Mike Conley Jr., the kid who has taken a back seat to his teammate in both
high school and AAU for what seems like an eternity, hit the most critical shot
that has been taken in the Thad Matta Era.
The Buckeyes had three shots at elite-level teams coming into Sunday's Big
Ten and they came up short in all three. They put up a valiant fight, minus Oden,
in Chapel Hill against North Carolina. Then came the blowout to the defending
national champion Florida Gators on the road. Lastly, it was a loss in Madison
to <i>these</i> same Badgers.
When a question was posed as to what Sunday's win against Wisconsin would do
for the psyche of the team, his three teammates on the podium all deferred to
Conley - just as they did when the ultra-poised floor leader had the ball in his
hands as the clock ticked down and the Badgers led by a point.
Conley took it to the basket and hit a shot in the lane with 3.9 seconds left
that proved to be the game-winner. It was the first game-winner that Conley
could recall and also the first time he could remember getting more attention
than his larger-than-life teammate.
``This is a statement game," Conley said. "We needed to beat a top
The Buckeyes, who were the top-rated team in the Coaches' Poll, knocked off
the nation's No. 1 club in the AP Poll. Ohio State has won 12 straight games and
capped a perfect season at home.
Brian Butch wouldn't have mattered. That'll be an excuse that Badger fans try
and use, but the enigmatic and skilled 6-foot-11 junior, who played just three
minutes before leaving the game with a right elbow injury, had managed to reach
double-figures just once in the last seven games. He didn't even score a single
point in the teams' first meeting.
Alando Tucker looked mortal. In fact, he looked ordinary with Ron Lewis
shadowing him (with a little help from Ivan Harris and David Lighty) for most of
the game. He went 16 minutes and 43 seconds without a point in the second half.
Ohio State has now won back-to-back Big Ten crowns for the first time since
winning three in a row from 1960-62.
It's naïve to think that Oden hasn't played a critical part in the team's
success, but his childhood friend has been just as important.
The 11 points, four assists and two turnovers in 36 minutes don't even begin
to tell the story of Conley's value to the team.
``From the first time I saw him play, he showed a tremendous poise and
confidence about him," Matta said. "He just makes all the right
That's why Matta basically drew up the final play and told Conley to just go
out and make something happen.
``I knew I was going to make the shot," Conley Jr. said. "I had
that feeling. I went to the hole and it worked out for us."
The fans mobbed the court. They chanted "One More Year" in hopes
that Oden will return for another go-around. Not a chance that'll happen as Oden
will probably call Boston or Memphis home a year from now.
``I thought they were talking about Ivan (Harris)," Oden said as he
barely cracked a smile. "Then Ron popped into my head."
``That's a decision I'll make later on in the year," he added with a
This is The Year for the Buckeyes. They've already won an unlikely national
championship on the gridiron and with teams such as Florida, North Carolina and
UCLA showing they are far from invincible, this is Matta's best chance.
He's got Oden and Conley - two of the most poised and level-headed freshman
that have come through college basketball in a long, long time.
``I think that's why they're such good friends," said Oden's mother, Zoe.
"They are both quiet and low-key."
Finally, it was Conley's turn.