INDIANAPOLIS – Ohio State's Big Ten tournament existence was saved by a mop-haired Italian bench jockey whose biggest claim to campus fame before Friday was his failed write-in campaign for student-body president.
Hey, countryman Silvio Berlusconi came up with much worse than that as Italian prime minister. And for a college audience, I'm not sure how that isn't a winning platform. But apparently the big issue was getting Ohio State students to successfully spell "Amedeo Della Valle."
Far easier to be a write-in candidate when your name is John Smith.
Della Valle finished fifth in the voting with 479 votes. Hold a re-vote today, however, and you would have a different result. The Italian Stallion would be a landslide favorite.
"I definitely would win," Della Valle said with a smile.
Unkempt perms might become the campus hairstyle of choice, too.
Who in Columbus wouldn't change their vote to the sophomore whose 12 points, six rebounds, three blocks and two steals keyed a comeback from 18 points down to beat Nebraska, 71-67? This was a completely unexpected performance from a guy averaging 12 minutes and 4.1 points per game. But as the Cornhuskers pulled away, expanding their lead to 48-30 with 13:45 to play, Ohio State coach Thad Matta needed somebody – anybody – to be the fire-starter.
Up stepped Della Valle, suddenly experiencing la dolce vita. His 21 minutes played was a career high in a Big Ten game. He sunk a big 3-pointer. He drove with verve and nerve to the basket. And after missing three of his first four free throws, he iced the game with four late swishes from the foul line.
The explanation for the earlier misses?
"I don't like the ball," Della Valle said of the Spalding brand the Big Ten is using here. "It feels smaller. It feels weird. We've been practicing all year with the Nike ball. I had to get the feel for it."
Feel for the ball is one thing. What Della Valle really provided Friday was a zest for stopping the Huskers.
"His defensive presence was the difference in the game, to be honest with you," Matta said. "Wow, was he good."
The defensive production alone was a staggering upset. When he arrived at Ohio State after a year at Findley Prep in Las Vegas, the native of Alba, Italy, was a stereotypical Euro player: skilled offensively and a sieve defensively.
"I'm not known for my defense," Della Valle admitted. "I was really bad when I first came to Ohio State. So bad."
That kept him nailed to the bench for all but 15 games his freshman season, and was still the biggest reason he's been little more than a spot sub this year. But after packing on 30 pounds and embracing Matta's defensive exhortations, he has gotten better – and there was Della Valle actually protecting the paint for long stretches of the second half after the Buckeyes benched their centers and started pressing. Three blocks and two steals was a godsend from a guy who had five blocks and five steals all season.
Della Valle's performance was a dagger for Nebraska, which is probably in the NCAA tourney but now will spend two days living with bubble anxiety while waiting to find out.
"I'm a Catholic, we're not putting [the loss] behind us," Cornhuskers coach Tim Miles joked, gallows style.
"We're going to live in it for a while."
Ohio State, meanwhile, lives on in this tourney. Next up: regular-season champion and arch-rival Michigan, which also happens to be one of the schools Della Valle considered attending. He chose the Buckeyes over Arizona, Texas A&M and Michigan and said he's never regretted it, despite limited playing time in Matta's famously short rotation.
Della Valle made a few believers last summer when he was named the MVP of the Under-20 European Championship. The confidence gained from that has carried over, to the point where Della Valle at times has a Russ Smith-level aggressiveness offensively.
Which happened to be something the Buckeyes needed Friday, as they flailed in search of a spark. With his father, Carlo, in the stands, Amedeo took over.
"I do some crazy things sometimes," Della Valle said. "My confidence never goes down. … But I worked hard for this. It doesn't just come for free. All the work I put in finally paid off."
We'll see if there is a carryover to Saturday and beyond for Della Valle, who probably just earned himself a much more prominent place on the Michigan scouting report. When the season is over he will go back to work on his Marketing degree, and when his basketball career is over it will be on to something else.
"I'd like to travel," he said, then laughed. "Definitely not politics."
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