Ohio St. falling shy of expectations

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 24, 1999

The Associated Press

Columbus- Sometimes expectations are more daunting than the best opponent.

Friday, December 24, 1999

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Columbus- Sometimes expectations are more daunting than the best opponent.

Just eight games into its season, Ohio State has already been dissed and dismissed in letters to the editor and on radio call-in shows as listless, lacking in chemistry and a second-tier team in the Big Ten.

Yet the Buckeyes, just a year removed from a 6-22 debacle in 1997-98, have won six of those eight games and are ranked 16th in the country.

In the Columbus pressure cooker, Ohio State is seldom as bad – or as good – as its fans think.

Last year’s unexpected sprint to the NCAA Final Four has changed everything. With four starters back from that 27-9 team, it seems anything less than domination isn’t quite good enough.

”Our expectations are really high and we just have to play hard all the time,” point guard Scoonie Penn said Wednesday night after scoring the last four points and grabbing a late steal to preserve the Buckeyes’ 64-61 victory over Toledo.

Just as what is expected by Ohio State’s fans has changed, so has the perspective of opposing teams. A year ago, the Buckeyes were talented but also took advantage of the element of surprise.

That’s not the case anymore.

”We have a target on our chest,” Penn said. ”This was Toledo’s biggest game of the year.”

No longer do teams look past the Buckeyes. Now when they see Ohio State on the schedule, they see an opportunity to make a name for themselves at the expense of a team that beat everybody it played in the NCAA tournament but Connecticut, the eventual champion.

”It’s tough to sneak up on people when you go to the Final Four,” Toledo coach Stan Joplin said.

Despite the number of returnees, the Buckeyes are different, too. Many believed that the addition of George Reese to the starting lineup would more than make up for the graduation of Jason Singleton, a relatively anonymous contributor to last year’s success.

But Singleton did more than just play mean defense, rebound like a demon and hit the occasional layup. His athleticism along the front line is sorely missed.

”He did the little bitty things that only a coaching staff would notice,” Joplin said of Singleton. ”He was a great role player who could finish. He got a lot of easy baskets. His loss really hurts them from a depth standpoint.”

Ohio State head coach Jim O’Brien said, ”There are a lot of missing ingredients. We have a very different personality.”

Ken Johnson has developed into a much more complete player than he was a year ago, hitting a career-high 17 points to go with 10 rebounds and four blocked shots in the Toledo victory.

But last year’s Buckeyes belonged to Penn and Michael Redd. They always took the big shots when someone needed to make a basket. They were the ones who handled the ball as the final seconds melted away of a close road game.

So far this season, even though they’ve played well enough for the Buckeyes to hold their own, they haven’t been as good as they were a year ago.

Redd is shooting just 39 percent from the field and Redd is even worse at 33.6 percent. A year ago, they were at 47 percent and 45 percent. The team percentage a year ago was 46.8; this year’s is 43.7.

Asked the difference between this year’s team and last year’s at this point, O’Brien said, ”The big difference is we’re not shooting the ball as well as we were a year ago. In a nutshell, that’s the biggest thing we have to overcome. We have been struggling putting the ball in the basket.”

There’s still time to correct that problem.

The Buckeyes have two non-conference games left – Oakland Monday and American on Wednesday – before embarking on what will likely be a frighteningly difficult Big Ten schedule.

”It’s been rocky,” O’Brien said. ”We’ve been pretty inconsistent.”

The predicament that the Buckeyes now face is that many people view the Buckeyes as a flawed team – even though they have already matched their win total from two years ago.