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Odd couple

Oden, Conley continue friendship -- and success -- at Ohio State

February 24, 2007|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

COLUMBUS, OHIO — They are a little bit Felix and Oscar, a little bit Mutt and Jeff.

Greg Oden is Ohio State's 7-foot freshman man-child, a likely No. 1 overall NBA draft pick as soon as he says the word.

Mike Conley Jr. is the Buckeyes' 6-foot-1 freshman point guard, the son of Olympic triple-jumper Mike Conley, and a far better player than anyone who figured he was just Oden's sidekick imagined.

Oden and Conley were high school teammates at Indianapolis Lawrence North, where they won three consecutive Indiana state titles and went 103-7 in four seasons.

Now they play for the Buckeyes, ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press poll and No. 1 by ESPN/USA Today as they prepare for a showdown Sunday with Wisconsin, the AP's lame-duck No. 1 after losing to Michigan State.

Friends since the sixth grade, Oden and Conley share a suite with two other freshmen basketball players, attend many of the same classes -- and banter like bickering spouses who have made their differences part of their bond.

"I'm the messy one," Conley said, 'fessing up before Oden could say anything.

"It's just nasty," Oden said. "He doesn't clean up the bathroom sometimes. He's never washed dishes yet."

Conley flashed a grin.

"That's because I don't use the dishes," he said. "I don't use the silverware. All the stuff I use is from the cafeteria. Plastic. Then you put it in the trash can. That's the smart thing to do, so I don't have to wash dishes."

Oden shook his head impatiently.

"When you have a house, or something else people have got to share, you've got to look out for everybody else. You can't just look out for yourself," he said.

Conley shrugged, and that grin of his slipped out again.

"You've got to be smart," he said. "That's all."

Oden wasn't through.

"The bathroom's just nasty," he said. "I cleaned it last weekend."

"OK," Conley said. "Then it's still clean."

"No," Oden said, hanging his head and shaking it. "No."

They are not inseparable -- each has a girlfriend, and Oden sometimes would rather watch "Talladega Nights" on DVD again than go out -- but are never far apart.

"We're best friends," Conley said. "I mean, we like a lot of the same things and do a lot of the same things. We're always together somehow, so you could say that."

Ohio State Coach Thad Matta calls them "different, but the same."

"Both are relatively quiet, but they read each other so well," he said. "I can go to Mike and say, 'Hey what's going on with Greg?' and I can go to Greg and say, 'What's going on with Mike?' and they always seem to know."

All the commotion over Oden's Patrick Ewing-like potential has at times obscured the ability of Conley, who after all, was a McDonald's All-American too, and second to Oden in the voting for Indiana's Mr. Basketball award last year.

From the time they were in junior high, Oden and Conley played together on a summer-league team, and Conley's father -- who won a state basketball championship as a high school player in Illinois before making his name in track -- was the coach.

But it was their high school coach, Jack Keefer, who first realized what is becoming as apparent at Ohio State as it was at Lawrence North.

Lawrence North and Ohio State could win without Oden -- the 25-3 Buckeyes beat everybody they played except North Carolina before Oden made his debut in December after recuperating from wrist surgery -- but they would be hard-pressed to win without Conley, whose heady and efficient floor game is complemented by the bursts of speed and leaping ability you'd expect from the son of an Olympic gold medalist.

"I'm just happy he's getting the recognition he deserves," Oden said. "I knew all along how good he was and what he could do out there. Now everybody else is recognizing it."

Conley has had six 10-assist games, and leads the Big Ten in assists at 6.5 a game -- good for fifth in the nation. He also leads the league in steals, at 2.4 a game, and in assist-to-turnover ratio, at 3.1.

Oden -- whose defense is ahead of his offense much the way Ewing's game was during his freshman year at Georgetown -- leads the Buckeyes with 15.5 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.5 blocked shots a game, and he is first in the Big Ten in rebounds and blocks.

Yet when Oden got into foul trouble during a seven-block game against Michigan a few weeks ago, Conley picked up the team with a career-high 23-point performance, adding six assists.

"Mike can take over a game if he wants to," Oden said. "I know what he can do. He can do a lot of things he hasn't shown anybody yet. He's a great player."

Michigan Coach Tommy Amaker, the starting point guard on Duke's 1986 Final Four team, applauded Conley too.

"Outstanding," he said. "He controls their team, scores when it's there, takes care of the basketball, keeps everybody happy. He's tremendous."

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