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|Ohio State's Greg Oden is the best one-handed player in the country.|
To the surprise of no one who saw him play in high school, he's that good, this fast. Oden's starter set is a pastiche of Patrick Ewing's defensive mentality, Robert Parish's stoicism, Shaq's zest for the dunk and Tim Duncan's feel for the game. That might be going a little crazy on the big man comparisons, but the mind reels at the freshman's potential.
Hell, the mind reels at the freshman's present.
Oden missed the first collegiate shot he took, a right-handed jump hook Dec. 2 against Valparaiso. He missed the last shot he's taken, a left-handed jump hook in the second half of the Buckeyes' 72-50 rout of Cincinnati on Saturday in the John Wooden Tradition.
Between those shots, he made a Waltonesque 17 straight on an assortment of dunks, jump hooks and putbacks. After not playing an organized basketball game for eight months, the one-armed man is now scraping by, shooting 90 percent from the field.
The foul line is a different story: Oden is just 10 for 21 there. Which is pretty lousy, until you consider the fact that the right-hander is shooting free throws as a lefty. Bo Kimble might be the only living human not impressed by that ambidexterity.
|One Foot In the Tournament|
INDIANAPOLIS -- A.J. Graves issued the customary denials.
No, he said, Butler does not target the big names on its schedule. No, he said, he doesn't get pumped up to face glamour teams like Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee, Gonzaga and Purdue.
He can say it all he wants, but the stat sheet says he's lying.
Graves has led the giant-killing Bulldogs in scoring six times this season. Five of them have come against the above opponents -- mostly recently his 25 points in a 68-65 victory over the Boilermakers on Saturday. Graves is averaging 22.8 points against the name teams, 14.4 points against everybody else.
"We're not trying to prove anything," he said. "We're just trying to win games."
In the course of winning 11 of 12 games this season, Butler has proved itself the nation's No. 1 surprise, a legitimate Top 25 team and, even pre-Christmas, a near-NCAA Tournament lock. After winning the Preseason NIT and now beating Purdue on a neutral floor, it would take a collapse in Horizon League play to keep the Bulldogs out of the Big Dance.
And it would take a straitjacket and three security guards to keep Graves off the court. He's averaging 36 minutes per game -- an average dragged down by playing just 29 minutes last week in Butler's upset loss to Indiana State after being poked in the eye and suffering blurred vision.
He went 39 minutes Saturday in Conseco Fieldhouse alongside fellow guard Mike Green, who played the full 40 and scored 18 points.
"Graves is one of those guys, I don't think [heavy minutes] bothers him," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "He just keeps going. I think those guys could turn around and play 40 more in about an hour."
It's not because Graves is some sculpted athlete. He's absolutely nothing special to look at: 6-foot-1 and 160 scrawny pounds spread across his pasty body. But the product of Switz City, Ind. (population 300), is a classic Hoosier gym rat.
He'll outshoot you (a team-high 33 3s, and he's 60-of-61 from the line). And outthink you, too.
"You can tell he's a student of the game," Purdue guard Chris Kramer said. "He does all the little things. He's just a great basketball player all around."
While the bigger schools in the state were recruiting other players, Graves followed big brothers Matthew and Andrew to Butler.
"Andrew Graves told me almost 10 years ago, 'My little brother will be the best one,' " Butler coach Todd Lickliter said. "I said, 'Tell him I want him.' "
Lickliter's stated recruiting philosophy is this: "We're going to recruit guys we like. I don't care where they're rated."
Asked where he had Graves rated coming out of high school, Lickliter smiled.
"He was No. 1 with us," he said.
-- Pat Forde
He's yanked 25 rebounds and blocked 13 shots in 72 minutes of playing time.
And as Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin pointed out, Oden isn't even in great shape yet.
"Which is kind of scary for the Big Ten," Cronin said.
He's scary beyond his numbers, too. You can't quantify his value as a distorter of the game.
"Defensively is where he'll change everything," Cronin said. "I think you saw that today."
What we saw against the Bearcats was an athletic Ohio State team free to relentlessly guard the perimeter, because the Buckeyes had the ultimate backstop behind them. Being whipped off the dribble wasn't a sin, because getting to the basket wasn't going to be easy with No. 20 standing sentinel in the paint. Taking contested jumpers, Cincy missed its first 18 3-point shots.
"It allows you to tell your kids on the perimeter, 'Just be really aggressive, because you don't have to worry about being beat,' " Cronin said. "When he's waiting back there, it changes things."
If you ask the Bearcats, it wasn't Oden who changed things.
Guard Deonta Vaughn attributed Cincy's horrific shooting to the basketballs.
"They seemed smaller," he said with a straight face.
"I don't think he made a difference at all," Vaughn said.
OK. Send up a flare when you return from Planet Claire.
Tight end/undersized center Connor Barwin said, "He's a 7-footer, he's big, he's tall. It's the same as guarding any other 7-footer the rest of the year." Which made me wonder whether Barwin took too many blows to the head while a member of the Cincinnati football team.
Of course, throwing his 280 pounds around against Valpo, Cleveland State and short-handed Cincinnati is not the same as the showdown looming next Saturday at defending national champion Florida.
Joakim Noah and Al Horford should provide a welcome-to-college challenge for Oden. They're older, more experienced and should have full use of both hands.
And given the fact that he spent most of high school literally dwarfing his competition, Oden hasn't yet mastered the big man's art of playing with his hands up and his mind on red alert at all times. Anything less than full-go could get him posterized by the Gators -- but he's equally capable of embarrassing his elders, too.
Someone asked Oden whether he was excited for his first big college game, and he let slip a disarming teenage smile.
"I thought tonight was [a big game]," he said. "I was kind of hyped."
That's largely because Oden and running mate Mike Conley Jr. were playing a homecoming game. The Indianapolis Lawrence North High School teammates were back in the same gym where they won three straight state titles.
"I was real comfortable being in this gym," said Conley, who flirted for a time with a triple-double before finishing with eight points, eight rebounds and seven assists. "It's been good to me."
Ohio State coach Thad Matta's ability to recruit a low-post monster and a quicksilver penetrator to join his returning array of perimeter talent elevated the Buckeyes from good to potentially great. Now his main task appears to be keeping nine players happy with their minutes and shots.
So far, so good. It helps that Oden brings a paucity of attitude with him to the gym.
"You appreciate the work ethic he's shown," Matta said of Oden. " If we end practice at 5 o'clock, he doesn't leave the gym until 5:45."
Matta said that just a couple hours before the Buckeyes' game against Cleveland State, Oden requested a skill instruction session with one of the Buckeyes' assistant coaches.
That's part of the beauty of Oden: He would have been the NBA's No. 1 pick last year and probably the year before that, too, if he'd been eligible. But he doesn't act like he has arrived.
"I say this a lot: The thing I enjoy about coaching Greg is that he makes me better," Matta said. "You have to challenge yourself every day. His perception and understanding of the game is unlike anything I've ever seen."
Matta certainly understands that he has an opportunity everyone in his profession would die for: a season to coach Greg Oden, the best one-armed basketball player you've ever seen.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.