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The 15th-ranked Ohio State's men's basketball team has

Published: December 31, 1999 12:00 AM

The 15th-ranked Ohio State's men's basketball team has concluded the formalities. With minimal damage, the Buckeyes (8-2) have circumvented a preconference schedule that certainly didn't include any of the other Final Four teams from a year ago.

No more stand-ins, substitutes and schools with at least one compass point in their name. Next up? No. 20 Illinois, in Champaign, on Jan. 6. But that's OK with Ohio State coach Jim O'Brien.

"I like the way we seem to be coming together," said O'Brien after Wednesday night's 79-43 rout of American University. "It could all change when we play Illinois. But with regard to how we've played to this point, my sense is we're getting better. That's what we're looking for."

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The two losses for the Buckeyes are just about what O'Brien might have expected. But at the same time, he probably expected those losses to come in the Preseason NIT (possibly against No. 5 Arizona) and Dec. 16 at Kansas.

He was only half right. The Buckeyes lost 80-67 in Allen Fieldhouse, but never got a shot at Arizona.

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Ohio State was almost handpicked to get to the NIT semifinals, given a first-round home game against a Notre Dame team that was 13-14 a year ago and was playing its first game with a new coach.

Before the game, NIT officials announced that Ohio State would host its second-round game two nights later.

But a funny thing happened. The Fighting Irish beat the Buckeyes 59-57 on David Graves' last-second shot, ruining the plans of the NIT folks and most likely shortchanging Ohio State of at least a game or two against quality opponents.

Instead, Ohio State has been forced to measure itself against one of the weakest schedules in school history. The Buckeyes played Duquesne not Duke, Florida A&M not Florida, Coastal Carolina not North Carolina and Eastern Kentucky, never to be mistaken for Kentucky.

O'Brien and athletics director Andy Geiger have been scorched by callers to talk radio and in letters to the editor. Some seat-license holders at Value City Arena have even complained about how little bang they're getting for their buck.

This week's Sagarin ratings place Ohio State's schedule 304th out of the 319 teams in Division I. The team is ranked 70th in the country _ eight spots behind the Wally Szczerbiak-less Miami RedHawks.

But the Buckeyes say the preconference schedule had served its purpose.

"I like where we are," said guard Scoonie Penn, who has been fighting a shooting slump. "We've made some strides in the last few games."

Even though the Buckeyes made it to the national semifinals last March, Michael Redd said the team still has been going through an adjustment period.

"It's a different chemistry," he said. "Some of the younger guys are more experienced from playing together with the older guys. That will help us. And Scoonie and I are starting to shoot the ball better."

Asked what his team got out of the games leading up to the Big Ten, O'Brien said, "It's a new year. It's all changed. This preconference schedule has enabled us to get guys comfortable with each other and to give the new guys some minutes."

Boban Savovic, one of the top reserves a year ago, is still out with a heel injury. O'Brien said the Buckeyes may have to do without him for a while.

But another player from Yugoslavia, Cobe Ocokoljic, has moved into the starting lineup and is playing solidly at both ends of the court. His presence allows O'Brien to bring an experienced hand, George Reese, off the bench.

The development of Ken Johnson, who is averaging five blocks a game, has fortified the middle of the defense. Should Redd and Penn regain their shooting touch, the Buckeyes are confident they'll be in the thick of the conference race again this year.

"There are five or six teams who are really good, and I think we're one of them," said Penn.

But this time they won't sneak up on anybody.

"The Big Ten is strong again," said Redd. "It's going to be a war and we'll have a target on our back."

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