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Almost Glory: the 1999 Ohio State Buckeyes

The high point of a rough and tumble coaching era

Nebraska v Ohio State Photo by Ryan Young/Getty Images

Usually, in this space, we delve into talented teams that under-achieved at the worst possible moment. Today, we’re flipping the script to profile a squad that shot out of nowhere on their to the Final Four.

Coach: Jim O’Brien

Record: 27-9 (12-4 in the Big Ten)

Key Players/Stats:

  • PG Scoonie Penn, Junior: 16.9 PPG, 4.3 AST
  • SG Michael Redd, Sophomore: 19.5 PPG, 5.6 REB
  • C Ken Johnson, Junior: 6.4 PPG, 5.7 REB, 2.7 BLOCKS

In the late 90s, Jim O’Brien took over an Ohio State program that was in shambles. While Randy Ayers had success with some sophisticated squads in the early 90s, by the end of the decade, the program had run off the rails. 4 straight losing seasons, and a group of players charged with a variety of unlawful activities.

Jim O’Brien changed all that in a hurry. Coming over from a decade plus building a reputable Boston College program, he immediately kicked off half the team and convinced his star player to follow him westward.

A magician in the open court, the James “Scoonie” Penn was a beloved Ohio State basketball player. A diminutive point guard, he made up for his lack of size by slicing quickly through defenses and knocking down the outside shot. His first year in the Big Ten, he led the league in made 3-pointers and unexpectedly shared Big Ten Player of the Year honors (with Mateen Cleaves). Not too shabby, considering he wasn’t even the best player on his own team.

That would be Michael Redd. A 6’6” un-guardable shooting guard, Redd carried the team in his freshman season (a dismal 8-22 outing with basically just 6 players) and then helped formed a fearsome backcourt when Penn became eligible to play.

Expectations were non-existent and the team rarely got the love they deserved, barely cracking the Top 10 despite an 8-2 record against ranked opponents in conference play.

A #4 seed in the tournament, they blasted a 29-4 Auburn team before taking down Ron Artest’s St. John’s for Ohio State’s first Final Four appearance since 1968. Penn and Redd were marvelous in that game, combining for 42 points and 13 assists as they hung on for a 77-74 victory. But it was Ken Johnson, with 7 blocks and 12 points who may have made the difference, as he stymied the Red Storm in the post.

They’d lose in the Final Four to eventual National Champion Connecticut, whose own back court of Richard Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin dominated the Buckeyes.

With everyone back the following season, Ohio State finished tied with Sparty for the Big Ten regular season crown but didn’t actually improve on the whole and was bounced in the second round by Miami (FL).

Michael Redd played an under-the-radar but generally marvelous NBA player, mostly for the Milwaukee Bucks, averaging nearly 20 points a game and never making it out of the first round. Scoonie Penn couldn’t make the league but now serves as a Big Ten Network analyst.

Jim O’Brien ended his own coaching career in the same fashion as his predecessor: mired in scandal. In 2004, it was revealed that he gave a recruit, Aleksandar Radojevic, $6,000 to help his family at a time when they were in “dire financial straits”. Radojevic didn’t even play for Ohio State, ruled ineligible due to professional playing time in Montenegro.

This generous gesture was nevertheless a violation of NCAA rules. O’Brien was amicably let go and hasn’t coached on the national stage since. The school vacated its post-season wins and all the money earned therein.

Ohio State successfully poached Thad Matta from Xavier who, though he hasn’t yet won a national title, is by far the best coach in school history. He’s more than likely in Columbus to stay. I’d say it all worked out in the end.