Koufos shines on the brightest stage
NEW YORK -- Ohio State coach Thad Matta had no idea how 7-foot freshman forward Kosta Koufos would handle the New York stage.
Panagiotis Giannakis and Nikos Kerameas did.
Giannakis, the current Greek national team coach, and Kerameas, last summer's 18-and-under Greek coach, know all about Koufos facing pressure situations.
Koufos was the spry American kid with a Greek mother who took home MVP honors as he led the Greek team to a silver medal in the European championships in Spain last summer.
So, naturally, the Greek basketball contingent took in Koufos' national debut in Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night to see their investment first hand.
I've never seen anything close to this class.
In front of them Wednesday was the future of Greek Olympic basketball. And, if this keeps up, he'll be an anchor for Ohio State this season and possibly beyond, and a likely name to know in the NBA sometime soon.
Koufos led the Buckeyes, last season's national runner-up, with a career-high 24 points and nine boards in a 79-65 victory over Syracuse in the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals. While Syracuse was flustered with trying to stop veteran point guard Jamar Butler (14 points), it was Koufos who caused the most angst with his ability to do a little bit of everything quite well.
"I'll tell you what kills me is him blowing up after three games in college," said Ohio State coach Thad Matta, trying to downplay the situation of the Greek coaches in attendance as he deals with another hyped freshman big man. "I didn't know how he would respond [in New York]."
Well, clearly Koufos is ready for prime time. This is getting ridiculous. It was a new night and a different venue, and yet another freshman from the class of 2007 led an elite team to an impressive win.
"I've never seen anything close to this class," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim.
The difference with Koufos, something that his brethren in this class -- like O.J. Mayo (USC), Michael Beasley (Kansas State), Derrick Rose (Memphis), Kevin Love (UCLA), Eric Gordon (Indiana), J.J. Hickson (NC State), Kyle Singler (Duke) and Patrick Mills (Saint Mary's) -- can't claim is to have a national team chasing him. Sure, Mills will be a staple with the Australians if he continues to be a star over here (37 points for the Gaels in a win over Oregon on Tuesday night in Moraga). But Koufos already has built-in national credibility with his ancestral homeland.
After the game, Giannakis didn't commit a spot on the Olympic-qualifying team to Koufos, but it seemed to be understood that the 7-footer would be on the squad that will play for a berth in the Beijing Olympics next summer.
"It was a dream of mine as a little kid," said Koufos of playing in the Olympics. "God blessed me with the opportunity to play on the 18-and-under national team in Greece and play for the European championship, and I was fortunate to be the MVP of the tournament."
Koufos is as polite as they come in college. He addresses the media with a "yes sir," and is extremely grateful to Matta and Kerameas.
But this didn't happen by accident. Koufos said he started going to LeBron James' open gyms when he was a high school freshman. AAU basketball in the state of Ohio is flourishing, and Koufos thrived in the circuit. He knew of the opportunity to play for Greece prior to his junior season, but he wanted to continue to play out of Canton, Ohio, for another summer. Once he got to Ohio State, Matta said the coaches literally had to boot him out of the gym because he was working too much.
But, like many players who want to be great, Koufos craves knowledge of his predecessors. He studies Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol. Giannakis loves that he runs the court well, can shoot and is an overall talent. Boeheim, who probably has as much experience coaching internationally as any other college coach, loves Koufos' shot, touch and ability to handle the ball.
Koufos talked about Gasol's jab step and Nowitzki's ability to shoot the 3-pointer. All of that is a part of Koufos' game.
His passing is still a lost art at times, and Koufos came into Wednesday's game with only two assists in the two previous games. He picked up another one Wednesday night, but it came at a crucial time and showed how he is learning that he doesn't always have to shoot. He had a wide-open 3-pointer at the top of the key but instead dumped the ball to Othello Hunter for a dunk and a foul to give the Buckeyes an insurmountable 14-point lead.
"The other night he was driving to the basket and he got fouled and someone said he was passing, and I said he hasn't passed this year," Matta said. "He's getting the hang of it. But he has so much to learn."
Koufos' efficiency on the court, his ability to convert the back-cut layup, the long-range shot, the mid-range and the power-drive to the hoop make him so much more effective. He's like many of his classmates that appear to be schooled beyond their years with their poise under pressure.
When he starred in Europe this past summer, Matta had his doubts.
"I didn't know anything about it and still to this day don't know the competition," said Matta, who is getting more inspired play from yet another solid freshmen class as Jon Diebler (12 points) and Evan Turner (six points and two blocks) shined over Syracuse's heralded class of Jonny Flynn and Donte Greene (six turnovers between them, and an 0-for-6 night for Flynn).
Matta said he wondered, "Who is he playing against? Later, I found out pretty good competition."
Koufos will have to bang with pretty good competition in Texas A&M's Joseph Jones and DeAndre Jordan in Friday's NIT Season Tip-Off finale (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) and North Carolina's tandem of Tyler Hansbrough and Deon Thompson in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge in Columbus on Nov. 28 (9 p.m. ET, ESPN). Still, Koufos is making his mark both here and in Greece.
"I think that Kosta is a guy who can give a lot to basketball,"Giannakis said. "He's a nice person. He has a great body and skills to do something special with basketball, in my opinion."
Koufos' game clearly translates regardless of the language. And, as Matta said, it's only going to get better.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.