It can be hard to believe given the Buckeyes' perennial Big Ten title contention, but there was a time, not all that long ago, when Ohio State was not a threat to make a deep run in March. Actually, that's pretty charitable....Ohio State was actually nowhere near what they are today. While Gary Williams and Randy Ayers had some success, Ohio State only made the tournament 8 times from 1976 to 1997. Things were particularly rough in the mid 90s, right when fans about my age (I'm 26) started to pay attention to college basketball.
The 1997 Ohio State basketball team lost on the road to Louisiana-Lafayette. They were *blown out* by New Mexico State, and then dropped a game to a 9-win BYU team en route to a 1-15 Big Ten season and an 8-22 overall record. The 1996 squad won only 10 games (they lost to an 8 win South Florida team), the same record as the 1995 team, which also lost to Chattanooga and Wyoming. Not only was Ohio State losing these games, but they were the kind of program that had to play these kinds of teams on the road. I know I wasn't the only 10 years old in the 740 area code that when he turned on his Sega Genesis to play College Slam, he selected Cincinnati, not Ohio State. The Bearcats were *good*.
That changed for the 1998-1999 season. The Buckeyes, after years of being a laughingstock, were suddenly not only very good, but exciting. They shook off their annual inexplicable early season loss (this team lost to Toledo!) to roll up a 27-9 record, and a Final Four* berth (I see you NCAA, and I choose to ignore you. I saw this team on TV and THAT MAKES IT REAL). And one of the big reasons behind Ohio State's sudden surge was Scoonie Penn, their diminutive, high flyin' point guard.
Penn didn't lead the team in scoring, that responsibility was left to Michael Redd, the sharpshooting lefty guard who added 19.5 points per game, and would become a highly productive NBA player for Milwaukee. Penn wasn't necessarily the team's most electric defensive player either, as the Buckeyes were anchored by swatmaster Ken Johnson, who blocked 100 shots (2.4 a game). He was perhaps, their most important player though, bringing a balanced attack and had a knack for stepping up when his team needed it the most.
Penn, a transfer from Boston College, was second on the team in scoring, at 16.9 ppg. He was a strong ballhawk (1.9 steals), a more than capable long range shooter (38.4% from deep), and despite having sports blogger height (he's listed at 5'11"), he was able to bring down nearly four boards a game.
During that Final Four run of a season, Penn led the Big Ten in three point field goals and was third in total field goals. He was third in steals (behind Brian Cardinal?) and second in assists (behind Mateen Cleaves), both of which had NBA careers, as well as third in win shares. For a team that was badly starved for some star power, he delivered, forming one of college basketball's most explosive backcourts.
The team needed all the backcourt scoring they could get, given the flawed frontcourt personnel the team was working with. James Singleton was third on the team in scoring at 8.9 ppg, but he had zero range. George Reese added 5.5, but was inefficient. If the Buckeyes were going to score, and Ken Johnson wasn't dunking, chances are either Penn or Redd had to figure out a way to do it.
The Buckeyes grabbed a #4 seed in the 1999 NCAAs, and quickly dispatched Murray State. They caught a little bit of a break when Detroit upset #5 UCLA, a team stocked with future pros like Baron Davis, Earl Watson and Dan Gadzuric, but the Buckeyes were able to blow out the Titans to get to the Sweet 16, setting up a matchup with the #1 seed Auburn Tigers (yeah, Auburn was good at basketball once!). Thanks to Penn's heroics, the Bucks upset the SEC 72-64, giving them a Regional Final matchup with the St.John Red Storm, featuring one Ron Artest.
The Buckeyes won 77-74, thanks to some seriously clutch free throws and a steal from Penn, setting up the illusive Final Four berth.
The fact that the Buckeyes lost to UConn in the next game isn't really the point. The fact that Ohio State lost to Miami (FL) in the second round of the next tourney wasn't really the point, or that Penn wasn't quite as electric as he was the year before in 2000. The point was that for an entire generation of fans, the expectations of the program were completely shifted. Fans in Columbus realized that the Buckeyes could be successful in both basketball and football, and maybe that sort of thing should be expected. Thousands of kids raining jumpers in their driveways were pretending to be Michael Redd and Scoonie Penn all over the 614 and 740.
Sure, Penn didn't play 4 years for Ohio State. Sure, his professional career (stateside) never really took off. But I have a hard time envisioning the Matta era existing without Penn's exploits near the end of the 90s. "SCOOOOOOOOONIE FOR THREEEEEE," completely changed the dynamics of Ohio State basketball.
His Ohio State Hall of Fame induction is well deserved. Thanks for the memories, Scoonie. You were so electric, we were allowed to skip math class to watch your tournament games. Ain't nobody doin' that to watch Boban Savovic. We take a look at our favorite diminutive point guard of the 1990s, who helped pave the way for the success Ohio State hoops enjoys now.