. Wells finished his career with the fourth highest rushing total in Ohio State history. But I have to be honest. I can’t remember a player in recent history whose career in which I have been more disappointed.

You may think it sound ridiculous to criticize Wells, especially when you look at the raw numbers. Only Archie Griffin, Eddie George and Tim Spencer ever rushed for more yards in scarlet and gray. Wells put together back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, only the sixth OSU running back ever to accomplish that feat. His 222-yard effort at Michigan in 2007 is the most yards ever gained by an Ohio State runner in the long history of that series.

And still there is this nagging feeling in my mind that there could have been even more. In my mind, Wells could have gone down in history as one of the all-time greatest running backs in college football. He had the talent, the size, the speed. Somewhere along the line, it just didn’t happen.

First of all, there were the nagging injuries. Even so, you are never going to hear me say Wells was soft. Sometimes, injuries cling to a player like white on a baseball. Wells was one of those players. In only three seasons with the Buckeyes, he had hand, leg and wrist problems not to mention the toe injury he suffered in last season’s opener that cost him three games and parts of two others. Wells played with most of those injuries when lesser players would have not.

Still, the 6-1, 237-pounder was sort of a walking contradiction. He had some of the longest touchdown runs in recent memory, yet seemed strangely unable to pick up needed yardage on third-and-short. He had some three inches and nearly 40 pounds on teammate Maurice Wells, yet it was the latter that was often called upon in obvious passing situations because he provided the better pass protection.

Maybe Beanie is another one of the cautionary tales of recruiting. He was ranked second nationally by Scout.com in 2006 (behind only current USC quarterback Mitch Mustain) but ahead of such players as quarterback Matthew Stafford of Georgia, receiver Percy Harvin of Florida and quarterback Tim Tebow of Florida.

There is no doubt Wells had an excellent career at Ohio State. I guess maybe I was just expecting a little more.

With that, I have taken another look at my all-time top 10 Ohio State running backs and jumbled the list somewhat. See how it stacks up to yours.

1. Eddie George (1992-95) – I moved Eddie to the top of the list because he was a workhorse and always answered the bell. I wrote this the last time and it bears repeating: Watching George break through the line was like watching Secretariat break from the gate. The fact that he went on to such a productive NFL career was no surprise. His senior season in 1995, when he rushed for 1,927 yards and won the Heisman, is the gold standard for all Buckeyes who follow. Perhaps the most astounding thing about that season – every opposing defensive coordinator knew George was coming and was powerless to stop him. He averaged 5.9 yards per carry and 25.2 carries per game.

2. Archie Griffin (1972-75) – How do you measure heart? Archie was never going to be the biggest or the fastest running back on the roster, but you knew when you gave him the football that he was going to figure out a way to pick up the yards he needed. He maximized his talents through hard work and determination, and it didn’t hurt that he played behind a massive offensive line and one of the best blocking fullbacks (Pete Johnson) in college football history. Griffin’s career mark of 5,589 rushing yards still stands nearly 35 years after he played his last game at OSU – and no one has come within 1,800 yards of that record. Oh, yeah. He’s still the only guy ever with two Heismans.

3. Keith Byars (1982-85) – Byars was the top guy on last year’s list, but I took a second look and decided that he didn’t quite measure up to George or Griffin. IMHO, the senior season lost because of a foot injury costs him in the all-time rankings. Still, his 1984 season should never be diminished. He rushed for 1,764 yards and scored 22 touchdowns on 336 carries, a single-season workload that has never been equaled. Byars was also a dangerous weapon in the passing game, and he went on to catch 610 passes during a 14-year NFL career.

4. Howard “Hopalong” Cassady (1952-55) – Cassady has become a larger-than-life figure over the past 50 years, but many of today’s fans don’t know that he was a little guy by today’s standards. The freckle-faced, redheaded kid from Columbus Central High School was only 5-10 and about 170 pounds, but he could fly. He scored three touchdowns in his first college game and went on to become one of the greats in college football history. In 1955, he won one of the most lopsided Heisman votes in history, polling 2,219 points, nearly three times the total of the second-place finisher. Cassady was also the consummate teammate, leading Woody Hayes to say, “Hop is the most inspirational player I have ever seen.” Good enough for me.

5. Vic Janowicz (1949-51) – On sheer athletic ability alone, Janowicz had few equals. He could run, throw and kick a football with the best of them and had enough talent to become one of the few players to enjoy professional careers in both the NFL and Major League Baseball. The coaching change from Wes Fesler to Hayes in 1951 – and the philosophy change that went with it – robbed Janowicz of possibly becoming the first two-time Heisman winner. But those who remember his 1950 season remember a blur who ran past opponents and scored touchdowns in bunches. Oldtimers still talk in hushed tones about his performance in an 81-23 win over Iowa – he scored three touchdowns – two rushing and a 61-yard punt return – threw for four scores, recovered two fumbles on defense and kicked 10 extra points. Not a bad day’s work.

