It has been well-documented that Ohio State didn't enter the 2017-18 basketball season with very high expectations. However, just months after projections had them as a bottom-dweller in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes are preparing for a run in the NCAA Tournament.
The run Ohio State is on isn't that unfamiliar to some Buckeyes, however, particularly director of player development and former point guard Scoonie Penn.
Penn joined the Buckeyes in 1997-98 as a transfer from Boston College. While he sat out due to NCAA transfer rules, Ohio State went an abysmal 8-22, 1-15 in the first year of the Jim O'Brien era, not exactly setting up high expectations for the following season.
While the 2016-17 version of Ohio State wasn't nearly as bad as the 1997-98 squad, each respective season that followed greatly exceeded expectations. Penn, speaking to media Tuesday, said he sees similarities in the two Buckeye squads, separated by nearly two decades.
"The similarities are there. Teams that were underdogs and not picked to do much, but took a lot of teams by surprise," Penn said. "The chapter for this team is still yet to be written. Ours was great. We were able to go to the Final Four, won a Puerto Rican tournament early in the season and had a lot of great wins."
Ohio State's 1999 team, much like the 2018 Buckeyes, featured both the Big Ten Coach of the Year and the Player of the Year in O'Brien and Penn, respectively. That season was later vacated due to NCAA violations, but while Ohio State's current players constantly joke that their coach never actually played in a Final Four, Penn said the proof is still out there.
"If you go in the practice gym, there is a missing space (for the 1999 team) and they try to be funny," Penn said. "I say, 'Trust me, you can YouTube it.'"
In order to have a similar run, however, both Penn and head coach Chris Holtmann said Ohio State will need to get tremendous help from its role players.
Holtmann said Tuesday that in his experience, to make a deep run in March, a team has to get contributions from unexpected places.
"If we are going to advance at all, we are going to obviously need our better players to play well, (but) we are also going to need production from someone else that maybe is a little bit unexpected, whoever that is," Holtmann said. "Teams have really keyed on our main guys, and that is where we have struggled a little bit offensively."
In 1999, Penn said the reason Ohio State was able to advance to the Final Four as a No. 4 seed was because the role players that surrounded Penn and fellow Buckeye legend Michael Redd performed their individual roles well.
"Our role players that we had were unbelievable. I don't think people ever gave them enough credit. What Jason Singleton brought to the table was uncomparable. What Ken Johnson did defensively was unbelievable," Penn said. "Then we had young guys like Brian Brown and Boban Savovic and those guys made big shots. Everyone played their role. That's what was special about our team."
So who could fill that role for Ohio State in the upcoming NCAA Tournament? A number of Buckeyes have already shown the capability this season to do so.
In an upset win over then-ranked No. 3 Purdue, Musa Jallow and Andre Wesson combined for 23 points, while Micah Potter stepped up in a 71-65 win over Northwestern, scoring 13 off the bench on a perfect 5-for-5 shooting night.
While the role players won't likely have the ball in their hands during crunch time in the NCAA Tournament – as that designation will likely go to Keita Bates-Diop or Jae'Sean Tate – Penn said getting valuable production from the bench could be what helps Ohio State's 2018 squad make a similar run like the 1999 team was able to make.
"They knew when the game got tight, either I was going to shoot or Mike was going to shoot," Penn said. "Guys knew to set the right screen, the right defensive gameplan and it was all for the good of the team. That was the recipe."