With distractions gone, Buckeyes can focus on hoops

INDIANAPOLIS -- The fax hit Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith's hands at
8:18 a.m. Friday. After quickly scanning the document for damage, Smith dialed Thad Matta's cell phone with the news they'd been waiting to hear for months:

No postseason ban. Not this year, not any year.

"He was jacked," Smith said.

How jacked? Matta was on an elliptical machine at the time the call came. As he said, "It was the first time an ellipitical has ever gone forward. Usually they're stationary."

Now the Ohio State basketball program can go forward, too. It's hard to say that this prolonged NCAA investigation has truly held the Buckeyes back -- they're Big Ten champions, in the mix for a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed and will welcome in all-world recruit Greg Oden next fall -- but this removes all nagging doubt. There is no other shoe waiting to drop, no hammer waiting to fall, for violations committed under former Ohio State head coach Jim O'Brien.

"Today's a great day for us because it's the first day in 18 or 19 months we actually know where we are," Matta said. "It finally came to an end today. It's great to have this burden lifted off our shoulders."

In point of fact, the NCAA etched a permanent stain upon the Ohio State historical record. In addition to three years' probation, the Buckeyes' 1999 Final Four appearance and subsequent NCAA Tournament appearances in 2000, 2001 and 2002 were all voided. Don't lose sight of that amid the widespread relief on display Friday at the Big Ten tournament.

The bottom line is that Ohio State cheated, in football and in basketball, and was punished. The school and all who care for it should remember that.

But beyond image and reputation came the brass tacks of the situation. And the tangible news was that a Buckeyes team enjoying a year-ahead-of-schedule breakout season will be able to compete for the national title starting next week.

In a move that turned out to be quite prescient, Ohio State held itself out of last year's NCAA Tournament. The Infractions Committee declined to add another year to the penalties, freeing this 24-4 team to go dancing.

The school had every reason to believe that would be the ruling -- but with the NCAA, you never know for sure.

"We've approached this season as though this exact finding was going to be," Matta said. "Had there been a decision that these guys couldn't go, there was going to be 66 teams in the NCAA Tournament this year. They were going to play somebody.

"This is exactly what we told the kids was going to happen. … It would have been a terrible blow had it gone the other way."

Armed with the news early, Matta had to abide by the NCAA embargo until 11:30 a.m., after it had conducted a teleconference to announce the penalties. After that, the coach passed it along to his players just minutes before the team took the floor for its noon ET Big Ten quarterfinal game against Penn State.

"They went through the roof," Matta said. "They were as elated and relieved as they could be."

"It was like a big burden was off our back," said guard Je'Kel Foster.

Burden lifted, the Buckeyes then went out and played like an NIT team for about 29 minutes against the Nittany Lions.

Understand, Penn State is no good. And no-good Penn State shot 37.5 percent from the field in the first half. And cold-shooting, no-good Penn State led by nine with 11 minutes left before the Buckeyes finally got busy.

"I think [the NCAA news] kind of took our focus off the game," Foster said. "But we got it back in the second half."

It's this simple with perimeter-dependent Ohio State: When the Buckeyes are making threes, they're as tough to beat as any team in the country. When they're not, the Penn States of the world have a chance to take them down on a neutral court.

"Live by the three, die by the three," said point guard Jamar Butler.

It's a scary way to make a living in March, but it's pretty much the only way for this Ohio State team. It has Big Ten Player of the Year Terence Dials in the paint, but working him 39 minutes -- which is what he played Friday -- isn't likely to last over the long haul of this or the next tournament.

Part of the reason for Dials' extended minutes against Penn State was an injury to backup Matt Terwilliger. Matta said the 6-foot-8, 230-pound sophomore's availability will be a gametime decision Saturday against Indiana.

That only increases the pressure on the perimeter game, which increases the pressure on Foster. The senior came into the postseason shooting 45 percent from three-point range and had 71 threes -- but he's ended the year shooting bricks.

Counting Foster's 0-for-5 Friday, he's made just 7 of his last 41 threes. But he still has the green light from his coach.

"I'm going with him all the way," Matta said. "That kid's probably the greatest warrior I've ever coached, and he'll get it back."

A 2-for-12 first half from three-point range made the Bucks look very ordinary. Then, with elimination from this tournament and from consideration for a No. 1 seed on the line, the shots finally started falling.

Say this much for the Bucks: They didn't let a fusillade of misses discourage them from continuing to try.

"To start making 'em, you've got to keep shooting 'em," Butler said.

In an impressive exhibition of clutch shooting, Ohio State made eight second-half threes, including six of its final seven.

"From the first half to the second half, the difference was that the ball went in the basket," Matta said.

The three can be a powerful March weapon, as teams from Providence in 1987 to West Virginia in 2005 have shown. But dome backgrounds and dead late-season legs can also make that strategy a prescription for elimination. All it takes is one cold night to say goodbye.

But at least Ohio State knows it now has the opportunity to jack up threes in the Big Dance. The pathway is finally clear for the Buckeyes to break free of their scandalous past.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.