They hail from countries roughly 530 miles apart, but they shared a common fate during Ohio State’s 2009-10 season.
Nikola Kecman and Zisis Sarikopoulos saw little action as the Buckeyes captured a Big Ten title and advanced to the Sweet 16. For each, the season was as exciting as it was bittersweet.
Sarikopoulos, a 7-0, 265-pound center from Athens, Greece, was hoping to make an impact after sitting out last year following a transfer from the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Meanwhile, Kecman, a 6-8, 225-pound forward from Belgrade, Serbia, was looking forward to staying healthy for a full season after suffering a torn ACL last year.
Instead, Kecman saw action in 15 games and Sarikopoulos 14, neither of them able to crack head coach Thad Matta’s tight rotation.
“I think it’s been a little different than I expected from the beginning of the season,” Sarikopoulos said during the NCAA Tournament. “I think it’s at least good to be here.”
As a freshman at UAB, Sarikopoulos started four of the 20 games in which he saw action, averaging 1.8 points and 1.1 rebounds in an average of 6.8 minutes of action. The Buckeyes went almost exclusively with junior Dallas Lauderdale (6-8, 260) and graduate student Kyle Madsen (6-9, 250) in the paint while utilizing a lineup of four guards.
During fall camp, Sarikopoulos was mentioned as a player capable of splitting time with Lauderdale while Madsen served as a power forward. Instead, the sophomore was relegated to mop-up duty and never saw more than six minutes in a Big Ten game.
Sarikopoulos averaged 1.4 rebounds and 0.9 points in 14 appearances. He logged an average of 6.0 minutes per appearance.
It was his hope that he would be backing up Lauderdale this season.
“I never said that I would start or that I’m better than Dallas, but I know there are some things I can do and I can do well,” he said. “I think the problem with that is the European play is a little different and it’s not appreciated as much here. Even though I try to adjust, there are still some things that I do differently that I think I do well and are useful.”
Madsen said Sarikopoulos is continuing to learn how to use his size on the court.
“He’s a really good passer and a great team player,” he said. “He has sheer size and strength. I try to dribble it down against him and he’s not moving or I try to block him out and I can’t move him at all. He’s definitely gotten a lot better.”
Kecman entered the program billed as a sharpshooter in the same vein as former starter and captain Matt Sylvester (2003-06) after averaging 13.4 points as a freshman for Eastern Arizona. He began the 2009-10 season fully recovered from knee surgery but did not find a spot in the OSU rotation.
In 15 games, Kecman averaged 1.9 points and 1.1 rebounds. Although he was 12 for 25 (48.0 percent) from the floor, Kecman was 2 for 13 (15.4 percent) from three-point range. He averaged 4.7 minutes per appearance.
Although he said he was not sure what to expect this season, Kecman said he was obviously hoping for playing time. Seated in the team’s locker room in Milwaukee, the sophomore said the future looks tough.
“I just think it’s the system of the game that the coaches prefer,” he said. “Maybe I don’t fit (that), but in practice I’m trying to get better in all segments of the game like defense, offense and trying to be more physical.”
Although Kecman said he had not sat down with the coaches during the season to ask why he was not playing, Sarikopoulos said he had received some feedback.
“They’ve told me that I should work on some specific things like my footwork and stuff like that,” Sarikopoulos said. “I really think that I’ve improved this year and I think it was good for me to sit out a year because I saw how much I could improve and how much I would have to work and adjust my game to the Big Ten.”
In talking about the season, each player made a point to say that they held no hard feelings toward Matta and the coaching staff.
“In basketball, sometimes you just have to go through periods like that when you don’t play,” Kecman said. “This is the first time for me to be in a situation like this. I think I’m handling it pretty good.”
However, Kecman was noncommittal about his future in Columbus, saying he had not thought about it yet. Following the team’s season-ending loss to Tennessee in the tournament, he did not make himself available to reporters in the team’s locker room.
After having already gone through a transfer and having to sit out for a season, Sarikopoulos said he plans on being back with the Buckeyes next season. In addition, the center said he will not look back in anger when reflecting upon the past year.
“I think that everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I’m still happy that I came to Ohio State. I think the positives here were more than the negatives. It’s a great school and a really good basketball program. I just don’t think I fit as good as I thought I would.
“I don’t know why all this happened, but I’ll never say I regret anything.”