ATLANTA – As the commitments came flooding in and a historic recruiting haul took shape, the excitement among the Ohio State coaching staff was tempered by the weight of expectations.
Yes, you dream of bringing in the kind of talent that could win a national title in its first season, but that doesn't leave any room for error or any room for selfish, silly kids who are fattened on high school press clippings and think this will be simple.
So heading into the season, as all these fabulous freshmen showed up in Columbus, Thad Matta fretted about how the heck you convince a bunch of kids he assumed were thinking the same thing he was – championship or bust – that it wasn't going to be nearly as easy as he thought they thought.
So he attacked it directly. The first day he brought together his Buckeyes – with freshman megastars Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. – he showed them a brochure about the Final Four and then said that no one was going to discuss winning a national title again.
His freshmen stared at the thing in a bit of disbelief. National title? Who was thinking national title?
"I hadn't thought of it," Oden said. "That's always the goal for any team, I guess, but I hadn't thought about it until then."
Matta thought he was guarding against overconfidence. He should have been worrying about instilling it.
If Michigan's Fab Five, the last collection of hyped freshmen to reach the championship game, did it with a chip on their shoulder and a vow to "shock the world," then the Thad Five are here almost by coincidence. The Buckeyes defeated Georgetown 67-60 to set up a Monday matchup with Florida in the final.
"We didn't talk about winning a national championship until that day," Conley Jr. said. "I hadn't thought about it. We hadn't talked about it. I wasn't sure I could be that good. I hadn't played college basketball before."
So what was a complete misread of his young team's mindset actually turned into the perfect motivational ploy anyway. Rather than snap his kids' heads out of the clouds, Matta's Final Four speech snapped them to attention. It made them realize that there was more at stake here than they thought, that they were a heck of a lot better than they believed.
"It turned out a lot easier than [I expected]," Conley Jr. said.
The point guard smiled at that, and why not? Ohio State is 40 minutes from the national crown its coach knew was probable but the players didn't dream really was possible.
Conley Jr. had just darted through Georgetown to the tune of 15 points and six assists. Oden added 13 points and nine rebounds. The whole team of Buckeyes, young and old, had stepped up in different ways.
So at last Ohio State no longer has to worry about looking ahead. Destiny is on the doorstep.
But as impressive as the collection of talent has proved to be, it is the team's humility and hunger – unexpected traits considering their skill – that have driven the Buckeyes to the brink.
Even though the game came remarkably easy to these guys at the high school level – Oden and Conley were on the same team in Indianapolis (guess what, they won the state title) – they've thrived when things have gotten tough in college.
It turns out nothing rattles this group. Nothing creeps into these players' thoughts but winning.
On Saturday, when Oden collected his second foul just 2:49 into the game, sending him to the bench for the rest of the half, the remaining Buckeyes shrugged off his absence and got to work. Just the way they did early in the season when Oden missed seven games due to injury, or when they were down big in the NCAA tournament to Xavier and Tennessee, or when foul trouble benched the big man against Memphis in the Elite Eight.
"We can play with Greg or without Greg," said guard Jamar Butler, like the 7-foot center is just another guy.
Actually, in many ways, he is.
One thing about Oden is he doesn't care about his own statistics. He may have the focus of the country on him since he is the likely No. 1 pick in June's NBA draft, but he doesn't feel like he has to prove anything. Much was made before the game of Oden's matchup with the Hoyas' 7-2 center Roy Hibbert. Due to foul trouble, they hardly played against each other. Not that Oden cared about proving anything.
"We won," he said.
To watch these guys postgame was to laugh at Matta's preseason worries. This was never going to be a brash group that needed reigning in. If anything, a lack of focus would be the problem.
Oden's ditzy sense of humor belies his intelligence – he is a sharp guy – but still, sometimes you wonder what's rattling around in his head. When asked afterward about what it means to be one game from the national title, he didn't talk about making history or fulfilling destiny or attaining that One Shining Moment.
"It means no more practice," he said. "Or one more practice [Sunday], but no more hard practice. Then about three weeks to sleep."
Someone will have to remind him what's at stake. But that's Ohio State. The dream is in reach and the kids want to nap.
- Thad Matta
- Greg Oden
- Ohio State