ST. LOUIS (AP)—The last time Tennessee faced Ohio State in the NCAA tournament, the Buckeyes had a roster that made NBA general managers drool, with monstrous Greg Oden dominating inside and Mike Conley Jr. making sure everything flowed smoothly.
Must be a relief to the Volunteers that they won’t have to see those guys again in Friday’s Midwest Regional semifinal, huh?
The second-seeded Buckeyes (29-7) might look a lot different than they did when they held off the Vols in the regional semifinals three years ago, but they’re no less formidable. In fact, Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said this Ohio State squad might be even more daunting.
“They’re a more difficult team to game plan for,” Pearl said Thursday. “What they did (in 2007) is what they did. They weren’t as multiple.”
There wasn’t much mystery to the Buckeyes when they made their run to the 2007 national title game, where they lost to Florida. Sure, they had Daequan Cook, Conley and sharpshooters Ron Lewis and Jamar Butler. But the 7-foot Oden was the one who set Ohio State apart, offensively and defensively, and everybody knew it.
Evan Turner is, without a doubt, the star of this year’s Ohio State squad, and a leading candidate to add national honors to his Big Ten player of the year award. With 20 points, nine rebounds and six assists a game, however, the slippery guard is more versatile than Oden.
Or even Conley.
“They’re the antithesis to each other,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said of Turner and Conley. “They’re both point guards, but they do completely different things.”
Turner is a nasty defender—he’s from Chicago, after all—and is third on Ohio State’s career list with 158 steals. Just when you think you’ve got him contained, he’ll switch gears and completely confound you. UC Santa Barbara bumped and bruised him all night long in last weekend’s first round, and Turner had one of the worst shooting nights of his career. Turned the ball over four times, too.
But he also had 10 boards and five assists, including two during a key 13-0 run at the end of the first half.
And say a team does find a way to contain Turner. David Lighty, Jon Diebler, William Buford, they’ve all gone off for 20-plus points this year. It was Diebler who carried the Buckeyes against UCSB, making seven 3-pointers and finishing with a season-high 23 points. He’s averaging 21.5 points for the tourney and shooting 50 percent from 3-point range (11 for 22).
“Ohio State presents you with the biggest mismatch of any team in the tournament,” Pearl said. “Who guards Turner? Who guards Lighty? If you put two guys on him, who has Diebler? It’s pretty easy to say your center might guard (Dallas) Lauderdale, but where you go from there is really the great challenge.”
But the Vols (27-8) are nothing if not resilient. This, after all, is the team that weathered the suspensions of Brian Williams, Cameron Tatum and Melvin Goins and the dismissal of Tyler Smith, a two-time all-Southeastern Conference player, after they were arrested Jan. 1 when a gun and marijuana were found during a traffic stop.
Nine days after the arrest, with Williams, Tatum and Goins still out and Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince in foul trouble, the short-handed Vols upset then-No. 1 Kansas. Handily.
Tennessee also dealt Kentucky one of its two losses.
“I’m proud of my basketball team for being so resilient throughout the season, and continuing to find ways to play good basketball and improve,” Pearl said.
Though this is Tennessee’s third trip to the regional semifinals in four years—it missed last season—and sixth overall, the Vols have never gotten beyond this stage. Don’t think the players aren’t aware of it.
“If we win this game, we’ll be the best team in Tennessee basketball history,” Williams said. “That’s a great accomplishment for anybody.”