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A year after going 8-22 and matching the

By Rusty MillerAssociated Press Published: November 16, 1999 12:00 AM

A year after going 8-22 and matching the school record for losses, the Buckeyes counterpunched with a 27-9 mark and climbed from last to second place in the Big Ten.

The four starters from that tournament run come in supremely confident.

"It's not cockiness," said third-year Ohio State coach Jim O'Brien. "There's a big difference. These guys think they can go into some places and win some games. That's a real healthy thing."

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The Buckeyes, not even a blip on the screen a year ago, enter tonight's Preseason NIT game against Notre Dame ranked fifth in the AP rankings.

Once again, the guard tandem of Scoonie Penn and Michael Redd lead the way.

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Penn, who split last year's Big Ten player of the year award with Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves, averaged 16.9 points and 4.8 assists a game in his first season in uniform. More than his stats, he was the catalyst of a Buckeye rebirth after an unprecedented five consecutive losing seasons.

A year ago in the preseason, the 5-foot-10 transfer from Boston College brazenly predicted Ohio State would go to the NCAA Tournament. O'Brien looked at him as if he were crazy. This year, he's tempered his swami talk.

"We're going to fight for the Big Ten championship, that's first and foremost," the senior from Salem, Mass., said. "Second, we want to go to the NCAA Tournament."

What about a return to the Final Four?

"It can happen, yes," he said minutes after talking to O'Brien about not making another brash statement. He added, "You can't go out there and make predictions about getting back to the Final Four."

Redd was the Boy Wonder to Penn's Batman, contributing 19.5 points a game while harnessing his occasionally wild shot-selection to fit the team concept favored by O'Brien and his former Boston College protege, Penn.

Asked what he learned from his first trip to the NCAA Tournament, the junior from Columbus said, "Lose one game and you're out of the tournament, that's the thing I got from it. We have to have that same mentality coming into this season. We don't want to lose a game at all. Sure, we're going to lose some. But I'll go with not losing that many."

Quiet and vastly improved 6-11 Ken Johnson anchors the middle. He put together a monster game in the Buckeyes' 77-74 upset of No. 9 St. John's in the South Regional title game in Knoxville, blocking seven shots and scoring 12 points to go with four rebounds.

Sophomore Brian Brown, who became a starter in the tournament, will share the point guard duties with Penn. George Reese, a 6-7 senior, takes the spot vacated by the graduated Jason Singleton.

Will Dudley, who missed much of last year after surgery on his right foot, backs up Johnson. Freshman Brent Darby, sophomore Doylan Robinson and a pair of natives of Yugoslavia named Slobodan _ "Boban" Savovic and "Cobe" Ocokoljic _ provide depth off the bench.

O'Brien really notices the difference in mental approach after the tournament run.

"It's not like we're going into games like we were early in the year last year, saying, 'Hopefully, if we play well and maybe get lucky, at the end we can get this one,"' he said. "These guys are going into games thinking we have a good team and we have a chance to win all the games that we play this year."

And yet, O'Brien stressed, "They don't walk around telling everybody how good they are. They don't walk around with a swagger."

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