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April 1, 2007

Conley has become the biggest Buckeye

The freshman who has put Ohio State in the national title game isn't 7 feet tall.

He doesn't throw down dunks, and he doesn't block shots.

But he does do everything else.

Where would the Buckeyes be without 6-1 point guard Mike Conley Jr.? How about not in Atlanta? They would have been home in Columbus watching the Final Four after getting eliminated by Xavier in the second round.

You just can't make an argument otherwise. Greg Oden has had his moments in the NCAA Tournament, but Conley has had more. Conley has taken over games at the beginning and won them at the end. Most of all, he - like the rest of the Buckeyes - has gotten used to playing without his center. Oden has spent a significant amount of time during the tournament in foul trouble, including 17-plus minutes in the first half of the semifinal against Georgetown.

So what does Conley do with Oden out again? He makes five of his first six shots, including a 3-pointer. He scores 11 first-half points to ensure that the Buckeyes go into the break with the lead.

The conventional wisdom is that a freshman point guard isn't supposed to be able to take a team this far into the tournament. The kid should have wilted under the pressure. He should have cost his team a game by now.

Not Conley. Every time the Buckeyes have been in trouble, he has been the guy on the white steed coming to the rescue. Oden fouled out in regulation time during Ohio State's victory over Xavier. Conley dominated the overtime with 11 points and propelled his team past the Musketeers.

Oden played only 18 minutes in the 85-84 victory over Tennessee and finished with nine points and three rebounds. Conley played 34 minutes and had 17 points, seven rebounds, six assists and just one turnover. He also hit the game-winning free throw.

Conley was superb again against Georgetown in the semifinals on Saturday. He played 39 minutes and had his second six-assist, one-turnover performance of the tournament. He made seven of 12 shots and finished with a team-high 15 points.

There is so much to like about Conley's game. He's a throwback point guard, one who doesn't have to score to get his point across. He doesn't have to take a shot every time he's open. He takes good shots, as evidenced by his season field-goal percentage of .514, extraordinary for a guard. And he makes great decisions, as evidenced by his 2.72/1 assist-turnover ratio.

Ohio State will take a 22-game winning streak into Monday night's title game against Florida. OSU's Oden will have to stay out of foul trouble and play a major role if the Buckeyes hope to make this outcome any different than the football national championship game between the schools.

But the player who will be the key against the Gators is Conley. UF guards Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey will have problems matching his speed. In turn, Conley is an excellent defender who could harass the Gators backcourt into turning over the ball.

So if this dream season is to come to the wished-for end for the Buckeyes, their shortest starter will have to play like he has all season.

Like he's 7 feet tall.

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.

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