Ohio State basketball fans have been luckier than most in the last three years. A Sweet-16 appearance in 2011, a Final Four run the year after that, and Elite Eight heartbreak this past season are all tough to bear, true enough, but when you consider what other basketball powerhouses have done in recent years (see: Duke losing to Lehigh in the second round of the NCAA Tournament two years ago; Georgetown losing to Florida Gulf Coast this past year), the success under Thad Matta is admirable at worst, incredible at best.
But Buckeye fans have also been coddled for three years, with the likes of Deshaun Thomas and Jared Sullinger as the scoring face of the Scarlet and Gray. But the real face of the Ohio State basketball team over the last three years has been a rosy-cheeked kid from Findlay who plays the best defense in the country and made the Buckeyes a contender when they shouldn't have been. Aaron Craft has that power, and as Ohio State's starting point guard, he has gone from being the next former Buckeye hawking insurance in Columbus to a distinct possibility of playing in the NBA after he graduates.
Should that happen, however, Craft would be following in the footsteps of another Buckeye point guard who only recently has become the talk of the NBA. What Craft is doing now was truly set in motion by what Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley has been doing over the last five years in the NBA. And now, with the Grizzlies set to take on the San Antonio Spurs for a trip to the NBA Finals, all eyes will be squarely on Conley, the former Buckeye who has propelled the Grizzlies into a title contender and bandwagon darling.
Did anyone see this coming?
Go back to 2006-2007 and look at that team. The "Thad Five" was perhaps one of the best recruiting classes in history, with the likes of Conley, Daequan Cook, David Lighty, Othello Hunter, and the biggest prize of the class, the Greg Oden. Combine them with outspoken leader Jamar Butler, senior sharpshooter Ron Lewis (obligatory) and spiritual leader, voice of a nation/bench-warmer Mark Titus, and the team on the floor is comparable if not better than almost every other team in basketball. Except the Florida team that beat them twice during that season.
Of course the Thad Five wasn't going to stay together for another run at a title. Cook, Oden, and Conley all declared for the draft, and we all know how that shaped up. Oden was drafted first, ahead of Kevin Durant, and Cook was picked 21st.
But Conley was a bit of a wild card. After only one year in college (albeit a very good year where he averaged better than 11 points, 3 rebounds and 6 assists), it was obvious that Conley, with another year of study under his belt at Ohio State, could be poised to be amongst the best point guards in the NBA as a rookie. But he left Ohio State with Oden and Cook, and the Memphis Grizzlies, certainly in need of an agile, speedy guard, took Conley with their fourth pick in the 2007 draft.
Conley's surge past relevance and into stardom was not quick, mainly due to the fact that he started in the NBA during a renaissance at the point guard position. Derrick Rose was supposed to be point guard who could take down the Miami Heat, but injuries have raised questions about the Chicago Bulls' immediate and long term future alike. Chris Paul came out a few years ahead of Conley and dominated in New Orleans before becoming the pivot for the Los Angeles Clippers. But throwing lobs to Blake Griffin does not, and so far has not, a title contender made. Russell Westbrook took Kevin Durant and James Harden to the Finals last year, where they were demolished in five games by LeBron James and the Heat.
Nowhere in that group was Conley's name even mentioned, at least not in earnest until this year. In fact, in November of 2010, the Memphis organization that drafted him took a bit of a leap of faith with Conley. Despite having been the fourth overall pick in 2007, many analysts at the time felt that Conley had failed to live up to his lofty potential. When the Grizzlies made a long term investment in the point guard to the tune of five-years, $40 million dollars, full-time NBA writers (and Grizzlies fans, and especially those who fall into the middle of that particular Venn diagram) cringed.
But in each of his five years in the league, Conley has gotten better and better. He's raised his points per game from nine in his rookie campaign up five points to almost 15 per game. He's getting ten more minutes per game than he was in his first year, and is assisting three times more than he's turning the ball over. Those are the numbers of a top-5 NBA point guard.
Conley's coming out party, however, happened over the last week as the Grizzlies dispatched the reigning NBA Western Conference Champion Oklahoma City Thunder in five games. To say Conley was the difference maker in the series is an understatement: his game two performance (26-10-9) lit up the Thunder and basketball Twitter in equal parts. For the series, Conley averaged 18 points, 6.4 rebounds and 6.8 assists. Those are the stats one should expect from an NBA lottery pick finally hitting his stride.
Can Conley keep it up? Without Westbrook and after trading Harden last off season, the Thunder of this year weren't the same Thunder that went to the Finals last year. But Conley isn't the same player he was a year ago either. Now he has a chance to lead the Grizzlies against probably the last great San Antonio Spurs team of the most recent basketball era. The Spurs have a lot going for them in the series; they are still led by the likes of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, as they have been for seemingly the last decade. This could be the last hurrah for Gregg Popovich and San Antonio, and they won't go out without a fight. But if Conley's play of late is any indicator, he will be more than ready for the challenge.
The former Buckeye, Conley, will probably always be remembered in Columbus for his role in taking the Thad Five to the brink of Ohio State's first basketball title since 1960. He will also almost always be associated with Greg Oden, and with the dismal career of the 25-going-on-55 center. But this current playoff run has done major work to separate Conley from his past, from Oden, form his injury-plagued rookie season, from his rumored trade for Ramon Sessions in 2009.
It took five years, but Mike Conley has transformed into one of the NBA's premier guards. And there is no ceiling on how far he can go from here.