Conley carries Ohio State in time of need

ATLANTA -- Somehow, Mike Conley Jr. got lost in the Greg Oden mania.

Oden was the face of Ohio State once he signed to play in Columbus. He was the name that drew the attention to Lawrence North High in Indianapolis. But it was Oden's playmaking teammate who was the real get for coach Thad Matta.

Sure, it sounds crazy, but the reality is that if you take Conley off of the Buckeyes, then they simply aren't playing for the national title Monday night.

Conley's that good. He's that important. Who knows how much he helps Oden off the court, let alone on, since they are such good friends and have played together for much of their maturing basketball lives.

When will Conley get his due? Well, maybe when he's receiving the tournament's most outstanding player award Monday night. Forget that he's a freshman because you could legitimately make an argument that Conley was the most valuable point guard in the country this season.

Saturday night was yet another example of his importance to the Buckeyes. Oden had two fouls within the first three minutes and was done for the first half against Georgetown. Conley didn't fret. He took over, leading the Buckeyes with 11 first-half points, making 5-of-7 shots and somehow getting Ohio State to a 27-23 halftime lead.

His final numbers in Ohio State's 67-60 national semifinal win were absolutely sensational: team-high 15 points, six assists, one turnover, five boards, in 39 minutes.

Matta said that he has uttered a million times how much he thought Conley was the perfect point guard for his system the first time he saw him. Matta mentioned Conley's high basketball IQ and his decision making.

"He has a feel when to go, when not to go,'' Matta said. "I love watching him play.''

Matta's confidence in Conley, from Day 1, clearly is what enables him to perform.

Ohio State associate head coach John Groce said from the first practice Matta told Conley to play with reckless abandon and hasn't told him to stop.

"The big part of his development is that he plays with that type of aggressiveness,'' Groce said.

His finishing ability comes from working out in the weight room, where he went from 161 pounds to 182 from the end of high school to the beginning of practice last fall. Conley said he always could convert a layup while enduring contact, but now it's less of an issue since he added the bulk.

"From the first time in open gym, I knew,'' said junior Jamar Butler. "But I didn't think he would be this good. He's so quick, it's like the ball is on a string.

"He's the quickest guard I've seen in my life.''

Conley said he was able to navigate his way through Georgetown because of the Hoyas' size. He said he saw the way North Carolina had effective streaks by pushing the ball against the Hoyas in the regional final.

And, of course, he recognized that he had to be more assertive with Oden sitting for so much of the first half.

Conley essentially took out Xavier in the second round with 11 points in overtime. He nailed Wisconsin to clinch the Big Ten regular-season title in Columbus in late February with a bucket with four ticks left on the clock. His output against Memphis in the Elite Eight (19 points, 9-of-10 FTs) was as solid as Saturday's performance.

Oden received All-America honors. That might not have been the case if Conley had chosen another school. He is playing like an All-American, like one of the best point guards in the country. Period.

And now Conley's 40 minutes away from a national title, something that Matta told him could happen when he signed (along with that guy Oden).

"It wasn't realistic [when the season started] because we didn't know what the game was like, how I was going to play and how Greg was going to play [after sitting out the first seven games after wrist injury],'' Conley said. "It's weird, Coach telling us from Day 1 that we would be in this moment.''

So, here they are, in this moment, and one of the main reasons is because of Conley. Is Oden leaving for the NBA? Maybe, even though Conley isn't saying he will. But the bottom line is that the Buckeyes better not lose their point guard or else the team clearly won't be the same.

Conley's that important, that good and that valuable.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.