Friday March 26th, 2010

ST. LOUIS -- There are better teams than these Ohio State Buckeyes. Kentucky is more talented. Kansas was twice as deep. Duke has more pure scorers.

So no, Ohio State is not the best team. But the Buckeyes are the most cohesive team, the teamiest team, the kind of team that causes semi-professional writers to invent words. You don't see teams quite like this very often anymore.

At the start of this decade, the average superstar lasted 12 minutes on campus, and now the average superstar lasts a year and 12 minutes. So that's an improvement, I guess, but we're still in an era when players should have their names on the fronts and backs of their jerseys so their teammates can identify them.

With the Buckeyes, you get the feeling they could remove the names and numbers and all wear full-body costumes with masks and it wouldn't throw the offense out of sync one bit.

"Playing together for so long, you just pick up what people like to do, the tendencies," junior David Lighty said. "It's been a growing process."

Everything begins with 6-foot-7 point guard Evan Turner, the most valuable player in college basketball. Most college superstars are either breathtakingly gifted youngsters (John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Blake Griffin last year) or crafty, skilled upperclassmen (Jon Scheyer, Da'Sean Butler). What makes Turner special is that he is both.

Turner will be one of the top three picks in this summer's NBA draft (assuming he leaves school). But he is also a junior with the smarts to cut up a defense in 100 different ways.

Turner is so good, in fact, that Ohio State is often mistaken for a one-man band. This is understandable -- Ohio State is 26-4 with Turner on the floor this season -- but the label diminishes both Turner and his teammates. Turner is so adept at finding his teammates, and they are so good at playing off him, that you'd swear they were controlled by the same puppeteer.

"If a smaller guy gets on (Turner), he can kind of Magic Johnson 'em and back-dribble all the way down the court and keep 'em away from the ball," said Lighty, who deserves at least two English credits this semester for turning Magic Johnson into a verb. "With bigger guys, he's quick as well, so he can handle it and get around them."

If you concentrate on stopping Turner's drive, he'll dish to Jon Diebler, William Buford or Lighty -- all of whom shoot threes better than Turner does.

"You sort of have to pick your poison," said center Dallas Lauderdale. "If you take away Johnny D's threes, the middle is wide-open for penetration. If you take the middle away, Johnny D is going to be open or drop-down passers are going to be open."

If you stay with the shooters, Turner will beat you inside or find Lauderdale, who is shooting a preposterous 77.2 percent from the floor. Lauderdale is also shooting 41.7 percent from the line. This means he is almost twice as likely to score when somebody is guarding him than when nobody is. Nonetheless, the irrepressible Lauderdale proclaimed that he shoots threes in practice "all the time," that his nickname is Kobe and that he promises to launch a three in a game "if we're up by like 50." Everybody in the first four rows, get ready to duck.

Lighty said the key to the Buckeyes' offensive success is that they are all "alike -- interchangeable parts." They are reminiscent of the 2005 Illinois team that almost went undefeated in the regular season. Those Illini had a future NBA star who was oversized at point guard (Deron Williams), several similar athletes and very little depth. This year's Buckeyes only played six guys at Michigan State, which is normally a self-imposed death sentence against the run-loving Spartans. Yet Ohio State won with ease.

The Buckeyes play so well together that they say coach Thad Matta never even gets on them for mental breakdowns. Matta only complains when their effort is not as strong as he'd like.

They play hard, they play smart, and they happen to have one of the best defensive stoppers left in the tournament in Lighty. In fact, Lighty claims he can handle the toughest task in the sport: guarding Turner.

"Can I stop Evan? Of course," Lighty said, and I suspect he shares this view with Turner all the time. "That's why he's so good. He goes up against me every day in practice."

For what it's worth, Lauderdale says he, too, can stop Turner. ("No blood, no foul?" I asked. "No blood no foul!" he said. "All physical, baby!") But they admit they would rather have Turner on their side instead. And maybe the secret of this Ohio State team is that Turner is fortunate to have them, too.

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