6. Tim Spencer (1979-82) – Spencer would likely have been higher on this list had he not served as a fullback for his first two seasons. And he was an excellent fullback, too, blocking for Calvin Murray and also carrying the ball with authority (back when OSU allowed the fullback to carry in tandem with the tailback.) Once Spence got the tailback spot to himself, though, he blossomed with a combination of speed and upper-body strength that blew through would-be tacklers. He totaled 1,217 yards in his first year as a starter and then upped that total to 1,538 in his senior year of 1982. That figure is still the fifth-best single-season total in school history.

7. Antonio Pittman (2004-06) – Largely the forgotten man in an offense that featured Troy Smith and Ted Ginn Jr., Pittman’s workmanlike approach to the tailback position allowed the Buckeyes to become a more multifaceted offense in 2005 and ’06. He was remarkably consistent during his two seasons as the starter – 1,331 yards as a sophomore and 1,233 as a junior – and turned himself into a pretty good receiver as well. Pittman would likely be higher on this list had he returned in 2007 for his senior season.

8. Chris “Beanie” Wells (2006-08) – And Wells would likely be higher, too, had he returned in 2009 for his senior season. Unfortunately, we never got to see him play an entire season injury-free. What we did get to see, however, was a guy who finished among the top five in nearly every career rushing category on the Ohio State record books.

9. Chic Harley (1916-17, 1919) – Simply put, Harley was the catalyst for what eventually became Ohio State football as we know it today. I could list his statistics, some of which would pale in comparison to the numbers average players put up these days. Rather, I’ll list just a handful for Harley’s accomplishments – Ohio State’s first three-time All-American, the first man ever to lead the Buckeyes to a victory over Michigan, the first to lead them to an undefeated season and the first to lead the Scarlet and Gray to a conference championship.

10. Robert Smith (1990, 1992) – Smith is another guy whose star would have burned much brighter if not for missed opportunities. He was an extremely gifted running back whose seemingly effortless strides allowed him to set the OSU freshman record in 1990 with 1,126 yards. Unfortunately, his college career got off-track for a variety of reasons – some of Smith’s own creation – and he never fully realized his great potential. Nevertheless, the all-too-brief flashes he showed in scarlet and gray make him deserving to be in my top 10.

One final note: There are those who are going to make the argument that players such as Cassady, Janowicz and Harley have no place on a list like this because of the advances football has made since they played the game. That is utter nonsense. Star power is star power, and those guys had it. Anyone who thinks they aren’t among the top 10 running backs in Ohio State football history simply doesn’t know much about Ohio State football history.

If you would like to take a look at my top 10 players at other positions, here are the links:

OSU’s Top 10 Quarterbacks

OSU’s Top 10 Fullbacks

OSU’s Top 10 Wide Receivers

OSU’s Top 10 Tight Ends

OSU’s Top 10 Offensive Guards

OSU’s Top 10 Offensive Tackles

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Among those celebrating birthdays this 6th day of August: Seventies TV actor Peter Bonerz (wisecracking dentist Dr. Jerry Robinson on “The Bob Newhart Show”) is 71; professional poker player Lyle Berman is 68; former MLB pitcher Andy Messersmith is 64; former MLB slugger Bob Horner is 52; former NBA star Dale Ellis is 49; actress Michelle Yeoh (Yu Shu-lien in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) is 47; Basketball Hall of Fame center David Robinson is 44; ESPN Radio personality Mike Greenberg is 42; film director M. Night Shyamalan is 39; ex-Spice Girl Geri Halliwell is 37; HBO boxing analyst Max Kellerman is 36; Eighties TV actress Soleil Moon Frye (“Punky Brewster”) is 33; and Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue cover girl Marisa Miller is 31.

AND FINALLY …

** You are no doubt aware that former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett has withdrawn his petition for early release from prison so that he could resurrect his NFL career. Clarett sent a letter Monday to the Ohio Parole Board explaining his decision, and while letters of those nature are not made public, speculation is that prosecutors in the case opposed the move, there was no chance Clarett was going to receive clemency at this time. The ex-Buckeye began in September 2006 serving a 7½-year sentence for a holdup outside a Columbus bar and a separate highway chase that ended with police finding loaded guns in his SUV. As part of a sentence agreement, he must serve at least 3½ years, which would keep him incarcerated until at least March 2010. “I’m a man and I struggle,” Clarett wrote Monday on his blog. “I’m not speaking of anything specific. I’m just talking in general. Depression comes and depression goes. … I personally believe that I’ve been aiming too low. A body and mind full of endless possibilities that I cannot and will not waste it back here.”

** The Big Ten has only two teams in the Sporting News’ preseason top 25 but five more in SN’s rankings of 26-50. Ohio State is the top conference team in the rankings, coming in at No. 9, while Penn State sits at No. 12. Then it’s a long way down to Iowa at No. 26 and Michigan State at No. 31. The head-scratcher is Michigan at No. 38 (because I don’t think the Wolverines will have a winning record in 2009). Wisconsin is at No. 47 and Minnesota is No. 50.

** When contacted about his team’s ranking, Minnesota defensive lineman Garrett Brown was more than a little miffed. “Everyone knows the Gophers should be ranked in the top 25,” he said. “Don’t make the Gophers angry. You all know the gopher as a happy, smiling little critter. But wait until that critter turns on his critics. He won’t be so happy then.” Sorry, Garrett, but I don’t think your team is going to finish above .500.

