O#039;Brien#039;s health biggest concern for Ohio State

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 15, 2003

COLUMBUS - The ultimate irony of Ohio State basketball is that, for a change, everyone is healthy - and the coach isn't.

After an injury-filled season in which center Terence Dials and Brandon Fuss-Cheatham missed almost the entire, frustrating year, the Buckeyes are loaded and ready to run.

''We've become more athletic and will have more flexibility. We will be able to go to a few more options,'' coach Jim O'Brien said.

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OK, O'Brien didn't actually say that. He wrote it out long hand then gave it to a university spokesman who passed the words on to a reporter by e-mail.

The veteran coach underwent disc surgery in his neck on Oct. 1. The procedure called for doctors to go through the front of his neck to perform the operation. As a result, one of his vocal cords was paralyzed - for how long, no one knows for sure.

No longer do players and reporters mimic O'Brien's raspy voice and distinctive Brooklyn accent. It's clear the coach is genuinely pained by his inability to speak.

After spending several days flat on his back at home, recovering from what was termed a successful surgery on the vertebrae, he has struggled since returning to the team. In the Buckeyes' practice gym, a microphone has been set up so that O'Brien can occasionally make a point to a player.

''He sounds like the Godfather,'' Dials said with a smile.

After Ohio State's first exhibition game, O'Brien dropped a bombshell when he hinted that if his voice didn't come back he may have to re-evaluate his future in coaching. That sent shockwaves around the state. He has since backed off that dim assessment.

Since inheriting the mess left by the fired Randy Ayers, O'Brien's teams have reached the Final Four, shared a pair of Big Ten titles, won a conference tournament title and gone 111-50 after a rocky transition year - all without a whiff of the turmoil and gunplay that marked his predecessor's tenure.

Last season, despite losing starting center Dials (back) and getting almost nothing out of promising point guard Fuss-Cheatham (knee, ankle), the Buckeyes (17-15) came within a game of making the NCAA tournament when they lost to Illinois in the Big Ten tournament finale.

That team revolved around point guard Brent Darby, who frequently had to bring the ball upcourt, set up the offense, take all the critical shots and guard the opposition's top scorer. The do-everything Darby is gone - yet the Buckeyes should be substantially better.

The 6-foot-9, 248-pound Dials returns underneath and is itching to re-establish himself.

''I feel like I'm a freshman again,'' said the redshirt sophomore who has pared 20 pounds and 5 percent body fat from his brawny frame. ''I haven't been out there for so long.''

Dials will play in the frontcourt along with 7-0 Velimir Radinovic, 6-6 rebounding specialist Shun Jenkins and incoming 6-8 McDonald's All-American Ivan Harris. Radinovic was forced to play underneath a year ago but is capable of driving with the ball or hitting a perimeter jumper.

''I intend to be a lot more aggressive out there,'' he said.

Fuss-Cheatham will split time at the point with transfer Tony Stockman, a former Mr. Basketball in Ohio who made 80 3-pointers in two seasons at Clemson.

''Our first option is running,'' said Fuss-Cheatham, a Western Pennsylvania prep star who hasn't been able to run without pain since he arrived on campus.

''There'll be a lot of fastbreaks and there'll be a lot of 3s,'' Stockman said of the Buckeyes' new get-out-and-go philosophy. ''With the weapons we've got and the different people, we can go big or small, quick or go real big. We can match up with anybody and create mismatches for other teams.''

It is on the wings where the Buckeyes are the most improved. A transfer from Arkansas, J.J. Sullinger, has been spectacular in the early season. He scored 28 points in Ohio State's first exhibition game and has reminded more than one observer of former Buckeye and current Milwaukee Buck Michael Redd.

Sullinger, watching from the bench in street clothes, said he could only remember one fastbreak basket all last season.

''The coaches say that a lot - just go and play,'' the 6-5 Sullinger said. ''We'll have more fastbreak buckets than we did a year ago. A lot more.''

The Buckeyes have depth around Sullinger, too. Sophomores Matt Sylvester and Ricardo Billings are also athletic and mobile, giving O'Brien versatility that he never had a year ago.

''We're going to run and execute,'' said Sullinger, the son of a coach. ''If the break's not there, we'll back it out and run some offense.''

O'Brien is a private person who avoids attention. His health problems have brought too much focus on him, his friends and players say, and that makes him uncomfortable.

No need to worry.

If the Buckeyes are as good as they appear on paper, it won't be long before the focus will be on the guys on the court and not the guy on the sidelines.