Thanks to a new coach and point guard from BC, Ohio State is
enjoying a dramatic revival
This is an article from the Feb. 22, 1999 issue
Before James (Scoonie) Penn could help put Ohio State back on
the basketball map, he had to learn how to find it on a map.
"Ohio? Where's Ohio?" he asked Jim O'Brien, his coach at Boston
College, when O'Brien announced two years ago that he was
leaving for Columbus. "The perception in the Northeast is that
there's only one stoplight out here," says O'Brien.
Most folks had forgotten that basketball was played there too.
But as of Sunday, less than a year after O'Brien's first Ohio
State team went 8-22 and finished last in the Big Ten with a
1-15 conference record, the Buckeyes were 19-6 and ranked No.
11. They were also in second place in the conference with a 9-3
mark after last Saturday's 73-69 win at then No. 19 Iowa. As a
result O'Brien has become, along with Auburn's Cliff Ellis, one
of the two leading contenders for national coach of the year
The other reason for the Buckeyes' revival is Penn, a 5'10",
185-pound junior point guard who was averaging 16.3 points and
4.4 assists a game through Sunday. Penn led BC to the second
round of the NCAA tournament in his freshman and sophomore years
but then headed to Ohio State after O'Brien split with BC over
what he felt were admissions policies that unfairly thwarted his
recruiting. While sitting out last year, Penn fought through a
"state of depression," as he puts it, by treating practices as
if they were games. Says O'Brien, "Most of the time Scoonie
would play on a team with three walk-ons and another player and
beat our first team."
Now that he's on the first team, Penn is one half of one of the
nation's top backcourts, along with Michael Redd, a 6'6"
sophomore whose 19.4-point scoring average leads the Buckeyes.
"Last year I needed to have the ball more to be just as
productive," says Redd. "Now that Scoonie's around, I've become
a lot more patient."
With Penn and his pals heading to the NCAA tournament (Ohio
State's first trip in seven seasons), it's as if Columbus has
discovered a new world. Just months after only 600 students
bought season passes, scalpers are charging as much as $100 for
a ticket at the Buckeyes' new $105 million, 19,500-seat
Schottenstein Center, commonly known as the Schott, which is as
warm and classy as the state's other famed Schott isn't.
Only a year ago, all O'Brien needed was a slobbering Saint
Bernard by his side and he would have been just as unpopular as
Marge. When his hiring was announced, "the fans' first reaction
was 'Jim who?'" says O'Brien. "All they knew was that they
didn't get Tubby Smith or Rick Barnes or Bob Huggins." Nor did
it help when O'Brien, who at first considered himself an
outsider at Ohio State, dismissed three players (two of them
Ohio-born) from the team for bad conduct before he had even
coached a game. "That was the toughest part of the year, not
losing all the games," he says.
As for his bitterness at BC, which is his alma mater as well as
his former employer, O'Brien says that's behind him. (A lawsuit
he filed against the school alleging breach of contract and
slander was settled out of court last year, but not before
O'Brien made enemies in Massachusetts by claiming BC's
admissions office operated "with an apparent bias against
African-Americans.") "For me it's not about Boston College
anymore," he says. "It's all about Ohio State. I'm happy here."
So is Penn, who in two years has developed an uncanny mastery of
Ohio geography. Asking him for directions to any Columbus
destination is, in fact, like asking him to take your team to
the NCAA tournament: He'll get you there.
The Ivy League
A BID FOR TWO NCAA BIDS
On Feb. 10, just 15 hours after Princeton beat Penn in what
might have been the best regular-season game of the year,
seniors Gabe Lewullis, a forward, and Brian Earl, a guard, sat
on their Princeton dorm-room sofa, pondering the imponderable.
"To be down 27 points at the Palestra...." marveled Lewullis,
shaking his head. Said Earl, who was just as bewildered, "I've
never been down by more than 10 with that much time left and
still won the game!"
Against the Quakers the previous night, the Tigers had staged
the fourth-biggest comeback in NCAA history (chart, page 76).
Trailing 29-3 in the first half (after a 29-0 Penn run) and
40-13 with just over 15 minutes to play, Princeton pressed,
treyed and prayed its way to a 50-49 miracle win. As Earl
tearfully clutched the rebound of Quakers guard Matt Langel's
last-second miss, the same Palestra rowdies who had gleefully
chanted, "You have three points!" at Princeton near the end of
the first half were slumped silently in their seats.
It was high theater, except for one problem: Only the 8,722
spectators at the Palestra and a regional cable audience saw it.
That's strange because, year in and year out, Penn-Princeton is
the nation's most meaningful regular-season matchup.
The Ivy League and Pac-10 are the only conferences that don't
have a postseason tournament and thus award their automatic NCAA
bids to their regular-season champs. But while the Pac-10
usually grabs three or four at-large berths a year, the Ivy
League has never had even one. Hence the importance of
Penn-Princeton games, which pit the two teams that have won 32
of the last 35 Ivy titles.
To spice things up after its sweet victory, the Tigers turned
around and lost 60-58 in double overtime to 4-17 Yale last
Friday. That was their first Ivy defeat in three years. If Penn
and Princeton each win their next four league games, the Quakers
and the Tigers will meet in their season finale on March 2, with
the winner receiving the league's lone NCAA bid.
Or will it be the only bid? Say Princeton wins the rest of its
games but falls to Penn in the last game. The Tigers would
finish 21-6 and would have beaten Florida State, Texas, UAB, UNC
Charlotte and Penn, which could all end up in the NCAAs.