** College football kicks off its 2009 season later this month, and that means college basketball is also just around the corner. ESPN analyst Dick Vitale has released his preseason top 40 with Kansas leading the parade. Three Big Ten schools – Michigan State, Purdue and Illinois – are in the top 10 and Ohio State makes an appearance at No. 24. Vitale writes, “If B.J. Mullens had returned, the Buckeyes would have probably been in the top 15. They do have Evan Turner, though, who is one of the best players in the Big Ten.”

** ESPN analyst Andy Katz has also released his preseason top 25 and Katz thinks a little more of the Buckeyes than Vitale, ranking them at No. 16.

** As a Cincinnati Bengals fan, it is with a great deal of trepidation that I await the Aug. 12 premiere of HBO’s “Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Cincinnati Bengals.” I figure the series will be somewhere between a Jerry Springer episode and those other insipid reality shows that currently litter the airwaves. Let the train wreck begin.

Ohio State Football Post-Spring Analysis: Offense

Ohio State spring football practice is less than two weeks in the rearview mirror but the analysis continues regarding the 15 days of drills through which Jim Tressel put his Buckeyes. Thanks to Tressel’s decision to open the doors to practice, it was much, much easier to formulate opinions on position battles and exactly which players were doing well and which ones weren’t.

Let’s concentrate first on the offense.

Quarterback – The obvious questions were about Terrelle Pryor and whether he had improved upon his throwing mechanics. The simple answer is yes.

Evidently true were the reports we heard about all of the time Pryor spent over the winter in the film room, studying his mechanics and then working to correct any flaws. He has developed a rapport with assistant quarterbacks coach Nick Siciliano – and vice versa – and the results were all full display for most of the spring.

Pryor still needs some work keeping his weight on his back foot when he throws, but he did a much better job of that in the spring game. Additionally, he has learned to hold the ball higher, making his release that much quicker. His release point is also a little higher to take more advantage of his 6-6 frame.

Arm strength is not and never has been a problem. Anyone who says anything to the contrary simply doesn’t what he’s talking about. Still, the kid – and we sometimes forget that’s what he is – has heard the criticisms and tried his best to dispel them this spring. Pryor made every throw in the book in a variety of conditions – indoors, outdoors, with the wind, against the wind, in the pocket, on the run, moving to his left and moving to his right. He has thrown so much over the past couple of months that he experienced a brief bout of tendonitis midway through spring camp but bounced back quickly.

As far as the spring game was concerned, it’s difficult to believe how Pryor could have been much better. The timing was a hair off on his high-arcing touchdown throw to Taurian Washington, but Washington made such a good move to free himself in the end zone that all that mattered was that Pryor was on target with the football.

There is no dispute that the touchdown pass to Ray Small late in the second quarter was a thing of beauty on both ends. Pryor stepped into a frozen rope into a gusting wind that traveled 25 yards and split the receiver between the 8 and the 2 on his jersey. Small did the rest.

Pryor has dedicated himself to improvement in his throwing, and if he makes as much progress between now and fall camp as he did between the end of the Fiesta Bowl and spring ball, there should be absolutely no complaints. Couple his improved throwing with his unquestionable running skills and Pryor has the makings of a truly remarkable player.

Joe Bauserman had a productive spring as well, solidifying his status as Pryor’s backup. Bauserman has a strong, accurate arm, and thanks to all those years as a minor league pitcher, probably has the quickest release on the team.

He struggled a bit during the spring game, completing only 10 of 21 passes for 119 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. That paled in comparison to last year’s spring contest when some fans got overly excited about Bauserman’s line of 7 for 14 for 125 yards and a touchdown.

Bauserman is a good, solid backup but let’s face facts: Tressel is going to build his entire offensive attack around Pryor and if something happens to him, it would be back to square one for the Buckeyes. Bauserman is capable but he’s not Pryor.

The third-team quarterback this spring was walk-on Justin Siems, who hails from Providence High School in Charlotte, N.C. He displayed a strong arm and a willingness to learn, while weaknesses appeared to be some happy feet in the pocket and a long windup before letting the ball go. Siems played in a pro-style offense in high school, and then after getting only lukewarm interest from colleges, enrolled at N.C. Tech Preparatory Christian Academy. Last season, he led Tech to a 14-2 record while completing 83 of 130 attempts (63.8 percent) for 1,604 yards and 14 TDs against only two interceptions.

Siems seems much more comfortable in the pocket than he does on the run, but he has a nice arm and seems to have a good deal of upside. This fall, he’ll be in competition with incoming freshman Kenny Guiton to run the scout team.

Running Back – I will admit that I had my doubts about Boom Herron becoming an every-down tailback in the Big Ten. He is only 5-10 and 193 pounds – almost exactly the same size as Maurice Wells, who struggled throughout his entire OSU career when asked to run between the tackles. Guys that size can have success in the Big Ten (think Mike Hart of Michigan, who played at 5-9 and 202 pounds), but they tend to wear down and become injury-prone.

