The bouncing of the basketball was relentless on the bus carrying the Ohio State Buckeyes on a three-game exhibition tour to Windsor, Ont., last August. Evan Turner's dribbling was keeping everyone awake. Finally, as the team exited at a rest stop halfway through the four-hour ride, coach Thad Matta implored Turner, "Could you please stop dribbling the basketball?"
Employing that kind of focus is how Turner returned from a transverse process fracture—he cracked two vertebrae in a fall after being fouled on a dunk attempt against Eastern Michigan on Dec. 5—in half the time the Ohio State medical staff expected. Now the 6'7", 205-pound junior has turned the Buckeyes into the Big Ten's most efficient offense.
Having watched each of his last three 7-foot centers—Greg Oden, Kosta Koufos and B.J. Mullens—take the one-and-done route to the NBA, Matta now relies on a quick transition team that starts four guards. Each is at least 6'5", and Turner, most likely a top five NBA pick should he leave school early, was receptive to playing the point when Matta approached him with the idea last spring. "I'm a basketball player," says Turner. "Playing point guard is the best fit for this year's team." To hone his game, Turner began dribbling everywhere he went and firing lefthanded passes at everything from stop signs to squirrels in order to improve the strength and coordination of his nondominant hand.
Unlike more traditional transition teams who rely on a big man to rebound and make an outlet pass to a guard, Ohio State typically starts its fast break from wherever Turner grabs the rebound. He is not only the Buckeyes' leading rebounder (9.4 per game) but also their top scorer (18.5 points) and playmaker (5.3 assists). His two triple doubles in 12 games this season are one more than Ohio State had in its previous 112 years.
As part of Turner's rehab, OSU trainer Vince O'Brien devised an anaerobic workout on an underwater treadmill, broken into what he called "four-minute wars"—replicating the intervals between TV timeouts. After the first workout Turner pleaded with O'Brien, "It [the game] went into overtime. Let me go one more minute." Says O'Brien, "At that point I knew he might come back a little sooner than we anticipated."
Turner missed only four weeks and six games (during which the Buckeyes went 3--3). In his third game back Turner played all 40 minutes and had a career-high 32 points in a Jan. 12 win at then No. 6 Purdue, scoring every OSU point in a 14--2 second-half run.
Indiana coach Tom Crean calls the Buckeyes a "Final Four--caliber team" with Turner, and now, at 13--5 and again in the rankings at No. 21, they will go as far as their star—and his back—can carry them.
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1. North Carolina has a lot of growing up to do. Losses last week to Clemson and Georgia Tech, in which the Tar Heels committed a combined 42 turnovers and fell behind by 23 and 20 points, respectively, exposed how their inexperience will hurt them in ACC play.
2. Damion James is a surefire, first-team All-America. Texas's 6'7" senior forward, who last week became the Big 12's alltime leading rebounder, had 26 points and 12 rebounds to rescue the No. 1 Longhorns in an overtime win over Texas A&M.
3. Siena is ready to make noise again in the tournament. The Saints, who have four starters back from the team that beat Ohio State in the first round last year, are 7--0 in the MAAC and 40th in the RPI after winning at second-place Fairfield last Saturday.
Photograph by ANDREW HANCOCK
ALL-AROUND ASSET Turner (in red), who engineered an upset of Purdue, leads the Buckeyes in scoring, rebounds and assists.
GREG NELSON (JAMES)