Double team is effective

Times Staff Writer

They are different teams, with diverse styles of play and unique strategies.

One has a seven-foot, game-changing center; the other does not. But both are headed to the Final Four.

Ohio State and Georgetown?

No, Ohio State and Ohio State.

The Buckeyes (34-3) have a 21-game win streak as they prepare to take on Georgetown in a national semifinal Saturday in Atlanta, and they have gotten to this point despite the fact -- or, depending how you look at it, because -- center Greg Oden has missed significant playing time with foul trouble in the NCAA tournament.

But chameleon-like adaptability, learned early in the season when Oden sat out while recovering from wrist surgery, allowed the Buckeyes to adjust without panicking. It makes them that much more difficult to defend and attack, and it’s a key reason Ohio State finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the nation and is heading to Atlanta.


“The thing I love about this team is we’ve shown that we can play a lot of different ways,” Ohio State Coach Thad Matta said. “That has been a tremendous key to our success.”

Guard play, specifically that of Mike Conley Jr. and Ron Lewis, carried the Buckeyes in tournament games against Xavier and Tennessee when Oden was in foul trouble and the team ran an up-tempo spread offense.

Oden returned the favor Saturday in the South Regional final against Memphis when the Buckeyes used a zone defense and a methodical half-court offense.

In each case, opponents were left scratching their heads trying to figure out how those games got away.

“They win games in every conceivable way,” Memphis Coach John Calipari said. “It’s not just Oden. If you just worry about Oden, you lose the game.”

When he’s in, Oden changes the game because of his shot-blocking and ability to score from anywhere in the lane. When he’s out, Conley runs a faster-paced offense in which he drives the lane looking to get fouled or to kick the ball out to Lewis and others for three-pointers.


“I think it shows great things about this basketball team that we can play two different ways,” Lewis said. “It makes us that much harder to defend and prepare for. But it’s not that big a deal for us because we played without Greg at the beginning of the season, so it’s easy for us to switch.”

Oden, a much-touted freshman who was supposed to carry the Buckeyes through this season, had surgery on his wrist last June and had a pin removed in October. He joined the team in December after missing seven games.

The Buckeyes were 6-1, losing only to North Carolina. Matta said that stretch became crucial when Oden sat on the bench in overtime after fouling out against Xavier and also when he played only 19 minutes against Tennessee because of foul trouble.

“One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced this season is trying to coach two different teams,” Matta said. “But it helped us in the long run because I don’t think we would have played the way we’ve played in this tournament if we didn’t have that experience without Greg.”

Conley and Lewis combined for 48 points in the 78-71 victory over Xavier and for 42 in the 85-84 victory over Tennessee. Lewis hit a three-pointer that sent the Xavier game to overtime. The pair combined for 31 of their points in the second half as Ohio State overcame a 17-point halftime deficit against Tennessee.

Those performances raised questions about whether Ohio State could have won those two games had Oden been in the game -- especially the Tennessee game when the Buckeyes needed to score fast.

“That’s a good question,” Lewis said. “I mean, I would never say we’re better off without Greg in there, but sometimes when he’s in we tend to look for him a little too much maybe. When he’s out, [the guards] play more aggressive.”


It’s no surprise that the Buckeyes look for their big man when he’s in the game. He leads the team with averages of 15.4 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.7 blocks a game. His mere presence on the court alters the opposing team’s approach.

Against Memphis, for instance, he went to the bench with three fouls and the Tigers changed a 47-42 deficit into a 56-51 lead. Oden returned and in less than four minutes, Ohio State had the lead back.

“His presence was a big factor,” said Memphis guard Chris Douglas-Roberts. “When he’s in there, you can’t drive to the basket. You just can’t do it. You have to find another way to score.”

Oden had 25 points and 15 rebounds against Tennessee in a January game, but had only nine points and three rebounds against the Volunteers in the regional semifinal. Still, Ohio State made its comeback against an up-tempo Tennessee team that relies on guard play.

“They were a team that looked like Tennessee,” Pearl said of the Buckeyes without Oden. “They spread it, they shot it, they ran it.”

When Oden is in, Pearl said, the Buckeyes become a physical, banging team that can compete against similar teams that have skilled big men, such as Georgetown and Roy Hibbert.


“What Greg Oden does for them is, [he] allows them to beat any team on their schedule now,” Pearl said. “There are some teams they can’t beat without Greg Oden.

“They can beat anybody with him.”



Big men on campus


How Ohio State freshman Greg Oden compares with other recent standout centers when they were freshmen:

*--* Player, School (season) PTS REB Greg Oden, Ohio State (2006-07) 15.4 9.5 Ralph Sampson, Virginia (1980-81) 14.9 11.2 Shaquille O’Neal, Louisiana State (1989-90) 13.9 12.0 Alonzo Mourning, Georgetown (1988-89) 13.1 7.3 Patrick Ewing, Georgetown (1981-82) 12.7 7.5 Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston (1981-82) 8.3 6.2