But Herron proved something (at least to me) during the spring. He ran between the tackles with authority and consistently showed the ability to make reads and cuts on the fly. Herron also has breakaway speed but isn’t afraid to throttle back to allow his protection to catch up. I have seen far too many recent Ohio State backs run up into the backs of their blockers, so it was nice to see somehow exhibit a little patience. That sometimes turns a 2- or 3-yard gain into something much more.

While Herron was doing everything that was asked of him, this spring served as a resurrection of sorts for Brandon Saine. Some fans have given up on the 6-1, 217-pound junior, who was the 2006 high school player of the year in Ohio not to mention the state 100-meter champion the year before he joined the Buckeyes. Saine has enjoyed some success during his OSU career but he’s never been healthy enough long enough to sustain that success. This spring, he stayed on the field and turned in a very creditable performance, especially during the final week of spring camp.

If Herron and Saine can remain injury-free, the Buckeyes could have a formidable one-two punch at tailback already in place with hotly-anticipated freshman help on the way.

It might also be nice to see what veteran walk-on Marcus Williams could do if given a chance. I know he is a walk-on and his chances of seeing playing time ahead of the scholarship players is about as good as mine. But the 5-10, 202-pound product of Ironton, Ohio, has some skills. They were on full display during his 75-yard run to daylight in the spring game. I wonder what Williams could accomplish with a couple of meaningful carries behind the first-team line.

Fullback – I question why this position is not phased out on a team that has so much speed and so many other weapons it can use. That said, it is obvious Tressel wants the option to play smash-mouth football when the situation arises. Therefore, the fullback position remains part of the Buckeyes’ offensive attack.

It could be even more so if Tressel would allow the fullback to run the ball occasionally, giving the Buckeyes another threat in play-action. But I digress. Fullback is nothing more than a glorified blocking position, and the players who line up there know that. They do get involved in the passing game at times – fullbacks caught two passes in the spring game for a total of 6 yards – but it is only a safety valve when nothing else develops and the pocket is collapsing around the quarterback.

True freshman Adam Homan seemed to get most of the first-team reps during the bulk of spring but the team ran so many different formations at different times during drills that it was hard to tell. Walk-on James Georgiades appeared to have some good practices early before he got hurt and leveled off. Redshirt freshman Jermil Martin experiences some good days and some not-so-good days, and even senior defensive tackle Todd Denlinger got into the act at fullback – strictly as a blocker.

If I had to guess, and that’s strictly what it is, I would say Homan and Martin will share the position this fall.

Receiver – If you want to excited about what the Buckeyes can throw at the opposition this fall, look no further than the receiving corps. Lament the loss of Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline to the NFL if you want, but in their places may emerge new, hungry players eager to develop a rapport with Pryor.

Saying DeVier Posey is the next great OSU star receiver would be stating the obvious. Posey still needs some work on the technical part of playing his position, including his downfield blocking. But there is no questioning the 6-3, 205-pounder’s athletic talents. He proved throughout much of the spring that he can catch the ball pretty much wherever it’s thrown and then knows what to do with it after the catch.

The Buckeyes have the luxury of throwing several more receivers into the mix, each of whom brings a little something different to the table.

Perhaps the light has finally come on for Small as he begins to emerge from last year’s self-induced funk. Remember this is the guy Ted Ginn Sr. once characterized as the best receiver he has ever coached. (That, of course, includes Ginn’s son, Ted Jr.) Small has field-stretching speed, more moves than Ex-Lax and provides Ohio State with one of college football’s top punt return threats. All he needs to do is keep his head in the game.

Small isn’t the only speed-burner on the team. Lamaar Thomas isn’t called “Flash” for nothing and freshman James Jackson thrust himself into the mix with a fearless spring that included three catches for 51 yards in the spring game.

And then there is Washington, the 6-2, 179-pound junior that most people had forgotten until he hooked up with Pryor four times in the spring game for 92 yards and a touchdown. Of course, we’ve seen that before. In the 2008 spring game, T-Dub had four receptions for 71 yards and a touchdown. Then, when the season began, he was nowhere to be found. He has three career catches for 46 yards and one TD – all of which came in 2007. Washington needs to take the next step and make himself as indispensable in the fall as he has been the past two springs.

Lost in the shadows this spring was Dane Sanzenbacher, who missed a good chunk of the last part of practice with an ankle sprain. A lot of people scoff at Sanzenbacher, who isn’t the fastest or biggest receiver on the team. Those who scoff do so at their own peril, however, because Sanzenbacher finds ways to get results. He is as steady as they come, presents an excellent target and could have the softest hands on the team.

Another possibility as a possession-type receiver is junior Grant Schwartz, who caught three balls in the spring game.

Tight End – Let’s hope that Ohio State is serious about utilizing the tight end in the passing game because the Buckeyes have legitimate pass-catching weapons at the position.

You need only go back to the 2002 national championship season to witness what kind of diversity you can enjoy if you make your tight end a viable part of the passing attack. Ben Hartsock was the third-leading receiver on that team, and he caught more balls than Chris Vance, Drew Carter or Bam Childress.

In recent years, however, the Buckeyes have been reluctant to make the tight end a primary receiver. That has been due partly to a lack of confidence in the offensive line protection, of course, and a line that continues to be a work in progress could hamstring any efforts to get more throws to the tight ends.

