Win over Illini would give Buckeyes Big Ten title
When Evan Turner came to Ohio State three seasons ago, he wanted to be more than just a good basketball player.
He wanted to leave a mark, to make people remember him.
``I wanted to win a Big Ten title, try to get a national championship and try to be one of the best to ever come out of here,'' the junior point guard said Monday.
Now the sixth-ranked Buckeyes are on the verge of reaching one of Turner's goals. They can clinch at least a share of the Big Ten title with a win over Illinois on Tuesday night in their final home game and regular-season finale.
A reporter joked that if the Buckeyes lost, would that mean Turner would disdain the NBA and return to Ohio State for his senior season?
``I think there's a greater chance, yeah,'' he said with a grin.
But Turner said he wouldn't go along with the logic that Ohio State fans should therefore root for the Illini to make sure he didn't turn pro.
``No!'' he repeated four times while cracking up.
At least one chapter of a remarkable season comes to a close for the Buckeyes (23-7, 13-4) against the Illini (18-11, 10-6). They started the conference season with four of their first five games on the road, all against teams expected to make the NCAA field. They also entered Big Ten play without Turner, who had broken bones in his back in early December.
They were 1-3 in the conference heading into a game at No. 6 Purdue soon after Turner, still feeling his way, returned to the lineup. They won that game, and haven't slowed down much since.
Ohio State has won 13 of its last 14 Big Ten games heading into the showdown with Illinois, a team the Buckeyes handled 72-53 on its home floor on Valentine's Day. Another win over the Illini would mean Purdue (24-4, 12-4) and Michigan State (22-7, 12-4) would have to win their final two games this week in order to share the title.
The Buckeyes would also be the top seed in the Big Ten tournament on March 11-14 in Indianapolis.
Four seniors will be playing their final home game for Ohio State against Illinois. The larger question is whether Turner, heralded as a possible Big Ten and national player of the year, might also be making his final appearance at Value City Arena.
For the record, Turner said he hasn't even thought about it. He also does not eliminate the possibility he might come back for his senior season.
``I definitely like it here,'' said Turner, who averages 19.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 6 assists a game. ``I feel if I stay, it wouldn't hurt. I'm going to get better as a basketball player, keep maturing as a person. We have a great (recruiting) class coming in, we have great players who are going to be returning. It can only go up and up.''
Coach Thad Matta said Turner no longer has to worry about leaving the Ohio State program before leaving his mark.
``He's done a fabulous job of keeping the focus on the right things,'' Matta said. ``If he would want to pursue (the NBA), he's done everything that he's supposed to leading up to it.''
Matta and Turner have only briefly discussed the future. Instead, they've dealt with a rigorous and demanding schedule.
``I've asked him to keep both feet in the circle and he's exceeded my expectations,'' Matta said. ``He's kept his focus. I'm grateful for him doing that because it hasn't been easy. Every time you pick up the magazine or turn on the TV or whatever, they're talking about him. It's a tribute to him and who he is as a person.''
Turner's decision will revolve around how much weight he puts on the remaining year of his college experience.
Matta recalled a conversation last summer with former Ohio State and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Bobby Carpenter.
``He said, 'Coach, people say you can go back to college. But you can't go back to college; you can go back to school,''' Matta said. ``That's a great statement. Evan is a guy who in my opinion enjoys being here. The kid truly loves being here.''
That still doesn't mean that once Turner looks at how high he could be drafted (most likely in the top two or three players) and how many mind-numbing millions he could make in the NBA, he won't be willing to relinquish one more year of college highjinks for a lifetime of security.
About a year ago was the first time it crossed his mind that he could make a living playing the game.
``I said, 'Well that would be cool,''' Turner said Monday. ``But at the same time, what really stuck in me was, like, I haven't done anything here. I really haven't left my mark. If I never won a Big Ten title or anything like that, that would nag at me for the rest of my life.''
A win against Illinois and Turner won't ever be bothered by that thought again.