Let's get this out of the way: It is sort of hard to tell if Danny Peters is joking. Actually, given the way so many Ohio State basketball players almost laugh before narrating their own memories of Jon Diebler's high school career -- tales which all describe some local alloy of Mark Price, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Bill Brasky -- you have to wonder if maybe, just maybe, this team coordinated its stories beforehand.
That's not a knock against the current talents of Diebler, a 6-foot-6 marksman whose three-point stroke last weekend repeatedly punctured comeback bids by Georgia Tech (he scored 17 points in the second half) and UC-Santa Barbara (a game-high 23) like darts through a balloon. But is the unassuming junior -- most often quoted in his capacity as would-be National Player of the Year Evan Turner's roommate -- really "the Jimmy Chitwood of Ohio," as Peters, a senior guard from New Albany, suggests?
"We joke about this, but it's true," said Peters, whose father -- former Ohio State assistant and current Akron director of basketball operations Dan Peters -- recruited Diebler to Columbus. "He's a legend, honestly. Go to the farm towns in Northwest Ohio, talk to the kids from there. It's unreal, like a Larry Bird thing."
In fact, you don't even need to leave the Buckeyes' locker room. Here is senior forward Kyle Madsen, from Dublin: "I remember hearing that he had like 70 or 80 points in a single game. I used to think, How is this guy scoring so much?"
And senior forward David Lighty, from Cleveland: "He's a warrior. The state championship game, he had this big mask on because he'd broken his nose. He must have broken it three times that season. Then he took the mask off and said, 'Forget it!' "
And 6-8, 260-pound junior forward Dallas Lauderdale, from Solon: "Jon was also the biggest man on his team. When we played each other in high school we matched up. He drew two charges on me ... He must have paid off the refs or something."
Apparently, the one and only witness who won't add to such testimony -- the enduring dispute between Lauderdale and Diebler, close friends, notwithstanding ("I think I took two charges," the latter affirms, smiling) -- is, well, Jon Diebler.
Press the guard about his vaunted rep back in Upper Sandusky (pop. 6,455), and he'll chuckle even harder than his teammates. While an array of public records and grainy digital video vindicate the foregoing recollections -- and yet more* -- Diebler will never be the type to freely point out that he averaged 41.2 points per game his senior year, tops in the country. Or that he scored more points (3,208) in Ohio prep history than anyone ever has, LeBron James (2,646) and NBA Hall of Famer Jerry Lucas (2,438) included.
*The jury, however, is still out on this passage from the March 23, 2007 edition of the Dayton Daily News, about the state championship semifinal between Diebler's Upper Sandusky team and Poland Seminary: "The crowd's anticipation ... rivaled what spectators must've felt awaiting the opening of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the Colossus of Rhodes."
That genuine Midwestern humility coats his present accomplishments, too. According to Diebler -- who leads the No. 2 Buckeyes (27-4) in postseason scoring heading into Friday's Sweet 16 matchup against No. 6 Tennessee (27-8) -- the most exciting part of his weekend in Milwaukee was the "smorgasbord of Italian food" he ate on Saturday after overcoming the flu. The details of this experience, notably, he will dreamily enumerate: "Pasta, chicken, pizza, salad ..." (To be fair, he did have to sprint out of practice the afternoon before to throw up the ham sandwich he'd eaten for breakfast.)
But whether Diebler is shy -- or simply wise enough to know that the road to basketball mediocrity has long been paved with the cartoonishly inflated statistics of prep phenoms -- at least one thing is quite obvious: the sharpshooter understands and embraces his role as a specialist in the college game.
After having to do far more than catch and shoot in high school, Diebler regularly rehearses curling around the wing while a teammate throws him passes behind the arc. How vital is this singular skill? Consider: Diebler has attempted 208 more threes than twos this season, sunk 43 percent of them, and presently carries the single-season record for three-pointers at Ohio State: 115, or seven more than rest of OSU's entire starting lineup combined. No one in this tournament has more.
"Hey, we got probably the National Player of the Year on our team," Diebler said. "He's going to get a lot of attention. I just gotta put the ball in the hole."
Such a sequence, of course, is as much sound strategy as it is modesty. Against the waves of double- and triple-teams sent by UCSB and Georgia Tech, Turner -- the probable second pick in the 2010 NBA Draft -- went just 10-for-32 from the field but still finished with 14 assists in two easy victories. That's in large part because Diebler, whose role is so unique within coach Thad Matta's shallow, seven-man rotation, shot 50 percent on 22 shots from long range, draining more threes than any other player through the first two rounds. As UCSB coach Bob Williams would say of a flu-ridden Diebler, "He's the first sick kid I've ever seen play 40 minutes in a game. That kid is a stud." (Or, as Turner put it via Twitter on Saturday night: "Shoutout to diebler for burning the nets. Ur the best roomie a guy could have.")
"A lot of our guys are really good, really athletic," Madsen said. "They drive to the rim, everyone collapses, and Jon is just standing out there, waiting. Almost laughing sometimes."
And then, as usual, he puts the ball in the hole.