Still, I would like to see Tressel allow Jake Ballard, Jake Stoneburner and Nic DiLillo at least a few moments of practice time with receivers coach Darrell Hazell.

Stoneburner is the wild card. He is a rare player at the position who could stretch the field if he’s allowed to do so. This is quite a burden to place on the young man, but I think Stoneburner could be every bit the pass-catching threat that John Frank was. Every time I saw him this spring, the 6-5, 230-pounder was making a reception. He caught the ball in heavy traffic, he showed leaping ability and he showed enough athleticism to spear a ball out of the air and then make a quick adjustment to get yardage after the catch.

It may be too late to think of Ballard as anything more than an occasional receiver. (After all, he has only 19 catches to show for the previous three seasons.) IMHO, if he is used correctly, Stoneburner ought to have at least that many receptions every year.

Offensive Line – The open offensive line spots were probably the most talked-about position battles of the spring, and the discussion is likely to last well into fall camp.

Michael Brewster seems to have found a home at the center position although I think he would probably rather play guard. Maybe someone will emerge this fall (Jack Mewhort, perhaps?) that will allow Brewster to move out of the center spot. Barring something unforeseen, though, he will be and should be in the middle this year.

Brewster was thrown into a tough situation last season when he was asked to be the starter in week four, but he consistently improved and wound up starting 10 games for the Buckeyes at center. After watching him this spring, there is no reason to believe Brewster won’t continue to improve and become one of the Big Ten’s best. He’s well on his way already.

Likewise, there is no reason to believe anyone other than Justin Boren will occupy the left guard position. The 6-3, 315-pound Boren was an absolute beast this spring, schooling nearly every defensive linemen that got in his way. He plays low, taking full advantage of his strength and leverage, and his footwork is excellent. Best of all, Boren has a little mean streak to him. I don’t mean he’s a dirty player because he’s not. He just brings that kind of me-against-you-and-I’m-going-to-knock-the-snot-out-of-you mentality to an offensive line that has severely lacked that attitude the last couple of years.

On the right side of the line, Bryant Browning and Jimmy Cordle will go into the fall as the starters.

Browning had an excellent spring as he moved from tackle to guard, a position much better suited to his skill set. The 6-4, 312-pounder appears to excel in engaging the opponent and neutralizing him. That is something you really can’t do as a tackle since there are more responsibilities on the edge. Also, Browning seems adept at navigating his way through traffic as a pulling guard. I would be surprised if the junior from Cleveland Glenville hasn’t found a permanent home at right guard.

Cordle remains sort of a wild card. After starting last year at center and then moving to left guard, the senior is being asked to man a third position in less than a year. I’m not totally sold on Cordle at right tackle although I think he can handle the position. I’m just not sure he’s best suited at that particular position.

I will say this: Cordle will play somewhere. He will be one of the leading candidates to be elected captain this fall and very seldom does a team captain go into his senior season without a starting position. With Boren, Brewster and Browning across the front, though, it seems right tackle is the only spot for Cordle.

That is, of course, predicated on how the left tackle position shakes itself out. Before spring drills began, it would have been ludicrous to believe Andrew Miller had a shot at much playing time let alone the starting spot. But after a superlative spring, Miller has indeed pushed his way up the depth chart and into the discussion at left tackle.

Will Miller be the starter against Navy come Sept. 5? It’s possible although I doubt it. Neither Mike Adams nor J.B. Shugarts were recruited to be a backup, and I fully expect the starting position to be decided among those two in the fall.

Adams had some well-chronicled struggles during the early portion of spring camp as the OSU coaching staff threw a little bit of everything at him. He seemed to settle down more down the stretch although he still has to guard against playing too high (a problem for any 6-8 lineman) and he still needs work on his feet.

Shugarts, meanwhile, begged the coaching staff to let him participate in heavy contact drills after rehabbing a surgically repaired shoulder. And while the 6-8, 298-pounder saw some limited action, the staff erred on the side of caution and kept him out of most contact. Shugarts will get his chance to contend for the LT spot in fall camp but he has to guard against trying to make up for lost time and do too much too soon.

And what happens if both players distinguish themselves this fall? Do you shuffle things again and perhaps put one of them at right tackle? And if you do that, what happens to Cordle? And what do you do with Miller if he builds on the spring he just had with a breakout fall camp? All food for thought.

While players continue to jockey for starting positions, it helps that there are a number of viable options as the OSU offensive line builds some depth for the first time in recently memory. Evan Blankenship spent most of spring as the second-team right guard behind Browning while Connor Smith was the No. 2 left guard behind Boren. Andrew Moses was second on the depth chart at center and Josh Kerr played mostly with the second-team line at right tackle. Mewhort also got his feet wet at a couple of positions, but the best bet for the 6-7, 290-pound freshman may be a redshirt season if the Buckeyes think they can get along without him. I’d hate to see Mewhort be forced to waste an entire year of eligibility on just token playing time.

Tomorrow, we’ll discuss what we saw this spring on the defensive side of the ball.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Today’s Buckeye birthday belongs to former Ohio State basketball star Tony Campbell.

