The Ohio State men’s basketball program went 31 years without a Final Four appearance until head coach Jim O’Brien, star shooting guard Michael Redd, and veterans Scoonie Penn, George Reese, and Jason Singleton helped put together a historic sprint to the national semifinals. I spoke with Reese about his career with the Buckeyes and their 1999 run.
The Columbus native graduated from Independence High School in 1995 and transferred to Ohio State in 1998, prior to his junior season. Reese mentioned one of the biggest reasons he chose OSU was Michael Redd: “Michael was my childhood friend and we kept in touch as freshmen. When I decided to transfer, the Buckeyes seemed like a great fit.”
Going into the 1998-99 campaign, the Buckeyes weren’t projected to compete for the Big Ten title, let alone a Final Four berth. O’Brien’s team went just 8-22 the year before, finishing dead last in the conference. But in the 1998 offseason, the Buckeyes welcomed transfers Penn and Reese, as well as incoming freshman Brian Brown.
Ohio State opened the season 11-3 with marquee wins over Alabama and NC State. The Buckeyes went on to go 12-4 in the Big Ten, good enough for second place, including a seven-game winning streak which lasted nearly an entire month. Reese and his teammates went into the NCAA Tournament with a 23-8 record and the No. 4 seed in the South Region.
The Buckeyes defeated Murray State, Detroit Mercy, and Auburn to get to the Elite Eight versus St. John’s (NY). Ohio State held future NBA All-Star Ron Artest to nine points and five turnovers, pulling out a thrilling 77-74 win to book a trip to the Final Four. Ohio State’s season would come to an end in the national semifinals, though, following a 64-58 loss to UConn.
“It seemed like we were close but UConn’s experience was probably the difference in the end. In the last four minutes, Rip Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin stepped up. UConn’s backcourt just took over and they played great defense,” Reese said. “We were more of an up-and-coming program going up against a contender. We fought really hard in that game though.”
Redd led OSU with 15 points and eight rebounds, while Richard Hamilton had a game-high 24 points for UConn. With the loss, Ohio State finished the season with an impressive 27-9 record. Although the wins would be vacated six years later due to NCAA violations, Reese averaged 5.5 points and 4.3 rebounds in 1999, before putting up 13.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.2 assists the next year.
The 6’7 forward also earned All-Big Ten honors in 2000, helping the Buckeyes to a Big Ten title. Reese went on to play professionally for 12 years, including stints in the NBA D-League, Polish Basketball League, and more. Ken Johnson, Penn, and Redd also had successful pro careers, with Redd most notably appearing in the 2004 NBA All-Star Game with the Milwaukee Bucks and averaging 19.0 points in 12 seasons in the NBA.
Reese, who earned All-Polish Basketball League recognition in 2009 and 2011, explained how OSU helped prepare him for his pro career: “Playing overseas will definitely test your love for the game but ever since my senior year at Ohio State, I made sure to prepare myself to play professionally, and I always have to give credit to coach O’Brien for putting me in that position.”