- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 31, 2007

ATLANTA — Ohio State’s other freshman does not get the attention of 7-foot teammate Greg Oden, but Mike Conley Jr. may be the Buckeyes’ most important ingredient.

“He’s such a stabilizing factor for us,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said of his explosive 6-1 point guard. “Mike brings so much more than points and assists.”

When the top-ranked Buckeyes meet Georgetown tonight in the Final Four in the Georgia Dome, the main focus will be on the battle between Oden and the Hoyas’ 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert. While the monumental matchup should be entertaining, a berth in the national championship game may come down to what happens in the backcourt.

Conley, the driving force for the Buckeyes, was named the South Region’s most outstanding player after leading Ohio State to wins over Tennessee and Memphis while Oden was neutralized by foul trouble. Conley is joined in the backcourt by Ron Lewis, who is enjoying a career year. The 6-4 senior is averaging 24.7 points in the last three games and has made 12 of 26 3-pointers in the tournament.

“With all the attention down low, they have great shooters on their end and we have great shooters on our end, so it will be about whoever’s guards play better,” said Conley, who averaged 19 points, 5.3 rebounds, four assists and two steals in his last three games. “That is who will win this game.”

The Hoyas will attempt to match Conley with Jessie Sapp and Jonathan Wallace. The 6-3 Sapp likely will get the first chance, although Georgetown probably will play a lot of zone in an attempt to keep Conley from wreaking havoc in the lane by creating opportunities for himself, Oden and open teammates, such as Lewis, on the perimeter.

Georgetown faced a similar playmaker last week in North Carolina’s Ty Lawson. That freshman set the tempo as the Tar Heels amassed 50 points in the first half before faltering late. The Hoyas expect to see a more refined point guard in Conley.

“He’s a little longer and taller than Lawson,” Sapp said. “Lawson was maybe a little bit quicker, but Conley is very explosive and his body control is the most impressive thing about him.”

Conley has been groomed for the spotlight of big-time athletics. His father won gold medal in triple jump at the 1992 Olympics. The point guard has played with Oden since sixth grade, and the pair led Indianapolis’ Lawrence North High School to the Indiana state title last season. Both were named to the McDonald’s All-America team.

Ohio State’s offense often centers around dumping the ball down low to its to dominant center. But the Buckeyes also like to run when they can, and Conley would like to see a more up-and-down game than Georgetown would prefer.

“The number one goal is establishing tempo and try to get it going at our pace,” said Conley, who had a season-high 21 points in the Buckeyes’ second-round win against Xavier. “North Carolina did a good job of that in first half when they played Georgetown, but kind of didn’t in the first half. Hopefully we can get them playing our style of basketball.”

And when the defense collapses around Oden, the Buckeyes have found a lethal outside option in Lewis. The transfer from Bowling Green is not as athletic as Georgetown’s wing players, but has become a game-changing outside shooter.

Lewis averaged 11.7 points entering the tournament before scoring 27 against Xavier — including the game-tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation, 25 against Tennessee and 22 in the regional final against Memphis.

“I am looking for my shot a little more because we know other teams are going to try to spotlight Greg,” said Lewis, who is shooting 51.9 percent in the tournament. “I’m just being more aggressive. Early in the season, we tried to give it to Greg and play off of him. We are still doing the same thing but are just being more aggressive with it.”

And the Hoyas appear to be up to the challenge.

“Conley is a great point,” Sapp said. “Lewis has hit a lot of clutch shots for them. He has a big heart. They are ready to go to war, so Jon and I are going to put on our shoes and go to war with them.”

When the top-ranked Buckeyes meet Georgetown tonight in the Final Four in the Georgia Dome, the main focus will be on the battle between Oden and the Hoyas’ 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert.

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