Anthony Campbell was born May 7, 1962, in Teaneck, N.J., and became a high school basketball star in his hometown. He signed with Ohio State in 1980 and was a three-year starter for the Buckeyes from 1982-84. The 6-7, 212-pounder earned first-team All-Big Ten honors at forward as a junior and senior, and was a two-year co-captain. Campbell averaged 19.0 points per game in ’83 and 18.6 points in ’84 and finished his OSU career with 1,529 points, good for 14th on the school’s all-time list. He was drafted by Detroit in the first round of the 1984 NBA draft with the 20th overall pick and played 11 professional seasons. Campbell’s best season came in 1989-90 when he averaged 23.2 points and 5.5 rebounds (both career highs) for the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves. He played for the Pistons, Lakers, Timberwolves, Knicks and Mavericks before finishing his career in 1994-95 in Cleveland. Campbell played his 690 NBA games and carried lifetime averages of 11.6 points and 3.1 rebounds per game. After his playing career ended, Campbell went into coaching at the high school level. He currently serves as head coach and athletic director at Bay Ridge Prep in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Other luminaries observing birthdays this 7th day of May: Fifties pop singer Jim Lowe (“The Green Door”) is 82; former NFL quarterback Babe Parilli is 80; Baseball Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams is also 80; U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) is 77; Sixties pop singer Johnny Maestro (lead singer of The Brooklyn Bridge) is 70; soap actress Robin Strasser (Dr. Dorian Lord on “One Life to Live”) is 64; pop and disco singer Thelma Houston (“Don’t Leave Me This Way”) is 66; Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann is 63; boxer-turned-actor Randall “Tex” Cobb is 59; actor Robert Hegyes (Juan Epstein in the Seventies TV show “Welcome Back, Kotter”) is 58; former Cincinnati Bengals receiver and punter Pat McInally is 56; film director Amy Heckerling (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Clueless”) is 55; soap actor Peter Reckell (Bo Brady on “Days of our Lives”) is 54; Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende is 53; soap actor Michael E. Knight (Tad Martin on “All My Children”) is 50; Motörhead lead guitarist Phil Campbell is 48; actress Traci Lords is 41; rock/pop musician Eagle Eye Cherry is 38; Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman James Loney is 25; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith is also 25; and Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders is 23.

Those celebrities who have passed into history who shared May 7 birthdays: English poet Robert Browning; German composer Johannes Brahms; Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky; two-time Academy Award-winning actor Gary Cooper; Argentine first lady Eva “Evita” Perón; Academy Award-winning actress Anne Baxter; NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas; “Meet The Press” moderator Tim Russert; and actor Darren McGavin. You may not be familiar with McGavin’s name but you certainly know his work. He had a long career in television and movies, portraying a variety of characters including shady, glass-eyed gambler Gus Sands in “The Natural”, vampire chaser/newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak in “The Night Stalker” television series; and Adam Sandler’s hotel magnate father in “Billy Madison.” But McGavin will likely be best remembered as Old Man Parker, the flustered father who gets son Ralphie a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas in the holiday classic “A Christmas Story.”

AND FINALLY

** Ohio State set a new NCAA record April 25 with a spring-game crowd of 95,722. Alabama, which held the old mark at 92,138 set in 2007, finished second this year with 84,000 in attendance at its spring game. Nebraska was third at 77,670. On the other end of the spectrum was North Carolina, which drew only 2,000 to its spring game. In the Tar Heels’ defense, the game was played March 28 – in the midst of the basketball team’s run to the NCAA Tournament championship.

** To put Ohio State’s record spring crowd into perspective, the average crowd for all of the spring football games at all of the Division I-A schools was just a little more than 13,000.

** A poll on CBSSportsline.com asked which team would win the 2009 Big Ten championship. Ohio State was the runaway winner with 46 percent of the 3,296 votes cast. Penn State was second with 28 percent. Michigan State finished a distant third with 6 percent.

** Indiana head coach Bill Lynch kicked mercurial quarterback-turned-receiver Kellen Lewis off the team for the second time April 27, and this time the move is permanent. Lewis was suspended for four months last year before being allowed to return to the Hoosiers. This time, Lynch has said there will be no reprieve for Lewis, whom many consider IU’s best player. Athletic director Fred Glass supported Lynch’s move, saying the move “underscores that no individual student-athlete, regardless of talent or popularity, is above the expectations of Indiana University.”

** If ESPN.com college basketball writer Doug Gottlieb is right, the Big Ten will be loaded next year. Gottlieb has three conference schools among his early top 10 – Purdue at No. 4, Michigan State at No. 6 and Ohio State at No. 10. About the Buckeyes, Gottlieb writes, “Don’t worry about the loss of B.J. Mullens. The Buckeyes return a great talent in Evan Turner, who returns for his junior season, joining Jon Diebler & Co. to help OSU turn the corner next season.” Gottlieb’s top three: Kansas, Texas and Villanova.

** Gottlieb’s ESPN.com colleague, senior writer Andy Katz, also has three Big Ten teams in his early top 10: Michigan State at No. 2, Purdue at No. 5 and Michigan at No. 9. Other conference teams in Katz’s top 25: Minnesota 16th, Ohio State 18th and Illinois 19th.

