Big man Oden leaving Ohio St. after one year

Associated Press • Apr 20, 2007 at 10:09 AM

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Greg Oden is through with school.

The 7-foot freshman center said Friday he will leave Ohio State to enter the NBA draft, where he figures to be one of the top two picks along with Texas freshman forward Kevin Durant.

Freshman teammates Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook also said they will make themselves available for the draft. Unlike Oden, they have opted not to hire an agent for now - meaning they will retain the option of returning to school in the fall.

"This is a very tough decision for me," Oden said in a statement released by Ohio State. "I love OSU and love being a Buckeye, but I also have a great opportunity to take my game to the next level and compete with the best players in the world. I've discussed this with family, friends and Coach (Thad) Matta, and I feel the time is right."

The players were not available for comment. Conley is expected to be an honorary head coach for today's Scarlet vs. Gray spring football game. Oden is out of town to attend his aunt's wedding.

At a news conference Friday afternoon, Matta said the departure of the three players, though not unexpected, would leave a hole in the program. Matta said he was proud of their accomplishments and hoped that the success of players such as Oden, coupled with the team's trip to the national championship game, will lure talented recruits.

"Honestly, it's been kind of a goal of mine to have a player selected as high as Greg is going to be," Matta said. "This is a situation where we've got to handle it and continue to build."

Matta said he thinks Oden had a tough time making the decision to leave and that he told him he understands his dream to play in the NBA.

Matta said he told Oden, "I think if you did come back and everyone came back, I think we would have a chance to be one of the greatest college basketball teams ever, but that's selfish on my part."

All three players were key figures this past season for the Buckeyes, who went 35-4 to set a mark for victories and won the Big Ten's regular-season and tournament titles before advancing to their first national championship game since 1962, where they lost to two-time champion Florida.

After getting a late start at Ohio State because of a wrist injury, the 19-year-old Oden lived up to his billing as a two-time national high school player of the year, leading the Buckeyes in scoring (15.7) and rebounding (9.6) per game and topping the Big Ten in shooting percentage (.616).

His best game may have been his last one, when he scored 25 points and had 12 rebounds while dominating the inside against Florida's Al Horford and Joakim Noah.

Oden had surgery on his right (shooting) wrist to re-attach ligaments last June 16. He worked out with the team while wearing a cast that eventually became an elastic brace. After missing the first seven games, he came in and - despite shooting free throws and most of his other shots left-handed - had an immediate impact.

"If he's not remembered for what he did here I would be saddened by that," Matta said.

Oden and Conley - friends and teammates since the sixth grade in Terre Haute, Ind. - led Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis to three consecutive state championships and a 103-7 record. The 6-1 Conley, who many believed was just a throw-in for recruiting Oden, ended up setting Ohio State records with 238 assists while handling the ball almost all the time against high-pressure defenses. His assist-to-turnover ratio was among the best in the nation at 2.77, with only 86 turnovers in 39 games - a little more than two per contest. When Oden fouled out late in the Buckeyes' second-round NCAA game against Xavier - and Ron Lewis hit a clutch 3-pointer in the final seconds - it was Conley who scored 11 points in the overtime to lead Ohio State to a 78-71 victory. The only knock on Conley is his outside shooting. He hit just 30 percent of his 3-pointers, although he was a 52-percent shooter from the field - mostly on layups after scissoring through defenses trying to double-team Oden. "This has been an extremely exciting and challenging process for me," Conley said in the statement released by Ohio State. "It is my lifelong dream to play in the NBA. Cook got off to a fast start for the Buckeyes, but wilted down the stretch. He was averaging more than 15 points a game midway through January before finishing at 9.8. After leading Ohio State in scoring seven times in its first 15 games, he failed to do it again over the Buckeyes' last 24 starts. Cook started just one game all season for the Buckeyes, but the 6-6 swingman was their second-leading rebounder. The deadline for players making themselves available for the draft is April 29. They can work out for NBA teams and gauge interest - as long as they do not have an agent - and have until June 18 to withdraw their names from the draft pool. Conley and Cook still could retain their Ohio State eligibility at that point.

The players are expected to be represented by Conley's father, Mike Conley Sr. He won the Olympic gold medal in the triple jump at the 1992 Games in Barcelona. In addition to running a company (World Sport Chicago) that helped garner that city the U.S. bid for the 2016 Summer Games, he also has created another sports-representation company (Mac Management Group) and applied to the NBA to be a player agent. The elder Conley at first said that his son would not leave early, but then waffled as the Buckeyes went deeper and deeper in the tournament and his son's stock climbed.

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