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Published: Sunday, 3/12/2000

Penn can't save the Buckeyes in every game

CHICAGO - In almost shocking manner, "Scoonie Time" came and went unnoticed Friday against Penn State, and the Buckeyes dutifully followed the Pied Piper of point guards right out of the Big Ten Conference's postseason tournament.

And when everyone asked, "What happened to Scoonie Penn?" the answer was shamelessly clear. He proved he's human.

The messiah of late-game liberation for two seasons running had a bad salvage day. It happens to most saviors, save one.

Before we bang on the Bucks, it should be pointed out that in Indiana's tournament loss to Illinois Friday, IU guard A.J. Guyton, the Big Ten Player of the Year, was 5-of-20 from the field with five turnovers.

Human frailties can be communicable.

Penn State coach Jerry Dunn, magnanimous in victory, said Penn is the type of player who finds what it takes to win even if he's struggling.

That wasn't the case against the Nittany Lions. Penn missed 12 of 14 3-pointers and couldn't rally his team in any manner.

But placing the blame on the little guy's wide-load shoulders isn't the answer.

OSU wouldn't have been a Big Ten co-champion, ranked fourth in the country and No. 1 in the conference tournament without Penn's exploits.

The Buckeyes might not have been playing a ninth seed in their opening Big Ten tournament game. They might have been a ninth seed without the Scoonster.

No, this was an Ohio State team victimized by a lot of things that reached far beyond point-guard impact.

The top teams in quality conferences already have high NCAA Tournament seeds guaranteed going into conference tournaments. Theirs is almost a lose-lose situation.

Ohio State's motivation in this tournament was playing a downtrodden Penn State team it had already defeated twice during the regular season.

The reward was then having to battle the likes of a very strong Illinois team that has won eight of its last nine games, with another victory sending the Buckeyes against a still-tougher Michigan State.

It was an itinerary worth passing on and that's what the Buckeyes did, in somewhat uncomplimentary fashion.

The possibility of winning the tournament and getting the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Mideast Region just wasn't important enough. Playing three conference foes for the third time each didn't seem to prod their pluck.

The Bucks played with a surprising disinterest, as if to say, "If Scoonie can't bail us out, so what." Maybe Penn was of the same conviction.

It was the upshot of what OSU coach Jim O'Brien said before the tournament started, after his team had battled so hard just to gain a co-championship with two season-ending wins on the road.

Asked if he was looking forward to the possibility of a couple of bruising battles against Illinois and Michigan State after an expected win over the Nittany Lions, O'Brien said, "I don't know what the answer is, but I know I'm looking forward to playing some games away from this league. Teams are pounding you and guarding the (heck) out of you. You just want to play in a different place, in a different setting against a different team."

That might be a suburb of utopia for the Buckeyes, but there's no Pleasantvilles in March.

A No. 1 seed would have kept Ohio State in the Midwest, probably Cleveland, and then the Palace in Auburn Hills, where its fans could have enhanced expectations.

The Buckeyes were well aware that their second-place finish in the conference last season and their loss to Illinois in the second round of the Big Ten tournament still got them a No. 4 seed in the South Region of the NCAA Tournament.

That led to easy first-round victories over 13th-seeded Murray State and 12th-seeded Detroit. What the Buckeyes might have forgotten is that they were the recipient of a large break when Detroit upset fifth-seeded UCLA in the first round.

Ohio State will probably land a No. 2 of No. 3 seed tonight when the tournament selection committee announces the 64-team NCAA Tournament bracket.

That will mean a No. 15 or No. 14-seeded opponent. No big deal.

Working for the Buckeyes in regard to their seeding will be a co-championship in arguably the best conference in the country, their No. 4 ranking, that will descend, and their 22-6 record. Their RPI ranking of 21 will be a detriment.

How many "Scoonie Time" calls have gone unanswered the last two seasons?

Not many. Don't expect two in a row. The Buckeyes will get their groove back. Scoonie says so.



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