** The financially crippled Arena Football League is already on hiatus for a year and teams are beginning to close up shop for good. When/if the AFL returns in 2010, it will be without the L.A. Avengers, a team that has played arena league ball for nine seasons. With the Avengers going out of business, it leaves Los Angeles without a professional football team – unless, of course, you count USC.

** Which brings us to this nugget: You probably know that both former USC basketball star O.J. Mayo and former Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush have gotten their school in NCAA hot water for allegedly taking improper benefits. What you may not know is that the NCAA recently decided to combine the cases to streamline the investigation process. That decision makes it much more likely that one or both of the programs could be forced to forfeit games and championships. In the case of USC football, that could include a pair of Pac-10 titles in 2004 and 2005. Don’t think it means the Trojans would have to give up their 2004 national championship, though. Because the NCAA doesn’t stage a championship in Division I-A football, leaving that to the Bowl Championship Series, forfeits would only affect NCAA record books, conference championships and Pete Carroll’s victory total. It would be up to the commissioners of the BCS to take away the national title and no one believes that will happen. Which brings up a salient point raised by Dennis Dodd of CBSSportsline.com: Because a BCS title is essentially immune from NCAA sanctions, does that ratchet up the incentive to cheat to get one?

The ‘Other’ Bill Hosket

Most Ohio State basketball fans know Bill Hosket from his all-conference playing days in the late 1960s to a broadcast career that has spanned four decades and continues to this day.

But did you know that Hosket’s father, known as Bill Sr., was also an All-Big Ten performer at Ohio State and that today would have been his 98th birthday?

Wilmer Clemons Hosket was born Feb. 19, 1911, in Dayton, Ohio, and became a championship basketball player at almost every level. Hosket, who eventually grew to stand just shy of 6-5, starred at Stivers High School in Dayton for head coach Floyd Stahl. Stahl would later serve eight seasons from 1951-58 as head coach at Ohio State.

With Hosket at the pivot, the Tigers won three consecutive state championships from 1928 to 1930, posting an 80-7 record during that span. Six of those losses occurred during Hosket’s sophomore season. At the time he was a high school player, Hosket was considered the finest basketball prospect ever produced by the state of Ohio.

After his graduation from Stivers, Hosket joined Ohio State head coach Harold “Tubby” Olsen’s program. Olsen, who at 24 seasons coached longer than any other basketball coach in school history, was looking to snap a string of second-division finishes in the Western Conference after leading the Buckeyes to their first league championship in 1925.

Hosket played mostly in a reserve role during his first couple of seasons at Ohio State. Those years featured lineups that included such standouts as Wes Fesler and Lew Hinchman – both of which were three-time football All-Americans – as well as Richard Larkins, captain of the 1931 team who went to become director of athletics at Ohio State from 1947-70.

Unfortunately, the OSU basketball teams during that time were not very competitive. The Buckeyes finished no higher than a tie for fifth place in the conference between 1926 and 1932, and had back-to-back ninth-place finishes in ’30 and ’31.

Hosket finally cracked the starting lineup at the beginning of the 1932-33 season and immediately paid dividends for Olsen. With a supporting cast that included captain Howard Mattison, former Stivers teammate Bob Colburn and Hinchman, Hosket became a dominating inside force. He was an excellent passer, could shoot the ball with either hand and became one of the premier post players in college basketball. As a result, Ohio State won 15 of their first 16 games during that season and went on to capture the school’s first Western Conference title in eight years.

The Buckeyes finished with a 17-3 record that season with Mattison earning first-team all-conference merit at guard and Hosket receiving first-time honors at center.

After the 1932-33 season, Hosket left Ohio State and played in the Midwest League and upstart National Basketball League as a member of the Dayton Metropolitans. After two seasons with the Metros, he played semipro ball before joining the famed Waterloo Wonders in 1940. The Wonders went from a high school team that won back-to-back Ohio state championships in the mid-1930s to a professional barnstorming squad that toured the country. Hosket played for the Wonders in 1940, a team that defeated both the original Boston Celtics as well as the Harlem Globetrotters.

Hosket returned to his hometown in 1941 and played for the Dayton Suchers, named for the Sucher Meat Packing Co. in the Gem City.

When his playing days were over, Hosket became a basketball official and refereed on both the high school and college levels.

Unfortunately, Hosket did not live to see his son become a basketball star. After a battle against leukemia, he died Dec. 29, 1956, at the age of 45. It was just nine days after Bill Jr. had celebrated his 10th birthday.

The younger Hosket – who technically is not Bill Jr. because his middle name is Frederick – went on to win a high school state championship at Dayton Belmont, a Big Ten championship with Ohio State in 1968, an Olympic gold medal with the U.S. basketball team at the ’68 Summer Games in Mexico City and an NBA title as member of the New York Knicks in 1970.

He led the Buckeyes in scoring and rebounding during each of his three varsity seasons and became the first OSU Academic All-American in basketball, an honor Hosket went on to win three times.

Perhaps his proudest achievement, however, came when he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in 1968. That made the Hoskets the first father-son combination ever named first-team All-Big Ten in the history of the conference, and they remain the only ones to hold that distinction.

