In the storied history of Ohio State basketball, Buckeye fans may not remember much about the 2007-08 squad. It was the team, after the team everyone remembers--the Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Ron Lewis led Buckeyes that made it all the way to the NCAA championship game before losing to Florida. A year later, coach Thad Matta had a completely different squad, led by the only returning starter from the national runners up, point guard Jamar Butler. The Buckeyes had an up and down year and were a borderline NCAA tournament team. On selection Sunday, the 19-13 Buckeyes were left out of the Big Dance and settled for the NIT.
Typically, the NIT is a rather ho-hum affair. As my radio partner, former Buckeye captain Tony White says, "You don't hang banners for winning the NIT." Tony would know. As a freshman, he was on the 1986 Buckeyes who were NIT champs. In 2008, for the first time since then, Ohio State won it again, ripping off five wins in a row, to finish 24-13, capping it off by beating UMASS 92-85 in the title game, 12 years ago today.
While it's a forgotten accomplishment, I remember the run well for several reasons. For one, a freshman who started the year slowly but seemed to get better and better really emerged. His name was Evan Turner. In that championship game, Turner scored 20, which was second on the team behind fellow freshman and one-and-done big man Kosta Koufos. Turner's improvement that season in general, and during the five games in the NIT in particular, turned out to foreshadow his outstanding Buckeye career, which culminated with his national player of the year season in 2010. That memorable year included E.T's iconic shot, the mid-court buzzer beater in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals to beat Michigan.
Another cool part of that 2008 NIT title was the road the Buckeyes took to get to New York. Their first game, an 84-66 victory, was over North Carolina-Asheville. The Bulldogs featured a center by the name of Kenny George. At 7'9, George was the tallest man in all of basketball and may still be the tallest player college hoops has ever seen.
Round two was against Cal and with the Schottenstein in use for the high school tournament, the game was played in St. John Arena. Usually, a second round NIT game would draw little interest, but because of the venue, the crowd was lively and loud and helped carry Ohio State to a 73-56 win.
The following game, which sent OSU to the semifinals in New York, was back in the Schott against in-state rival Dayton and the atmosphere for that game was tremendous. The Schott was sold out as Dayton's rabid fan base came in droves, but Buckeye Nation did not let them take over the building. It was a competitive game with an NCAA tournament feel that the Buckeyes eventually won 74-63.
In the semifinals in Madison Square Garden, Ohio State took out Mississippi 81-69, setting up the championship game victory over UMASS, which was also memorable because it was the final game in the career of Jamar Butler. He went out in style scoring 19 points with 7 assists and famously delivered the quote that many of my Buckeye basketball media colleagues still bring up today. After cutting down the nets in the Garden, Butler said, "This is what happens when you put an NCAA tournament team in the NIT....Write that down and send it to the committee."
No--it wasn't as good as a Big Ten or NCAA title or even a berth in March Madness--but it was damn fun...so happy anniversary Jamar, Kosta, Evan--and other Buckeyes like David Lighty, Jon Diebler, Othello Hunter and Dallas Lauderdale. If you don't remember much about that team--or that game, here's some highlights below.