COLUMBUS, Ohio — Moments after Ohio State's final men's basketball game of the season at St. John Arena three weeks ago, former Buckeye center Herb Williams spoke of the metamorphosis he had witnessed at his alma mater.
"When they first hired Gary Williams as coach, I thought they had made a good choice," said Williams, now playing with Indiana of the NBA. "Ohio State had been missing something for a while. Oh, (former coach) Eldon (Miller) would win 18 or 19 or 20 games a year. But it was the same thing year in and year out. It wasn't all that fun to play his style of basketball or to watch it.
"(The Ohio State administration) wanted a change and Williams has definitely done the job. And the job he's done this year will enable him to get even better players in the future."
Ohio State's season officially ended last Sunday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament's Southeast Regional in Atlanta. After leading by as many as 15 points in the second half, a jittery finish resulted in an 82-79 loss to pressure-hardened Georgetown.
But, even at the conclusion of a 20-13 season, Gary Williams, like Herb Williams, was looking to the future.
"If there's one thing I've learned this year, it's that this is a pretty good basketball school," said Williams, who came to Ohio State from Boston College to replace Miller. "People always said that the crowds were quiet and didn't get involved, but that's not true. You have to show them that you are willing to work hard and the support will be there."
Williams' team showed the fans it was willing to work by overcoming skeptics who predicted the Buckeyes would be fortunate to finish with more than a dozen victories, despite returning the core of a National Invitation Tournament championship team.
"We probably overachieved for the way we were picked early in the year," said Williams. "When we first started working out back in September, John Anderson had a nagging knee injury and Keith Wesson's knees were bothering him. So I wasn't sure who would play center, or if we even had anybody to even throw in there. But gradually the players got in shape and Anderson and Wesson got healthy and they started to come together as people. To have a good team, you have to get along and that coming together was the first step."
The key ingredient in Ohio State's season was 6-foot-5 senior Dennis Hopson. Hopson was the Big Ten Conference player of the year and was second in the nation in scoring. Throughout 33 games, he was a constant that Williams grew to rely on.
"He is a great one. You don't often get a chance to coach a guy like that," Williams said. "He was spectacular in about 29 of our 33 games. In (a 91-77 victory over Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA), he played one of the great games in the NCAA tournament this year."
But now Hopson is gone, taking with him his 29 points a game. Also gone is the 6-9 Wesson. But returning are four starters, along with the top two substitutes, Kip Lomax and Tony White.
Williams will welcome 6-11 Grady Mateen, who sat out this year after transferring from Georgetown, along with Randy Doss, a highly touted 6-5 freshman who sat out the season with academic problems.
Williams has already recruited two top prospects from Ohio, 6-3 Eli Brewster of Columbus and 6-8 Treg Lee of Cleveland, along with another top player, 6-8 Perry Carter from Washington, D.C.
"With two guys coming in from Ohio and now Perry Carter, we've got three good ones. Now we need a fourth. Now people know what kind of basketball we play," Williams said.