Oden expects big season from his replacement Koufos

TUALATIN, Ore. -- Ohio State isn't projected to win the Big Ten, compete for a national title, or for that matter, even be a lock for the NCAA Tournament.

That's in large part, obviously, because of the departures of three members of last season's superb freshman class who ended up being NBA first-round picks -- Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook -- and seniors Ron Lewis and Ivan Harris. That means the Buckeyes have lost five of the top six scorers from a national runner-up team.

Still, there is plenty of hope. The USA Under-19 team coaches, led by head coach Jerry Wainwright of DePaul, raved about OSU sophomore David Lighty and his all-around play.

Oden, of course, agreed with Wainwright's assessment of Lighty's game since Oden played with Lighty in high school (AAU team) and then last season at Ohio State.

And with the return of Lighty, experienced point guard Jamar Butler (who held the position before Conley's arrival) and interior role players Othello Hunter and Matt Terwilliger, there is reason to be excited in Columbus.

But it is Oden's replacement, 7-foot freshman Kosta Koufos, who has received perhaps the most praise of any OSU player entering this season. Koufos already had the nod as one of the country's great sleepers this season when he was tabbed MVP of the U-18 European Championships this summer while playing for the silver medalist Greeks.

The No. 1 pick himself heaped even more praise on Koufos on Thursday.

"I played against him this summer when he came to open gyms a couple of times," Oden said Thursday, the first time he has spoken publicly since having microfracture surgery on his right knee on Sept. 13, a procedure that will keep him out for the 2007-08 season.

"He hit me with a fadeaway jump shot and he's 7 feet tall," Oden said with a grin. "I'm guarding him and I said, 'You kidding me?' I know he's really good and got really good overseas this summer. I haven't had a chance to talk to him. But I'm going to give him a call sometime soon."

Oden continued to pump up his former squad by saying that Eric Wallace, a 6-5 freshman, should be added to the list of reasons why the Buckeyes will still be in the mix. And that's not even mentioning 6-8 forward Dallas Lauderdale, who provides even more depth.

Granted, without seeing the Buckeyes this early, it's hard to tell how well this crew will mesh. But it's clear the team, especially Koufos, has the blessing of Oden.

"The guys told me he's in the gym 10 hours a day, and if he keeps doing that he's going to work himself out [to exhaustion]," Oden said of Koufos, who is a native of Canton, Ohio, but played for Greece because of his ethnic heritage. Koufos decided against taking a Greek professional team's offer after the European tournament in Spain.

The one thing that was certain in talking to Oden on Thursday is there is no other player like him this season in college.

Sure, Georgetown's Roy Hibbert and Indiana's D.J. White have the potential to be dominant big men at times. But Oden was developing into a powerful persona toward the end of last season. Throughout the draft process and into the summer, you could see how much he had blossomed.

Oden has a sharp wit about him and that will be missed in the college game. He showed it off throughout the interview, especially when talking about the incoming freshman class that he'll likely see a year from now at the NBA's rookie orientation meeting. Oden missed it two weeks ago in New York because of his surgery.

So Oden may actually be in the same rookie class with UCLA freshman center Kevin Love, Indiana freshman guard Eric Gordon and USC freshman guard O.J. Mayo.

"I know a couple of those guys, since I didn't go to rookie transition, I'm going to be there with them next year," Oden said. "If they do really good, then I'll probably be seeing them next summer."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.