ATLANTA (AP)—Greg Oden stood at center court, checking out clips of Ohio State games on the Jumbotron while fellow freshmen Daequan Cook and Mike Conley stole glances around the cavernous Georgia Dome.
This whole season has been one new experience after another for the Baby Buckeyes, and they’ve managed to handle them all with poise and maturity. But the Final Four, well, there’s nothing that can quite prepare them for this circus.
When the top-seeded Buckeyes (34-3) play second-seeded Georgetown (30-6) on Saturday night, it’s going to be louder, more crowded and more intense than anything they’ve ever seen.
“We haven’t told them too much, just keep playing like they’ve been playing,” Ivan Harris, one of only two seniors on the Ohio State roster, said Friday. “We don’t want them to change up too much right now because it’s crunch time.”
Not that Georgetown is any more versed at this. The Hoyas start a freshman and a sophomore, and the two seniors on their roster barely play. The only road to the Final Four that they know is memory lane with John Thompson and Patrick Ewing—the fathers, not the sons.
While UCLA and Florida know the ins and outs of this weekend so well they could be tour guides, Georgetown and Ohio State will have to figure it out on the fly. And whoever does it best will likely be the team that’s playing for the title Monday night.
“We’ve got some guys that are pretty experienced as far as tournament play, but at the same time, we’re kind of both new to this stage, this level of the tournament,” Georgetown guard Jonathan Wallace said.
“At this point, Xs and Os don’t really make that much of a difference any more,” Wallace said. “It’s going to be who plays with the most intensity, the most heart.”
Still, some of the lessons learned along the way have got to come in handy.
For Georgetown, it was last year’s loss to eventual champion Florida in the regional semifinal. The Hoyas were in the game until the final seconds, when they fouled Corey Brewer on a twisting, falling-down shot. Brewer converted the three-point play, and Al Horford sealed the 57-53 win with a pair of free throws.
Season over for the Hoyas.
“We learned how to close out games better,” Jeff Green said. “We allowed them to get the three-point play which pretty much sealed the deal for them winning that game. We learned from those mistakes, which made our team better. We instilled that early on with the freshmen that came in.”
Indeed, Georgetown got to Atlanta thanks to its cool. Trailing by a point to Vanderbilt in the regional semifinal, Green banked in the game-winner with less than three seconds left. Two days later, the Hoyas rallied from 11 points down, then bulldozed North Carolina in overtime to earn their spot in the Final Four.
“One of the strengths of our team has been our understanding that we are a team,” Thompson said. “One of the strengths of our team is the belief that the guys have in each other, the belief that the guys have in what we are doing and how we are doing it.”
Ohio State got its biggest test back in June, when Oden had surgery on his right wrist. The 7-footer has been called the best American-born big man since Shaquille O’Neal, and he’s gotten LeBron-like pub since he got to high school.
But the surgery would sideline him for the first seven games of the season, and it’s only been within the last few weeks that he’s been able to fully use his right hand and show off those skills that have the NBA folks drooling.
“He’s just so young, and he’s able to lead his team to the Final Four,” said Roy Hibbert, whose matchup with Oden is one of the most highly anticipated of the entire tournament.
“When I was a freshman, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. When Jeff Green was a freshman, he wouldn’t have been able to do that. So he’s doing his part. His skills are developing every day. He’s getting better and better.”
But he’s still a freshman.
Though Oden, Conley, Cook and the rest of the “Thad Five” have been successful at every level so far, there’s something different about doing it in front of 50,000 people with the rest of the country watching at home. And the Buckeyes haven’t been immune to cases of nerves.
When they went to Gainesville in December to play Florida, they fared about as well as an AAU team would against the Lakers. Granted, it was only Oden’s fifth game back, but the rest of the Buckeyes didn’t have an excuse.
In the second round, Xavier dominated the Buckeyes for almost the entire game and was so pesky that Oden fouled out. It was up to senior Ron Lewis to avert the stunning upset with a long 3 with two seconds left.
But then Conley took over, scoring 11 points in overtime. He did it again against Tennessee, sealing the win on a free throw with 10 seconds left. Oden needed only 24 minutes in the regional final to score 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting and grab nine rebounds.
“Each bracket that we’ve gone through the last two weeks, we’ve kind of made it like a Final Four,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “As I told them before the Memphis game, I’d be an idiot to stand up here and talk about magnitude of this game because they know.”
There’s still plenty the Buckeyes and Hoyas don’t know. But they’re about to find out.