With Ohio State's victory over Georgetown and Florida's dismantling of UCLA, the title bout is set, and for Florida, it's another rematch, as they thoroughly trounced Ohio State earlier this year, 86-60. Odds are it'll be closer this time.
Ohio State is one of the more interesting teams to come along in a while. Mike Conley is a superbly talented point, and he has any number of options to work with offensively. Then there's Greg Oden.
One of the things that that really sells us on Ohio State is that they are reliable even when their greatest talent is not. And Oden is a brilliant talent. You see him do things at times that are just amazing, like that huge block against Tennessee, and the massive attempted slam against Georgetown. You just don't see that sort of thing from guys who are seven feet tall very often.
Yet Oden has struggled in the tournament, largely due to foul trouble. He picked up two quick ones in this game and sat for the rest of the first half. Ohio State, as they've learned to do, soldiered on without him.
The people who see Oden as a huge talent (including us) are not mistaken. He's brilliantly gifted. But he does not, at this point in his career, appear to have the passion for the game that many people want him to have. And that's fine, really. You don't have to love the gifts you have. For all we know, his original hope was to become a great dancer or mathematician.
We saw it in how he responded to the kid from Memphis who called him out. He shut him down, but he didn't get mad. And against Georgetown, at one point when a play went against him, he clapped his hands in frustration. Meanwhile, Georgetown recovered the ball and scored. And to us, that reminded us of someone else and also gave us an insight into Oden.
Who did it remind us of? Casey Sanders, who used to do that sort of thing when he screwed up. We always had the hunch that it was meant more for others than for himself, that it was a way to visually show that yes, he was in the game, or that at least he was attempting to show that he was.
Like Sanders, Oden doesn't appear to be a guy who is completely consumed by basketball. He appears to enjoy some aspects of it, like being on a team, but he doesn't bring a burning intensity to the game like Patrick Ewing did as a freshman.
If you missed Ewing then, you missed a terrifying player. They had an NCAA game against either Oregon or Oregon State and won the game in the first five minutes because Ewing convinced them they had no chance to win. He did this by blocking several shots and then sprinting downcourt and dunking the ball over them too. Game, set, match, to mix a sports metaphor.
Shaq was imposing, Tim Duncan was quietly brilliant, but no one has ever projected fear from the center position as well as Patrick Ewing did at 18.
People who have been around him often say that Oden is a "different" sort of kid. We're becoming more and more certain that one way that he's different is that while he likes the game, he's not as passionate about it as a lot of people want him to be.
In ten years or so, when life has beat him up a bit, he'll be more inclined to just lay the law down because he can, because when you get older you tend to do that anyway. Most people get a little meaner.
Whether he'll do it in time to have a major impact Monday is a good question. While we don't think he's a kid who's entirely absorbed by the game, that's not to say he might not turn the game on its ear Monday.
When Duke repeated in '92, they had to overcome a somewhat similar team in Michigan, a very young team with an incredibly gifted big man. Chris Webber was more focused on the game but also had a number of other interests.
Florida has two big men to throw at Oden, Joakim Noah and Al Horford, three counting Corey Brewer, and they'll give him fits. Ohio State doesn't match up well on size, either, other than Oden.
But Ohio State has shown us a few things in this tournament. We usually frown on freshman point guards in big games, but Mike Conley is unusual. He's really, really quick, and usually makes pretty good decisions.
They're very quick, and they have a huge amount of confidence, as we've seen as they've played brilliantly (at times even better) when Oden's been in foul trouble.
But despite what we've said about Oden, two points (counterpoints): first, even if his personality isn't well-matched to his gifts, that's not to say that he can't rise to the occasion. And it's important to remember that while there's a joke around calling him a "40-year old freshman," he's still 17. Noah, Horford, and Brewer are all really good. None of them are players you'd look at and expect them to be all-time greats.
In fact, there are only two players in Monday's game who realistically stand a chance of being discussed in the same sort of way we just discussed Patrick Ewing, and they both play for Ohio State. Oden of course, and Conley, who has the ability, and much more so today than Oden the aptitude, to will himself to greatness.
Whether they can raise their team to Florida's level is not clear, and that's why they play the game, as the old cliche goes. But while Florida should be favored, having significant talent and experience, Ohio State could definitely win. Their chances of winning get a lot better if Oden stays out of foul trouble and shuts down the inside, but these guys are tough and have been through a lot of challenges.
Monday's game has the potential to be an absolute classic.