Senior looks to complete decorated career with win Thursday


NEW YORK — Jamar Butler didn’t expect his college career to end in Madison Square Garden, in the title game of a tournament that masquerades as the consolation prize for all those teams with good but not great seasons.

In 2007, he was on college basketball’s biggest stage, playing for a national championship under the brightest of lights. Tonight, he’ll lead the Buckeyes into the finals of the NIT against Massachusetts.
“This is still a tournament and a way to keep playing,” said the 6-foot-1 guard, who’s played a school-record 138 games in a career that often seems longer than four seasons. “We have young guys stepping up and we’re playing the best we have all year.”

Butler arrived at Ohio State with coach Thad Matta, together inheriting a program that was successful under Jim O’Brien but had landed on probation. The Buckeyes won 20 games his freshman season but sat at home in March, unable to participate in any postseason tournament.

One year later, they won 26 and reached the NCAA tournament’s second round.

Then came 2007, and the arrival of heralded freshmen Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook. Along with Butler, they led the Buckeyes to the Final Four in Atlanta, where they lost to a Florida team that seemed destined for a second consecutive title.

A few weeks later, the freshmen were off to the NBA and the Buckeyes were back to building.

The one constant, though, always has been Butler, the steady hand guiding a team that again relies heavily on freshmen. He raised his scoring average to a career-best 14.9 this season, set Ohio State career records for assists (572) and 3-pointers (239) and broke the single-season mark for 3-pointers (101).

He’s been at his best in the NIT, responding to the disappointment of not making the NCAA tournament by going for 21 points and 10 assists against UNC-Asheville. He followed with 20 points against California and 12 points and seven assists against Dayton.

His four 3-pointers and 17 points helped Ohio State (23-13) knock off Mississippi in Tuesday’s semifinals.

“Jamar Butler is their engine,” said Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, after watching the sprightly senior confound his team with penetrating layups and pull-up 3-pointers. “Every time they needed a play it went through him. That’s what seniors should do.”

UMass (25-10) knows something about senior leadership, too. The Minutemen start three fifth-year seniors — all transfers from other schools — alongside a junior and a sophomore.

Those veterans, led by Atlantic 10 player of the year Gary Forbes, have combined for 129 starts this season. Luke Bonner, a fourth-year junior and often the first man off the bench, also has started 15 games.

All that experience has helped the Minutemen keep their poise. They had to rally from eight down with 8 minutes left to beat Akron, and 22 down in the second half to beat Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, becoming the first team to beat the Orange there twice in a season.

UMass again found itself behind against Florida in the semifinals, trailing by nine at the half against a team that was so dominant when playing with the lead the past couple of years. But like the Buckeyes, the Gators were crippled by the NBA draft and their young starting cast couldn’t hang on against the Minutemen’s hot shooting and halfcourt pressure.

“This is not something we want to keep relying on,” said UMass coach Travis Ford. “These guys know that if that happens, they know they can come back, but it’s not a guarantee you are going to come back. That is not a situation you want to put yourself in.”

The championship game should be a homecoming of sorts for UMass, which has four players in the starting lineup from the New York area. Forbes grew up in Brooklyn, Dante Milligan in Harlem, and Chris Lowe and Etienne Brower in suburbs just outside the city.

“This school has never played for a championship. It means a lot to us, especially winning it at Madison Square Garden,” Forbes said. “We talked about it when we were on the bus that we are playing in April. … All of the hard work obviously paid off.”