David Lighty energizes Ohio State
CLEVELAND -- Ohio State showed up at Quicken Loans Arena for an early-morning shootaround this past Saturday between the second and third rounds of the NCAA tournament. Watching David Lighty, you might have thought it was the Final Four.
Lighty ran onto the court in the near empty building shouting, "Let's go!" Two arena workers sitting at the top of the arena let out an "O-H." Lighty returned the cheer by screaming "I-O!" at the top of his lungs.
That was just a regular morning for the Buckeyes senior, whose energy and boundless optimism provide the fuel for the tournament's No. 1 overall seed.
"There will be times where I've just gotten out of bed and my bones haven't even woken up yet, and he's already jumping up and down," teammate Dallas Lauderdale said. "It just gets me juiced up as well. He's always happy and in a good mood."
Ohio State (34-2) heads into its Sweet 16 matchup against Kentucky on a major roll, having thrashed its first two tournament opponents by a combined 61 points. On a team that seems to have a peg for every hole, Lighty is the consummate glue guy.
"He holds the whole thing together," senior Jon Diebler said. "He's someone you need to have on your team to be successful."
The 6-foot-5 swingman serves as the defensive stopper, often drawing the assignment of guarding the other team's best player. He also ranks second on the team in both rebounds and assists.
Freshman Jared Sullinger, guard William Buford and the sharpshooting Diebler are the Buckeyes' main offensive options, but Lighty can score when needed. Ask George Mason. The Patriots decided to concentrate on Sullinger and Diebler and slack off Lighty early in Sunday's third-round game. Lighty lit them up for 25 points, burying all seven 3-pointers he attempted.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta told Lighty before the season that if he could shoot 40 percent from 3-point range, the team would be hard to stop. Lighty, who hoisted shots from a chair this past summer while recovering from a broken left foot, is now at 43.5 percent behind the arc after Sunday's performance.
Lighty's intangibles may be even more valuable than the stats he contributes. Matta has coached several first-round draft picks, including Evan Turner, Greg Oden, Mike Conley and future lottery selection Sullinger. Yet he says Lighty -- who's never even made a first- or second-team All-Big Ten squad -- deserves a statue at Ohio State's basketball facility. He calls him "the best practice player I've ever had."
"I say to him every day, 'If I had one-tenth of your energy, I would be the happiest person in the world,'" Matta said. "And I only want one-tenth of it. He's been that way from day one. In his five years, we've practiced at damn near every hour of the day. And I don't care if it's 6 in the morning or 10 at night, he's the same guy."
Playing in his hometown this past weekend, Lighty could barely stop smiling. He took the Buckeyes to his family's church for a soul-food feast Saturday night, and when the George Mason game ended, he went into the stands to hug his parents and other family members and friends. He was the most infectious presence at the tournament site, which is pretty normal for him.
"We're alive and breathing, so you've got to be happy," Lighty said. "I don't ever think, 'It's time for me to pick it up,' or anything like that. And if I'm not doing it, guys look at me like, what's wrong?"
That's an impressive amount of energy for someone who seemingly has played for the Buckeyes since the school won its only national title in 1960. Or as Sullinger jokes, "He tells us to enjoy this, because his 20 years at Ohio State really went by fast."
Lighty received a medical redshirt after a broken foot -- the same injury he suffered this past summer -- limited him to just seven games in 2008-09. He is also the lone holdover from the 2007 team that lost to Florida in the national title game. (He scored four points in the loss.)
With that extra season, he has been a part of 129 wins, most in school history and the most of any active NCAA player. That experience proves valuable even on this veteran-laden Ohio State team.
"He's the only one who's been to the national championship game, so he knew what they did, how they prepared," Lauderdale said. "He knew what they didn't do in off-the-court situations, what they didn't get involved in. We're trying to have the same run, so he can tell us the same things to do."
Lighty said his main advice to the younger Buckeyes is just to play without nerves and to approach every possession like it's your last one.
Of course, for a player who approaches every practice like it's the most exciting event on the planet, only one outcome for the end of his college career could match his enthusiasm.
"At the end of the day, it's just about us being on the court with the streamers coming down and holding the trophy," he said.
Brian Bennett covers college sports for ESPN.com