Monday, October 20, 2003

Ohio State Basketball Preview

Healthy roster has Buckeyes hopeful

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COLUMBUS - Jim O'Brien missed Ohio State's basketball picture day last week, having had surgery two weeks prior to correct a disc problem in his neck.

It illustrated quite a contrast, for a snapshot of last season's team would have shown the coach as about the only healthy Buckeye.

Coach: Jim O'Brien (119-72, seventh season; 354-289 overall)
2002-03: Finished 17-15, tied for eighth in Big Ten. Lost to Georgia Tech in the first round of the NIT
Lost: Sean Connolly, Brent Darby, Zach Williams, Emonte Jernigan, Nate Salley, Nick Sherman, Ugo Nwankwo.
Gained: Tony Stockman, J.J. Sullinger, Ivan Harris, Ricardo Billings, Nick Dials.
Possible starters: Brandon Fuss-Cheatham (PG), Tony Stockman (SG), J.J. Sullinger (SF), Terence Dials (PF), Velimir Radinovic (C).
Exhibition games: Nov. 7, vs. Coaches vs. Cancer All-Stars; Nov. 13, vs. EA Sports.
Regular-season opener: Nov. 21, at San Francisco.
Tickets: Call 1-800-GO-BUCKS.
After four consecutive NCAA Tournament trips, OSU weathered its injuries well enough to reach the NIT and extend its postseason streak to five seasons. That's the second-longest in school history, behind a 12-year run from 1982-93.

Yet the NCAA Tournament is a goal again, thanks to O'Brien having what largely was unavailable to him last season:

Transfers Tony Stockman and J.J. Sullinger, former starters at Clemson and Arkansas, respectively. Ivan Harris, a McDonald's All-American. Ricardo Billings, who was academically ineligible. Terence Dials and Brandon Fuss-Cheat-

ham, who missed 26 and 10 games, respectively, to injuries.

"It's a totally different look from last year," Fuss-Cheatham said.

The loss of three of the top four scorers from last season is a reason this team has been slated for a middling Big Ten finish by most preseason magazines: sixth by Athlon, seventh by both Street & Smith's and Basketball News.

But The Sporting News ranks OSU No. 25 nationally and predicts a fourth-place league finish; Athlon also predicts an NCAA bid.

How good are the newcomers?

Stockman and Sullinger could start right away. Maybe Harris, too.

Stockman, a junior guard, will be the team's top 3-point threat. He made 155 3-pointers in two years at Clemson, shooting 37.3 percent from that range. Sullinger, a 6-foot-5 sophomore swingman, averaged 9.4 points as a part-time starter at Arkansas and is a left-handed slasher in the Michael Redd mold.

Harris, OSU's first McDonald's All-American in 11 years, is a 6-8 forward from Oak Hill Academy in Virginia.

Will this be a better shooting team?

It can't be worse. OSU shot just 41 percent last season, and its slowdown style resulted in a league-worst 61.8 scoring average in Big Ten games.

O'Brien will have six players competing for three guard spots in his perimeter-based offense, so he can afford to shuffle players in until he finds a hot hand.

The return of the 6-9 Dials, who set an OSU freshman record by connecting on 62.3 percent of his shots two seasons ago, will be a huge help inside.

Who will play in the post?

Velimir Radinovic, the 7-foot, 250-pound senior captain, is the starting center.

O'Brien tried a Radinovic-Dials rotation at center before Dials got hurt. If he goes with that again, it will be a sign of faith that Harris and 6-6 Shun Jenkins can tag-team at power forward. Or Dials might start alongside Radinovic.

What will be Matt Sylvester's role?

The 6-7 sophomore from Moeller started 16 games last season, averaging 5.7 points and 21.6 minutes. He'll compete for a starting spot, and his versatility means he can get time at three positions.

Shaun Smith, a fifth-year senior guard from Walnut Hills, has been elevated from walk-on to scholarship status this season.

What are the intangibles?

How O'Brien divvies up playing time and positions will be key, as will whether the Buckeyes can adjust to potentially a more up-tempo pace. The final component will be whether they can stay healthy.

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