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COLLEGE BASKETBALL : Ayers Isn't Merely Younger, He Is Better for Ohio State


Here's what we knew about Randy Ayers when Ohio State hired him a season ago:

--He was young, 33.

--He still could dunk.

Otherwise, Ayers was an unknown, first-time head coach with six years of experience as a Buckeye assistant but not much else. Personable and popular, Ayers had the support of the Ohio State athletic administration, of Gary Williams, who was leaving to take the Maryland job, and of the players themselves.

But could he coach in the Big Ten? Could he recruit? Could he make people forget the initial Ohio State wish list, which included Nolan Richardson of Arkansas and then-Kansas State coach Lon Kruger?

Ayers has done that and more. He won admirers with a 17-victory rookie season and a first-round victory in the NCAA tournament. This year, as the Buckeyes have surged to a 12-0 record and a No. 4 national ranking, Ayers has won believers.

"I've been fortunate to work for some good coaches," Ayers said. "But I've got a lot to learn as a head coach."

Ohio State is off to its best start since 1962, when it began the season with 22 victories. And not since 1979 have the Buckeyes been ranked as high.

The reasons are obvious enough. All 12 lettermen are back, including wonder guard Mike Baker. There is added depth with Jamie Skelton. And the early schedule, criticized for its softness, has helped some of Ayers' players.

All five Ohio State starters are scoring in double figures and shooting better than 50% from the field. But Ayers is slightly worried about this month. Last season, the Buckeyes began January 3-1 in the conference and ended it 3-5.

"We had to learn," Ayers said.

Test time begins on Jan. 21, when the Buckeyes will begin a trip on which they will play in Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan State in an 11-day span.

Maybe Lou Henson will surprise us, but we predict tough times for his Illinois team now that the Big Ten schedule has begun.

The Fighting Illini, serving time in the NCAA's big house for assorted violations, is a surprising 11-4. During one 10-day period in late December, Illinois beat Missouri, Louisiana State and Memphis State--all good teams. Then the Illini went to Indiana and got their hightops handed to them. The 35-point margin was the worst loss for Henson in his 435-game tenure at Illinois.

Down to nine scholarship players, Henson has had to depend on Andy Kaufmann, who is averaging 24 points a game, and redshirt freshman Deon Thomas, who sat out the entire 1989-90 season because of the NCAA investigation, much of which centered on his recruitment. Thomas is averaging 17 points and six rebounds, but Illinois coaches wonder what his numbers might have been if he had practiced with the team during his redshirt year. Instead, he stayed away, a decision Thomas now says he regrets.

Our guess is that the rugged conference schedule soon will wear down Henson's Illini-nine.

Kentucky will play the Soviet national team tonight in the university's very own Russia House--the grand and ancient Memorial Coliseum, which was last used for a Wildcat men's game in 1978, when Kentucky beat the Soviet team, 109-75.

Kentucky needed NCAA permission to play the Soviets this season. Under the terms of their probation, the Wildcats aren't allowed to participate in exhibition games. The glasnost -minded NCAA made an exception.

Predictions of a Big East title for Pittsburgh are beginning to make more sense now that Mr. Double-Zero, Brian Shorter, appears to have fully recovered from an off-season viral infection. The senior forward led Pitt to a surprisingly easy victory over Syracuse Monday night and, for the first time this season, played more than 27 minutes, going 35 against the Orangemen.

Entering the Syracuse game, Pitt Coach Paul Evans said he was worried that Shorter's condition had become more mental than physical. Evans didn't say anything after the victory over the suddenly struggling Orangemen; he was too busy smiling.

Shorter's 32-point, 14-rebound performance was in marked contrast to his effort in last Saturday's loss to Connecticut, against whom he played only 25 minutes and sat out the final eight minutes of the game. He finished with only seven points.

Until injured center Alonzo Mourning returns to the Georgetown lineup, the Hoyas will be hard-pressed to win more than they lose.

Mourning, sidelined with a strained right arch, didn't play against Providence Tuesday night and look what happened: the Friars, who entered the game 0-2 in the Big East, handled the 15th-ranked Hoyas.

Without Mourning, who hurt the arch during the final minute of a Dec. 5 game against Duke, Georgetown has no consistent inside scoring threat. The 7-2 Dikembe Mutombo is a magnificent shot blocker and excellent rebounder, but he can't match Mourning's point or scowl production.

Mourning has played in only five of Georgetown's 12 games. Coach John Thompson has vowed to rest his star center until the injury is healed.

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