Wouldn't Princeton deserve a bid, considering not only those
wins but also how well it has acquitted itself in previous NCAA
tournaments? Similarly, Penn could be a 21-5 bridesmaid even
though it has beaten Temple this season. If the Quakers can win
at Villanova on Feb. 23, they would rate an NCAA berth even if
they don't win the Ivy League.
Princeton coach Bill Carmody hopes the Selection Committee will
keep an open mind. "Over the years they've always said the Ivy
League gets one bid and that's it, but things have changed
pretty drastically," he says. "We've shown we can play with
anybody, and so has Penn."
WHO'S ELIGIBLE AND WHO ISN'T?
The names have been popping up in the sports pages with
increasing regularity: A foreign player who has been competing
in the U.S. suddenly has to miss games because of questions
surrounding his relationship with a pro team overseas. Last fall
San Diego State's Julien Sormonte and North Carolina's Vasco
Evtimov received 23-game and 18-game suspensions, respectively,
for having played with the pros in France. Also this season,
European players at Boise State, Creighton, Delaware and Marist
have had to miss a number of games while their schools answered
questions about their eligibility posed by an NCAA official.
Another European player, at East Carolina, might have had to
miss games last month if he hadn't been sitting out with an
The trend is the result of an NCAA effort, launched last summer,
to look into the way pro leagues overseas operate. The NCAA has
a lot of catching up to do. There are 291 foreign players in
Division I basketball--up from 135 six years ago--and both the
NCAA and its schools are having a tough time figuring out how
their antiquated guidelines on amateurism apply to the new world
order. "Ten years ago there was hardly any professional
basketball in Europe," says Rob Meurs, who scouts European
players for the NBA and colleges. "It's changed tremendously.
The rules [the NCAA] made on professional basketball weren't
made for foreign kids. They were made for kids in the U.S."
David Price, NCAA vice president for enforcement and
student-athlete reinstatement, says that foreigners who compete
for U.S. schools must follow the same guidelines as their
domestic counterparts: They may not sign a contract with a pro
team, receive money for playing or play on a team with pros. But
Price says that money for expenses is permitted as long as it's
"reasonable" (whatever that means), and he admits that it's not
always easy to determine what qualifies as a contract. Almost
all European clubs require their players to sign an agreement
that gives the clubs the players' rights--even if they don't get
paid. "When I came to college, I signed a letter of intent,"
says Sormonte, who is from Montpellier, France, and was
ultimately suspended for 23 games (three of which will be on
next year's schedule) because he played in three of the Aztecs'
first six games this season before the NCAA learned that he had
signed a contract and received nearly $4,000 in per diem money
while playing for a Montpellier club. "A scholarship pays for my
schooling and room and board here. In France it's exactly the
same thing. But the name of the contract is different."
The situation is so muddled that even Dean Smith made a mistake.
Two years ago he told Evtimov that it was safe for him under
NCAA rules to play for Pau-Orthez in France while fulfilling his
French military obligation. The NCAA disagreed and suspended
Evtimov for 18 games this season. Sormonte and Meurs say they
know of other foreign players competing in Division I who would
be suspended if the NCAA knew more about those players'
backgrounds. Price concedes that the process hasn't been
"evenhanded," but he sees no other choice but to plow ahead on a
case-by-case basis. "The only alternative is not to do it at
all, which is unacceptable," he says. --Seth Davis
For the latest scores and recruiting news, plus Seth Davis's
College Hoops Mailbag, check out www.cnnsi.com.
WEEKLY SEED REPORT
The question of the week: What on earth has happened to
Cincinnati? The Bearcats, who looked like a lock for a No. 1
seed only two weeks ago, fell to a No. 3 by virtue of three
straight road losses, to DePaul, Marquette and Saint
Louis--hardly the Murderers' Row of the RPI. The Cats are no
longer No. 1 even in their own division of Conference USA.
The other surprise move was by Wisconsin, which bolted from out
of the seeds all the way to a No. 3. The most discussed move,
however, never took place. Opinion was fairly divided over
whether the NCAA Selection Committee will put Auburn in the
South and Connecticut in the West. For now, our voters, by a
narrow margin, left them where they were a week ago.
1. Duke (25-1)
2. St. John's (20-6)
3. Ohio State (19-6)
4. UCLA (17-7)
1. Connecticut (22-1)
2. Maryland (22-4)
3. Arizona (18-4)
4. Utah (20-4)
1. Michigan State (22-4)
2. Kentucky (20-6)
3. Cincinnati (21-4)
4. Miami (17-5)
1. Auburn (24-1)
2. Stanford (20-5)
3. Wisconsin (21-5)
4. North Carolina (19-7)
THE GREATEST COMEBACK EVER?
When Princeton fought back from a 40-13 deficit with 15:11
remaining to defeat archrival Penn at the Palestra last week
(left), the Tigers may not have pulled off the biggest comeback
victory of all time, but they may well have achieved the best.
The 27 points Princeton made up in the second half represented
54% of its scoring in the game, easily the highest percentage
among the greatest comebacks in NCAA history. Here's how the top
five rank by points and by percentage.
FINAL DATE DEFICIT REMAINING PCT.
Duke 74, Tulane 72 Dec. 30, 1950 32 22:00 43.2
Kentucky 99, LSU 95 Feb. 15, 1994 31 15:34 31.3
N. Mexico St. 117, Jan. 27, 1977 28 33:49 23.9
Princeton 50, Penn 49 Feb. 9, 1999 27 15:11 54.0
UNC Charlotte 79, Nov. 29, 1995 26 15:00 32.9