In 2006, the Hoskets received another joint honor when they were included in the inaugural class of inductees to the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame. Also in that inaugural class was the Dayton Stivers teams on which the elder Hosket played.

Bill Sr. received one more posthumous award in 2006 when he was a member of the inaugural class inducted into the Stivers High School Athletic Hall of Fame.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Today’s other Buckeye birthday belongs to former Ohio State cornerback William White. William Eugene White was born Feb. 19, 1966, in Lima, Ohio, and was a star tailback and punt returner for Lima Senior High School before concentrating on defense when he signed with the Buckeyes in 1984. White became a four-year starter at cornerback at OSU and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors as a senior in 1987. He finished his career tied for third on the career interceptions list with 16 and is one of only nine Buckeyes ever to record three interceptions in a single game. White was a fourth-round selection by Detroit in the 1988 NFL draft, and he played 11 pro seasons with the Lions, Chiefs and Falcons. When he retired after the 1998 season, White had 20 career interceptions, averaging 15.5 yards per return, and recovered three fumbles, returning two of those for touchdowns.

Other luminaries sharing birthdays this 19th day of February: Motown legend William “Smokey” Robinson is 69; Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive back Paul Krause is 67; Sixties pop singer Lou Christie (“Lightnin’ Strikes”) is 66; Loverboy lead guitarist Paul Dean is 63; Black Sabbath guitarist and founding member Tony Iommi is 61; novelist Amy Tan (“The Joy Luck Club”) is 57; Argentina president Cristina Elisabet Fernández de Kirchner is 56; actor Jeff Daniels is 54; English author Helen Fielding (“Bridget Jones’s Diary”) is 51; Prince Andrew, Duke of York, is 49; retired four-time Grand Slam champion tennis player Hana Mandlíková is 47; Grammy winning singer Seal (born Seal Henry Olusegun Kwassi Olumide Adelo Samuel) is 46; Eighties television actress Justine Bateman is 43; Oscar-winning actor Benicio del Toro (“Traffic”) is 42; Memphis Grizzlies forward Mike Miller is 29; and singer/actress Haylie Duff is 24.

An eclectic group of celebrities also died on this day in history. They include military aviation pioneer Billy Mitchell, actress Madge Blake (Aunt Harriet on the “Batman” television series); original AC/DC frontman Bon Scott; Italian actor Adolfo Celi (Bond villain Emilio Largo in “You Only Live Twice”); Oakland A’s owner Charles O. Finley; Chinese Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping; county music legend Grandpa Jones; and prolific film director Stanley Kramer, who directed such dramatic classics as “The Defiant Ones,” “Inherit The Wind,” “Judgment at Nuremberg” and “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” as well as broad comedies like “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Many of Kramer’s films won technical and acting Academy Awards, but he never took home an Oscar for direction.

AND FINALLY

** NFL draft expert Mel Kiper has some words of wisdom for former Ohio State players prepping for this weekend’s NFL Combine: Do well or don’t bother to stay by the phone on the first day of the draft. “Malcolm Jenkins, if he’s runs a great 40 time, could be a top 10 pick,” Kiper said recently. “If not, he could be viewed as a safety (and his draft status will drop). I think this combine is as important for him as anybody in this draft.” Meanwhile, Kiper was a even more blunt regarding a pair of ex-OSU linebackers when he said, “James Laurinaitis’ stock has dropped from the beginning of the year, and Marcus Freeman’s stock has dropped. They need to have good workouts.”

** With starting quarterback Steven Threet deciding to leave the team and seek a transfer, does this mean Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez has to go back to square one again with his offense? That is a scary thought for U-M fans hopeful that last year’s 3-9 record was a one-year aberration. The Wolverines ranked dead last in the Big Ten last season in pass offense, total offense and turnover margin. Tough to see how Rodriguez’s team can improve those stats while breaking in another new starting quarterback.

** From the recruiting leftover file: Wide receiver DeAngelo Benton of Bastrop, La., committed to LSU two seasons ago but was unable to satisfy academic requirements for freshman eligibility. No problem. LSU head coach Les Miles tucked the 6-2, 190-pound Benton securely away at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., and then got reassurance from the receiver on the weekend before signing day that Benton would sign with the Tigers this year. Less than 24 hours before signing day, Benton was still telling everyone he would sign with LSU. The following day, Benton did indeed sign – with Auburn. Is there any wonder why so much animosity exists between SEC football coaches?

** Here’s a little quiz for you. What do guys named Jim Schwartz, Jim Caldwell, Rex Ryan and Raheem Morris have in common? Would you believe they are all head coaches in the National Football League? The NFL boasts 10 new head coaches, including seven who have never led teams before. Schwartz takes over in Detroit, Caldwell succeeds Tony Dungy in Indianapolis, Ryan will lead the New York Jets and Morris will be in charge in Tampa Bay. The other three newbies: Josh McDaniels in Denver, Todd Haley in Kansas City and Steve Spagnuolo in St. Louis.

** Not sure what this means but IRL driver Danica Patrick’s tattoo of an American flag that adorns her lower back was airbrushed out of this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Last year, Patrick’s flag tattoo was visible in her swimsuit issue photos. Discuss.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.