Conley Is a Stand-Up Guy

Ohio State's Mike Conley Jr., the son of a former Olympian, never slows down when dribbling the ball.
Ohio State's Mike Conley Jr., the son of a former Olympian, never slows down when dribbling the ball. (By Terry Gilliam -- Associated Press)
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 31, 2007

ATLANTA, March 30 -- Mike Conley Jr. walked through the locker room quietly, to the shower, like he always did after a game. Ohio State had just lost to Florida, 86-60, the lowest point of this season.

Conley had been mum in such situations, a freshman who wanted to let his older teammates lead while he played point guard. But he was unaccustomed to losing after years of playing for a high school powerhouse, and Conley seethed as he headed for the shower.

"Mike was so frustrated you could see it," OSU guard Danny Peters said. "I don't think he ever wanted to have that feeling again."

Instead of showering in silence, Conley turned around. He decided he would have to be the leader, freshman or not. He yelled at his teammates for the first time. He told them what just happened was unacceptable. He took control of the team.

The moment changed the season for Conley and Ohio State. Since that game, played on Dec. 23, the Buckeyes have lost just once. While Greg Oden has been the star, Conley has been OSU's engine, constantly pushing the Buckeyes on and off the floor. Once Conley stopped deferring, Ohio State began a surge that carried it all the way to the Final Four, where it will play Georgetown on Saturday at 6:07 p.m.

"I think after that, people really started listening to me whenever I said something," Conley said. "We didn't come to play that game. A lot of players were down on themselves."

Conley has averaged 13 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists in the NCAA tournament, playing so well he was named most outstanding player of the South Region. He became more "scoring-minded" once the tournament began, he said, trying to draw fouls and get to the free throw line by driving to the hoop. He does so with Olympic genes, passed down from his father, Mike Conley Sr., who won the 1992 gold medal in the triple jump.

Conley ran the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds as a freshman in high school but hasn't run it since with a timer, he said. He figures he could run it in about 4.3 seconds now; his teammates joked he could do it in four flat.

But what separates him from other jitterbug point guards is how fast he moves with the ball in his hands. Most players slow down when they dribble, a natural consequence of using an arm to dribble rather than pumping it. Conley doesn't. Guarding him is "like chasing somebody without the ball," OSU freshman Daequan Cook said.

"He's just a guy you've got to be aggressive with and attack him the whole game, put a lot of pressure on him," Georgetown point guard Jonathan Wallace said. "When he gets in [the lane], he makes people collapse, and he can give it to Oden or kick it out to shooters."

But when the season began, Conley didn't unleash those talents. He blended in and counted on his older teammates while also learning how to play with them. At Lawrence North High in Indianapolis, Conley played with Oden, his best friend, and they won three straight state championships on a team that thrived on chemistry. But it came slowly for Ohio State this season.

"It was hard at first, knowing I hadn't played much with the older guys," Conley said. "But sometimes in the game situations, there's something in me that just says, 'Forget about it, and just do your thing.' "

After the Florida debacle, Conley began asserting himself, and the Buckeyes blossomed. Rather than making perimeter passes, he looked for his own or pushed into the lane to draw the defense and create an open shot. He also barked at teammates when he had to, and the chemistry issues melted away.

"I kind of knew that he had it in him," Peters said. "I used to tell him, 'They listen to you, they follow you.' You don't develop into a leader; you're born one. And he definitely has those qualities."

He used them when Ohio State needed them most. Against Xavier in the second round of the tournament, he scored 11 of his 21 points in overtime. In the next game against Tennessee, after the Buckeyes fell behind by 20 points, he led the rally by scoring 17. He capped the comeback victory with a free throw to break a tie with 6.5 seconds remaining.

At just the right moment, Conley gave Ohio State what it needed. Months before, he had done the same thing, not on the court but in the locker room.

"That's the type of person Mike is," Cook said. "He takes on big roles. That's what you expect from your point guard."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company