March 30, 2012

Final Four notebook

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Follow Noon | Rowland | Givler | Birmingham

NEW ORLEANS - Twenty years ago the Ohio State fanbase suffered one its most excruciating losses. For Chris Jent, the defeat was the last of a storied career and the pain has lingered for two decades.

Jent stared down an eight-footer in the closing seconds of the Southeast regional final, but it clanged off the rim. It would have put Ohio State in the Final Four, instead the Fab Five of Michigan controlled overtime, as the Wolverines won 75-71.

"It bothers me," Jent said of the loss. "It's not like I think about it every day, but when I think about it, it's certainly upsetting. It's a game we felt we should win and we had a team that we felt could win a national championship. We displayed the talent and team-ability to get there."

Two decades later, Jent gets his Final Four trip with the Buckeyes. In his first year as an assistant for head coach Thad Matta, Jent coaches the offense, an area he became a guru during an eight-year stint in the NBA. He spent 18 games as the Orlando Magic's interim head coach during the 2004-05 season before moving on to the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he was LeBron James' personal shooting coach.

"I asked him how (going to the Final Four) compares to going to the NBA Finals as a coach," Matta said. "He told me, 'Well, we'll see how I feel when I get there, but this is the greatest feeling because it is for Ohio State.'"

Ohio State.

If you just utter those two words to Jent and ask what they mean to him, a wide smile breaks out on his face. Simply put, Jent has a deep love for his alma mater. And this is someone who was born and raised in New Jersey, not Columbus or some other Central Ohio burg. New Jersey may as well be Timbuktu. But ever since he arrived on campus as a freshman in 1988, scarlet and gray has flowed through his veins.

When Matta approached Jent last summer about returning to OSU, Jent wasn't looking to leave the Cavs and the NBA. But when he got drove back to old Columbus town and talked to Matta, he was sold.

"To go to the Final Four and be involved with a team at The Ohio State University, it's just phenomenal, incredible," Jent said. "I always said I wouldn't go to a Final Four unless I was a part of Ohio State again.

"I have a great love and passion for this university."

Matta sought Jent out for that unwavering support and a coaching acumen that put him in an elite group among assistants.

"Chris is the best," Matta said. "I know the job that he's done has helped this basketball team. I'll be honest, I am excited for Chris and his family to be a part of this."

BEEN THERE BEFORE: Another former Buckeye was soaking up the excitement in Boston. Unlike Jent, though, Scoonie Penn had been to the Final Four.

A hot shot transfer from Boston College, Penn helped lead the biggest turnaround in college basketball history, as Ohio State went from eight wins to the Final Four. This year's team didn't have an improvement on that level, but a Final Four berth appeared dire just one month ago.

"We know what kind of month they had in February," Penn said. "It was up and down. No one was sure how they'd perform, who would show up or who would make the shots. But they came together and it carried them thorough the tournament."

Ironically, the Buckeyes also have a Boston College transfer on this year's Final Four squad - Evan Ravenel.

Ravenel said Penn took him under his wings when word matriculated that he was coming to Ohio State in the summer of 2010.

"We need to get a Boston College transfer in here every few years," Penn said laughing on the court at TD Garden as confetti fell.

Despite having no prior connection to Ohio State and the coach that brought him from Boston to Columbus being fired, Penn is still a Buckeye through and thorough. Penn said Matta has opened doors to the former players and developed relationships with the past. Penn is just one of many ex-Buckeyes who compete in pickup games over the summer at Value City Arena with the current team.

"I take it as a great opportunity to find a way to get better," Craft said. "If I can keep (Penn or Mike Conley) in front of me for an extended period of time, I feel pretty good about myself."

Ohio State returned its three stalwarts from the '99 Final Four team and won the conference the following year. However, it lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, putting an end to back-to-back Final Four hopes. It was reminiscent of the Buckeyes' past two seasons, when losses in the Sweet 16 stung those involved.

"It's a one and done most of the time the team that's favored doesn't win," Penn said, describing how difficult a tournament run is. "But you have to persevere through things, and they have."

SISTERLY LOVE: It was the most significant insignificant steal Sam Thompson has ever had on the basketball court.

In the closing seconds of Ohio State's East regional final win over Syracuse, Thompson stepped out in the passing lane to steal a Syracuse inbounds pass and dribble out the last 1.9 seconds.

"That was pretty cool," he said. "I joked around with the guys saying that steal was a game changer."

Thompson said the feeling of accomplishment was overwhelming as the last seconds ticked off the clock. The realization of what happened was also too much for him to comprehend.

"Being a young na´ve freshman, I didn't understand how much work it took," he said about his attitude in October. "But I've always seen great things in this team. We have a great deal of talent, great leadership, great position players, great energy guys, a great bench, everyone likes each other. I thought we had all the components of a championship team."

Ironically, a berth in the Final Four has led to a family reunion of sorts for the Thompson family. It won't be their first trip to the Crescent City, as Sam's twin sister is a freshman at Xavier University in New Orleans.

"I've been telling her for months now that I'd come visit her in April," he said. "All of our conversations have been, 'When I'm there for the Final Four…' To actually have this come to fruition is an amazing feeling."

The French Quarter is among Thompson's favorite tourist destinations in New Orleans, but it's a business trip for him and the Buckeyes. Thompson said the trip to Lawrence, Kan., in December, his first college road game, really opened his eyes.

"It was the loudest gym I've ever been in in my life," he said.

"Kansas is such a storied program, but we are both different teams from that December game. We're both on winning streaks and feeling good. We have to play hard, stick to our principals and play smart."

Maybe Thompson will even have a steal or two.


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