The best thing that happened to the Ohio State basketball team this season actually happened last season – on Feb. 28 - when Greg Oden, then a precocious high school senior, tore a ligament in his wrist, which kept him on the Buckeyes' bench for the season's first seven games and limited his playing time and versatility until late in the season.
At the time, of course, Buckeyes' fans lamented the bad break, thinking, "Man, we only get this guy for a year to begin with (assuming he turns pro after the season), and now we don't even get to see him?"
But the truth is Ohio State would not be where it is today - preparing for the national title game against defending champion Florida - had Oden been healthy from the start of the season, playing big minutes every game.
Oden's injury allowed Ohio State's reserve forwards - Othello Hunter, Matt Terwilliger and David Lighty - to get much-needed experience, and it has paid big dividends in this NCAA tournament.
Oden, for all the hype surrounding him, hasn't had the best Big Dance. He's constantly been in foul trouble and on the bench - a similar situation to when he was hurt. This has opened the door for those same three guys - who all come off the bench - to make their presence felt.
And they've done this in a big way.
Whenever Oden has gone out of a game for a long stretch of time, such as the first half Saturday against Georgetown when he picked up two fouls in the first three minutes and didn't score a point until the second half, the three reserves have done an admirable job of filling his shoes. While they didn't exactly light it up in the scoring column against the Hoyas (nine combined points), they did a tremendous job of rebounding (10 combined boards) and playing defense, holding Hoyas' stud Jeff Green in check. Green, who played all 40 minutes, finished with just nine points.
Oden came back in the second half to score 13 points on 6-for-11 shooting, but his effort would have been a waste had his backups not helped Ohio State to a 27-23 halftime advantage.
After the win, Oden, as diplomatic as ever, said, "I just sat back and watched my teammates take over."
It's perfect that Lighty, Terwilliger and Hunter will play against Florida tonight, because they resemble, on a smaller level, the makeup of the Gators. They are role players who do what they're asked to do. No questions asked. Hunter and Terwilliger are bangers down low, who aren't asked to score - the Buckeyes have a wealth of guys who can do that - but simply play solid defense and rebound. At the same time, however, if they receive a pass and see an opening to the basket, they're reactive enough to make the play for the score. Lighty is one of the most versatile players on a team that could be renamed the Versatile Buckeyes. Not only can he make the tough shots down low - such as his converted layup plus a foul in the final minutes Saturday - but he can also shoot the 3-pointer, giving Ohio State yet another deadly long-range bomber (they've got about 57 of them).
Much like UCLA's big men needed to play well against Florida on Saturday to win (they did for a half, then got dominated in the second half), Ohio State's big men will have to continue their stellar play against Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Chris Richard, who has been Florida's key guy off the bench, not to mention 6-foot-9 swingman Corey Brewer.
It's a huge challenge. The toughest three inside players the Buckeyes have faced all season. And while Oden's good, he's not going to be able to contain them by himself. Just look at Florida's 86-60 pasting of Ohio State in December, when Oden struggled mightily, scoring seven points and grabbing six rebounds, and the three forwards off the bench weren't much better with a combined four and seven. Meanwhile, Horford, who didn't even start because of an injury, scored 11 points and had 11 boards and Noah added seven and eight.
It wasn't the most dominating performance by Florida's bigs, but it was more than enough, considering Taurean Green scored 24 points and Brewer added 18. Most importantly, Florida outrebounded Ohio State 37-23. That cannot happen tonight if the Buckeyes want a chance to win.
It's a big test for some big men, and, ultimately, it will be a big factor in whether the Buckeyes can win their 23rd consecutive game.
I personally like Florida to win. I think Florida's bigs will wear down their counterparts in red and white. But, then again, all tournament long - when Oden's gone down to foul trouble - these guys have proven the masses wrong, not missing a step and keeping the Buckeyes in games.
No, they don't block potential game-winning shots and nearly complete dunks from just inside the free throw line (see: Oden, against Tennessee and Georgetown), but they make quieter contributions that affect the game almost as much.
And that's really all that matters.